Given the Ken Burns program on the Roosevelts that has been running on PBS this past week, it seemed timely to re-run this story and sermon. This is a story that was not included in the program last night, when treating of FDR’s final days.
Dr. David Calhoun has recently published a volume on the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. William Childs Robinson, the Columbia Seminary professor who was such a powerful influence in the lives of many of the founding fathers of the PCA. [Pleading for a Reformation Vision. Banner of Truth, 2013]. I can do no better than to call upon Dr. Calhoun to introduce the substance of our post today, a sermon delivered by the Rev. Dr. Wm. Childs Robinson:—
On Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, Robinson preached on “God Incarnate for Suffering Men” in Warm Springs, Georgia. Among the worshipers were seventy-five polio sufferers including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The whole front of the chapel was free of pews so that the patients could be brought in on stretchers and in wheelchairs. . . . It was President Roosevelt’s last Easter. The day before his death, April 12, 1945, he wrote to Robinson, “That was indeed a grand service and it was wonderful that you could participate.” “It is not likely that I shall ever again preach to a president of the United States,” Dr. Robinson said, “but I may well remember that the King of kings is always in the audience and that I ought to preach Him as in His presence.”
“God Incarnate For Suffering Men”
As a nation we seem to stand on the edge of a great victory. But when the hope of victory is near, that is the moment to see ourselves in the light of God’s presence and to humble ourselves under His mighty hand. Otherwise we shall give ourselves to such boastings as the Gentiles know. And lest we forget, the war has given us the solemn reminder of the fearful cost at which the victory has come. The Christmas season just past piled up the longest casualty list in American history. At Chicamauga there were thirty-three thousand casualties, at Gettysburg fifty-three thousand, at the Battle of the Bulge over fifty- five thousand American casualties. No wonder a recent weekly ran the Odyssey of a casualty, the story of one of our three hundred and eighty-odd thousand American wounded. Has the Church an answer to this chorus of suffering and heart ache that is rising from every heart and in every home? Blessed be God she has. To suffering man we offer the suffering Saviour. For the torn in body, for the shocked in mind, for the broken in heart the Gospel presents God who became incarnate that He might suffer with us and for us in our own human flesh.
The solace for the sorrow and the suffering of the last Christmas is in the first Christmas. It is precisely this—that “the Lord of glory of His own will entered into our life of grief and suffering, and for love of men bore all and more than all that men may be called to bear.” “God, the Almighty and Eternal God, has shared our experience in its depths of weakness and pain.”* [*William Temple.]
I. The LORD who in the beginning laid the foundations of the earth and who upholds them by the Word of His power laid aside the glories of heaven and took our flesh and blood that in our nature He might suffer. In Himself God is the being of pure activity living in the blessedness and glory which no creaturely force can attack. But God willed to put Himself into our frail and suffering humanity that therein He might be susceptible to the flings and arrows of man’s rage and hate, and to all the suffering brought on by the creature’s rebellion against his Maker, and by man’s subsequent inhumanity to man. Jesus was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death that by the grace of God He might taste of death for every man. He entered into our life with all its miseries. The joy of heaven and the Lord of angels became the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. While He was here He was so busy healing the sick and ministering to the suffering that the first Evangelist remembered what was written by the prophet: Himself took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses.
It pleased God in bringing many sons unto glory to make the Captain of our salvation perfect through suffering. Have your nerves twitched and pained where some limb was no more? His nerve centers, His very hands and feet, were pierced with cruel spikes. Have your temples throbbed with a fever that would not abate? His throbbed with thorns crushed into them. Have the implements of war torn and lacerated your body? The war-spear of the soldier was thrust into His side.
In the long days of agony are you asking why does He not work a miracle and restore you at once as He healed the multitudes in old Galilee? In The Robe, Lloyd Douglas has fancied the story of Miriam, a bed-ridden Jewish lass, whose body He did not heal, but in whose heart He placed a song. The Gospels have a surer story than Douglas’ fancy. There is one Person for whom Jesus did not work a miracle to avert suffering. That Person fasted forty days until He was tempted to turn the very rocks into bread. That Person was mocked and scourged and spit upon, but He never whimpered and He never beckoned for the twelve legions of angels that were at His call. When He suffered He threatened not. My brother, if He does not heal you with a word, He is inviting you to follow in the steps He Himself has trod without a single miracle to ease one bit of His agony. Refusing the deadening effect of the ancient drug He drained the bitter cup the Father gave Him to drink.
With the suffering, sorrowing people of Holland Pastor Koopman pleads: “Why so much suffering comes no one can say. But one thing I know and whoever knows it has the true faith in life and in death—it does not happen outside the merciful will of Jesus Christ. He understands your suffering because He has borne it all before you did.
Yes Christ bore our suffering, all that we bear and more. For He suffered not only the cruel scourging and the agonizing crucifixion by which His form was marred more than any man and His visage more than the sons of men. He who knew no sin was made sin for us. Thus He endured in His soul the wrath of God revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness and ungodliness of men. He suffered as the Lamb of God for the sins of the World. It pleased the Father to bruise Him for our transgressions. And all this suffering with us and for us He freely took of His own loving and sovereign will. He who was God freely became man that His flesh might be torn and His body mangled for us men and for our salvation. And today:
“He, who for men in mercy stood,
And poured on earth His precious blood . . .
Our fellow-suffered yet retains A fellow feeling of our pains . . .
In every pang that rends the heart,
The Man of sorrows had a part;
He sympathizes in our grief,
And to the suffered sends relief.”
II. God incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth not only suffered our bodily pains, His breast also throbbed with our heart aches. He who numbers the stars heals the broken in heart. He who marshalls the spiral nebulae binds up our sorrows. The vast diamond-studded Milky Way is but as “dust from the Almighty’s moving Chariot Wheels.” And yet in all our afflictions He is afflicted and the Angel of His Presence saves us.
The Epistle to the Hebrews shows the Saviour walking by faith as we walk, beset by our anxieties and fears. So really did He share our flesh and blood that these words express the faith He placed in God: “I will put my trust in Him.” More even than the Gospels, the Epistle to the Hebrews unveils the agony of Gethsemane: “Who in the days of His flesh, having offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto Him that was able to save him from death and having been heard for his godly fear, though He was a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered.” In becoming our complete and compassionate High Priest Christ passed through the whole curriculum of temptation, trial, patience, fear, anxiety and heart agony we face. Therefore He is a faithful and merciful High Priest who can bear gently with the ignorant and erring in that he himself was also compassed with infirmity.
In the days of His flesh our Lord showed the deepest concern for the heart anxieties, the worries and the fears of those about him. As he stood with Mary and Martha at the tomb of Lazarus their sorrow so moved His heart that Jesus wept with them. The last week shows him time and again weeping over Jerusalem. “O Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets and stonest those that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered Thy children as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings and ye would not.” At the last when the women bewailed and lamented him, Jesus turned and said unto them: “Daughters of Jerusalem weep not for me, but weep for yourselves.” The dreadful punishment in store for Jerusalem brought tears that his own cross was not then extorting from His eyes.
The acme of tender consideration is reached in Jesus’ treatment of Jairus. As he goes to heal the daughter the report arrives that the child is dead and there is no need to trouble the Master further. But before Jairus has time to answer Jesus word of encouragement is steadying his wavering faith, “Fear not only believe, and she shall be made whole. Though the weight of a world’s redemption is upon Him, the anxieties of Mary are all met as her crucified Son says: “Mother, behold thy son,” and (to John) “Son, behold thy mother.”
Nor has this concern for our anxieties been dimmed by the glories and blessedness of heaven. When Stephen is stoned the Son of Man rises from His Father’s Throne and so manifests Himself to His dying martyr that Stephen’s face shines like the face of an angel. When He manifested His glory to John on Patmos, He was quick to manifest with it His understanding grace. “And He laid His right hand upon me, saying, Fear not: I am the first and the last, and the Living One; and I was dead, and behold I am alive forever-more, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.”
As little children in their games stand in a circle about a common center so we all face one great fear, the fear of death. And that is the particular fear our Lord came to face with us and for us. He was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, that by the grace of God He might taste of death for every man. He died that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is the devil, and deliver them who through fear of death were all their life time subject to bondage.
On land, on the sea, under the sea, and in the air the Lord Christ is entering into the hearts of His men when they find terror on every side. A letter was recently received from a lieutenant in the 79th Division telling how depressed he was as he contemplated the near approach of D-Day. Then God spoke to him through the chanting of the ninety-first, the soldier’s Psalm. The terror by night and the arrow that flieth by day; the pestilence that walketh in darkness and the destruction that wasteth at noonday are no mere figures of speech to our men. But deeper than the dangers of war there is the calm of the presence of the Lord, the steadying touch of His hand, the understanding assurance of His voice. “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee; so that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper and I will not fear what man may do unto me.”
Let us then draw near the Table with Gospel viands for our sorrows spread. And as He gives us beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness let our overwhelming wonder be—
“That the Great Angel-blinding light should shrink
His blaze, to shine in a poor Shepherd’s eye;
That the unmeasur’d God so low should sinke,
As Pris’ner in a few poore Rags to ly;
That from his Mother’s Brest he milke should drink,
Who feeds with Nectar Heaven’s faire family,
That a vile Manger his low Bed should prove,
Who in a Throne of stars Thunders above;
That he whom the Sun serves, should faintly peep
Through clouds of Infant Flesh! that he, the old
Eternall Word should be a Child, and weepe;
That he who made the fire, should feare the cold,
That Heav’ns high Majesty his Court should keepe
In a clay cottage, by each blast control’d;
That Glories self should serve our Griefs and fears,
And free Eternity submit to years.”
III. The ever-blessed God became incarnate that He might suffer the pangs of our torn flesh, the ever active Creator became a man that He might be susceptible of the creature’s fears and tears. But the Great Gospel paradox is yet to be uttered: He who has life in Himself and who giveth life to whom He will became mortal man that for our sins He might die. He whose years shall not fail became obedient unto death and that the death of the Cross. To the dregs He drank our cup of woe that we might quaff His cup of salvation. That He might bring many sons unto glory He tasted death for every man. Christ both died and rose again that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Thus, He calls us to go through no darker room than He has gone through before us. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me and even death is no new way to Thee.
This Friend has gone through the strait gate of death, His own death, before He goes through the gate of death with us. And in that going through of His own death He drew the sharpest sting out of our death. For the sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law. But Christ died for our sin, the Just for the unjust. There is, therefore, now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. Thanks be unto God who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
Compare the death of Jesus with the death of Stephen and you are immediately struck with the contrast. Why should the face of Stephen shine like the face of an angel while the visage of Jesus was so marred more than any man? Why? Because Jesus who had no sin of His own was made sin for Stephen in order that Stephen who had no righteousness of his own might be made the righteousness of God in Christ. He was delivered for our offenses and raised for our justification. Therefore,
“In peace let me resign my breath
And Thy salvation see:
My sins deserved eternal death,
But Jesus died for me.”
It is a proper thought that one draw the veil of charity over the short comings of those who die, especially of those who die in faith. For the spirits of those who die in the Lord are beautified, made perfect in holiness. By the grace of the Lord their spirits are glorified like Him who takes them to Himself. The noble, fine, generous, loving spirit is changed into His likeness and all that was base and wicked is done away. Thus we properly think of them as pure and kind all through like the angelic spirits which surround the throne.
“All rapture, thro’ and thro’
In God’s most holy sight.”
The Christ who pierced the mystery of the tomb rose again from the dead and ascended to the Right Hand of the Father where He ever liveth to intercede for us. There His understanding heart, His unceasing prayers, His constant grace keep our faith from failing and carry onward the Church of God until that day when He shall appear a second time apart from sin unto salvation. By tasting death for us He drew its sting. By rising from the dead and ascending to the Right Hand of the Majesty on High He has given us an anchor sure and steadfast. Even so them also that sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him. Accordingly, to a gold-star mother there comes the victory of faith:
“God has given me a guiding Light,
A star called Faith
‘That substance of things hoped for,
That evidence of things not seen.’
And now within me peace and joy are born,
For some day there shall come a Resurrection morn!
And I shall see again and know my son.”
[“God Incarnate for Suffering Men,” can be found included in the volume by Dr. David B. Calhoun, Pleading for a Reformation Vision: The Life and Selected Writings of William Childs Robinson (1897-1982), on pages pp. 258-265.]