In the fall of 1997 I found myself living outside of a Cardiac Care Unit. For seven nights I slept on the floor of the waiting room of a hospital in Huntsville, Alabama. I was not there because I was a pastor. Granted, I have spent my fair share of time at hospitals doing my duty. This time, I was there because I was a son, and my mother, eighty-three years of age, was lying in the bed of room six of the Cardiac Care Unit on the sixth floor with tubes running in and out of her body. She was dying.
For the prior three years, she had been in and out of the hospital every other month due to congestive heart failure. My two brothers and two sisters knew that this time was the most frightening. The night before I had left my home in Chicago to fly to Alabama. Her heart had stopped. Through the valiant efforts of the nursing staff it was restarted. She was in a most serious condition.
After several days of employing various drugs and treatments, Dr. Cash, the cardiologist, spoke with the family as he did each day. This time there was deep concern on his youthful face and his voice trembled. He described her present condition. She was weakening and not responding to the treatment. He spoke of how our mother had been very firm and clear in instructing him not to prolong her life through artificial means. He said very nervously, “There is still a slim chance for her recovery, but I am putting DNR on her charts.”
DNR. Meaning if her heart failed again the hospital staff was instructed Do Not Resuscitate.
DNR carries not only the overt meaning, but those three words also carry an unwritten message: There is no hope.
While I realized the severity of my mother’s condition, it still came as a jolt to hear those words and to understand their meaning.
A Man of Hope
The cloud of confusion and despair that hung over my family for the next several days is similar to the dark storm that pervaded the globe nearly two thousand years ago. The world was enveloped in a deep darkness.
Into that dark room of despair, there walked a Galilean carpenter, a miracle man, and a promise of hope. He proclaimed the stirring message of God’s love and God’s life. He demonstrated it by raising people from the dead. The ministry of Jesus of Nazareth instilled hope in the hearts of many. His presence gave birth to optimism. His actions righted wrongs and brought decency and order back to a crooked world. Perhaps, the future was not bleak after all. Perhaps, he was the one to resuscitate a dying world.
But the renewed optimism, the hope, was once again dashed. On a bleak Friday morning, Jesus’ enemies took him prisoner, and after a mock trial, soldiers nailed the hope-bearer to a cross. Once more, hatred and evil seemed to speak the last word. Do Not Resuscitate. Hope has died.
On the cross Jesus’ final utterance was “It is finished” (John 19:30). Stop and listen. Can you imagine the cry from the cross? The sky is dark. The earth is rumbling. The other two victims are moaning. The jeering crowd is silent. Possibly there is thunder. Possibly there is weeping. Then Jesus draws his last breath, pushes his feet down on that rusty Roman nail, and cries three final words, “It is finished.”
I doubt that anyone on that hill with him would have disagreed with that observation.
Surely, the chief priests and scribes rubbed their hands together and agreed: “Finished indeed! No longer do we have to worry about this young upstart threatening the status quo of the religion of our fathers. He’s dead and gone.” The soldiers could see that it was finished. The distasteful duty of this execution was nearly over so they could return to their barracks. The friends of Jesus also saw that it was finished. Their hopes were dashed on the rocks of disappointment. Their dreams for a prosperous and peaceful tomorrow were finished. Hope had died. There wasn’t much to do but to go home and take care of the burial proceedings.
The disciples stood secluded, a far distance from the cross, like I stood with my family at the sterile nurse’s station, a short distance from my mother’s bed. The disciples heard the three words “It is finished.” I heard the three words “Do Not Resuscitate.” For both the disciples and me these words carried the same poignant meaning: There is no hope.
What was finished, though?
While the disciples heard one thing, Jesus meant another. What did he mean? The job of salvation for the souls of humanity was finished. The song had been sung. The blood had been poured. The sacrifice had been made. The sting of death had been removed. It was over. Finished.
Was it a cry of defeat? Hardly. John is the only gospel writer that recalls these three words of Jesus—“It is finished.” But the other gospel writers mention how he uttered them: with “a loud voice” (Matt. 27:46, Mk. 15:37, Lk. 23:46). In Greek the words are phone megale, which transposed and transliterated, begins to look familiar: a mega-phone. This was not a cry, but a cheer. Jesus was not proclaiming tragedy, but heralding triumph. His was a shout, not of utter despair, but of undying hope. Had his hands not been fastened down I dare say that a triumphant fist would have punched the dark sky.
Did he know something that the disciples didn’t? Yes. Jesus knew that while the world was in chaos, heaven was calm. While Satan seemed to have the upper hand, God was still on his throne. While death was dancing its final number, life was about to spring forth into a new beginning. While despair lingered over the disciples like a storm cloud, hope was about to break through like the sun after a thunderstorm. The Son was in the tomb, the Father was preparing for his glorious resurrection.
The Miracle of Miracles
And on Sunday morning, the miracle of miracles happened. The stone sealing the tomb’s entrance was rolled away. The tomb was empty. Mary Magdalene saw it first. Then Mary, the mother of James. Then Salome. They came to anoint his body with spices. Jesus was not there. He was gone. They were bewildered. What happened? Where was the body? Who had taken it? An angel provided the answer: “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen!” (John 16:6).
Three words: He has risen. But, oh, the impact of those words. In one grand “swoosh” the times were changed, B.C. became A.D. The impact of that moment can be felt like an earthquake through the centuries because hope came to life.
It is only three little words: He has risen. But because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and his finished work on the cross, we can be resuscitated. The empty tomb changes our pessimism and despair into optimism and hope. It reminds us that there are no hopeless situations; there are only people who have grown hopeless about them. In the end, the last words don’t belong to doctors or death; they don’t belong to soldiers and syncs. The last words belong to Jesus.
A Message of Hope
On Sunday morning, September 21, 1997, ten days after I had arrived in Alabama to be with my family, my mother died. Her heart stopped. The nurses, per their instructions, did not resuscitate her. She slipped through the chains of death and entered a new life in a glorious resurrection. It was her Easter. She met her Savior. She was ready, prepared, for she had faith.
As with any death, the days following were difficult. Yet my family and I weathered this storm with the same courage and strength that our mother fought her battle with death. My mother worked every day of her life up until her last year when the doctors ordered her to stop. The last half of her life was spent operating a small-town shoe store.
When my twin brother and I walked into the store a few days after her death, getting her affairs in order, we noticed a sign she had written. Somehow in all the cleaning and removing of things this one had been left behind. I spotted the hand-lettered sign, hanging a little unevenly, just as she had left it. It spoke her final words to us. The sign read: “Gone for a little while. Will be with you soon.”