David Mathis
Date Given: 
January 10, 2013

Henryk Otto Thiel, infant son of Michael & Emily Thiel, died at home with his family on Sunday, January 6, 2013, at 2:54pm. Henryk was 5 months and 10 days old, and was born on July 27, 2012, in Minneapolis. Henryk died due to complications resulting from in utero brain damage.

His funeral was held Thursday, January 10, with David Mathis preaching:

"Henryk the Great"
Funeral Meditation for Henryk Otto Thiel
Born July 27, 2012 | Died January 6, 2013

Michael and Emily, it’s been just a little over a year since you found out you were pregnant. It’s been eight months since you first learned that God was doing an unusual work with this pregnancy.

We’ll never forget the strange and providential circumstances by which you had a late ultrasound, and how you began to walk in faith even as all the heartbreak and pain came over you in waves, and how you have continued to walk in faith even when it seemed you could barely feel your way for the next step.

We’ll never forget the night Henryk was born and his beautiful face. Now we know what a miraculous birth that was. We’ll never forget what a snuggler Henryk was and how he so clearly was soothed by being in the arms of his parents. We’ll never forget his seeming patience and humility and his little whimper of a cry, and how he calmed so quickly at the sound of Michael’s voice. We’ll never forget how you learned more medical terms than you ever thought you'd know, and how you faced some of the most difficult ethical decisions with wisdom and grace.

We’ll never forget the impact of Henryk’s life and his story on so many lives, first here at Bethlehem, and especially in our community of young adults, and then even far and wide through the blog. It is no small thing that literally thousands of people have visited the site and been ministered to by his story and your lives and words of faith. (Google the name “henryk,” and the blog comes up sixth in the list.)

We’ll never forget the extraordinary impression left by such a life as Henryk’s, an effect (we’re already seeing) that did not die with his body but has continued on, and will continue to do so. Truly, as Michael read from John 9, “the works of God” have been so clearly displayed in this precious life of only 5 months and 10 days. It is a great work that God has done in so many of us through Henryk.

We will never forget Henryk Otto Thiel.

What I’d like to do in these few short moments is give one way of remembering Henryk. This is only one way of remembering him, among others. As I’ve walked through this precious and painful season with you, Michael and Emily, and as I’ve reflected on Henryk’s short life here on this earth, and as I’ve thought about what God has done in me and in so many through Henryk’s brief visitation, it has seemed to me more and more fitting to remember him as “Henryk the Great.”

Henryk was weak, but we won’t mainly think of him as weak. He was small, but we won’t mainly think of him as small. Henryk was disabled, but we won’t mainly think about him as disabled. For those who have eyes to see, the main thing we’ll remember is the unexpected and surprising way the greatness of God was so clearly on display in Henryk’s life, and through his parents. It was not the greatness for which the world typically looks. It was a gospel greatness. It was the greatness of another world, one that’s not here yet, but is coming so quickly. It was the greatness of power in weakness (like 2 Corinthians 12:9). It was the greatness we sense when we catch a glimpse of divine strength in the very midst of human frailty.

So let me give you just a five reasons—one for each month of his life—for why I will remember Henryk Otto Thiel as “Henryk the Great.”

First, he was a great gift from God.

He was a gift to you, Michael and Emily and Lily, and to so many of us. He was made in God’s image and relentless imaged God to us. And given his condition, it is amazing that God gave Henryk to us for so long. The medical professionals were surprised at every turn that he lived so long.

As Bill and Cindi read from Psalm 139, God knew exactly what he was doing when he “formed Henryk’s inward parts,” and knitted him together in his mother’s womb. Henryk was fearfully and wonderfully made. And so we say with the psalmist, “Wonderful are your works” (Psalm 139:14).

It was “the works of God” that were on display in Henryk’s life from the very beginning. Again and again, Michael and Emily turned to John 9:1–3 to rightly remind themselves that Henryk’s unusual condition was not a divine judgment, but a divine gift. “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents,” says Jesus, “but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

In this way, Henryk was a great servant. He lived the life of a servant for 164 days, by reminding us we’re not in control, by causing us to despair of self and look to God, by awakening us to the horror and pain and sorrow that is in this world, and by helping us to long for another.

One of the main lessons we’ve learned from Henryk is that the deep pains and sorrows we face in this life are often not the product of our specific sins, but part of a world that is not what it should be because of sin.

Which leads us to a second reason to remember him as Henryk the Great.

Second, he brought us great pain and sorrow.

Henryk’s life was a living testimony that this world is not right. This world is not the original creation, but it has been deeply affected by sin. And it is not the final creation, freed from sin, that it will be. Romans 8:20–23 helps us with the story:

The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Because of the horror of human sin, God subjected this world to futility, like natural disasters, disability, and disease. But God did so in hope. A day is coming when this world will be set from its corruption and decay. This world is not what it was when God created it, and it is not what it will be when he perfectly redeems and remakes it. For now, we live in an age of sin and suffering and tremendous sorrow, an age in which we groan—and we have groaned these months.

For many of us, especially us younger adults around Michael’s and Emily’s age, this was our first (or one of our first) awakenings to how messed up things really are in this world. This was one of our first up-close encounters with what it means that the creation is cursed and subjected to futility because of sin, and that the place we live is not yet the home we long for.

For many of us who love the Thiels, the problem of pain has gone from being theoretical to being intensely personal. We’ve caught glimpses of God’s goodness in the midst of wave after wave of disappointment and pain, but we are learning the tough lesson that in this world, God’s goodness toward us rarely means ease, and often means great hardship. If this world and this life were all there is, we would be on the brink of despair. The tensions God is lovingly creating in our hearts in this fallen age are meant to be resolved in an age to come.

We’ve learned that saying God is good doesn’t mean that he makes our lives easy, but often that he makes them hard, but not joyless.

Third, Henryk’s parents were a great demonstration of living by faith in life’s most tragic and gut-wrenching circumstances.

The circumstances were frequently horrible. At times the heartbreak was almost too great to bear. Again and again, just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, they did.

Michael and Emily, just when you felt like you had no more wherewithal for any more pain or decline or bad news, God gently stretched you even more—and he provided just what you needed to keep going, even if little or no excess. You showed us what it means to walk by faith in Jesus through, not just a moment, or a day, or a week, but through months of being “sorrowful yet always rejoicing,” as the apostle Paul calls it in 2 Corinthians 6:10.

Walking by faith in Jesus isn’t always pretty, or usually pretty. It doesn't mean that every step is strong and determined, but that we lean on him even as most steps are weak and tentative.

Part of the beauty of your great demonstration of faith in Jesus is that you don’t think of yourselves as heroes, or even models. You’re aware of your weaknesses and failures, and yet you keep leaning on one who is strong when you’re weak.

We thank God for the great demonstration he has given us in you of what it means to be “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” in the midst of circumstances more tragic than most of us will ever face.

Fourth, Henryk pointed us to the great gospel of God’s sacrificial Son.

When read from Romans 8 a moment ago. I know an old pastor who calls Romans 8 the greatest chapter in the Bible. Some have called it “The Great Eight,” which makes it fitting for Henryk the Great, and for the rest of us who are in need of a great God.

If Romans 8 is like the Himalayas, Romans 8:32 is like Mount Everest. You know well what it says:

[God] did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

God suffered the loss of his own Son to provide all things for our good. You can hear God’s own anguish about the death of his Son in words “he did not spare his own Son.” So much of him wanted to spare him! God knows what it’s like to watch a dearly loved son die. God drew you into his heart as you walked into the pain of losing your only son.

It is this great gospel of God giving up his own Son as payment for the death we justly deserve because of our sins—it is this gospel that Henryk’s life has pointed us to. We’ve seen it in Henryk’s own way of so patiently and humbly serving us for God’s hard but good work in our lives. We’ve seen it in your own extreme love and care for Henryk as you sacrificed so much—you gave your everything— and echoed the Great Sacrifice Jesus made for us in going to the cross to free us from our failures. Instead of detaching from a disabled son, you embraced the pain of loving him so deeply, knowing that you had a great hope in Jesus.

Fifth, and finally, in Henryk’s life and death, God has pointed us to the great victory that is to come for Henryk and for those of us who have bound ourselves to Jesus.

This body that we’ll put in the ground later today is not Henryk. This is Henryk’s body, but it’s not Henryk. Henryk is a human soul, who will live forever, is now with Jesus, and one day soon will find his body fully whole and restored in a new creation. What a great reunion that will be, Michael and Emily, when you again see Henryk. And how sweet it will be in the new heavens and new earth when Henryk’s body is fully redeemed and we run together and laugh together and sing together and play together and cry together with joy as we enjoy the majesty of Jesus together for all eternity.

Henryk’s story is not over. Our story is not over. There is a great victory to come in which death and sin and sorrow are no more. This is the anthem of 1 Corinthians 15:52–57 for those who are in Jesus:

The trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on imperishable and the mortal puts on immortal, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The victory is “through Jesus.” I said at the beginning that there is a greatness in Henryk for those who have eyes to see. This is not a greatness that all will see. This is not a victory that all will have. It is only “through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Apart from Jesus, we cannot understand Henryk’s life as a great gift. Apart from Jesus, we cannot even do justice to the great pain and sorrow. Apart from Jesus, there is no great demonstration in Michael and Emily. Without Jesus, there is no great gospel of forgiveness for sinners. So let me close with this great invitation to the gift, to the pain and sorrow, to the demonstration, to the gospel, and to the victory.

The Great Invitation

Even though we’re all born sinful—“original sin,” as they call it—one reason that I believe Henryk is now with Jesus, and that we who trust in Jesus will see him again, and that he will be whole in the new creation, is because God has appointed that there be a judgment and that we be judged by our own acts of unrighteousness. Henryk does not have any lived-out acts of unrighteousness on which to be judged, and I believe God has been pleased to cover the original sin of Michael’s and Emily’s son in the sacrifice of his Son.

But those of us gathered here this morning have not only been afforded so many opportunities that Henryk was not, but we’ve also been afforded the opportunity to demonstrate in action our sin. Unlike Henryk, we have lived out the unrighteousness into which we were born, every one of us. I don’t know whether Henryk yet had the capacity for faith in Jesus, and I don’t believe that will be held against him in these circumstances. But for you and me, we do have this capacity. If you reject the Jesus we’ve been inviting you to throughout this service, and if you die in that rejection, it will be held against you.

So here’s my hope: Perhaps the reason you’ll remember Henryk Otto Thiel as “Henryk the Great” is that through his life God drew you closer to Jesus, whether you tightened the embrace you’ve had for years or whether you embraced for the first time God’s great offer of salvation through the death and resurrection of his Son. These are the works of God that have been so clear on display in the life and death of Henryk the Great.

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