By Pastor Glenn Pease
The Cherynoble nuclear accident in Russia was one of the most headline grabbing events of the 20th century. But what we do not realize is that many accidents are not spectacular explosions, fiery crashes, or powerful events of violence. There are also very silent accidents which are equally deadly. For example, back in 1983 two employees at a hospital were clearing out a warehouse where a worn out cancer therapy machine had been collecting dust for 6 years. They had no idea that in the case of this machine were 6,000 pellets of radioactive cobalt. They sold it for scrap metal for $10.00. Some of these pellets fell out into the truck they used to carry it to the junk yard. At the junk yard the pellets were scattered all over the place as the magic picked it up and dumped it in a pile. These 6,000 pellets were mixed with metal that was sent out to a company that made legs for tables in fast food restaurants. Others found their way into metal rods to reinforce concrete.
Nobody was even aware that a dangerous accident was in progress, for there was no noise or explosion. Many people, however, were being exposed to high levels of radioactivity. It was not until a truck carrying a load of this radioactive material pulled into a government project that anybody became aware. Radioactive detectors set off alarms, and the Nuclear Safety Commission immediately went into action to trace these rods back to that junk yard. Then they had to trace where all the scrap had gone. They closed down the leg making factory, and they found the truck that delivered the machine in the first place. It was very hot, and it was hauled away, but research learned that up to 200 people could have touched it or been near enough to be exposed.
2,500 table bases had to be returned from 40 states. People eating at these tables were getting the equivalent of a one hour lung x-ray. The hottest legs of all were found in a downtown Chicago hotel. The point is, there was no big exposition by which to identify this accident, or series of accidents. It was quiet and not dramatic, and so there was no way to trace how many people were affected by it. Nobody was doing anything evil to cause this accident. The two men who started it all were acting in ignorance with no intent to harm anyone. Yet they may have done harm to thousands of people.
In this message we are looking at two other men who were involved in an ancient accident that only temporarily left one of them dead, but we can see that though the scale is smaller the same principles are at work. A study of them will help us better understand the causes and cures for suffering in the world. There is only one permanent cure for the suffering of any person, and that is to get a body that is no longer subject to pain and death. The only way to get such a body is by faith in the risen Christ who died and rose again that all who trust Him might have just such bodies that will live with Him forever. But until that day of total victory over all suffering there are millions of pains we are to strive to prevent in time. The only way we can be effective in preventing suffering is to keep learning more and more about the causes. That is what the study of all branches of medicine is about. If you find the cause for suffering, you have a good start toward conquering it or preventing it.
Let's look at this accidental death of a New Testament teenager and see what we can learn about the cause and cure of suffering. Keep in mind that this account is being written by Dr. Luke who is an eye witness of the event. Dr. Luke is not being super spiritual here at all by writing such things like: It must have been the will of God, or demons made it happen. He takes the very scientific approach that says there were perfectly logical and natural causes for this accident. If it was planned by God or Satan it would not have been an accident, but there is no hint that this event was intended by anyone. All accidents have causes, however, and Dr. Luke gives us an excellent diagnosis of the causes of this particular accident. We want to look at it through the doctor's eyes, and see his account of the cause, and by inference, his prescription for the cure. First look at-
I. THE DESCRIPTION OF THE CAUSE.
Dr. Luke describes two basic causes for this accident which fits the majority of accidents in life. The two are circumstances and choices. For example, look at the circumstances. It was a pressure situation because of time. Verse 7 says that because Paul had to leave the next day he went on talking till midnight. When you have a lot to get done, and very little time to do it, you are in a high risk environment. It is a perfect setting for miscalculation and poor judgment. I reflect on times I have cut myself, and most, if not all, were due to being in a hurry. Speed kills and injures millions.
In our case study here Paul was not doing anything too fast, but because of the time factor he was trying to do too much in his limited time. The result was that he did not know he was literally boring part of his audience to death. It is a speaker's job to talk, and the audience's job to listen, but sometimes the audience finishes their job before the speaker. I do not know if any of us have had to listen to a speaker until midnight, but most of us can sympathize with Eutychus. I have had to endure the suffering inflicted by a speaker who could not find the terminal. I have not only struggled with sleepiness, but with whether or not I should just leave. Eutychus did both. He went to sleep, and he left by way of the window. The going to sleep was not serious, but the unconscious exit from a third story window was a radical remedy to his dilemma. But the point is, it never would have happened had Paul ended his message at 11:30. Dr. Luke makes this clear in verse 9 where he says that Eutychus sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. Dr. Luke is describing a scene of endurance. He implies that Paul was being excessive in his speech. He hints that he too may have been eager to hear Paul's amen.
Eutychus had gotten himself into a situation where he was a captive of somebody else's agenda. But let's notice that the circumstances alone did not cause this accidental death. There were also choices that were made by the people involved, and they were the primary causes of this suffering. Paul made the choice to push his audience to the limit of their endurance. Eutychus made the choice of setting in an open window to listen. Here is the crucial choice, and the primary cause of the accident.
Others may have been sleeping too, but they were safely snoozing away on the floor or some piece of furniture. A little girl once told the preacher that she went to sleep during his sermon and had the most wonderful dream. She meant it as a complement. Sleeping in church is not always dangerous. Ben Kenchlow of the 700 club tells of his church sleeping in his book Plain Bread. He went to a Catholic school as a boy, and every morning at chapel he noticed one of the sisters kneeling with her elbow on the pew in front, and her head down in her arms. He decided to copy her.
He writes, "I soon realized her very worshipful posture was conducive to dozing, and one morning shortly after that I heard sister snoring softly. She wasn't praying, she was sleeping! I had fought like crazy against dropping off to sleep in those early, dark mornings. I had assumed God was watching, and He'd see me there sleeping, and hit me with one of those bolts of lightning people talked about. But then I said, "If she can sleep though mass....I can, too." From then on, I slept through most of the masses I attended the rest of my 4 years at St. Peter Claver's Academy.
A pastor was once showing a teenager the brass scroll on the back of the church with names inscribed. The pastor said, "This is the list of our church members who have died in the service." The teen responded, "Was it the morning or the evening service?" Not too many people die by falling asleep in church, but there is a history of this kind of experience, and so Eutychus will have a lot of people to talk to in heaven about their church naps.
Benjamin Franklin in his autobiography tells of his first visit to Philadelphia. He saw a group of well dressed people, and he writes, "I joined them, and thereby was lead into the great meeting house of the Quakers near the market. I sat down among them, and, after looking round awhile and hearing nothing said, being very drowsy thro' labor and want of rest the preceding night, I fell fast asleep, and continu'd so till the meeting broke up, when one was kind enough to rouse me. This was, therefore, the first house I was in, or slept in, in Philadelphia."
One of the greatest missionaries of modern times was C. T. Studd. His fiancée became quite ill in China, and he had to nurse her back to health. When the day of their wedding came he was so tired from the strain of caring for her that he fell asleep during his own wedding address. It was before the day of tape recording too, and so he never did hear what the pastor had to say, but he woke up and had a great marriage.
The Puritans were prepared for people going to sleep in church. They had an office just for this very common event. Their sermons lasted for 3 hours, and so I suspect that even the most devout would at sometime feel the temptation to drift off to dreamland. No such trip was permitted, however, for the tithingman had a staff with a sharp thorn on the end. It was his job to jab those who gave evidence of being present in body, but not in spirit. Obediah Turner gives us this eye witness account from the first Sunday in June of 1646.
"As he strutted about the meeting house, he did spy Mr. Tomlins
sleeping with much comfort, his head kept steady by being in
the corner, and his hand grasping the rail. And so spying, Allen
(the tithingman) did quickly thrust his staff behind Dame Ballard
and give him a grievous prick upon the hand. Whereupon Mr.
Tomlins did spring up much above the floor, and with terrible
force did strike his hand against the wall, and also, to the great
wonder of all, did profanely exclaim, "Curse ye, woodchuck!"
He dreaming, so it seemed, that a woodchuck had seized and
bit his hand. But on coming to know where he was, and great scandal he had committed, he seemed much but did not speak. And I think he will not soon again go sleep in meeting."
Even the great D. L. Moody had a problem on one occasion. He was in Dr. Edward Kirk's famous Mount Vernon Church. He was one of the most eloquent men Moody had ever heard, but on this occasion as the sermon got long Moody fell fast asleep.
The point is, there are millions of people who have slept through messages that did not get injured. Eutychus could have been among these snoozers had he not chosen the place where he sat. His choice to sit near the window is in harmony with his sex and his age. He was a young man, and young men suffer in ways that other people seldom do because of their risky choices. The reason insurance is so high for young males is because they are more likely to take chances. Young men are not conservative, and this leads to a higher rate of accidents.
Winston Churchill was playing in the tree with his brother when he was a young boy. He decided to swing from branch to branch like a monkey. He lost his grip and fell 30 feet. He was unconscious for 3 days, and bedridden for 3 months. It was a year before he was back to normal. This is a frequent type of accident for young boys that seldom happens to girls, and very rarely to adults. Can anyone really believe that God has something against young boys, and that He discriminates against them? The reason they have these kinds of accidents is obvious. They are the ones who make risky choices. If girls and adults made these same risky choices, they to would have more accidents.
So in the setting of our text it is less likely for a girl or an adult to be setting in a window during a church service. The teenage boy is most likely to make such a choice, and the result is Eutychus was the one who fell out. Maybe he was the best teenager in the church. Maybe he was the one with the best testimony, but he made a risky choice and paid the price.
No where does God promise to protect us from the consequences of our choices. In fact, He promises just the opposite, and that we will reap what we sow. If we take chances, and do high risk things, we will likely suffer for those choices. This does not mean we should never take risks. Paul suffered enormously by taking risks for Christ, and this is what suffering for Christ is all about. We should risk sticking our neck out to be identified with Him. But when it comes to suffering that is the result of unwise choices, there is little to commend for such suffering. Even though there was a miracle to restore Eutychus to life there is no big deal about its spiritual impact. People were comforted that he survived, but there is no hint that he was made some kind of hero. This accident never should have happened, and there is no hint that it did happen for any good reason that was a part of God's plan. It was preventable, and Dr. Luke records it with this attitude in mind.
Notice how in verse 8 he describes another contributing factor to the accident. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where they were meeting. Why such a trivial detail? It is because Luke in his scientific evaluation of the circumstances is looking for all the clues he can to explain this unfortunate incident. He is saying that the room was too worm and stuffy for the number of people. This would explain why Eutychus went to sit in the window. He wanted some fresh air. The window was open and there could be no better place to sit for some cooler air.
We need to see Dr. Luke describing the situation like a detective reconstructing a crime scene. He is putting the clues together so that we see there is little mystery surrounding this accident. The combination of circumstances and choices make it a very understandable event. Dr. Luke does not hint that it is anything other than a natural event. It is all explained by the laws of nature. Men at a late hour in a hot stuffy room with a long winded speaker will tend toward sleep, and if they happen to be setting in an open window on the third story the law of gravity will encourage a fall. You can blame the devil if you wish, but Luke doesn't. There is no evil intent here on the part of anyone involved. The choices being made are unwise for the circumstances, but there is no sin. Dr. Luke gives us a totally scientific explanation of this accident. Now let's look at the implications for our second point.
II. THE PRESCRIPTION FOR A CURE.
The point of this whole incident is not that we don't have to worry about risky choices because you can always count on a miracle to get you out of the mess. The fact is, most accidents are not undone by a miracle. Carelessness cannot be justified by the hope of a miracle. To even hint at such a view of life is to encourage irresponsibility, and guarantee increased accidents and unnecessary suffering.
The primary prescription for the prevention of accidents is awareness of, and obedience to, the natural laws of life. This is equivalent to cooperation with God's will as we understand it revealed by the laws of nature. For example, keep medicine out of reach of children because they will eat anything. If you go back over the events leading to the accident in our text, you could easily prevent it by changing the circumstances and the choices. There was freedom to do all sorts of things. Paul could have accepted the limitations of time and stopped talking sooner. Eutychus could have asked his parents if he could slip out before he fell out, or he could have sat down by the wall and safely fallen to sleep. The entire accident could have been prevented in a number of ways, and that is our first responsibility, for we can prevent accidents by wise choices.
God gave Paul the power to fall on Eutychus and restore him to life. This means the accident was not a part of God's plan. Miracles are not used to counteract the will of God, but to assert the will of God in the face of negative consequences because of human sin and error. Hunger is not the will of God in the sense that He enjoys people being hungry. That is why Jesus fed the hungry crowds by a miracle. Disease and injuries are not the will of God, that is why Jesus used miracles to heal the diseased, and restore the injured to health. Death is not God's will, for he is the author of life, and one day will destroy death completely, and so Jesus used miracles to restore the dead to life. Accidents fall into the same category with all of these other negative of life that will one day be eliminated from the universe.
Accidents are primarily negative events in life. This is not to say that God cannot use accidents for the good of those who suffer them, and for His own glory. There is no follow up on Eutychus to see if he was a better Christian because of his fall and restoration to life, or if anyone else benefited from the miracle. Dr. Luke does not record any moral with the story, or pretend that it was good that it happened. Even if he had it would not relieve Eutychus of the responsibility of his choices.
Sometimes God does use accidents for good. Dr. Albert Schwietzer had a magazine from the Paris Missionary Society put into his mailbox by accident. It was suppose to go to his neighbor, but he looked at it and read an article about the need of the Congo Mission. He was so impressed that he went to the Congo and gave the rest of his life to meet that need. It is was an accident, or mistake, or human error, but it lead to that history making decision, and many people were blessed because of it.
It would be folly, however, to conclude that every mistake made by mailmen is the plan of God. It would take a lot of people off the hook if this was so, but since very few of these mistakes lead to any good, and mostly to some degree of pain, there is no way to shift the blame for all the inconvenience to God. Even when God uses human error it does not justify the error and make it good. God could just as easily have lead Schwietzer to visit the neighbor and borrow the magazine, or receive it in the mail as a gift from a friend. God is never locked into needing human mistakes and accidents to do His will. It is foolish to assume that He has no alternative if man does not somehow blow it and make mistakes. God does not have to count on human error just because He can use them for His purpose. He is more likely to use man's wisdom, knowledge, and cooperation with the laws of nature to accomplish His will. There are five books of wisdom in the Bible, but no books of human error. That should be a clue as to what God's will is.
A mother who lost her teenage daughter in a car accident was grateful that a couple of her friends responded to the Gospel at her funeral, but she could not believe that this was the purpose of the accident. She said that many young people came to Christ each year in her church, and nobody had to die to make it happen. She could not believe that God planned the tragedy as a method of evangelism, for it is counterproductive. More youth die by accidents then are saved because of them, and more people rebel against God because of accidents than come to Him. It is not an efficient nor effective means of evangelism, and on top of that it is totally unnecessary. Jesus has already suffered and died paid all the price necessary for anyone to be saved.
God will use tragedy for good, but to accuse God of planning the tragedy and accidents is to deny His infinite efficiency in the cross. His Son died once for all that there might be atonement for all sin. There is no need for anyone else to die, or get injured, or suffer in any way for anyone else to be saved. God in His sovereignty does use accidents to change lives, but the accidents are not necessary, for people can make the right and wise decisions of life without accidents. Most people who come to Christ do not do so because of the injury or death of someone else.
Accidents are caused by human error and ignorance, and they are preventable. It is the sin of presumption to be careless in the hope that God will rescue you, or use the accident you may cause for good. Jesus refused to jump off the temple, for that would be tempting God, and we all need to refuse to take high risk choices with our own lives and health, as well as that of others. Part of our commitment as Christians is to live in harmony with the natural laws that God has built into creation.
Clovis Chappel, the great Southern Methodist preacher, tells of the mother in his church who gave her teenager a car, and he tore up the road with it. One day he lost control, hit a telephone pole, and was thrown through the windshield. Chappel was called to the hospital, and the frantic mother grabbed him and asked, "Why did God let it happen?" Chappel said, "Hold on, don't blame God for this accident. If our Lord were to snatch a telephone pole from in front of your son when he was driving recklessly, He might set one in front of me when I was driving carefully. In that case none of us could drive intelligently."
I am convinced that Chappel was right, and we are held accountable for our unwise choices that will lead to suffering. Christians often do not like this side of reality. It is so much easier to blame God or the devil for life's pains. Eutychus could blame Paul and the poor circumstances, but he has to bear the heaviest burden of responsibility himself for his accident. We all need to recognize that our ignorance can lead to bad choices and suffering, but the good news is, we can also by wise choices prevent suffering.
Accidental suffering is preventable suffering because the cause of it is almost always due to ignorance and folly, and both of these are out of the perfect will of God. Nobody plans an accident, but we can plan so as not to have them, or not to cause them. This is a key to preventing much suffering in the world. Because of the reality of accidents, and human responsibility for them, the Christian is to be committed to prevention. God's people are to fight all unnecessary and accidental suffering by means of prevention.
The practices of smoking, drinking, using drugs, and immoral sex are fought by Christians because they hate to see other people suffer when it is not necessary. When people make foolish choices that do not have to be made, they add so much preventable suffering to the world. We are constantly teaching our children as to what to avoid in order to prevent them suffering harm. We do it because we know if they make the right choices they will escape much suffering in their lives. We practice in practical ways the belief that accidents are not the will of God, but are caused by human ignorance and foolish choices. Jesus said we are to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, and when we are, we are forces in the world that eliminate much accidental suffering.