Sermon: "Death, Daylight Savings Time, and the Sovereignty of God"


First in a Series on Isaiah 38,
Delivered October 3, 1999 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates
Other sermons in this series - 1 / 2 / 3

Sermon Text: Isaiah 38:1-8
1 In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, "This is what the LORD says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover."
2 Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD,
3 "Remember, O LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes." And Hezekiah wept bitterly.
4 Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah:
5 "Go and tell Hezekiah, `This is what the LORD, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life.
6 And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city.
7 "`This is the LORD's sign to you that the LORD will do what he has promised:
8 I will make the shadow cast by the sun go back the ten steps it has gone down on the stairway of Ahaz.'" So the sunlight went back the ten steps it had gone down.

It seems that there was this businessman. One morning he woke up, and looking at the newspaper he was scanning the obituaries, and low and behold he was startled because there was his name. Well immediately he grabbed the phone and called the editor of the paper. The editor was somewhat embarrassed and began to profusely apologize, and thought well that is that. But the man pressed on. He said, "You don't seem to understand. I need more than an apology. Why, people are going to think that I am dead. My small business is going to be ruined." Again the editor apologized, but the man pressed on. He said, "I need something more than that. Something more." Exasperated, the newspaper editor said, "Look, here is what I will do. Tomorrow I will put your name in the paper under birth announcements."

Birth presents you and me with a serious question of life and death. The fact is, each one of us is mortal. We are terminal. The moment you and I were born; in a sense, we began to die. We are mortal human beings. In fact, we are the only animals on this planet that go through our entire lives knowing that one day we are going to kick the bucket.

As Christians, you and I need to learn to deal with death; deal with our mortality in a faithful, healthy, responsible way. We need to learn to talk about death. We need to learn to pray about it. And one of the best places in Scripture to go to get some clues as to how you and I might be more faithful in dealing with this whole crisis of mortality, is the thirty-eighth chapter of the prophesy of Isaiah. In fact, we are going to begin a three part sermon series on this great chapter beginning today. I would invite you to turn with me, and keep your bibles open during the sermon, to Isaiah 38. This morning, let's wrestle with the first 8 verses of this text. Isaiah 38, beginning to read at the first verse, this is the word of God:

In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amaz went to him and said, "This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover."

Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, "Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes." And Hezekiah wept bitterly.

Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah: "Go and tell Hezekiah, 'This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life. And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city.

"'This is the Lord's sign to you that the Lord will do what he has promised: I will make the shadow cast by the sun go back the ten steps it has gone down on the stairway of Ahaz.' " So the sunlight went back the ten steps it had gone down.

Join me as we pray: And now Father as my words are true to your word, may they be taken to heart. But as my words should stray from your word, may they be quickly forgotten. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

The medical studies are in, and according to an article in a 1977 issue of the Journal of Public Health, over a twenty-eight year period where they studied people who frequently go to worship, they found that the mortality rate was thirty-six percent lower than for those who do not worship frequently. So I guess I'll see you all back here next Sunday, right?

But, you know, that doesn't seem to do a lick of good for King Hezekiah. He was one of the few good kings of Judah. This was a man who walked faithfully with the Lord. He was a man who had a passionate heart for God. And now the king of Judah, in the prime of his life, there at middle-age, he finds himself according to verse 1 of our text, on his deathbed. Probably the bubonic plague. He is terminal.

Hezekiah knows that he is sick. But he doesn't know exactly how sick he is. And so here comes the prophet Isaiah, crashing into the ICU with a bedside manner that would get him a big fat F in any pastoral care class, and he announces the prognosis of no less than the Great Physician, God himself. 'Hezekiah, don't buy any green bananas. It is curtains! You are terminal. You are not going to walk out of here. The chances of you recovering from what you have got is zero. Put your house in order.'

By the way, is your house in order? Is my house in order? Oh we may be young and vigorous. We may be the epitome of health and strength. My friends, there are no guarantees.

'Oh you know, I will get my house in order. I will get right with Jesus Christ when I am old, I'm in my forties.' That is what I used to say in my early twenties. Friends, there are no guarantees. We are all terminal.

Are you here this morning, and you have been diagnosed as being terminally ill? I haven't. I feel pretty good. There are no guarantees that I will outlive you. Why just in the last month, we have been eyewitnesses to thousands of folks, some of them carefree in life, young, strong ,and in love with life, and instantaneously thousands of their lives have been snuffed out by earthquakes in Turkey, Taiwan, Mexico. Were their houses in order?

Remember a few months ago that bridge on the beltway that all of the sudden fell and instantaneously crushed that motorist. My wife Anne was about one minute behind that man on the beltway. It could have been her. Anne, is your house in order? Of course not with four kids and a husband that throws his clothes on the floor.

Is your house in order? Is my house in order? To put it simply, life had caved in for Hezekiah. He had been handed nothing less than a death sentence. Now think about it. What would you do if you were Hezekiah? What do you do when you are at the end of your rope? When the bottom drops out of life? When life and death closes in on you from all sides? What do you do when your back is against the wall? Do you give up? Do you give in? Do you get angry? Do you go into denial? Do you go wild?

Take a look at verse 2 in your text, and note here the thing that Hezekiah does not do. Hezekiah does not make peace with his fate. Friends, death is no friend. The Bible is clear, death is the last enemy. Hezekiah does not relinquish himself to death. With his back to the wall what does Hezekiah do? We read that he turns his face to the wall. He looks death in the eye. He tackles it head on, and he pleads with God for his life. In other words, Hezekiah prays.

You see, what you and I need to chiefly do as we are confronted with our mortality and all of its symptoms of illness and the brokenness of this world; is pray.

In verse 3 of our text, Hezekiah gives you and me two examples of authentic prayer. In the first one, we are told that basically he lays his whole life out before God and tells God all about himself. Hezekiah was a pretty good guy, and so the things are pretty good. You might be thinking, 'Yes, but I'm not a very good person, I would have to lay out all my garbage and dirty laundry.' That is fine. God already knows. Authenticity in prayer comes from openness and honesty. Hezekiah lays it all out before the Lord.

And then at the end of verse 3, we see Hezekiah give us an example of a second type of authentic prayer. We are told that he turns his face to the wall, and weeps bitterly. Friends, that is also a part of authentic prayer. Tears are an integral part of our relationship with Jesus Christ. In fact, part of an authentic conversation with God often times involves weeping. Tears are nothing less than God's gracious gift to you and to me.

In fact, God has stored up in each one of us gallons and gallons of liquid diamonds. When we are lost and things are hopeless, you and I have the opportunity to pour out those diamonds as an offering at the foot of the throne of the One who is the source of all hope. The One and the only One who, when we are lost, comes looking for us and finds us in Jesus Christ, and who promises to make a way for us even in the face of our mortality.

Now the usual way that God makes for us in the face of our mortality, for most believers, is that he allows us to die, to leave this veil of tears. He doesn't do that for Hezekiah, and that is what we want him to do for us isn't it? But wait a minute. Think about it. God condescends to Hezekiah's prayer. God changes his mind. But we can argue that what God does here is withhold His best from Hezekiah, and gives him merely what is good. Hezekiah gets to live fifteen more years. Fifteen more years of brokenness, and frustration, and struggle with disease. He is going to have to once again some day look death in the eye, versus being freed and in the unveiled glorious presence of God.

Any way you look at it though, Hezekiah has prayed for a second opinion and he gets it. The Lord orders Isaiah to go and give Hezekiah the new prognosis. 'Hezekiah, you are not going to die. At least not know. In fact, I am going to add fifteen years to your life. On top of that, I am going to make the city of Jerusalem impregnable to a Syrian attack.' Pretty good deal.

Hezekiah gets to live fifteen more years. Here we see into the very heart of the character God. That God is a personal God, who really does care for you and me. He is a God who hears our prayers. He is a God who catches our tears in a bottle. He is a God who can heal. He is a God who takes our mortality seriously. He is moved by our mortality. And so Hezekiah is the wonderful recipient of fifteen more years of life. He knows that he has fifteen years.

Think about it. If you could have the opportunity to know the date of your death, would you choose to know? How would that effect your relationship with Christ? How might that effect the way that you and I live our lives? Would it heighten or lower the intensity of your commitment to Jesus Christ?

Personally, if I could know the date of my death, I would choose not to know how much time I have left. I just know myself too well. I think that if I had a lot of time left, I would tend to get a little slack and let my house get a little bit disorderly. Of course I'd clean it up at the end. But Hezekiah gets to know. Next week we will see his response to being released from death row.

But the text ends this morning with God performing a rather strange miracle. There are really two miracles in the text, and it ends with the lesser of the two. The greater is the healing of Hezekiah. The lesser is that God performs this miracle that points to the veracity of what he is going to do in terms of healing Hezekiah.

There was this stone staircase in the palace complex there in Jerusalem. A staircase that had been built decades earlier by nonetheless than Hezekiah's father, the no good King Ahaz. The staircase functioned as sort of a sun dial. You could tell what time of day it was by where the sun was on the stairs. And we are told that to prove to Hezekiah and to Isaiah that God is going to give Hezekiah a reprieve from death, He is going to make the sun's shadow go back up the stairs ten steps.

Now, we live in a post-modern world. But the reality is that the way you and I think hasn't caught up with that. The way you think and I think is shaped more by modernity - the way people thought in the past two hundred years - than by the way our great-grandchildren are going to think. And so, I know what you are thinking. I know. I don't care how committed to Christ you are, how much you believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. I know what you are thinking. You are saying to yourself, 'Could God really do that? Do you think God really can make the shadow of the sun go up the stairs?'

Right after the sermon, one thing that we are going to do is stand together as believers have done for almost two thousand years, and use what is called the Nicene Creed to express what we believe. And Christians have argued for centuries about what they say are controversial clauses in that creed, chiefly centering around the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, etc.

We spend time worrying about that, and we miss the truly controversial clause of the Creed. The truly controversial clause is the first one. "I believe in one God, the Father Almighty." If we can swallow that, then what is a virgin birth? What is a bodily resurrection?

Do you and I dare come to grips with the fact that the one who designed and made the solar system could pull off something like this? If he can add fifteen years to Hezekiah's life, we don't seem to balk at that. What is adding another forty minutes to the day? But lest we get caught up with the space physics behind this miracle, I don't want you to miss what the miracle really means. I think God did this. I think He did it for Hezekiah. I think He did it for you and me. What this miracle is really saying to that man on the deathbed, and to you and me here today as mortality stares us in the face, is that this God who hung the moon and the stars because he loves you and me, is even able and willing to throw the solar system into reverse for our benefit if necessary. The sun does God's bidding on our behalf.

If you are here this morning and you have met Jesus Christ at more than second hand, then you have been given the eyes of faith. And as you come to this table this morning, I hope you come with those eyes of faith wide open, and you are able to see reality. That the Son continues to do God's bidding on our behalf.

This time not sun, but Son, the Son of God. And he is not a sign pointing to a greater reality. No, the concrete reality is here at this table. A reminder that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in that once and for all sufficient, perfect, sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus Christ has not just purchased for you and me another forty minutes to tack on at the end of a day. Not an extra hour every October. (You see, what God did when he made the sun go back those ten steps, that was first introduction of daylight savings time.)

He doesn't just do that. He doesn't even just give you and me fifteen more temporal years to live. Jesus Christ had done nothing less than purchase at the cost of his own life, eternal life for you and me.

I don't know about you, but when it comes to death and mortality, and all that stuff, I am with Woody Allen. It is not so much that I am afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens. God understands. God understands that. That is why Jesus, who for you and me has become the death of death. And when you come to this table this morning, as those elements are passed through the pews, I want you not only to have eyes of faith, but to open your ears of faith, and you will be able to hear God say to you, 'Yes, I would really rather die than live without you.'

Join me as we pray: Father what a wonderful God you are. In the midst of all of this brokenness, and death that is all around us in this world, you have made a way. We would probably fashion a different way Lord. We would have you tack on eight thousand years to our lives, because we have trouble trusting fully what is on the other side. Remind us that Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. He is our Shepherd. He has gone on before us. He has planned everything around our deaths to take us into eternal life with him. Lord, give us that gift of faith this morning as we come to this table. For we pray it in Jesus precious name, Amen.

© 1999, Dr. Ronald W. Scates
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145
www.centralpc.org