“Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again. Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day. Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this? She saith unto him, Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world” (John 11:23-27).
In this text, Jesus tells us that He is the resurrection, and that He is the life. This means that everything we learn in the course of our lives we should learn in the context of this particular kind of life He referred to, in the context of His resurrection from the dead. We are conducting this memorial service for Levi Hicks in the course of Easter week, and this really should bring us up short.
Our Lord rose again from the dead, appeared to a large number of His followers over the course of many days, and then ascended into Heaven. We celebrated this glorious resurrection last Lord’s Day. But some time after He departed into Heaven, we don’t know when, one of His disciples was the first to die. We don’t have any record of that death, but we know that someone had to have that particular honor. After Jesus rose, in the light of that resurrection, how did the other disciples process that first death? What did they do with that?
Well, of course, they now knew—with no shadows in their knowledge—that death had been conquered. Jesus, the risen Lord, had just been in their midst. Everything about the kingdom of death was now being undone, being deliberately unraveled by God. And here we are, two thousand years later, and death continues to be taken apart, piece by piece. Death can now at most impose a temporary separation on us. But Christ is risen, and we know what is happening. We can receive that temporary separation from the hand of the Lord and not murmur. Samuel Rutherford once said, of the death of a child, “The child hath but changed a bed in the garden, and is planted up higher, nearer the sun, where he shall thrive better than in this out-field moor-ground.”
I said a moment ago that everything we learn, we should learn in the context of our Lord’s resurrection. But this implies that we should learn something from Levi’s short time with us. What can Levi teach us?
The first lesson is that the image of God, given by grace to all Adam’s descendants, is not to be defined as higher brain function. Levi had anencephaly—the reason for his death—which meant that his brain did not develop in the womb as it should have. This would not have happened, of course, apart from existence of sin. We live in a fallen world, and this is why we have to deal with all the things we do. But sin, however much it can distort, mar, or insult the image of God in man, has not been able to eradicate it. Christ came to restore the image of God in us, but this was a project of restoration, the rebuilding of a ruin. It was not creation from scratch. We all bear the ravages of sin in different ways, and Levi had this particular burden.
But his burden helps us to identify one of the sins we struggle with. We foolishly tend to equate the image of God with the capacity to reason. But the angels can reason, and they do not bear God’s image as we do. What is that image? In short, the Bible teaches that the image of God is the capacity to be “upgraded” into union with the triune God through Christ, and this means that the image of God presupposes the entire story of being united with Him. From the first instant of Levi’s conception, he bore the image of God in that sense every bit as much as you or I do. Because we really believe that, and because we believe that God has promised to be our God, and to our children after us, I had the privilege of baptizing Levi in the operating room, when he was only minutes old. And he was brought into our congregation, worshipping together with us over the space of two Lord’s Days. The story is not done, the work is not complete, the image is not yet fully restored—not in us, and not yet in Levi. But it all will be. The image of God is not a static definition, but rather an integral part of a glorious, living story—the story of Christ and His bride. Levi has not been written out of this story; he has been written into a more important part of it.
The second lesson is related to this, and it is that we are taught not to despise the day of small beginnings (Zech. 4:10). Our God is one who exalts the little people, and He loves to bring about great things from mustard seed beginnings. This is not the end of a very brief tragedy, but rather the beginning of a very long comedy. This is not a small ending, but rather a small beginning—and the difference between those two is an everlasting difference. And we should know our God well enough by now to know what He loves to do with small beginnings. We could even go so far as to say that it is His specialty. Lars and Bethany therefore have a great deal to look forward to, and we join them in this.
And last, we do not say these things because we are delusional, not seeing the external difficulties that everyone else in the world sees. We do see them, we do acknowledge them. But the peace that passes understanding is a peace that follows our requests that we make to God, and we make those requests on the basis of what we encounter in the world. We look for safety, and health, and a way to get through life, just as everyone else does. The difference is that we look for these things from God, and we trust Him to take care of us even when He escorts us by a route we would not have chosen. We know that God is our Father, and that Christ is our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit is our Comforter, and that it follows that all things work together for good to those who love Him and are the called according to His purpose. We know that God is doing these things for us, and not to us.
And so we grieve, but not without hope. We sorrow, but we do not despair. We bow under the burden, but God carries us along with that burden. Within this everlasting covenant, all the tears we shed are healthy tears and not bitter. And even though the tears are healthy and brim full of faith, the day is coming and now is when God will dry them all.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.