Voices From The Grave
II Kings 13:14-23
Just up the road from us here is a little town called Cassadaga. It is not much more than a wide spot in the road but it has achieved some renown because it is a haven for spiritualists and mediums. I drove through there not long ago and I realized that here is a whole community built on the false premise that we can communicate with the spirit of those who have preceded us in death. As I saw people lined up there to consult with these spiritualists, while I identified with them in their need, I had to reject the manner in which they sought to meet that need. The Bible, particularly in Deuteronomy 18, forbids us to have anything to do with those who are diviners or sorcerers or mediums or spiritualists. What they stand for is not of God and what they do is not true.
I suppose the man who more than any other put the lie to the idea that you could contact the dead and let them speak to you was a man named Eric Weiss. His mother, whom he loved very much, died. He offered a great sum of money to anyone who could put him in communication with her after her death. Many offered their services. He went from one to another seeking help. And in every case all he found was trickery and fakery. Eric Weiss particularly adept at spotting such trickery, for you see Eric Weiss’ stage name was Harry Houdini, the great magician. He was an expert at the art of illusion and he, more than any other, put the lie to the suggestion that mediums and spiritualists can put us in touch with the dead.
But you know, while on the basis of Scripture I must reject the practices of mediums and spiritualists in attempting to have the dead speak to us, I must go on to acknowledge that the Bible does affirm that the memory and influence of those who go before us to the grave can continue to impact our lives. In that sense, at least, the dead can indeed speak to us. To spell this out I’d like to pose three questions for our consideration…
First, how can the dead speak to us?
Well, the Bible gives us a clue. I think, for example, of the story from the Book of Kings. Elisha was a strong, power-filled, committed servant of the Lord. He died and was buried in a tomb of honor. Sometime later another man died and his funeral was being held. The funeral procession was carrying his body out to be buried when suddenly they were threatened by a band of Moabites. The people knew that they would have to run for their lives and they were still some distance from this man’s grave site. Because they did not wish to dishonor the dead man they got the idea that they would temporarily place his body in Elisha’s tomb, which was nearby, and then later, after the Moabites had gone, they would return and straighten things out. So, that is what they did. However, according to the story, the moment that this man’s body touched the bones of Elisha, the dead man came to life again.
Now my guess is that most of you had no idea that that story is in the Bible. And it is a strange story, indeed. Yet the message of the story is quite clear. Good people can have influence upon us even after they are gone. We can receive blessings from those who have died. We can go back in memory and claim again something which those who have died said or did or gave, and when we touch it, we gain new life and new strength and new power.
Or, I think of that passage in the book of Hebrews where the author is talking about the good influence of Abel although Abel had been dead for hundreds of years. Referring to Abel he wrote, “He, being dead, yet speaketh.” In other words, the example of Abel was so profound that it was still guiding people centuries after Abel was gone. Or I think of the time when the woman anointed Jesus’ feet with valuable ointment. Some there complained that the money could have been better spent in the ministry to the poor. Yet Jesus, who did more for the poor than anyone who had ever lived, rebuked them. He said, “Wherever the Gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will be told as a memorial to her.” And here we are nearly 2000 years later talking about it. Her good deed is still speaking to our time.
So here’s the message of Scripture: For Christians life may be in two parts, but it is of one piece. Part of it is here and part of it is in heaven. But it is one life. What we begin here is fulfilled there. And what we do here can continue even after we have gone there. That is what Revelation 14:13 means when it says, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord that they may rest from their labors and their works do follow them.”
But that provokes the second question: What message do we receive from those who precede us in death?
I heard the story of a very brilliant man who had become deluded into believing that he was dead. His family took him to a psychiatrist, the psychiatrist, knowing the man’s intellectual prowess, decided to try to reason with him. So the psychiatrist asked him, “Can dead people eat?” The man replied: “Yes, there are many societies which have funerary customs in which food is placed in the grave alongside those who have died, so I assume that dead people can eat.” The psychiatrist decided to try another question. “Can dead people walk?” This brilliant but deluded man proceeded to spin out stories of ghosts haunting ancient castles and walking about, and then he said, “It’s clear that dead people can walk.” The psychiatrist then said, “Can dead people bleed?” The man said, “No, dead people can’t bleed because when you are dead your heart stops pumping the blood.” The psychiatrist smiled, picked up a scalpel, nicked the man’s hand, drew a drop of blood from the skin and then said, “Now, what do you have to say about that?” The fellow looked at the drop of blood on his hand and then said, “By golly, dead people can bleed!”
Of course, the fact is that dead people don’t eat, don’t walk, and don’t bleed. But, by golly, they do talk. And what is said can be remembered long after—and it can have either a negative or a positive effect. Let me give you an example of each.
Last week the Wall Street Journal ran the story of a man named Leslie Combs. He was a fabulously wealthy horse breeder in Kentucky but apparently wasn’t much of a man. He was ruthless, promiscuous, and vindictive. He died not long ago and he left his multi-million dollar fortune to a cancer foundation in Kentucky. However, he had a string attached. In order to receive the money, the foundation must first fire its director, the woman who has built it into a wonderfully effective instrument in the fight against cancer. It has created a terrible problem, and as a result many people who could be helped by that foundation may not be helped because of Leslie Combs’ last obnoxious act in an altogether obnoxious life. Someone said of the incident, “How can they let an old nut run this from the grave?” But that is precisely what Leslie Combs is doing and it is a terrible thing.
Equally unusual, but more positive, is the case of Jeremy Bentham. He was a wealthy economist in England who died some years ago leaving a vast estate to a hospital in London. He, too, had a string attached. He ordered in his will that his skeleton was to be fully clothed and it was to be wheeled in the meeting of the hospital board of directors each month. That is done, even to this day. And the minutes of those board meetings always read, “Jeremy Bentham, present, not voting.” But you know that’s not really accurate. Jeremy Bentham is voting. He voted a long time ago by what he did, consequently, untold numbers of people have known life instead of death, healing instead of disease, because of Jeremy Bentham. His voice continues to speak though he is long gone. And that voice has brought blessings to thousands of people.
Now what I am trying to say is that it is possible for people to leave behind a continuing impact from their lives even after death has claimed them. In some cases the impact is negative and in other cases it is positive. But in both cases the lives of the living can be shaped by those voices from the grave.
Which then raises the third question: What will we be saying after we are gone?
Let me be specific. The continuing impact of our lives will be determined by the will we leave in this life. In Numbers 27 you will find instruction from God about writing a will. The Bible makes it clear that that is something we ought to be doing as God’s people. Oh, I know there are some people who think that this kind of talk is morbid. I don’t feel that way. Sixty percent of the people in America do not have a will. That’s not just a shame, it’s sinful. Some don’t write their wills because they think only rich people should write wills. That’s silly! If you have anything at all, when you die you are going to leave it. And why should only the rich have the right to say what is done with it? And then some people don’t write wills because they say it is too expensive. Not so, unless of course you have a huge estate. And if you have a huge estate you can afford it anyway. And some say that if you write a will it will make you die sooner. Superstition, silly superstition! In fact, writing a will has the opposite effect. It gives you a sense of satisfaction that promotes peace of mind and good health. And finally, some people say, “Well, there’s no reason to hurry, I’ve got lots of time.” That may be the silliest excuse of all. I’ve known some people in my ministry who said they were going to become Christians at midnight and they died at 11:30! A lot of people put things off until they lose the opportunity which is theirs.
My friends, true Christians want to leave some testimony to their conviction behind. They want to provide for their loved ones. They want to plan their own funeral so that the affirmation of their faith is held high. They want to remember the church and other agents of the Kingdom enterprise with at least a tithe of what they leave behind. So mark it down. What we say after we are gone will be determined by the will we leave in this life.
And it will also be determined by the way we live in this life. Maya Angelou is one of the great black women of our time. She is an author, a poet, and teaches American studies at Wake Forest University. She grew up in difficult circumstances in a little town of Stamps, Arkansas. In a recent address she told of how she had an uncle who owned a little store in Stamps. He needed help in the store and so Maya spent much time working with him there. You see, Uncle Willie was poor, crippled, suffered a serious speech impediment, but he believed that it was his task to teach. So while he was working Maya in the store, he taught her things like the multiplication tables. He would stand her up in front of the old pot-bellied stove and say, “Let’s hear your sixes.” She would say, “Six times one is six. Six times two is twelve. Six times three…” She learned a great deal from Uncle Willie. Years later, long after she had grown and moved away from Stamps and had become a noted author, word came that Uncle Willie had died. She flew back to Stamps for the funeral. There a distinguished black man approached her. He introduced himself as Mayor Bussey. He was, in fact, the mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, and was one of the most powerful politicians in the state. He told Maya Angelou that when he was young her Uncle Willie had given him a job in the store. He had learned so much from him. He said, “I remember how he used to stand me up in front of the stove and say, “Let’s hear your eights,” and I would start in ‘eight times one is eight, eight times two is sixteen…’ I owe so much of what I am today to your Uncle Willie.” He then said to Maya, “I know you’re going to have to settle up your Uncle’s estate and so I have arranged an appointment for you tomorrow to see the finest lawyer in Little Rock.” When Maya arrived at the lawyer’s office she was surprised to find that he was white. And do you know what he said to her? He said, “I am so glad to be of service to you. You see, when I was twelve my grandmother got me a part-time job at your Uncle Willie’s store. One of the things he insisted on my learning was the multiplication tables. He’d stand me up in front of the stove in the store and he would say…”
Uncle Willie. A black man in a bigoted white world. Poor, crippled, stammering of speech—yet because of the way he lived he left a great treasure for all who would come after him. My friends, hear me clearly. I believe that Jesus Christ is calling us to live so faithfully, so significantly, so winsomely, so splendidly, that even years after we are gone there will be those who see Jesus because of the testimony of our lives here and now.
In fact, I want us to be among those of whom the Apostle Paul speaks. He writes in Romans, “None of us lives to himself and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die we die to the Lord. So whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again. That He might be Lord both of the dead and the living.”
Think about that this week, please.