Perhaps the most powerful prayer in the Prayers of the Church, the one that garners the most comments and questions and expressions of concern; not to mention the one that the ears of the congregation perk up most to; is the petition: Have mercy on those to whom death draws near. Whenever this petition is prayed, followed by a name, people immediately want to know what is wrong with said person.
Of course, the answer is obvious: they are dying, and there hour of death is not only drawing near, it is expected within days, if not sooner.
The petition reflects this fact, and asks that the Lord would have mercy on them, that He would relieve their suffering. The petition pleads that if the hour of death truly has come that it may come peacefully and not in such a violent manner. The petition also hints at
asking that the Lord would have mercy on those who will remain to mourn, that they too might be comforted.
We have such a petition in the Prayers of the Church because death is anything but natural; it is in fact very unnatural. As we see in Genesis 3, man was not meant to
die. Death is the ultimate weapon of sin: death kills what God has declared to be good and holy.
The petition is clearly written with those in mind who are suffering from a lengthy illness, such as cancer; or those whose bodies are beginning to shut down after a lifetime of use. And this is where the questions of status come into play. People have known for some time that this person would eventually die, they knew for some time that one Sunday they would come to church and pray a prayer of thanksgiving for their life, and comfort on the family who now mourns. But this petition serves as a harsh reminder that the hour of death is not yet, but it is coming soon.
But what if this petition was prayed and the name of someone who appeared to be completely healthy was prayed used. ‘Have mercy on those to whom death draws near, especially the boy who played football on Friday night; the girl who was a cheerleader; the man who plowed his field yesterday; the woman who will go to the store this afternoon; and the pastor who now prays this petition.’
Imagine the comments that would follow that service. Everyone looks healthy; their
actions display that they are healthy; they may even all be in church that morning, sitting in the pews ahead of those who are now wondering why the congregation just prayed that they might have mercy as their hour of death draws near; so why are we asking God to have mercy on them, when death appears to be very far from them?
The truth is that death does not only draw near to those who are suffering in hospitals or to those who are lying in nursing homes; as a result of sin, it also draws near to the one who plays, to the one who works, to the one who otherwise would never expect it. Will any of them die in the next week? We pray not, but they will die one day.
One need only point to the widow’s son at Nain in St. Luke 7:11-17. He was a young man,
who presumably looked after his mother and worked in the community. And yet one day, he died. We do not know the cause, but it would not be too farfetched to say that one day he went to work, and the next he was being carried out of the city in the funeral procession.
And so just as we pray that God would have mercy on those to whom death draws near, we pray that God would have mercy on those for whom death is now far from; that when their hour of death does come, that it may not be long and violent and painful, but that they might close their eyes, breathe their last, and be received into the waiting arms of Jesus.
That is the ultimate hope that we have when we pray for God to have mercy on those to whom death draws near; and it is the hope that we are given a picture of when the funeral procession out of Nain reaches Jesus. For those who die in the Lord, there is the promise of the resurrection on the other side. Jesus gives life after death.
Have mercy on those to whom death draws near, that they might experience Paradise when death is past.
The next time this petition is prayed in church, insert your own name. Pray that when
your own hour of death draws near, that God would have mercy on you, that the violence of death might be dulled, and that the glories of heaven might come quickly.