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On Dying and Death

1 Kings 17:17-24

Perhaps it never occurred to you this way, but most Christians have adopted the world’s attitude towards death. One symptom of this is that we seldom hear anything from the pulpit about death; people don’t want to talk about it. This way of smoothing over death’s existence changes nothing about death. It weakens us in the process. Perhaps we should see it from another time, so that we might see it more clearly.

(1 Ki 17:17-24 NIV) Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing. {18} She said to Elijah, "What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?" {19} "Give me your son," Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. {20} Then he cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?" {21} Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried to the LORD, "O LORD my God, let this boy's life return to him!" {22} The LORD heard Elijah's cry, and the boy's life returned to him, and he lived. {23} Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, "Look, your son is alive!" {24} Then the woman said to Elijah, "Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth."

How we deal with death

As much as we try to avoid the subject, we are not going to be successful in the long run. After all, we’re going to die too, should the Lord delay sufficiently.

Our attitude

Our attitude towards death – as evidenced when we are actually dealing with it – is revealed in some ways by this widow.

  • If there is plenty of warning – as the famine certainly gave her earlier – then we may greet it, eventually, with acceptance. We often see this when a loved one is dying of a lingering disease. We somehow prepare ourselves for it, and being prepared, we accept it.
  • But sudden death is different. We’re not prepared, and from deep inside we lash out at what we see as the unfairness of it.
  • Often, this lashing out is done at God. We see him as the source of our problems in a variety of ways.
God is punishing….

The blame for our troubles: we are often quick to place it, and we are often wrong.

  • This woman can see all around her the famine in the land, and it is no great leap to see God’s punishment in it. This may have weighed on her mind.
  • Because he was a child, perhaps she didn’t think of her son’s sins. But in adults, this is a common reaction: he died because he did this, that or the other.
  • Her immediate reaction is simple: God is punishing me for my sins. It is a great punishment to lose an only child; perhaps she felt she deserved it. At least she suspected she did.

Why would she suspect such a thing? Because the presence of the godly brings out a sense of sin. The presence of the godly is no barrier to death, nor to hard times, but it does point out God’s righteous character, by reflection. Often, this results in anger: if you were really so close to God, …

Why does God do this?
  • We know that all must die – that’s been the case since Adam. What we’re usually asking is, “Why now? Why my son?”
  • One answer is that this is a testing of our faith. By his attempt to sacrifice Isaac God knew that Abraham had great faith; often, he tests us in the death of loved ones, to see if we will remain faithful to him.
  • Once in a great while, however – as with Lazarus – there comes the time when the death is in fact done for the glory of God. Even in our mortal lives this can happen; there is virtue in a noble death.

What shall we do?

The Christian may know all this. Indeed, intellectually we may be entirely prepared for death, in ourselves and in those we love. But when the time comes, we may find ourselves at a loss for what to do.

Practical action whenever possible.
  • “Give me your son,” says Elijah. Most of us would not presume upon God this way, but Elijah is a prophet, a man who knows God’s intentions. He takes direct action, immediately. We can do that in our care for the grieving.
  • He carries him upstairs to his own bed. A hug and shared tears are one thing; making personal sacrifices to ease the pain is entirely another. The sign here may be just a casserole, but it’s a good sign.
  • The prophet cries to the Lord (and his actions then match his cry). We need to pray for those in grief, and then let our actions match our prayers.
When God gets the blame

Elijah’s example here is priceless – for what he does not do. Most of us, when confronted with anger at God, try to defend him. Elijah does no such thing. He does not even answer her. He takes the issue to God in prayer. See how the man of God talks to his Lord:

  • He shares her feelings of pain: “have you brought tragedy…” It is the heart cry, the feelings pouring out. We need this. When we do it on behalf of our friends, it says clearly: “I’m with you.”
  • He prays – he asks, seeks and knocks, you see three times his actions. This is no time for puny prayer.
  • He takes physical action which matches his prayer. Prayer must give rise to action. In this instance we see a beautiful example of the principle of identification; it is as if it were my own son, Lord.

In all this we must have faith – faith that God can do anything. But we must not mistake faith for presumption that he will do anything on our whim.

The Power of the Resurrection

One reason we have so little effect is that we do not experience in our lives the power of the Resurrection. Listen to a voice from another time:

A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death, they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as something dead. Before the divine advent of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection. But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead. There is proof of this too; for men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Savior's resurrection from it. Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing, robbed of all its strength. Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot as he now is, the passers-by jeer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, "O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?"

(Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, V-27)

Do you see the point? In his day death was viewed very differently – for they knew the power of the Resurrection. It led them to accept the most horrible of deaths calmly, for their Lord’s sake. Sometimes death is for the glory of God.

Using the power

Power of the Resurrection? We seldom use the phrase; perhaps we should pick it up more often. Of what use is this power?

  • It is, Paul tells us, the power of God Himself, for by this power he raised Jesus from the dead.
  • This power changes our view of death. Death is no longer death, but a door to the presence of God.
  • This power also changes our view of life. Death does not end our lives, it begins our lives. This life is but a preliminary to the real thing.

Having said that, what should we do? We need to be witnesses to the power of the Resurrection.

Witness to the power

A witness testifies to what he knows. If you know the power of the Resurrection in your life, you will testify to it.

  • You will testify in words. In your speech you will make it clear that death is not final. You will let the world know who holds the keys to Death and Hell.
  • You will testify in action. If your attitude is different, then your actions should show it. Do you act like one who knows that Death is in the hands of one who loves you?
  • Ultimately, should our Lord delay, you will testify about it in your own death. The manner in which you go to your grave will show those around you what you really know about the Lord of Life.

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