This sermon shares this history behind the hymn “It is Well” and considers John 14:18-27. I orginally gave this sermon on March 22, 2023 at a community “Hymns of Hope” lenten worship series in Richfield, NC.
One of the things I’ve had to come to terms with in life – I’m still coming to terms with in life – is that I have very little control. I like to think I do! I give the illusion that I have control of things, but really, the only thing I can control is the way I respond to the world around me. The gas light in my car goes on – I can respond by stopping to get gas sooner rather than later, or I can see how far I can push it before I fill up. Someone complains about something – I can respond by listening to understand what is really going on or I can immediately start defending myself and write the person off as dumb. My tax bill is higher than I anticipated – I can immediately start grumbling about Uncle Sam to everyone who will listen or I can take a deep breath and remind myself that I drive on roads, my kids go to schools, we once received social services assistance, and I enjoy state and national parks that are all funded with tax dollars.
Now those are all very real and relatively easy examples of choosing how we respond. And if those are the toughest things in life that I have to watch my response to… life is probably pretty good.
The problem is, life usually happens much harder than that. And life has happened much harder than that. And still, the only thing we truly have control over is how we respond to those hard life events. Years of therapy has taught me that. I can respond in ways that are shaped by the culture and world around me. Or I can respond in ways that are shaped by the depth of my faith. Even when the unthinkable tragedies in life happen, we get to choose how we respond.
Horatio Spafford was a Presbyterian lay person from Chicago. He was a successful lawyer, businessman, and a devout Christian. He was friends with the famous evangelist Dwight L. Moody. He was married with 5 children and all things seemed to be well in Horatio’s life. Until they weren’t. (UMC Discipleship source)
First his son dies. Then the cow kicked over the lantern and the great Chicago Fire of 1871 happens and he lost all his real estate investments overnight. It was a financial disaster. Like many of us today after a hard life season , Horatio eventually figured they all needed to get away. The family needed a break. So in 1873, Horatio plans for his wife and 4 daughters to go with him as they assist Moody on an evangelistic trip to Great Britain. It was November and as they make final arrangements for the trip, Horatio has an unexpected business deal come up, so he sends his wife and daughters on ahead with plans to follow when the business was done.
All seemed okay, until it wasn’t. On November 22 the ship carrying Horatio’s wife and 4 daughters was struck by an English vessel. It sank in twelve minutes. Several days later the survivors were finally landed in Wales, and Mrs. Spafford got a message to her husband, ‘Saved alone.’”
Spafford left immediately to catch a boat and join his wife. In 1873 that was no quick feat. He couldn’t just text his wife back and forth as he travelled either. This was a long, slow trip. And as his boat approached the area of the ocean thought to be where the ship carrying his daughters had sunk, Horatio Spafford penned these words:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Horatio Spafford had a choice. He could respond with anger and rage and turn his back on God. And maybe at some point those emotions crossed his heart. The legacy he leaves behind, however, is a response based on his deep faith. He responded in a way that lives out a knowing of Jesus’ words in John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
These words were not spoken by Jesus in a vacuum either. They were spoken in the midst of, as the Gospel of John records it, a time of teaching the disciples of what was to come. Those words were spoken just before Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Before the trial. Before the brutal beating. Before death from hanging on a cross. Before the burial. Before the empty tomb. Before the appearance in the Upper Room and the 40 days and the ascension and the persecution of the early church. Jesus spoke these words before all that hard stuff happened.
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me, and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words, and the word that you hear is not mine but is from the Father who sent me.
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate,the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.John 14:18-27, NRSVUE
It’s as if Jesus is saying – ok, listen up. You thought we had it rough, just wait. Stuff is going to happen. This is going to get hard. Life is going to take turns you aren’t expecting and twists you didn’t see coming. But I’m not going to leave you without what you need. Keep my word. My peace is with you. My spirit will still be teaching you. When it all goes down, don’t be troubled or afraid. Respond in love and peace.
I’m not sure the disciples ever got that all figured out. And I think we’re all still trying to figure it out today. It is ok for us to live in a place of feeling the confusion AND having peace. A place of processing the grief AND responding in love. A place of acknowledging the pain AND singing It is Well with my Soul.
So today, let us, for a moment, stand in the place of the hurt. Let us stand in the place of the grief. Let us bear witness to the disasters in our life. Take a moment and name the hurt, grief, loss, and pain.
Pray this Litany of Grief. And together, let us sing.