When the Sparrow Falls: Dealing with Unanticipated Death
It was a gorgeous autumn day with full sun spreading through an immaculate blue sky. The windows of the six-story dormitory reflected the sunlight with the acuity of a laser beam. I watched as a lonely sparrow flew directly into the glass which so perfectly mirrored a blue sky in which it sought to lay claim. It immediately fell to the ground, and I rushed to find it.
It lay there on its back with tiny wings spread, its beak slightly open. Suddenly it began to seize with a fine yet violent fluttering lasting several seconds, which seemed like an eternity… and then all went still and silent. I watched its body deflate… and the tiny sparrow was gone. Shocked at this horrible sight, and having never seen such a thing, I wept. In that very moment knelt before this humble creature, the Lord spoke tenderly to me, “Not even a sparrow falls to the ground apart from the will of your Father in heaven.” I sat there stunned, even as motionless as the tiny creature, and my tears began to slowly ebb. The Lord moved upon me to bury it – the only kindness I could afford. I would not rest until I found an acceptable burial place.
I walked alone that day on campus, cupping in my hands this beautiful creature, so vulnerable, which was taken without warning. It was so light I could barely tell I was holding anything at all. Finally, I found a space beneath the sidewalk on campus that meandered underground. Immediately, I knew this was where the sparrow would be laid to rest. Dry grass clippings filled the space and I fixed it a bed. When I was done I covered it with earth and more grass and said a prayer.
I will never forget watching the sudden fall of that tiny sparrow on such a gorgeous day. I will never forget the shock and sorrow I felt. I will never forget the Lord’s word in that moment which was so tenderly spoken. I will never forget it’s fragile yet intricate beauty, and the weightlessness of it in my hands.
It had great value to God, and He knew this one intimately.
The Sting of Death
Unanticipated death is never kind. It matters not how it transpires. We were not created for death. We were created for life – eternal life. Death is cruel when it’s unanticipated; when we cannot prepare for it; when it was never planned; when it is premature.
Yet premature death does occur, and for numerous reasons. Sometimes it’s because we’ve poorly stewarded our bodies, giving opportunity for disease. At other times we reap the consequences of poor decisions and even our disobedience. And still at other times we are the unfortunate recipients of the “shrapnel” from the unstable and ungodly lives that ‘explode’ around us. What is more, there are those who suffer persecution unto death for their faith – and willingly.
And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven (Matthew 10:28-33, KJV).
What is Christ’s message, precisely? How do we interpret this in the light of so many other biblical passages about life and death?
First, I want to make it clear that Christ Jesus has compassion on both those who die and those who experience the grief and loss of those they loved. It is not wrong to grieve. Christ is no stranger to this, and even wept when Lazarus died. He shared in the sorrow and grief of Lazarus’ sisters and was openly moved to tears. Yet He raised him up from the grave – an act of power and mercy which brought Him an abundant following along with intense hatred by the religious elite. The Sadducees and Pharisees were beyond threatened – they were terrified. There was no longer any doubt Christ was the Son of God, and they quickly yet discreetly devised a plan to crucify him.
Secondly, I want to mention that Jesus Christ views death differently than we do. We may see it as a great finality. In truth, it’s a mere translation from the temporal into the eternal; from mortal to immortality; from earth to heaven; from the body to the spirit. Despite death’s sting and the pain and grief we endure, Christ has ultimately conquered it. As believers we not only have the promise that He has conquered death, but that He will one day destroy it completely. It is the last enemy (see Revelation 20 and 1 Corinthians 15) to be destroyed. Jesus Christ has the keys of hell and death. Those who are in Christ cannot truly die. It is absolutely impossible.
Thirdly, let us understand what death truly is. Death does not mean we cease to exist. Death by the biblical definition is a spiritual state of eternal separation from God in which a soul is condemned in unrepentant sin that has never been atoned for, and which God must righteously judge. The judgment for all sin is death, both physically and spiritually.
The Meaning of His Message
What is the spiritual significance of a sparrow? Christ’s reference to a sparrow is an interesting one. Sparrows are harmless, vulnerable, yet abundant birds. They are not colorful, and their songs are not musical. They will eat virtually anything, and can even be considered a nuisance. How much is a sparrow worth? Very little if anything at all. Yet God cares for them – individually and tenderly. Notice that Christ did not mention sparrows collectively – which they often are, as they congregate and swarm. Where there is one, there is sure to be another. Instead, He references them singularly. He lovingly states, “a sparrow…”. Our loving heavenly Father, regardless of numbers, looks upon each solitary one with great care. We see the enormous value and tender love God gives this creature which has very little value in our estimation, if any at all.
We all fall. We all experience moments of temptation, weakness and backsliding. Despite these dangers, God makes it clear He is in our midst in saying that this falling is never “apart from the Father”. Some of us will fall and rise again, but others will sadly fall to their death. Accidents happen. We do not live in a perfect world. These accidents are unkind, unholy, and even wicked. And often they are the results of our own folly. Christ speaks directly to the proper fear of God which protects and keeps the believer on the straight and narrow path. When we do not appropriately fear God, we naturally venture and wander. We make hasty decisions. We justify wrong behaviors. And we give little thought, if any, to our course of action – which we can and do reap. It is only God in His loving mercy who keeps us from their full effect. And there are those things which take place in this world which have no origin of blame other than the “Fall” we all experienced in Adam. We cannot trace the cause. The truth is we are all vulnerable in this fallen world. And so we fall. The proper fear of the Lord, who reserves the right to both save and destroy, is the only sure safeguard for our lives – both physically and spiritually. And it is quite clear He gives preference over the one rather than the other:
And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28, KJV).
There is no question that Christ desires our life in body and spirit, yet values our eternity above any earthly dwelling.
Our Father in Heaven
He is ever-present. He never leaves us or forsakes us. Christ makes it clear that not even one will fall on the ground “without the Father”. That word “without” is aneu in Greek, meaning apart from one’s will or intervention. This clearly signifies the Father’s permission which is exclusively His to give. We are not our own. We must respect God’s sovereign wisdom. That permission, will and intervention is solely His to extend. As Christ said, He is able to both save and destroy. We must learn to fear Him. Many have suffered inexcusable situations which should have killed them – yet they miraculously survived. And many have suffered much less and yet lost their life. Only God knows why one is saved, yet another is taken from us. Yet we can rest assured that our Father’s will is involved. Such loss must be permitted.
The Fear of God
The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (see Proverbs 1:7, 2:1-11 and 8:1-36). It is the only virtue which offers the promise of safekeeping. There is just one condition: we must learn to seek it and walk in it.
Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors. For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the LORD. But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death (Proverbs 8:34-36, KJV).
Let us seek wisdom in the fear of the LORD. Wisdom is given to those who ask for it.
Your Worth and Value
When something has value we protect it. God is no different in His endeavors to do the same, but He does so differently than we do. In this divine esteem He speaks directly to our inherent worth and value. And so this begs the question: Can the world live without this one who falls? If this one falls to its death, will the kingdom of God suffer an irreplaceable loss? Can their death serve Him in a greater measure than their life? Will their death actually spare them a greater pain than if they had survived? These are all valid considerations. But our life is never just about us. Never. We are not islands unto ourselves. God views our life on an exponential level, seeing every soul it will affect, until the end of time. We would be fools to think He views us only in light of ourselves. That is simply not so. We were not created for us. We were created for Him.
As with Hezekiah, we must trust God when He says, “It’s time.” He is a perfect example of such sovereignty. Hezekiah was stricken with illness and God informed him of his death, which was to come soon. God’s judgment had come and was about to be executed. Hezekiah prayed and God extended his life another 15 years. The result? One of the most evil kings ever to rule Israel was born of him. This, of course, was not the only consequence, but it was by far one of the greatest. It affected an entire nation – the chosen nation of Israel.
So let us understand that God sees our life far beyond the years we live. As the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, He sees the effect it will have in this world long after we’re gone. We each will leave a legacy. God values our eternal life more than our earthly one, and while He values us all individually, we will do well to remember that He also values the individuals our life will ultimately touch. God is no respecter of persons.
Your Divine Right
Losing those we love is never easy. I have personally suffered the loss of my best friend to cancer, which actually brought her to the LORD. I have suffered the loss of those who took their life apart from God’s will, wondering why. And God has always spoken this same verse about the sparrow into my spiritual ear.
People reserve the right to choose the course of their lives, even as God reserves the right to judge them for it. And with their choice, they must also readily accept full responsibility toward the consequences of those choices, which are part of that divine right so liberally granted to them.
We are exhorted throughout scripture to choose life – with the need to choose it daily.
I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live, (Deuteronomy 30:19, KJV).
This is never just about us. It’s about our seed. Let it be known that not everyone chooses life. That is the hard consequence of free will that God honors among us all. We must choose daily whom we will serve so that we may live within His blessing and safekeeping.
Comfort for Those Who Mourn
The Lord is able to comfort those who grieve. He is able to comfort those who experience untimely loss. Again, God is much more concerned about our eternal life than our physical life. He views life and death much differently than we do, and His perspective is one of perfect and eternal wisdom. For He is the Beginning and the End. The One who created us, our Father, knows all our days before one of them came to be (see Psalm 139).
When we lose those we love so prematurely, and when justice and reason fail us, may we hold to the promise of the One who loves us perfectly; the One who sees our eternal value and worth, the One who holds the verdict of our lives in His eternal power; the One who has won the ultimate victory over death; the One who values our eternal life over our earthly one. We serve a God who mourns and weeps with us intimately – and then raises the dead.
May we remember His loving word to us:
But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows (Matthew 10:30-31, KJV).
Cheers & Shalom,