The Hands of God

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

Last summer, former President Jimmy Carter revealed that he had been diagnosed with brain tumors. The cancer had apparently spread from elsewhere in his body. His reaction to the news of his disease was widely quoted. He said these words: “It is in the hands of God, who I worship.”

This courageous statement reflected the faith that Jimmy Carter has never been afraid to proclaim. Even those who criticized his leadership when he was president can’t help being impressed by his calm in the face of death.

There are numerous references in the Bible to God’s hands. Today’s first lesson says, for example, that “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.”

Jimmy Carter probably wasn’t thinking of this particular scripture because it comes from a section of the Bible known as the Apocrypha. Anglicans and Roman Catholics include the Apocrypha in their editions of the Bible, but the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon isn’t found in Baptist editions which consist of just the Old and New Testaments.

Still, it’s a text that people treasure. You often hear it read at funerals. Mourners are comforted by the image of their departed loved ones being alive and safe in the presence of God.

And it is appropriate to link our personal remembrances of the departed with the church’s celebration of all of its saints today on All Saints’ Day. The saints are holy ones; the church is so confident of their sanctity that it believes they are in the hands of God.

Among my favorite saints are the mystics. Most mystics were monks or nuns because they need a vocation that allows them to spend hours a day in prayer. In a way, I envy their commitment. I don’t have the patience or the temperament for it. The mystics have time for the spiritual, and they’re able to experience the reality of God in ways I can’t even imagine.

Yet these saints who are able to spend so much time in prayer are also experts in how difficult prayer can be!

Take, for instance, St. John of the Cross. John was a Spanish mystic who lived in the 16th Century. He wrote poetry as well as prose, and he used both forms of literature to express his most influential idea: what he called, “the dark night of the soul.”

When mystics experience the Dark Night of the Soul, they feel abandoned by God. Despite all the time they have devoted to prayer—they lose their feeling of God’s presence. Their worship is dry and repetitive. Despite the discipline of their lives and the self-sacrifices, they wonder if they are still in touch with God.

St. John of the Cross asks why God would allow these dark nights of the soul to occur. And John suggests that they serve as a toughening exercise for the soul. These hours of dryness give us strength that we can draw on when we face misfortune in our lives outside of church.

For having lived through the dark nights, mystics come to realize that God hasn’t abandoned them. Sometimes God wants us to leave behind the absorbing concerns of this world. Sometimes he wants to remind us that, as the Prayer Book says, it is only by God’s grace that we inherit eternal life.

The mystics also teach that after we have approached the throne of divine grace beyond us, we’re able to come back to the day-to-day world and live with an awareness of the spirit who is with us now.

That awareness may also help us in dealing with grief. For if we have a sense of spiritual reality, it’s easier to imagine our departed family members and friends now enjoying new life in heaven.

Over the course of time, the practice of prayer will go differently with each of us. For example, you may not need to deal with periods of dryness because you don’t have that issue. Instead, your problem might be finding the time to pray.

In any case, whatever our individual problems with prayer, we all have to endure darkness in the lives we live outside of prayer. And it is here that the lessons learned in dealing with our spiritual issues help us in the external world.

That’s why funerals can be curiously comforting. You can’t bring back the dead. But you can in prayer offer them to God. In your prayers, you can send them off toward new journeys in another dimension.

Of course, you continue to miss them. But there is a light in the darkness of mourning—the light of God protecting the ones you love but see no longer.

The text from the Wisdom of Solomon notes that the departed often suffered a great deal. “In the eyes of the foolish,” the writer says, “they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction…”

And isn’t it true that we often remember most vividly the last hours of a loved one’s life? These painful moments did indeed seem to be “disaster” and “destruction.” They may even crowd out the much greater number of happy memories of our loved ones that we could bring to mind if we thought further.

But the text goes on to assure the faithful that their loved ones “are at peace. For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality.” The writer says that the suffering the departed had to bear in this life was a training for the next world.

He writes, “Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself…” So having lived through the darkness, the departed enter the light of heaven.

“They are at peace.” In the secular world, “peace” means simply the absence of conflict. But in the world of the Spirit, God grants a positive inner serenity that strengthens us to live here and now.

It is this spiritual peace that we may trust Jimmy Carter is being given in his last days.

And it is this peace that we extend to each other when we exchange the peace. When we offer a hand of welcome to our neighbors, we offer the same reconciliation that is shared by the souls in Heaven – our loved ones who are in the hands of God.

“The Peace of the Lord be always with you. And with your Spirit.”

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


One Response to “The Hands of God”

  1. Kendall Pron says:

    Doug,

    I loved the Wisdom of Solomon and your accompanying sermon. I forwarded to my family in Holland in hopes that they will be comforted as I was.

    Many thanks, Kendall

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