“I’m a Widow”
The loss of a spouse can be among the most devastating losses we can experience in life. The deeper the love and fellowship married couples have had in life, the deeper the pain and sorrow can be when one of them dies. The reason for this is because the one flesh union of marriage, as created by God, is foundational to what it is to be made in the image of the Triune God. The Holy Trinity is a communion of self-giving love among the persons of the Trinity. When man was made in the image of God, he was created male and female—a community of persons—to live together in love for the procreation of children, joyous delight in one another, and the benevolent dominion over the creation. This is why the Scriptures say, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). We were created to be in community and fellowship with God and one another. The most intimate of human relationships of love is between a husband and a wife. It is no wonder, then, that the death of a spouse can be so devastating.
In this life, grief is not something that we get over. The sense of loss and even emptiness can endure for the rest of one’s life. This does not sound very encouraging for someone who has lost a spouse or a very dear loved one in death, but it is very important to recognize the devastation that death causes and the threat of loneliness and despair that can sometimes overwhelm us. To still feel the loss very deeply after many months or years is not a sign of weak faith, instead it is the affirmation that God created us to be in communion with Him and one another in marriage and family. Instead of thinking of the death of a spouse as something we should “get over” and that if we don’t get over it there is something wrong with us, we should learn to think of it as our vocation, our calling, to suffer the grief and loss of a loved one with faith in the One who has conquered sin and death for us all.
Being a widow is similar to suffering the loss of other good gifts from God—the loss of health, a physical or mental disability, or the inability to continue in one’s profession. We carry the cross of affliction in only one way: by faith in the Son of God who suffered the loss of all things to save us from death and reconcile us to God. Being a widow is a holy vocation, sanctified by Jesus’ own suffering and death. It is the calling to carry the cross of grief with faith in the grace of God in Christ. It is a holy work of the Spirit of God to teach us through the things that we suffer the sufficiency of God’s grace in Christ and also the joy of living in the hope of the resurrection (2 Cor. 12:9-10). “In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Through the losses we suffer, God intends to accomplish an even greater good in us as He transforms us into the image of His Son and prepares us for the greater weight of glory that shall be ours on the Last Day (2 Cor. 5:17). We grieve over the devastating effects of sin and death in our lives, but we grieve as those who have been redeemed from sin and death to live our lives now in the joyous and confident hope of the resurrection and a blessed reunion in Christ with those who have fallen asleep in faith (1 Thess. 4:13-18).
Widows have a holy vocation. They live by faith in Christ who suffered the loss of all things for them. They pray for their grieving sisters and brothers who have also suffered the loss of loved ones. They know the pain and sorrow of those who are grieving. Through the things that they suffer, they learn the good that God can work in their lives through the Gospel of His suffering Son. They are enabled to comfort others with the comfort which they themselves have received from God (2 Cor. 1:3-7). And they bear witness through their losses that Christ is the Victor over sin and death, and that the present sufferings of this life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be ours in Christ (Rom. 8:18). He will, indeed, swallow up death forever and wipe away all tears from our eyes in an eternal communion with God and one another that will never end (Rev. 21:3-5).
In Christ, Pastor Bender
Lenten Midweek Sermon Series 2014: The Gift of the Lord’s Supper
2:30 p.m. and 6:45 p.m.
The Lord’s Supper is the precious gift of Christ’s body and blood that was given and shed for us upon the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, eternal life, and salvation. In the Lord’s Supper Christ gives this gift to us that everything that He has done for us might become our own. It is the Supper of salvation and the Holy Communion in the love of God for one another. The Lord’s Supper brings forth in us the fruits of the Spirit and will raise us from the dead on the Last Day. The Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of the feast of salvation that will never end and the center of our worship in time and in eternity.
Ash Wednesday, March 5: Faith in Christ Is Characterized by Self-Denial
March 12: The Word of Jesus and the Gift of His Body and Blood
March 19: The Sacrament of Redemption from Slavery to Sin
March 26: The Lord’s Supper Is the Gospel Given
April 2: The Medicine of Immortality
April 9: Holy Communion in the Love of God in Christ
April 16: Food for Repentant Sinners
Luther on Widows
The verses cited for the office of the widow are not difficult to understand: “The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead while she lives” (cf. 1 Tim. 5:5-6). As in all of the offices in the Table of Duties in Luther’s Small Catechism, Luther provides key Bible verses for admonishment regarding the duties and responsibilities, but he offers no further explanation— “what does this mean?” —as he does in the Six Chief Parts.
Few verses succinctly capture some of the angst of the vulnerable widow, whether placed in the office, suddenly or slowly, who no longer has the provision and comfort of her husband. She has neither her father’s family to return to nor her children’s family to care for her. Along with the loss of her spouse, she may feel a loss of God’s concern for her, but God’s merciful heart and compassionate love toward the widow is written in His word to us, upon which we do have Luther’s comments. To those who afflict the widow, God promises vengeance (Exod. 22:21-24). From Deut. 10:18 (“He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing”), Luther draws an understanding of God’s concern. It is the voice of rich consolation, and it is the voice of severe correction, which Luther based in the First Commandment: “I am the Lord your God.” “For widows and orphans suffer many things. No one cares for them, but God of gods, Lord of lords, the great, powerful, and dreadful God—He executes judgment for the widow and the orphan.” In His mercy, He admonishes tyrants to do good and love the widow and the orphan. Further Luther writes, “Whether widow and orphans believe or not, He still executes judgment for them and judges the tyrants” (Luther’s Works, 9:112).
In God’s desire to see righteousness among His people, the widow is one toward whom the believer can do his duty and show mercy. God indicts Judah’s lack of faithfulness in the lack of care for the widow (Isa. 1:17) and blesses those who care for them (Jer. 7:6). Regardless of whether the people care for her, the Lord promises to be her husband (Jer. 31:32). The image of the deserted, faithless city of Jerusalem is likened to the solitary widow who weeps with none to comfort her, who is afflicted and subject to treachery (Lam. 1:1ff). The widow of Zarephath illustrates how difficult it could get for the widow—she prepares to die from lack of meal and oil (1 Ki. 17:9ff; cf. Luke 4:26). In the book of Ruth, there are three widows: Naomi, the widow of Elimelech, and her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, widows of Mahlon and Chilion. Abigail is an example of a wise woman who, after being widowed, David took as his wife. As a counter-example to exemplary faithfulness, the widow Tamar played the harlot with Judah. Yet she, like Ruth, is found in the genealogy of Christ (Matt. 1:3, 5). He took on her flesh for her redemption in the incarnation.
In the NT, the Lord’s concern for the widow continues. The widow of Nain receives her child back (Luke 7:12ff), the widow gives her life in two mites (Mark 12:42ff; Luke 21:2), and Anna is the faithful widow-remnant of Israel (Luke 2:36ff). The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge promises God’s vengeance (Luke 18:1-8). Women surrounded Jesus during his death, burial, and resurrection for Jesus never abandoned the widow throughout His Passion and resurrection (Matt. 27:55; 28:5; Luke 23:27, 55; 24:1, 10). As the Lord promised to be her husband, the Lord has provided for her greatest need.
God’s care for the widow continues in the apostolic church. As Jews left the temple and became Christian, the NT church also had to care for her widows (Acts 6:1ff). Paul writes to Timothy regarding widows within this context. The widow who is all alone (1 Tim. 5:5) is simply by herself. She has set her hope on God. “She must take a risk, because she has no one for whom to care. Such women have been so abandoned that they have nothing left except to hope in God. . . . Therefore, nothing remains for her except to trust in God and pray to him” (Luther’s Works, 28:335). Her constancy in prayer is as one who prays throughout the day in brief prayer: “as she goes out, comes in, eats, goes to sleep, wakes up” (Luther’s Works, 28:3356).
In contrast to the widow who takes care of her family (1 Tim. 5:4) and to the widow who cares for others through prayer (1 Tim. 5:5) is the idle widow. She is self-indulgent, “seeking her own pleasure.” This kind of widow is “‘dead’—dead not in this life but in the sight of God” (Luther’s Works, 28:336). Luther rebukes the widow who does not provide for her family. In this, she denies her faith. It is a denial of the faith to “not care for [one’s] own people as far as body and soul are concerned.”
Luther finds precedence in the OT for the necessity of the care of widows who were devout widows and women who served God, who fasted and prayed at the entrance of the temple. (See Exod. 38:8 and the examples of Hannah in 1 Sam. 1:9 and Anna, Luke 2). It was an old custom that widows were fed and clothed within the temple (Luther’s Works, 28:338).
The devout widow who in piety fasted and prayed in service to the church developed into a symbol reflecting the image of Christ. In church history, widows came to be viewed as an “altar of God.” Her prayers were to be like the perfect sacrifices offered upon the altar in the temple, a “living altar,” upon which is laid the firstborn, tithes, and offerings. Her behavior imaged Christ Himself who is the true altar of God. Likened to the burnt offerings, His prayers were offered for forgiveness of sins and were expressions of devotion, commitment and surrender to God. Likened to the peace offerings, His prayers were freewill offerings that emphasized thanksgiving and fellowship—forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to the Father. So also were the widows’ persistent prayers to be. As Luther writes, “As your need is, so shall your prayer be. Your need does not attack you once and then let you go. It hangs on, it falls around your neck again, and it refuses to let go. You act the same way! Pray continually, and seek and knock, too, and do not let go.” This is the lesson of the persistent widow. “Since your need goes right on knocking, therefore, you go right on knocking, too, and do not relent” (Luther’s Works, 21:234). In this regard, widows are an image of Christ who offers up prayers continually for the sake of His people.
William Cowper: Poet and Hymnist
His words are painted large upon the walls of one of the local chain grocery stores, “Variety’s the very spice of life.—William Cowper” or perhaps the idiom, “God moves in a mysterious way” is familiar, long before you ever sang his hymn (LSB 765). William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”), 1731-1800, was a poet of the 18th Century, co-authoring a hymnal with pastor John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace.” More wondrous and more mysterious, perhaps, is that the life Cowper lived was one interspersed with severe depression, a fact that punctuates the words of his verse, “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace.” He was a popular English poet and institutionalized for insanity for two years (1763-65) after failing three times to commit suicide.
Author George Gilfillan wrote that to ascribe “life” to Cowper is a misnomer. “The living death for seventy years of William Cowper” may be more apt. Cowper experienced periods of disappointment, misery, or despair with long-term depression occurring about every ten years. Many authors have looked for a source to Cowper’s melancholic disposition. His mother died when he was six. Soon after her death, he was sent to a boarding school by his distant father where a fellow student delighted in mistreating him. Though the nature of the abuse was unspoken, Cowper wrote, “I well remember being afraid to lift my eyes upon him higher than his knees, and that I knew him better by his shoe-buckles than by any other part of his dress. May the Lord pardon him, and may we meet in glory!” Despite his mistreatment and the misery it caused, Cowper commends his abuser to God and prays for him.
In 1773, Cowper had a dream that he was eternally condemned to hell and held the belief that God was demanding him, literally, to sacrifice his own life. Perhaps in this regard, Cowper’s Calvinism holding wrongly the belief in God’s predestination of sinners to damnation gripped his thoughts. Cowper was no Lutheran, but neither can one conclude that “right theology” would have alleviated Cowper’s melancholy. Martin Luther himself suffered from angst, doubt, and warfare with the devil’s attacks, even after Luther had the revelation of the righteousness of God in Christ. Philip Melanchthon described Luther’s terrors as so severe that he almost died. And, it was during one of Luther’s crises of 1527 that he also composed a hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
Unlike Luther who threw the inkwell of scripture at the devil’s gibes, Cowper had the tendency to look for comfort in emotion and nature. In 1752, during an initial depressive episode, he credits George Herbert’s poetry as speaking to his soul. A few months later, Cowper describes a moment when the sun shone bright upon the sea, that at that moment it was “as if another sun had been kindled that instant in the heavens, on purpose to dispel sorrow and vexation of spirit, I felt the weight of all my weariness taken off.” Rather than giving God the credit for this mercy, Cowper developed the habit of battling depression with changes of scenery.
Having tried to commit suicide and failed, Cowper felt the guilt of sin and God’s wrath. In one of his committals to an insane asylum, he had the good fortune of being attended by gospel-believing physician and poet, Dr. Nathaniel Cotton. At his stay in the sanatorium, Cowper read in the Scriptures Jesus’ raising of Lazarus which gave Cowper hope. Secondly, he read Romans 3:25, and immediately he believed it, seeing the sufficiency of the atonement. Despite his conversion, however, Cowper continued to suffer periodically with depression.
John Newton befriended Cowper after a family he was living with moved into Newton’s parish. Newton recognized Cowper’s penchant for melancholy and reclusiveness, visited him regularly, and asked Cowper to contribute to his compilation, Olney Hymns, not published until 1779, which includes “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (LSB 765) and “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood” (TLH 157). For over twenty years, Newton would be a sacrificial friend, standing by Cowper through many suicide attempts.
Though Cowper often poured himself into his poetic work, he continued to wrestle with trials, and he viewed them as chastisement from God. Consequently, despite his own feelings of insecurity, he could not be utterly forsaken. Cowper died in 1800 from dropsy, apparently in despair. Cowper lived a life that was fueled by affliction, which spurred him forward in faith and which bore faith’s fruit in hymnody.
Cowper’s Poems and Hymns
Light Shining out of Darkness
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
You fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and will break
In blessings on your head.
from Olney Hymns (1779)
Praise for the Fountain Opened
There is a fountain fill’d with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plung’d beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.
from Olney Hymns (1779)
Variety’s the very spice of life,
That gives it all its flavour.
from The Task (1785)