PREPARED TO DIE?!
The summer of 2009 was a hard one for a baby boomer like me when it comes to facing issues of mortality. Baby boomers lost two icons of their generation. Farrah Fawcett, whose infamous pinup poster sold in the millions, died of cancer. And then an even greater shock: Michael Jackson dead from cardiac arrest at age fifty. The whiff of death isn’t supposed to cling to a generation that saw itself as forever young. As William Willimon, the chaplain of Duke University, notes, baby boomers have a hard time handling their own mortality. It’s as though they say to themselves, "Wait a minute; a generation as wonderful as ours can’t die! Maybe we won’t!"
The message on television and the big screen is that everyone lives ‘happily ever after." So in Buffy and the Vampire Slayer, Buffy and her boyfriend are the couple that just wouldn’t die. In the film What Dreams May Come, Robin Williams is killed in a car crash and then incredibly reunited with his wife and kids and the family dog. In the film Titanic, Jack and Rose are happy after all, in spite of Jack’s drowning. And in the film Jack Frost, Michael Keaton, the workaholic father, is killed in a car crash but returns as his son’s snowman. I have no doubt that the pin—up posters of Farrah Fawcett will receive a spike in sales. And Michael Jackson’s music will undergo a renaissance of popularity. Certainly there must be some way death can be cheated by a generation as creative as our own.
But that means that people today aren’t open to the common wisdom of past generations. The Puritans believed that the purpose of living was to prepare for dying. In fact, they often talked about the purpose of life as being able to die a ‘good death.’ It was the same thing that the Roman Senator, Seneca, once said: "It takes all of life" he once said, "to learn how to die."
Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if King Hezekiah shared some of the thoughts of today’s generation as he lay fevered on what he thought was his deathbed. It is quite likely that when his brain cleared enough to think with any coherence his thought was simply—how could this be happening to me?
Let me suggest that for Hezekiah, this whole crisis must have seemed rather surreal. For this was not a good time to die. Well, you say to me—no time is a good time to die. But certainly this was a terrible time for Hezekiah. And for two reasons.
First, because Hezekiah was a young man. Let’s be clear that this story doesn’t just relate to the senior citizens who are listening to his message. We have the idea that we don’t have to get serious about death until the actuary tables tell us that our biological clock is about to come to an end. But let’s understand, death is no respecter of age.
You see, Hezekiah was about 25 years old when he began to reign. And he was about 53 when he finally died. That means that this episode occurred when Hezekiah was about 37 years old. Not exactly the time when most of us think about death.
But death doesn’t always have the decency to hold off a visit until we think it appropriate. There were many in the first congregation I served that were quite elderly. And as a young pastor, fresh out of seminary, I couldn’t help but wonder who might present the opportunity for my first funeral. Would it be John, in his 90’s, living down at the rest home? Or Margaret, a virtual shut—in for the past 15 years! I served that church for an entire year before there was a death. My first funeral was an eighteen year old girl, killed in a car crash. She was making college visits in the area, preparing for the next chapter of her life. A chapter that was never written. No death is not a respecter of persons. This wasn’t a good time for Hezekiah to die either, he’s just too young!
But there is a second reason why this is bad timing. The message that he’s about to die comes right at a critical time in the life of the nation. The Assyrians, led by a military genius named Sennacarib, had just invaded Israel. Israel was being threatened as never before by a pagan empire in a wildly expansionary mode.
Now, who is more important to lead the resistance against this invasion than Israel’s King? What more important role does Hezekiah have now than to be at the front of the battle lines? This is his destiny! This is the pinnacle of his greatness!
And what happens? Hezekiah comes down with an infection. That’s plain from the nature of the treatment that follows. Hezekiah gets an infection. Staph, strep, something more exotic—we don’t know. The ancient world didn’t know anything about bacteria. The ancient world didn’t send cultures to a lab for analysis. And the ancient world certainly didn’t have stocks of antibiotics with infectious disease specialists to administer them. And that made even a simple infection a very dangerous thing indeed.
So I found out myself, when a few years ago I ended up in the hospital with an infection in my hand. What surprised me was the speed with which that infection moved. A red lump between my fingers became streaks up my arm within twelve hours. Some similar condition had afflicted Hezekiah. And when the prophet Isaiah comes, he brings the diagnosis. "Hezekiah, you are going to die."
"Now isn’t the time, Isaiah! I’ve an army to lead to battle!"
There are events of such consequence that they seem to be the reason we were born into the world. And then death interferes in what we thought was our special moment.
Yes, death has messed up Hezekiah’s plans. Death often messes up our own. It’s one thing to say there is death in the world. It’s another thing to say that I will die. That there will come a day when my family and friends will lower my casket into a grave, cover it with dirt, and then go and drink coffee and eat cake at a local community hall. And I will not be there. I will be gone. It’s unbearable. It’s unthinkable. And yet, unless the Lord comes within my lifetime, it is the one thing that is inevitable.
PUT YOUR HOUSE IN ORDER!
That’s why Isaiah appears on the scene with an instruction for Hezekiah. He tells Hezekiah, "PUT YOUR HOUSE IN ORDER!" Now, what might that mean? What is Isaiah asking Hezekiah to do? What would it mean for a king to ’put his house in order?’ And what would this invitation mean for you and me today?
Well, I believe it would mean at least three things, and they all have to do with our identity as stewards. Being a steward means caring for what has been entrusted to me by God. And there are at least three things that have been put in our care by God that we need to take seriously in the face of death.
STEWARDSHIP OF MY SOUL
FIRST, there is the stewardship of our own souls. Now, we don’t think of our own lives as having anything much to do with stewardship. After all, we say, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul. If my soul belongs to anyone, it belongs to ME! I can do with my life what I want because it is mine—all mine!
But death pulls the rug out from under that idea. "The body returns to the ground," Scripture says, "and the soul to the God who made it." My very person—my very self—is on loan from the God who made me. I am responsible to God for what I do with my life!
Look at how Hezekiah responds to Isaiah’s challenge: "Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully, and with wholehearted devotion . . . ." Now, it may seem at first glance that Hezekiah is trying to barter with God. That he’s arguing that all his good deeds have earned him a few more extra years of life.
But that really isn’t what Hezekiah is doing. Hezekiah is claiming to be a man of faith, someone whose integrity has taken the shape of a faith—filled walk before God.
You see, the most important thing to consider in your stewardship of the future is this matter of your soul. The most important stewardship is the relationship you have cultivated with Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord.
The tragedy is that our world is filled with people who are concerned about exercising a stewardship of sorts over other areas of life——and forget the most important thing God has entrusted to them.
Christ tells the story of a rich man who thought his riches were his ultimate possession. After all, he intended to take good care of those riches too. He built bigger and better barns in which to protect them from the elements. And then God called home the one thing this man forgot about——his soul! "This night you die!" says God. "And whose will these things be?"
You see, God tells us that only fools forget about the stewardship of their souls.
Today there are millions who are concerned about keeping their bodies in tip top shape. They have a regular fitness program and jog five miles a day. Actually the Bible says that isn’t a bad idea. After all, your body is also received on loan from God. Caring for our bodies is part of faithful stewardship.
I’ve made a commitment to get more exercise and I’m going down to the local gym more faithfully than in the past. I see all these people huffing and puffing along with me to improve their cardiac capacity and engage in strength training. We hurt and we sweat and we stretch and we strain.
But I look at all these people and wonder whether they are caring for their spiritual relationship with God even half as much as they care for their bodies. Yes, our physical existence is important. But when we return to God—when we stand before our Maker and he asks us about our soul—care, what will we say? Are we people who have used our years on this planet to nurture a relationship with God through his Son? Are we people who have enlarged our capacity to love and to bless others. Are we people who over the course of a lifetime learned what it meant to show kindness, to practice contentment, to walk humbly with God? Or are we basically the same person at 70 that we were at 30? What kind of soul are you returning to God?
Stewardship of the SOUL is our most important stewardship.
THE STEWARDSHIP OF MY FAMILY.
But there is more that has been entrusted to us. For almost all of us, there is the stewardship of FAMILY.
Now in Hezekiah’s case, that involved a rather unique family—it involved the nation itself. You see, as the under—shepherd of God, the entire nation of Israel was entrusted to his care.
And that mean that Hezekiah had some decisions to make. Perhaps most importantly, decisions about the line of succession. At this time in his life, Hezekiah doesn’t have an obvious heir to the throne. Manassah, who will follow eventually follow him as king, isn’t born until three or four years AFTER his health crisis. So setting his house in order means that he has to make some decisions about how the nation is cared for after his death. Who will follow him? Who will rule? What will happen so that civil war doesn’t break out? And that the nation isn’t broken into warring factions right when Assyria’s armies are knocking at the door?
I doubt whether too many of us have a nation that we need to tend to. None of us have to provide for a successor to the throne. But we still have family that needs to be tended. "Getting your house in order" means making sure that we address those matters which pertain to the care of our families. As Paul says in I Timothy 5:8
If anyone does not provide for his relatives and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
What does that mean? One key issue is whether parents of children have provided for the care of their children, should they die. Have they made a will that states who will receive custody of their family?
The truth is, if you haven’t decided who would receive custody in the event of our death, the STATE will decide it for you. And their decision may or may not be according to your wishes. The state isn’t going to determine the placement of children according to your parenting standards. Those whom the state decides should raise your children may or may not share your Christian commitment.
What about the stewardship of your family? Who would raise your kids if you’re gone? Who would care for those dependent on you? A clear answer to that question is part of your calling as a steward of what God has entrusted to you.
STEWARDSHIP OF RESOURCES
Then there is a third aspect of getting your house in order. And that is the final stewardship of our physical resources. That was a key issue for Hezekiah, of course. After all, he was a rich man. He had a great deal of wealth that would need to be disposed of after his death.
But most of us are richer than we think. God’s question to the rich man is pertinent to us all. Upon our death "whose things will these be now?" Well, whose?
Of course, everyone has an estate plan. The only question is whether we wrote the plan, or by the government. If we don’t have an estate plan, the state has one for us. The state will decide who gets my resources. Is that how I want it to be? Is that what it means to practice intentional stewardship?
Perhaps one way of looking at this issue to ask where we want to make our investments as we come to the end of our lives. For what we have accumulated in terms of wealth is really an extension of ourselves. It’s a tangible expression of the hours we have worked and the labor we’ve offered. Our wealth is the fruit of the way we’ve invested our lives.
At the end of our lives, what kind of statement do we want to make about our priorities, our values? What does it mean for us, with regard to our physical things, to put our house in order?
Well, we will want to make a statement to our spouse, of course, of our love and care. We likely want our children and perhaps grandchildren to know that they are remembered and cherished.
But perhaps we also want to say something about our ongoing investment in the Kingdom of Christ. Some Christians I know include in their will a child named Charity. Of course, that doesn’t really mean they have a child by that name. But as they distribute their estate, they include an extra child (as it were), Charity! They give that child an equal share of the estate. And as they do, they practice a generosity that they know will make an impact long after they are gone.
AN HOUSE GOVERNED BY GOOD STEWARDSHIP
It’s interesting that the last will and testament in the ancient world was called in the Greek language an oikonomos. It’s a word is often translated "stewardship."
When we take seriously the stewardship of our souls, our families, and our resources in the light of eternity, then truly we have devised a very meaningful ‘last will and testament." When we do, we are investing in the eternal future. Jesus once gave a piece of advice. He said: "So allocate your resources so that they will welcome you into heavenly courts . . . ." That’s good advice indeed.
An ordered house. When our house is in order then we can face death with a calmness that otherwise eludes us. Leo Tolstoy once said, "We can be lord of nothing as long as we fear death. When we no longer fear it, all things are ours." Tolstoy is right. When we live as faithful stewards of what God has entrusted to us, then death itself loses its terror. And when that happens, then to God’s faithful stewards — all things belong!