Some of the last words our Lord spoke were addressed to a man who stood on the precipice of eternity. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” It was no time to blabber some sentimental nonsense. No occasion for chitchat. The words to a dying man must be words pregnant with life. These were. This man, who could taste the bitterness of death, swallowed the sweetness of life in these dying words to a dying man.
Edward Mote got this. When he paid a visit to the bedside of his friend’s wife, who was staring death in the face, what would he say? He would say what the Lord had given him to say earlier that day. On the way to work, he had penned a short chorus. By day’s end, he had four stanzas written on a scrap of paper folded in his pocket. His friend liked to sing hymns to his wife to comfort her, but that evening he had misplaced his hymnal. Out of his pocket Ed pulled the scrap of paper. Into this dying woman’s ears he sang,
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
And he continued to sing until he came to these words:
When darkness veils his lovely face
I rest on his unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale
My anchor holds within the veil.
These stanzas were of such comfort to the man and his dying wife that he left a copy of the hymn for them—a hymn, written in 1834, that would wind up being one of the most beloved songs of the church. If your words give hope to one who is dying, no matter how simple or how elegant they are, those words are poetry to the soul.
I wish every pastor, when he preaches to his flock, would look upon them as the thief on the cross, or as Edward Mote’s friend, and speak accordingly. Physical death may not befall them that day or that week, but death wears many a mask, and he comes calling in manifold ways. The death of a marriage. Death in addiction. The demise of hopes and dreams and friendships and careers. And in all these deaths, darkness veils Christ’s lovely face. When we need him most, he seems most absent. We are tossed about in the darkness, like a ship caught in a midnight storm, searching for him, for hope, for something stable.
In the midst of these storms, what we need is not a list of spiritual principles by which we can row the boat of our lives safely back to the harbor. What we need is not a coach, standing in the prow, telling us, “Row harder! Pray more fervently!” The last thing we need is for someone to start singing, “Your hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus and your righteousness.” We don’t need “Jesus and….” Good God, we’re dying and you hand us our own coffin?
When all about us are waves and wind that threaten to shipwreck our lives, what we need is an anchor. An anchor that’s chained to an immovable hope. And an anchor that’s fastened around us. An anchor that holds us fast when storms rage all about us. We need what the author of Hebrews tells us we have: “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters in the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf,” (6:19-20). There is no “Jesus and….” There is only Jesus, and he is more than enough.
It’s one of the strangest and most beautiful images in Scripture: Christ, our priest, as an anchor within the Holy of Holies. This man, who is flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, is united to us inextricably. He is as close to us as heat is to fire, as wet is to water. He has chained us to himself in a bond that cannot be broken. While offering up his own body for us on the cross, he was thrown upward, sailed through the firmament, passed through the celestial courts, ripped in two the veil that hung between heaven and earth, and was lodged as a bloody anchor into the gold-plated ark of the covenant before the Father’s throne of grace. Christ our priest has anchored himself in heaven’s holiest place. And because we are joined to him, we are anchored there as well. As he holds fast to the Father, so he holds fast to us.
“In every high and storm gale, my anchor holds within the veil.” Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ because nothing can un-anchor him from us, or us from him. No storms of sin, no gales of guilt, no floods of fear. We may be tossed about, but our anchor holds. We will struggle, we will doubt, but thanks be to God we are not the anchor. Christ is. Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Not our own fidelity. Not our own piety. Not our own anything. There is no “Jesus and….” There is only Jesus, and he is more than enough.
These are life-giving words for us who stand daily on the precipice of eternity. We rest on Christ’s unchanging grace. Our anchor holds within the veil. On Christ the solid rock we stand; all other ground is sinking sand.