Sharon Elizabeth Howell, R.I.P.

In Psalm 116, we see the deliverances of God in the midst of life, and we see the ultimate deliverance of God at the end of life. The psalmist is pressed by his troubles—the sorrows of death surrounded him (v. 3). He found trouble and sorrow, which everyone who is paying attention in this life also finds. His response was healthy—he called on the name of the Lord, asking Him to deliver his soul (v. 4). This is exactly what the Lord did, delivering his soul from death, his eyes from tears, and his feet from falling (v. 8). The psalmist resolved to walk before God in the land of the living, and this is exactly what Sharon Howell did. She walked with God in the land of the living, and did so for many fruitful years.

And what does this bring? It brings wisdom about the approach of death. That wisdom comes as we worship God as He deserves to be worshiped. We take the cup of salvation, the cup of the new covenant, and we call on His name (v. 13). We pay our vows in the presence of all His people (v. 14). So God delivers us from death, and He teaches us about death, so that we might grow up into an eternal perspective. And that perspective is this one—”precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” When God delivers us from death, as He has done for all of us, many times, He is teaching us wisdom. The capstone of that wisdom is that He looks forward to the time which He has ordained for our homecoming.

The apostle teaches us that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, and we may comfort one another with these words. We may continue to live, which is Christ, or we may depart from this life, which is more Christ (Phil. 1:21). Paul tells us that to depart is “far better” (Phil. 1:23). Those saints who are well established in the ways of the Lord know how to long for that time when we are ushered into the presence of God. But what the psalmist tells us is that God looks forward to it as well. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.

The glory and grace of our God is found in this. He delights in us. He loves us. He looks forward to being with us in a more profound way than He is now. And He promises us great and manifold blessings. Note the progression. He delivers us from many earthly perils, and does so in order that we might learn His great title, the title of Savior. He delivers us so that He might teach us, and He teaches us that when death finally takes us it is not an instance of His faithfulness finally slipping. It is not an instance where we were caught by death because God looked away for a moment. No. He has shown us already that He is in complete control of all things for His glory and our good. All things work together for good for those who love God and who are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). But as that same passage also teaches us, the blessing that we have with Christ in the intermediate state—where Sharon is now—is not the end of the story. God has settled the matter—we are destined to be conformed to the image of Christ in the final resurrection of the dead at the end of history.

God’s overarching purposes in this help us to understand all the stations along the way. As was mentioned in the eulogy, in her final years Sharon was given the hard providence of dementia. And this is where we can find comfort in the words of Psalm 92, and it is not a superficial comfort either (Ps. 92:5). God’s thoughts are very deep—far deeper than ours are. A brutish man and a fool cannot follow this (v. 6), while a delightful saint with dementia still can. Notice what we are told.

“The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Those that be planted in the house of the LORD shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing; To shew that the LORD is upright: he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him” (Ps. 92).

They shall still bring forth fruit in old age. Did this promise fall to the ground in Sharon’s case? Did her affliction—and it was an affliction—prevent her from bearing fruit, right up to the end? Not a bit of it.

Our problem is that we tend to define fruit far too narrowly, and it is too often in terms of those things that we tend to be proud of, proud of in a false way. Some want to think of fruit as thinking proper doctrinal thoughts about God in a rarified intellectual way. Now Sharon did confess her faith biblically—more about that in a moment—but the image of God in us is not to be equated with the ability to reason, or the ability to put sentences together. In the larger story, that is certainly part of the story, but it is by no means the whole story.

They shall still bring forth fruit in old age. How does the Bible define fruit? Here is one example—the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, and peace (Gal. 5: 22). Sharon was a consistently joyful Christian, and her joy continued right to the end of her life, unabated. She was a fruitful Christian, a classy lady, right through to the point where she crossed over. Looking at the broad biblical description of the Christian life, the Bible defines fruitfulness in terms of hospitality and generosity as well. Sharon was a consistent hostess and giver. Many of you here received gifts from her in one way or another. When Dorcas went to be with the Lord, the saints who had been blessed by her life gathered around Peter and showed him all the things she had made (Acts 9:39). But the real fruit of her giving was not limited to the garments she had made that the women showed to Peter—the real fruit was found in the people who were doing the showing. In a similar way, hospitality is a fruit-laden tree. But when is the harvest? The end of hospitality is not the grocery bill, or the sink full of dishes. The harvest of hospitality is dimly foreshadowed by this—when all the people affected by that spirit of generosity gather just as we have gathered here. And the ultimate harvest of hospitality will be the day of resurrection, when everyone who has ever reflected God’s hospitality to us in Christ will all be gathered. On the day when no cold cup of water given in the name of Jesus will be forgotten, what a glorious assemblage of giving hearts that will be.

One other form of fruitfulness should be remembered. Sharon, like the rest of us here, was a sinner, and had been forgiven and remade through the grace of God in the gospel. There is an unfortunate tendency in this unbelieving age to confer on the deceased, whenever someone dies, the degree of “honorary nice person.” Sharon would have none of that. She was fruitful because she had been forgiven, cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ, and taught by the Spirit of the risen Christ. She knew and loved that gospel, and she understood it, right to the end. Even after her affliction took away from her the names of old friends (who nonetheless remained part of her fruitful harvest), it did not take this gospel from her. She loved the hymn Amazing Grace, and the words remained within her grasp throughout her pilgrimage. Even when her dementia was well advanced, she still had the words of the Doxology. And think about those words sung in the shadows of that dark valley. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. And one of the last times when she was able to attend church—which she loved to do—I looked over at her when we were reciting the words of the Apostles Creed, which she was confessing right along with the rest of us. The gospel was still in her heart, and still in her mouth. And in her life, it was still rightly placed—in the midst of the congregation. Sharon loved other Christians; she loved the body of Christ. That love is also fruit.

In the resurrection, when we all see Sharon again, everything she ever lost will have been restored to her, and it will all be glorified. And when we speak together about it, she will tell us that she served a God who does all things well, and that she wouldn’t change anything about it. Fruit is what God says it is, and not what we might want to say. And as our son once told my wife, baskets of fruit can be very heavy. But they are still filled with fruit for all that.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.