A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking at U.C.D. Christian Union. I looked at the young people and said, ‘I don’t know whether I envy you or pity you.’ I envied their youth, and the freedom of being a student. Yet I remembered how anxious I was at their age. At their age I had serious doubts about whether God loved me, I was obsessed with meeting a Christian girl to marry and I had no idea about what job to pursue. As I looked at those students, I thought to myself, ‘if only I could go back in time and assure a younger Paul Ritchie that everything would work out okay; then I could have enjoyed my twenties so much more.’ Knowing that everything will turn out well enables you to enjoy the now!
You’ll forgive me if I make the same point with a Munster Rugby illustration. Imagine a young player who has just made it onto the team. But the Munster team is not the sum of his ambitions. He longs to play for Ireland. He is not enjoying the now of playing for Munster because he is worried that in the future he will not play for Ireland. Could you imagine if you could take that player forward a few years and show him lining out for Ireland in the Aviva stadium? Now he plays for Munster with contentment, enjoying the present, because he knows that his future hope is secure. Knowing that everything will turn out well enables you to enjoy the now!
I can’t promise every Munster player that they will line out for Ireland. I can’t promise every young adult that they will have a great marriage. But I can promise every person who has submitted to the love and leadership of Jesus that everything will turn out in the end. I can promise you that God will never leave you nor forsake you, will change you more into the likeness of the beautiful person of Jesus, is committed to opening your eyes to more of his love and enlarging your heart as his love flows through your veins to others, and that he has your last day taken care of.
You see, all of us are moving towards a last day. Most people don’t want to think about that. Our last day might come suddenly and soon, or it could be years away on a death-bed. It will be a journey no-one else can take with us. On that day our reputation and possessions will count for nothing. We will close our lives on this world and open them on eternity. But we can enjoy the now knowing that Jesus has taken the sting out of our last day.
Although our last day is secure, God’s people still pass through storms (1-2)
Our passage begins with the death of Jonathan and two of his brothers. Jonathan’s death is an unexpected shock. Read his story and you can see that Jonathan had anticipated that he would serve in the kingdom when David came to the throne. He was not expecting his last day to be like this.
Jonathan is a hero in this story. Although he is Saul’s eldest son, he submits to the God’s desire to make David king. Rather than seeing David as a rival to the throne, he is David’s best friend. He loves David and he loves God.
I see Jonathan as a wonderful challenge to contentment. Surely he grew up with expectations of being king. Yet he submits to the idea that God has other plans. More humble plans. Do you ever struggle because you want to be more gifted? I sometimes feel jealous of other pastors who seem much more capable and successful than I am. The challenge is, like Jonathan, to be content with what God made you to be.
Jonathan’s death is a reminder that tragedy still afflicts God’s people. Yet Jonathan dies this tragic death. Although our last day is secure, God’s people still pass through storms.
Those without God face a hopeless last day (3-6)
After the death of Jonathan and two of his brothers, the focus moves to the lonely figure of King Saul. Saul is under such pressure. He has fled to the hills, to escape from the Philistine chariots. But he is an easy target for the Philistine archers, who wound him with a critical blow. He does not want to be humiliated by the Philistines, and so he asks his armour-bearer to kill him. But the armour-bearer will not kill the king.
It is striking that there is no mention of God in this passage. Saul doesn’t even think of calling out to God. Decades of treating God with contempt have led Saul to a Godless death. I heard a preacher plead with people not to put off thoughts of God until their death-beds. He explained that in his experience people who have spent their lives ignoring God tend not to be interested in him on their last day. In old age, such people are simply tired of life and ready to die. Those without God face a hopeless last day!
The world can’t offer you help for the last day (7-13)
From across the valley, the Israelites can see that their king is dead. It causes them to abandon their cities and flee. Saul’s death leads to his people’s defeat. They had wanted a worldly king to impress the surrounding nations. Saul had been fiercely handsome and a head taller than everyone else. The people had put their trust in the best of what the world could offer. But the world can offer nothing but despair at the end of the day. As one writer pointed out, on your last day you will not regret that you didn’t spend more time in the office.
The death of Munster rugby coach, Anthony Foley, had a massive impact on another rugby coach, Connacht’s Pat Lam. Pat Lam realised that life is short and took another coaching job, one that would enable him to spend more time with his family. Yet the most important provision Pat Lam has made for his future is that he loves Jesus and is teaching his children to love Jesus too.
Saul had tried to avoid being humiliated in death, but the events surrounding his death are truly shocking. The Philistine’s chop off his head, strip his body, put his armour in the temple of Ashtaroth and fasten his headless corpse to the wall of Beth-shan. Apparently, in verse nine, the Hebrew doesn’t have the word messengers—leading some commentators to suggest that it wasn’t messengers that announced Saul’s death but his head. It may be that his head was carted from place to place announcing the ‘good news’ to the Philistines. The ‘good news’ of Saul’s death was proclaimed in the house of the Philistine idols. King Saul’s life and death appears to have resulted in victory for the Philistine gods. Saul’s death leaves us craving for a very different kind of king.
The only bright moment in the story of Saul’s death is the valiant actions of the men of Jabesh-gilead. They remember how Saul had rescued them many years previously. They retrieve Saul’s body and bury it under a tamarisk tree. Yet their actions serve to remind us of the height from which Saul has fallen. Saul had begun his reign rescuing God’s people, but his death leaves people in despair. In an earlier chapter, we had read of the luxury of Saul as he sat under a tamarisk tree surrounded by his servants, now his is buried, headless under a different tamarisk tree. Death brings all worldly power and promise to nothing.
Another king brings us hope for our last day
The only way we can find hope in this passage is to compare it to another lonely death. Unlike Saul, Jesus did cry out to God as he faced death. He cried, ‘my God, my God why have your forsaken me?’ Yet, because he was forsaken for us, we can be assured that God will never leave us nor forsake us.
Like Saul, Jesus’ death was humiliating. Jesus died naked on a Roman cross. Crucifixion was the lowest of Roman punishments, and was not to be spoken of in polite company. Like Saul, a valiant man, Joseph of Arimathea, came and gave his body a dignified burial. Like Saul, the death of Jesus resulted in a message of good news being spoken of amongst God’s enemies—but this time the good news is an invitation to experience peace with God and is a proclamation of God’s triumph over all the powers of evil. Jesus’ death assures those who love him that all will be well in this life and on our last day.
The speaker at this year’s Irish preachers’ Conference was an American called Bryan Chapell. In one of his books, Bryan tells the story of a friend called Maudette. Maudette went to the evening service at the church he pastored, but the morning service of the church she grew up in. The morning church did not preach the gospel of God’s amazing grace, but she attended hoping to have a positive influence on the succession of young pastors that served there. She went to Bryan’s evening service for what she called her, ‘weekly dose of Bible.’
Maudette’s last day came, and was followed by her funeral. The pastor of the morning church assured Maudette’s family that she was in heaven because she had attended church so often, was a sweet person, had a beautiful garden and shared her flowers with the church. Then Bryan was invited to give the sermon, as Maudette had requested, where he told the congregation the good news that Maudette was saved by grace through faith and not by works. She lived life with peace because Christ’s death for her sin assured her a place in God’s heaven. Bryan’s wife observed that watching those two preachers at the funeral was like watching two boxers fighting—one would throw a ‘good works’ jab, the other would respond with a ‘gospel’ punch.
Only Jesus can make you ready for your last day. Praise him that he faced a lonely, God-forsaken death as punishment for guilt. Now we can face our last day without despair. We can now enjoy life, knowing the thrill of his love and presence now, and knowing that we will have nothing to fear on our last day. You see knowing that everything will turn out well makes an eternity of difference!