The Death of the First Born (1872)
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
public domain

Proper 20, James 3:13-4:10

Historical Description:

Though it is known for its extensive Rembrandt collection, the Rijks Museum of Amsterdam is also the home of one of the most famous works of Laurens Alma Tadema. The work is entitled, “Death of the Firstborn” (1872), which earned Tadema numerous awards and widespread recognition in his day.

Tadema had a passion for the ancient Egyptian world. In “Death of the Firstborn,” he set out to portray a historically accurate scene from the Exodus event, rich with detailed artifacts from the period. Yet through these details, he also endeavored to depict vividly one of the most horrific, heart-wrenching moments in the scriptures.

Devotional Reflection:

Gaze into the eyes of Pharaoh. That vacant stare is hardly watching mourners and musicians surrounding him. Tonight, those eyes recount the days that have passed him by. Days of joy. Days of laughter. Days he haughtily believed he was the untouchable god of Egypt.

Gaze into those eyes. These are eyes that remember the wonders of Yahweh — water turned to blood, frogs, boils, hail, darkness — yet, time and time again, these are eyes that had merely scoffed at the will of this “God of Israel.”

Yet now, as Pharaoh holds his lifeless son in his arms, he realizes his son was not the only thing stricken down tonight. Along with his firstborn, so also died his pride. He may be the god of Egypt, but tonight he was powerless. No power he possesses, no magical words, no heartfelt prayer could ever bring his son back to life.

But gaze into those eyes again. Something was interrupting the wails and songs of lament. He hears something just over his left shoulder. Notice Moses and Aaron that are peering into the scene in the upper right corner.

Perhaps tonight was the night. His eyes had seen enough. His pride was dead. Perhaps now was the moment to surrender his pride to the will of Yahweh.

As we turn to today’s text, we now gaze into the eyes of James. In his world, James sees a timeless truth of human nature: pride. He sees fellow Christians quarreling and fighting, all because of their prideful inner passions. They choose their own desires over their neighbor’s. They choose their own desires over God’s. Just like Pharaoh, they have fallen victim to the sin of pride.

Yet, true to his style, James spares no words for these prideful Christians. God opposes the proud (4:6). Like Pharaoh, their ill-founded laughter and joy is spiraling into a pit of mourning and gloom. Not only will their sin be judged by God, but even now it’s darkening their relationships with those around them.

The timeless truth of human pride certainly persists in our world, too. Just take a look around. Everywhere, we see people so caught up with their own desires that they easily forget their neighbor and their God. We see it everywhere, even in our own hearts.

As we gaze into the eyes of Pharaoh, we may marvel at how such a man could have  resisted Yahweh again and again, plague after plague. But as we gaze into our own hearts, we understand. That our life, again and again. And, like Pharaoh, our pride only leads us to gloom and mourning over our sin. James must be right. Pride only leads to a world of despair.

So where to from here? What can bring us out of our gloom? What can bring us from our mourning? Can anything interrupt our wailing and tears?

Gaze again into the eyes of Pharaoh, but this time, look at him as a different kind of father. One who mourned the death of his only son. One who tragically sat by a mother overcome with grief. One who in his arms held his lifeless son, slaughtered by the sin of human pride. (Notice how Tadema even portrays the lifeless son in a strikingly Christ-like pose.) Yet this son was being held by a different kind of father. This father could turn around the mourning and gloom. This father could bring this son back to life.

He could, and he did. Gaze into those eyes, and you see the eyes of our Heavenly Father. They are eyes that have seen our prideful sin. They have seen us in our gloom and despair. Yet interrupting our night of mourning, today those same eyes look upon us with grace.

Through Christ, God turns our gloom to joy. He turns our mourning to laughter. Through Christ, God resurrects us from our pride, and brings us into a whole new kind life. It’s a life of humility. It’s a life of purified hearts. It’s a life of being carried by a loving, forgiving Heavenly Father.

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