We’ve just witnessed the baptism of Seth Herbert Mulryne. And as I said, baptism is a symbol, a picture of the Christian life. The journey that Seth has begun. The journey from life to death to resurrection. In some churches rather than pouring water on the child. They submerge the child in the waters and then lift the child up high. A picture of new birth! From Life to death to resurrection. That’s the shape - like the Nike swoosh!
Now what on earth is this all about? Life, death, resurrection.
Well the bible tells us in a hundred different ways
And our passage today from the depths of the Old testament - 600 years before the life of Jesus Christ - just so happens to trace this journey, this salvation for us.
The story focusses around three moments that are the same and yet so different
3 moments of A child in his mother’s arms.
A promised child v16 ‘about this time next year you will hold a son in your arms.’ A promised child
A dead child v20 'the boy sat on her lap until noon and then he died.' A dead child
A risen child v37 'she took her son and went out.' A risen child.
promised, dead, risen
Let’s consider each of these in turn
First then the promised child.
In our passage we meet a remarkable woman. We never learn her name. She lives in the town of Shunem and so is known simply as the Shunemmite woman. She’s remarkable for her spiritual poise and hunger for God after all that she’s been through. This hunger for God is seen in the way that she treats Elisha - the prophet of God. Yes, she was a woman of means but it still takes a lot to build an extension on your home purely to provide a resting place for a travelling missionary. To welcome him into their home and life. Because she loves his teaching about God. v23 implies that when Elisha wasn’t with them she would go to him every sabbath or holy day to learn.
Not only this, she is a woman of great contentment. When Elisha wants to do something for her v13, put in a word with the King or the commander of the army.
She replies. ‘I have a home among my own people’
Now i say this contentment and spiritual vitality is a surprise because actually there was a great shadow of sadness over this woman’s life, v14 she has no son and her husband was old. This couple had never been ever to have children and it’s not going to happen now. Which must have been a source of great sadness and strain for them as it is for any couple, any person who’d love to have kids. But it was doubly a problem in that culture. With no son and heir who would support you in your old age? But worse still was the social shame and stigma. A commonly held false religious superstition was that childlessness was a sign of God’s displeasure. You’ve done something to offend God - that’s why you can’t have children. Social shame is one thing. Social shame in the context of religion is the worst kind. My late father had the misfortune to be conceived out of wedlock in 1930s southern Ireland. His mother came to England to give birth as so many Irish girls did and she left him here in an orphanage. He was later reunited with his parents but kept a secret from Irish relatives for the whole of my grandmother’s life. Shame.
It’s a terrible damaging thing.
It’s extraordinary that this woman is who she is.
And Elisha gets to reveal something wonderful to her. v16 God wants to take away her shame.
“About this time next year,” Elisha said, “You will hold a son in your arms.”
Her response reveals something of the depths of her desire for a son and also her fear of further disappointment. No my Lord .. don’t mislead your servant, O man of God.
But she didn’t need to fear. God is true to his promises.. she became pregnant and the next year about the same time she gave birth to a son, just as Elisha had told her.
Can you see her in your minds eye? A promised child in her arms.
Miracle births. the promise of a child to barren parents is a common motif in the Bible. In fact that little phrase “About this time next year” is the exact phrase that God spoke to Abraham when he promised that his barren wife Sarah would have a son. Genesis 18v10. Our minds are meant to be sent there.
God had made a promise. He’d made a perfect world - no shame, no sickness or dying AND human disobedience had sent that world spiralling into death. The event known as THE FALL. But God then made a promise to childless Abraham that through his offspring God would bless and ultimately restore the world - no more sickness, no more tears, no more death. Death would be conquered. Life - death - resurrection
Now, Every time through the Bible that God gives life to a barren womb and brings a promised child - and he does it time and time again it is as if to confirm that the bigger promise to give life back to the world is still on track
until we come to the ultimate miracle birth. not an ageing woman, but a teenager. not a barren womb but a virgin womb. Mary bears Jesus Christ. The promised son she holds in her arms is the focal point of that promised blessing and restoration for the world.
But before there can be resurrection.. there has be death..
in the space of 3 verses the Shumanite’s child is born, the child grew and then he died
A promised child becomes
2. A dead child
How awful this is. the small lad is struck by some kind of illness as if from nowhere and he just dies on his mother’s lap. can you see her, holding her dead son in her arms. [funerals for children]
life can be so cruel can’t it? and God’s ways so inexplicable. many people say how can i believe in God when he permits suffering? When he premits even to fall upon the people who trust him and live for him!!??
Well, God certainly never in Scripture promises that if you trust him he’ll shelter you from pain. Scripture is full of stories like this. In the Spirit of the writer of psalm 102 who wrote God, You have taken me up and thrown me aside’ our Shunemmite woman says to Elisha v28 ‘did i ask you for a son my Lord? Didn’t i tell you, don’t raise my hopes?”
You know, questioning God, saying why God? in the face of suffering and pain is not actually a sign of a lack of faith. It actually reveals faith in us. Richard Dawkins, the atheistic Oxford professor of public science says that “in a universe of selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe,’ he says, ‘has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
To which i want to say, but Richard, that is not the universe that I observe. When we encounter the untimely death of a child or when we lose someone that we have loved and shared life with for decades - and they are gone. We do not feel pitiless indifference. Far from it, we cry out 'why?' Death seems so evil, so unnatural. In the words of Dylan Thomas, we 'rage against the dying of the light.' And who are we crying out to in those moments if it is not God?
We can run from him in grief and despair but where then do we run to?
The Shunemmite woman runs to God’s representative because she believes that in spite of all the unknowns God is the God of the living not the dead; of life, not death. And her hope resides in him alone.
She lays the child v21 on Elisha’s bed in Elisha’s room and sets out to find him telling her perplexed husband ‘Shalom’ : All is well; telling Elisha’s servant who is sent out to meet her, ‘Shalom’ All is well’ Taking hold of Elisha and not letting go even when he sends his servant with his staff. I’m not leaving you until you come Elisha..
And when Elisha comes he is faced with our human helplessness in the face of death. The staff has not worked. And Elisha prays.
And he lays himself out on top of the boy mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands..
what on earth is this?
In the Old Testament law - a dead body was considered unclean. If you, a living person touched a dead body - you became symbolically unclean and couldn’t meet others or enter the temple to worship God for a period of time and until you went through a ritual of cleansing. It spoke of the unnaturalness of death originally caused by human disobedience.
What Elisha is doing here is he’s making himself unclean. It is as if he’s saying give me your death so I can give you my life. I’ll take your uncleanness - you take my life.
Now if you know the bible.. It’s uncanny. You almost have the sense that the shadow of the cross of Jesus is coming down the centuries. The reason this is here is not that the stretching out mysteriously brings life to the boy. God restores him in response toElisha’s prayer. But the stretching out is a symbol that life can only return through someone taking your death.
It’s all pointing forward to another son who died - the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ came inorder to take our death, our uncleaness to himself. To die the death that we deserve for us so that we might have his life. To pay death off, to send death away. To defeat death and bring life to the world.
Life can only return through someone taking death.
As he stretched himself out on him, the boy’s body grew warm. 35 Elisha turned away and walked back and forth in the room and then got on the bed and stretched out on him once more. The boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes. Sneezes never sounded so good! Here we come to the last scene. A promised son. A dead Son. Now..
A Risen son.
36 Elisha summoned Gehazi and said, “Call the Shunammite.” And he did. When she came, he said, “Take your son.” 37 She came in, fell at his feet and bowed to the ground. Then she took her son and went out.
It’s an extraordinary miracle isn’t it? What do you make of miracles? Is the bible - 'full of miracles' - really history? Surely it’s legend? How can the laws of nature be overturned?
Well it’s important to state that the Bible isn’t full of miracles. Within the 3000 years of history that the Bible records all the Bibles’ miracles are clustered within 4 crucial periods each of no more than50 years each: The times of Moses, Elijah&Elisha, Daniel, Jesus and the Apostles. So miracles in the scriptures are extra-ordinary.
But the other thing to say is that when God brings miracles he is not overturning the laws of nature. When God miraculously heals sicknesses or raises the dead ( and if God is God he can do this) - he is not overturning nature.. He’s overturning the results of the fall. He’s restoring nature, restoring life to the world. A sign of what he will one day complete.
Death is not natural to the world. It is not the way things are meant to be. Death is the rotten fruit of our fall into sin. But death will not have the worst word. Take your son.. She took her risen son in her arms and went out. God is able to deliver us even from death.
And that ultimate deliverance takes place in the death and resurrection of the ultimate son. Jesus Christ. In his death Jesus takes upon himself our death, the fruit of our sin. He pays death off fully. He sends death away. And to prove that death has lost its hold - Jesus Christ rises from the dead never to die no more.
Baptism is the pledge that he did this for us - that he did this for Seth. Jesus died our death that we might have his life - starting now and enduring forever.
Jesus like a needle pierces the thick tapestry of death breaking through to life on the other side. We, who receive this gift, any of us who trust Jesus. Like thread through the needle we will be pulled through our death to life beyond. To participate in the new life that Jesus will one day bring to the whole world.
life - death - resurrection.
Seth has begun that journey. Joined to Jesus. we pray he will live his whole life trusting in the promised, dead and risen Son. What about you?