************ Sermon on Isaiah 38:17 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 30, 2018
Isaiah 38 (cf 2 Kings 20:1-11)
"Christians Read Obituaries"
Old Year's Service 2018
I begin this Old Year's message by saying we have 43 members over the age of 80. Yet, as I already mentioned, we did not have a single funeral during 2018.
You may not like to hear this, but I want to tell you this evening it is not just the elderly who should think of death. As my sermon title puts it, "Christians read obituaries."
I Facing the Wall
A Hezekiah, as you may know, became the king of Judah after the death of his godless father. He put into motion one of the greatest religious revivals in the history of the southern kingdom. Idols were destroyed, the temple in Jerusalem was repaired and rededicated for worship, the Mosaic covenant was renewed, and the Passover was celebrated.
B And then disaster struck: King Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death (Is 38:1). God sent Isaiah to Hezekiah with a very pointed message. In words that left no room for doubt and no possibility of escape, the prophet declared, "You are going to die; you will not recover" (Is 38:1). All hope was removed; his death was both certain and soon.
To make matters worse, during this time the Assyrian army invaded. Though the story of the invasion is told one chapter earlier, Isaiah 38:6 makes clear Hezekiah was ill before the invasion. So Judah faced the invasion with a dying leader!
There is still more to the story: Hezekiah did not have a son to be king in his place. So who would take over for him? Would it be a peaceful transition or would someone make deals with godless Assyria?
When the president or prime minister of a country is sick or injured, it affects everything from the stock market to foreign relations to trade agreements. Imagine how the people of Judah reacted when they heard their king was going to die.
Is this fair? Hezekiah was only 39 years old. He was the political leader of God's chosen people. He had served and worshiped God so faithfully. He had led the people away from the godlessness of his own father to spiritual rebirth and renewal. He was needed in this time of crisis. Is it fair that God treat him this way?
Hezekiah reacted swiftly and passionately. Our Bible reading tells us that "Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD" (Is 38:2). We are told that "Hezekiah wept bitterly" (Is 38:3).
We know God answered Hezekiah's prayer with 15 more years of life.
Afterwards, as he thought about all of this, Hezekiah tells us he has learned from his impending death and obituary. He says, "Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish" (Is 38:17). So what did he learn? What can we learn?
II Lessons of Death
A "Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish" (Is 38:17). First, we need to read obituaries and think about death because death does not always wait. It does not always wait until people are in their 80s or 90s. Hezekiah was only 39 -- that might sound old to our young people but that sounds kind of young to me.
Young people and young couples tend to forget that funerals are waiting on the other end of weddings and baptisms. This year for instance, we have witnessed the baptism of 20 babies. Unless Jesus comes first those babies -- like the rest of us -- will someday die.
I am sure we all recognize that we will eventually die, but we all seem to think this is a distant event, something that will happen decades from now, not today, this week, this month, this year. Death is a foreigner to us, not a close neighbor. I remember the time I asked the students in my Catechism class to draw a time line of their life. I asked them to give me an idea of what their future might be like. They marked down things like graduation from high school and college. They put down a wedding date and the birth of the first baby. They mentioned when they would earn their first million or win a Nobel prize or take over the company or buy the dairy or create a wonderful invention. They all were going to live to be 90 or even 100. None of them considered the possibility of an early death (or the return of Christ).
I read a number of obituaries this past week. The first thing I looked at is the age of those who died.
Angie Dias, 97What I haven't mentioned are the babies, children, and teens who have died. Every time I see someone my own age, or even younger, I wince. I am forced to admit that death does not have to ask our permission. Death is coming. Quoting Ecclesiastes,
Alice Glynn, 103
Rocky Jones, 51
Billy Graham, 99
President Bush, 94
John McCain, 81
(Eccl 7:2) ... death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.Every day is somebody's last day. Every day could be your last. So you need to think about death before it is too late.
We take life and health for granted until they are taken from us. Hezekiah pictures death as the end of a journey (Is 38:11-12), a tent taken down (Is 38:12), a piece of cloth cut from a weaver's loom (Is 38:12). The king felt like a frail animal being attacked by a fierce lion or like a helpless bird with a broken wing (Is 38:13-14). Hezekiah realized how short and fragile life can actually be.
"Baby, in the crib, how long will you be here?" Not very long.
"Laughing, giggling, young girls, excited about a thousand dreams, how long will you be here?" Not very long.
"Boastful young men -- full of athletic ability and might -- how long will you be here?" Not very long.
"You in middle age, with your children growing up so fast and almost out of the house, how long do you have?" Not very long.
"And you in old age, with your children long gone, with your golden anniversary coming or already past, how long do you have?" Not very long.
B "Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish" (Is 38:17). The second reason why Hezekiah wants us to read obituaries and think about death is this: death is not in our hands; of course, life is not in our hands either. Birth and death are always in God's hands and never in man's. It was God, for instance, Who announced it was Hezekiah's time (Is 38:1). Hezekiah had no say in the matter. No matter how much he wanted to live, no matter what doctors he would see, no matter what treatments he would receive, he could not extend his days. God had spoken so the matter was decided.
But Hezekiah's life was also in God's hands. Hezekiah knew it was only a miraculous intervention, a divine intervention, that could prolong his days. When God added 15 years to his life Hezekiah learned how fully his life lay in God's hands (Is 38:5). Hezekiah lived at God's pleasure and Hezekiah died at God's pleasure.
What was true for Hezekiah is true for each and every one of us. Life and death are never in our hands; they are in God's. We can eat right, exercise properly, avoid alcohol and tobacco, and do all the things doctors want us to do -- but none of that is a guarantee we will live long. Why not? Because ultimately life and death are not in our hands; rather, they are in God's.
I mentioned earlier that we have 43 members over the age of 80. Normally speaking, one would expect those in their 80s and 90s to be the ones who die. But we can't say that or know that for sure. It could be the other way around. Why? Because death and life are not in our hands.
C "Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish" (Is 38:17). The third reason why Hezekiah wants us to read obituaries and think about death is this: death helps us to put things in perspective, to reorganize our priorities, to question our values. It helps us to hold on to the essential and let go of the trivial.
Did you catch what God said to Hezekiah? "Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover" (Is 38:1). "Put your house in order." Do you think God was telling Hezekiah to dust and vacuum and mop? Of course not! Do you think God was telling him to mend the fence, patch the roof, and plant flowers? Of course not! Do you think God was telling him to make one last business deal, close a sale, and make a financial killing? Of course not! God was telling Hezekiah to get ready for eternity. God was telling Hezekiah to examine himself, his values, his priorities.
Death turns everything right-side up if you are a Christian or upside-down if you are an unbeliever. Something like this happens every year when we figure out our taxes. During the year, we rejoice at the paychecks and extra income we receive, but complain about the payments to the church, Scholarship Fund, Faith Promise, Christian School, Cancer Society, or whatever. At the end of the year, however, all of that changes. As we figure out what we owe the government, we wince at every source of income and rejoice at every charitable donation. Everything is turned upside down; perhaps I should say everything is turned right-side up.
Thinking about death and reading obituaries helps to turn everything right-side up. You see, before the throne of God those things that bother us now won't seem all that important. We all put lots of emphasis upon keeping our schedule, finishing the book work, mowing the lawn, washing the clothes, cleaning the house, and spending that extra hour in the office. We put lots of emphasis on our things: money, cars, furniture, boats, computers, clothing, bikes, games. But in the face of death none of this is important any more.
Thinking about death and reading obituaries makes us realize the most important thing in life is a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
D "Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish" (Is 38:17). The fourth reason why Hezekiah wants us to read obituaries and think of death is this: it helps us turn from sin and to righteousness. Consider Hezekiah. He considered his death and said, "I will walk humbly all my years because of this anguish of my soul" (Is 38:15). Once he faced his death, Hezekiah decided that he would walk and live humbly -- that is, obediently -- before the Lord.
What man or woman in his or her right mind would continue an affair if they really believed they might not wake up in the morning? What person would risk entering eternity with a hang-over? What fool would ignore his loved ones and God so that he could make another quick ten thousand? What teenager would sell drugs or shop lift-lift if he knew this day could be his last?
E "Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish" (Is 38:17). The fifth reason why Hezekiah wants us to read obituaries and think of death is this: it gives a new appreciation for prayer. What did Hezekiah do when he was told he was going to die? He prayed. He cried out to the Lord.
Some have criticized Hezekiah for weeping and praying, saying that his prayer was selfish. They mention that 3 years later his son Manasseh was born (2 Kings 21:1). The problem with this is that Manasseh was easily the most wicked king Judah ever had and he reigned for 55 years. If Hezekiah died instead of lived this would not have happened. However, we also know that Manasseh did repent and ended his years serving the Lord (2 Chron 33:11-20). And, Manasseh's grandson was godly King Josiah, who did much to bring the nation back to the Lord.
Hezekiah realized the value and place of prayer. In the face of illness and death, his prayer took on a new urgency, was more heart-felt, was more sincere.
III God's Forgiveness
A We look at Hezekiah, and we see a godly man filled with grief. What was the source, the cause, of his grief? Hezekiah did not grieve because of his attachment to the world or things or people. Hezekiah did not grieve because he was being cut off in the prime of his life. Hezekiah did not grieve because he would not see children or grand-children.
What was the source, the cause, of Hezekiah's grief? Hezekiah thought death meant separation from God. Forever. Hezekiah thought he was going to the grave, to the place of the dead, without being reconciled to God. Hezekiah thought death meant he would no longer praise the Lord. Hezekiah was afraid that he would never see the face of God again. Hezekiah thought he would be cast into darkness forever. That was Hezekiah's biggest concern (cf Is 38:18-19).
Why would Hezekiah think this way? Because Hezekiah knew he was a sinner (cf Is 38:17). Because Hezekiah knew that he deserved to die on account of his sin. Because Hezekiah knew that he fell short of the glory of God.
What is true for Hezekiah is true for all of us: we all deserve to die on account of sin. "The wages of sin is death," says Paul (Rom 6:23). Like Hezekiah, our biggest fear should be separation from God, not separation from the world.
B There is good news for Hezekiah and for you and me. Listen to the rest of our text:
(Is 38:17) In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back.What has God done? He forgives. He forgives sin. Because of the atoning sacrifice of Christ, He throws our sin over His back. Meaning what? Meaning He no longer sees them. Meaning He no longer is provoked by the sight of them. Meaning He no longer counts them against us or against Hezekiah.
Do you know the result of God's forgiving love? The result is that Hezekiah is kept from the pit of destruction. The result is that Hezekiah is not separated from God. Likewise, in Jesus Christ we have the assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rom 8:39).
"Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish" (Is 38:17). At the end of 2018 we need to read obituaries and think about death.
We need to think about death. But do so, congregation, only in the light of Christ's death and resurrection. Do so only from the perspective of the cross and the grave. Do so only with faith in Jesus.
As you think about 2018, as you look forward to 2019, do you read obituaries? Are you ready to die and meet the Lord? Are you ready to enter eternity?
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