Five Wonders of the Gospel

Funeral Message for Ruth Rabenhorst (1934–2010)

I am aware that we are doing this for a really extraordinary person. This is, though it may not seem like it, not an ordinary funeral. Along the way, I will use a few superlatives that I have never used before, and do not expect ever to use again.

God’s way of looking at the world isn’t our way. What is exalted among men is an abomination to God. Those who exalt themselves get humbled, those who humble themselves get exalted. God’s criteria are not the same as the world’s criteria. And measured by God’s criteria, we are handling here something of extraordinary preciousness. So I’m aware of that, and I ask you to pray for me for the next few minutes as I try to say things that would be appropriate for this kind of moment in her life, for she is alive.

Five Wonderful Sightings in the Life of Ruth Rabenhorst

I want to give you five brief sightings of Ruth and Jesus together. And I want you to leave with a picture in your mind of these five citings and a flag flying over each of them. Let me see if I can paint this picture for you.

On Sunday afternoon, midday, you may remember the wind was blowing quite strong out of the west. And as we were driving up 35W, where 35W and 494 cross, over to the right there is a large flagpole, and on it is a United States flag. And that flag, unlike any flag I’ve seen in a long time, was perfectly extended. It was a huge flag and it was hardly rippling. Usually you see flags and they’re kind of flopping in the wind. But this was straight out and hardly rippling because the wind was so steady and so firm. It is just magnificent when you see a great American flag standing perpendicular to its pole.

I pointed it out to Noël, and Talitha. I hadn’t seen a flag fly so magnificently in a long time. So I want you to think of a flag like that, and on it, think of one word. It’s not the American flag this time, just one word, flying over these five sightings: wonderful. All right, do you have that? This is a magnificent flag, it’s huge, and on it is the word wonderful, and it’s legible because the flag is flying in the wind perpendicular to the pole. So here are the five sightings over which the flag wonderful is flying.

1. Wonderful Gospel

Sighting number one: last Friday night I saw Ruth for the last time. It was the day before she died. Dorothy and Jerry were there, and they stepped out to let me have a few minutes alone with her. I leaned down and she was wide awake, and her eyes were unusually piercing. I got very close to her and I said, “Ruth, listen to what God has to say about you. You were dead in your trespasses, but God made you alive together with Christ, having forgiven you all your trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against you with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. God disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a shame of them, triumphing over them in Christ.”

I don’t know if I said it quite that loud, but I said it intensely. And I looked right into her beautiful eyes, and she was staring right into my eyes. And when I finished, I just paused and she whispered, “Wonderful.” And that’s where this sermon comes from.

That’s sighting number one. Within 30 hours of meeting Jesus, she heard the gospel spoken over her dying body, and she said, “Wonderful.” Oh, that was a wonderful moment, right? Wonderful. She was saying, “Thank you for the greatest news in all the world spoken over my body.”

2. Wonderful New Birth

Sighting number two: I wasn’t present for this one but I know it happened. It’s the same way I know that each of my grandchildren were born, though I was not in the room when they were born. How do I know they’re born? They’re alive, even Felicity. They’re alive. So you can know things that happened when you weren’t there. You can know beyond the shadow of a doubt. You can know things are true where you weren’t present. I can look at each one of you and know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you were born. So I wasn’t there for this one, but I know it happened because I saw it in the biblical text and then in her, and the sighting was this: God made you alive when you were dead in your trespasses.

It was so interesting, Keith, that you sent me the audio of her speaking to fourth graders. They did 13 minutes of her testimony and they went over and interviewed Ruth and she prayed for the kids. And one of the questions the kids asked in the second audio was, “How did you know that you were born again?” She said she had been born again when she was 12. God made her alive when she was 12. And her answer was two or three minutes long and really quite profound.

She went straight to the heart. She said things like, “You love the Bible more. You love God’s people more. You love to worship more. You love people more.” It was all about love evidences, not knowledge first. But she was saying something changes in your heart and you experience yourself enjoying, delighting in, loving, and embracing different things than you did before or at a new, distinct level.

I wasn’t there when she was born again, but Ruth Rabenhorst was born again. “You were dead, Ruth,” I said to her, “But God made you alive. You were born again. And she lived a second life which could never be taken away from her, and new birth is a wonderful thing. The more you know your own sin and the more your own helplessness and the more your own resistance to God, the more wonderful it is that God caused you to be born again.

Great Love Precedes a Great Life

You know, there’s a phrase in Ephesians 2:5, when it talks about God making you alive, that’s used nowhere else in the Bible. It says that God, out of the “great love” with which he loved you, caused you to be born again, to raise you from the dead, literally. This is great love. And the wonderful thing about this is that you were dead. You hadn’t done anything to deserve this love, right?

This is the wonder of the new birth. God comes to a dead woman. She’s not impressing him yet. And out of great love, he raises her from the dead so that everything that follows in her life is the result of great love, not the cause of great love. That’s huge. For me, it’s huge.

Did you get it? She was greatly loved before she was this woman we just heard about. She was this woman that we just heard about because she was greatly loved. She was greatly loved. It found traction in her life. So the second sighting is that Ruth was born again. What a moment for us. That was, what? 64 years ago?

3. Wonderful Forgiveness

Sighting number three: what about her sins? Her trespasses? God is holy. We’re not sentimentalists here. God hates Ruth’s sins and she deserved judgment. We don’t usually talk about sweet old ladies deserving hell, but we’re not sentimentalists. The gospel is glorious because John Piper and Ruth Rabenhorst should be in hell, not heaven, today. She was a sinner. She didn’t earn anything from God by this spectacular life. God gave her this life freely. So, if she was a sinner like me, how could he make her alive? He’s holy. He doesn’t sweep anything under the rug.

The reason she said “wonderful” Friday night was because the answer to that question was plain. She knew the answer, and she lived the answer:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses . . . God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:13–14).

So how could she be raised? She could be raised because she was forgiven. How could she be forgiven? She could be forgiven because the record was canceled. How could the record be canceled? Because her sins were nailed to the cross.

But the most wonderful thing is something unspoken. The record of debts against Ruth and you and me — and there’s a long one for all of us, a long record of our debts — we could never pay ourselves, ever. If we’re left to pay them, we are doomed. It says that he canceled the record of debt, nailing it to the cross.

Perfect, Nailed-Pierced Hands

Now there’s something missing there. He did not take a spike and the record — like the papers I’m holding, though it would be a lot thicker than this — and fold it and put the spike here and put it against the cross and pound it in. What’s missing? A hand is missing. There were two hands and two feet, and they had to be perfect hands, right? The psalmist says, who can be a ransom for another man’s sins? Nobody (Psalm 49:7). None of you could die from my sins. None of you could die for Ruth’s sins. We’re sinners. You can’t have a sinner die for a sinner, it won’t work. Listen to this word from Hebrews:

For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself (Hebrews 9:26–27).

So the wonderful thing about how Ruth was made alive is that her sins were forgiven. And the wonderful thing about the forgiveness of sins is that the record of debt was canceled. It’ll never come up again. And the wonderful thing about debts being canceled against us is that they were canceled by being nailed, not just to the cross, but through the hands of a perfect Ransom, a perfect Redeemer, a perfect Sacrifice.

God sends his Son, and the Son lives an absolutely perfect life in our place — a life that neither I, nor Ruth, nor you have ever led. He takes all our sin and takes that record in his hands and says, “Now Father, now nail it to the cross through me.” That’s wonderful. That’s why she said, “Wonderful.”

Made Ready for Death

Before I give you sighting four, I’m looking at you and I know some of you’re going to die soon. I may die first. When I come to you, or Keith steps by you , or David, or a good friend, or somebody else steps by you on your bed in a few hours or days and they read a Scripture or they recite a Scripture, you are not going to have the mental wherewithal to do what I just did with the cross. I unpacked a lot of theology right there in the last seven or eight minutes. It was weighty, weighty theology about substitution, ransom, and redemption. You’re not going to have the mental wherewithal to process all that.

And I only mention that for this reason: that’s why you are in this room now. That’s why you are in the church where you go to church. That’s why you listen to preaching. That’s why you read your Bible. That’s why you study. Because you want this great, glorious, rock-solid foundation in the face of hell and Satan and death to be enough for you when your mind isn’t working very well. You just need a sweet reminder of the keywords, and everything will be there, if you haven’t wasted your life on trifles.

4. Wonderful Service

Sighting number four: the whole life of Ruth Rabenhorst was an unremitting servanthood. In Julie’s words, it was the legacy of a life lived for others. Now here I’m going to speak in superlatives. I’ve been here 30 years in this church, known Ruth the whole time, and I’ve known some of you the whole time. This is no criticism of you. She is the greatest servant I have ever known.

Now, she may not be the greatest. I’m just saying that’s what it looks like to me. I never knew her not serving. I never knew her doing anything but serving. If she did anything but serve, I never saw it. She had an unrelenting, unremitting others-orientation. I have never seen a life like this. I will never do another funeral like this, I don’t think. I love you all. You are all servants, especially the older folks tend to get this it seems. Younger folks are into themselves a lot. Older folks were brought up thinking, “Life is hard, I love people.” So the fourth sighting is a life lived for others.

This did not come from Ruth’s own native innocence or goodness, this came from Jesus Christ. It came from Jesus Christ as her model:

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

And she said, “I’ll follow him.” And it came from his teaching:

Whoever would be great among you must be your servant (Matthew 20:26).

She said, “I hear that teaching. I’ll embrace that teaching.” But it wasn’t just the model and the teaching. This was the power and the outworking of the cross in her life:

He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised (2 Corinthians 5:15).

The design of the atonement is to make you others-oriented, to make you Christ-oriented, which Tom Stellar taught me 30 years ago is others-oriented. I come back to it again and again, Tom. There is a parallel in Philippians that you pointed out to me. To live for others and to live for Christ, Paul simply puts on top of each other as almost synonymous, if you do it for Christ’s sake. So the fourth sighting is this magnificent life with a flag flying over it: wonderful Ruth. What a life. She will be in front of me in the line, way in front of me. Oh, it was good to know her.

5. Wonderful Victory

Sighting number five: this is about the last thing I said to her.

[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Okay, let me give you a closing picture. It was about 11:00 a.m. on Saturday that she had no more breath and she was in the presence of the King. So, I don’t know if it happens like this, but let’s just say she comes to the portal. I have no idea, I’m sure what it’s like is just beyond description. But she comes to the portal to be admitted into heaven. She’s in the presence of Jesus Christ, her King.

As she is about to enter, there comes from the four corners of the universe a million demons with Satan, magnificent at their fore. Let’s say each of them is about a mile tall. They’re tall as the clouds. There’s a thousand, thousand of them dressed in shining light, like Paul says demons often do to appear as angels of light. And they swarm, and the sound of their wings is like nebulae. And Ruth is just Ruth. She’s just little Ruth. And Jesus comes out and he’s Jesus. I mean, I don’t know if you remember this, but he has a body. He can eat fish and be touched.

He’s about five feet ten inches, or maybe 6 feet. I don’t know. And he comes and he’s standing there and he puts his hand on Ruth’s shoulder. There’s no trembling at all. He is totally composed. And Satan says, “She’s ours. She’s a sinner. We can document a record of sin. You are the holy one of Israel (we’ve heard that in the Bible out the mouth of demons), and you can’t abide sinners. She’s ours.”

And Jesus looks at Ruth and looks at them and says, “How many times, old enemy, must I remind you? Do you see these hands?” And they all fall back. And he says, “Her debt is canceled. When those nails went into my hands, she died to her sin. When I was raised from the dead, you were defeated. And you may be now shamed and scattered until the last day when you will be cast into the lake of fire. Be gone.”

And just picture it. One million magnificent, mile-high demons scatter to the four corners of the universe at the word of Jesus. And then all is quiet. And he looks at her and says, “Let’s go.” That’s why she said, “Wonderful.” The gospel is wonderful. The defeat of the devil is wonderful. The forgiveness of sins is wonderful.

So Ruth hearing the gospel in the last hours was wonderful. Ruth’s new birth by the great love of God, making her alive when she was dead, is wonderful. Ruth’s record of debts being canceled and nailed through the hand of Jesus to the cross is wonderful. Ruth’s life of unwavering service to others is wonderful. And Ruth’s final welcome into the presence of Jesus, vindicated before hell and heaven, is wonderful. And when I opened up this bulletin this morning and saw the song that was going to be sung here, I thought, “I didn’t know that, and that’s wonderful.”