Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, August 20, 2018
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Death

 

Ecclesiastes 7:1-4 and 1st Kings 1:1-4

Our four month long journey through the life of David is at an end. David is dying. As well he should! Even David himself says in 1st Kings 2:2, “I am going where everyone on earth must someday go.” To be human is to die. No one’s life is complete until they die.

If we truly wish to live, then we must meditate on death. We heard earlier from Ecclesiastes 7, which is one of my favorite Old Testament passages. I’ve always wondered if that was a strange choice for a favorite text. But maybe it is actually a wise choice for a favorite text. Life is diminished, not enhanced, when we ignore or deny the reality of death. If we want to embrace life, then we must also embrace death, because we can’t have one without the other!

Death should be a sacred moment. Death should be a time of dignity. If we have truly lived a God-filled life, then death need not be something to fear or hate.

Unfortunately for David, his death was not a moment of sacred beauty. His death was an ugly moment, because it was filled with an ugly mess of deceit and political intrigue.

There was only one bright spot in David’s death. Her name was Abishag. She was there through no choice of her own. She doesn’t even say a single word all through the story of David’s death. Yet, somehow, she has the last word on how a person should behave in the midst of death. She has nothing to gain from the situation. She is only there to serve. And as a humble servant, she provides a quiet rebuke to all the scheming and plotting around David’s death.

One of the hardest parts of dying is the way other people react to it. As if it isn’t hard enough to die, we often have to put up with ugly reactions from other people.

Some people avoid a dying person. They won’t go to see a dying person, even if it’s someone to whom they are close. They say things like, “I don’t want to see them like that.” Yes, that is difficult, but perhaps they’d like to see you. Or they excuse themselves with, “I wouldn’t know what to say.” That might be true, but I would argue that you being there is more important than anything you could say.

Other people avoid the grieving process that comes after death. They won’t go to the funeral or the viewings. I’ve had people tell me, “You won’t see me at the funeral. I just can’t handle it.” Yes, facing death is difficult. But it’s necessary if we are going to be human. As Ecclesiastes says, “We’re all going to go to at least one funeral.”

Still others just behave badly in ways that make us want to scratch our heads. I did a funeral years ago at another church. The man who had died had been a widower, and after his wife’s death, he became involved with another woman. The children of this second woman came to the funeral. They weren’t his children, just hers. And the children of the first wife weren’t happy about that. As I was walking into the funeral meal, I came up behind one of the children of the first relationship, and I didn’t catch every word she said, but she made it very clear that she didn’t want to see “those people” at “her” father’s funeral. It was as if she wanted to decide to whom her father’s life was allowed to be meaningful.

A friend of mine lost his grandfather some years ago. His grandfather had been a gunsmith, who made very nice rifles. At the end of the funeral, one of the cousins slipped out, and while everyone else went to the graveside and the funeral meal, he went to the grandfather’s house to help himself to the guns that he wanted. And the family hasn’t quite gotten back together over that one. And sad to say, that’s not the only time in my life that I’ve heard that same basic story. Death can really bring out the worst in people.

Eugene Peterson, in his book “Leap over a Wall,” puts it this way: Quote from page 219.

In the story of David’s death, we see three ways that people respond inappropriately to death.

First, there are David’s household servants. For them, death is a problem to be solved. The king is losing his strength. He can’t even keep himself warm. They pile blankets on top of him, and when even that fails, they go out to find a pretty, young virgin to lie in his arms and “keep him warm.”

What’s really happening here is that in the mindset of that ancient Near East culture, the strength of the king affects the strength of the nation. It’s an idea called “sympathetic magic,” and it was widespread in that culture. Mostly, we see it was in the fertility cults. There were many temples in the ancient Near East that were basically houses of prostitution. The idea was that the human act of fertility would encourage the gods to give fertility to the land of the “worshipper.” Israel was not supposed to practice these things, but often they did, because they followed the culture. And here we see a similar idea in the kingship. A strong, fertile king will yield a strong, fertile nation. So they bring in Abishag, the beautiful young virgin. But it doesn’t work. David has no relations with her.

Their medicine to “fix” the problem of a dying king is blankets and a virgin. Today our medicine is a little more sophisticated. Instead of blankets and a virgin we have surgeries, catheterizations, radiation, chemotherapy, ventilators, and so on. But the idea is the same. It’s an effort to fix a problem, death, that we can’t fix.

Now certainly there are times when medicine is appropriate, and death can be delayed. But sometimes it isn’t appropriate. Sometimes we’re just trying to stop something that can’t be stopped.

And the real problem is that when we focus all our attention on fixing the problem, we distract ourselves from what is most important: Being present for, loving, and serving the one who is dying. As long as we focus all our attention on fixing the problem of death, we are doing a disservice to the person who is dying.

The second inappropriate response in David’s story is to see death as an opportunity to be seized. This is how David’s now oldest son, Adonijah, views his death.

After all, he’s the oldest. He is the presumed crown prince, though in that culture, the king could choose which son he was going to elevate. But Adonijah looks the part, strong and handsome. He starts to act the part, just like his brother Absalom before him. But he is not a disciplined man. Chapter one, verse 6, says that he was never disciplined by David, which seemed to be a recurring failure of David. Discipline teaches us to thrive within limits. But undisciplined children tend to grow into adults who lack self-discipline.

Adonijah is tired of waiting for David to die. Instead of honoring his father to the end, he simply ignores him. He proclaims himself to be king. He seizes the opportunity of a weak and dying father.

It is true that the lives of others place limits on us. Living in relationship with others means we can’t always have our own way. But it is a mistaken fantasy to think that our lives will be greater without them. We do not become more when we break relationship with others. We become less. We become fully human within the limits of our lives, not by trying to break out of those limits.

The end of Adonijah’s story once again involves Abishag. After his brother Solomon becomes king, Adonijah goes to him and asks for Abishag as his wife. He was making a subtle play for power. In that ancient Near East culture, the reason a king had many wives and concubines is that each one represented a treaty or an alliance with a powerful person or a foreign nation. When a new king took the throne, he would inherit the harem of his predecessor, to maintain political alliances.

By the way, an aside here: God told Israel that their kings were not to take many wives. They were not to engage in this system of political alliances. Their trust was to be in God, not foreign allies. But again, they followed the culture more than God.

Well, Solomon could see what Adonijah was up to. By trying to have David’s last concubine for himself, Adonijah was trying to establish his connection to the throne. So Solomon put him to death.

Solomon brings us to the final inappropriate response to David’s death, that of Bathsheeba. For her David’s death represents a difficult time to be navigated through. She is looking beyond his death. When she hears of Adonijah’s power play, she goes in to David to remind him of his promise that Solomon, her son, would become king.

Is that wrong? Is it wrong to think, “What are we going to do after so-and-so’s death?” Not really. Bathsheeba is only being responsible.

But that’s the problem. She is ONLY being responsible. She’s only thinking about what comes next. She’s not thinking about how to be present for David in this moment. When she goes in to see David, it is Abishag who is taking care of him. Abishag is taking care of her dying husband, and she is only thinking about how to secure a future for her son. She’s looking past his death, not being present for his death, again, an inappropriate response to death.

It’s time to give the last word to Jesus. Jesus, the son of David, died with the words of David on his lips. Jesus’ last words were, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” That is Psalm 22:1.

Psalm 22 is remarkable that though it was written almost 1000 years before Jesus’ death, it seems to echo it. Psalm 22 speaks of one who is scorned, whose bones are out of joint, which happened when a person was hung from a cross, their shoulders would dislocate. It speaks of one who is thirsty, whose hands and feet are pierced, whose clothes are taken and gambled for, and who is surrounded by gloating enemies. It all sounds like the crucifixion of Jesus.

But the Psalm doesn’t end there. It goes on to end with a joyful song of praise and victory. It speaks of every nation bowing down, of a message that goes out into all the world, and down through every generation. It begins with gruesome death and ends with triumphant life.

It reminds us that for those who belong to Christ Jesus, death doesn’t have the last word. The resurrection life awaits. And the resurrection life is not just beyond the grave. The resurrection life begins the moment we receive Jesus who said, “I have come that you might have life in all its fullness. And those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live.”

Verse of the Day...