Sunday, June 28, 2015
Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 Walking Worthy in Hope
Back when I first felt that God was calling me to ordained ministry, there were a few big objections I raised straight away. For a start, I wanted to be a journalist, working in a newspaper, and was holding out for my big break. Well, as you can see, God overruled on that one, and made it clear that I should be ordained. But one of the other reasons I had, the one which stands out the clearest was this - I don’t want to be a minister, it would mean I would have to do funerals. Fast forward a few years to my first week as a Curate in Dundonald. The rector had just about sat down on the plane to head off on his holidays, when my phone rang. My first funeral would be a solo affair.
There’s something about death and bereavement that affects us. When it’s someone close to us, there’s the pain of separation. The absence of the person from the chair or the kitchen table. Perhaps the regret of things said, or unsaid. For everyone else around, there can be a feeling of helplessness - we want to help, we want to comfort, but what can we say? Everything sounds so meaningless, so empty. How do we cope? Is there something we can say?
God’s word deals with every part of our life. And in our reading this morning, God speaks to us about those who have ‘fallen asleep’. Now he’s not talking about the people who doze during the sermon. He’s speaking about Christians who have died. And the problem he’s facing is this: have the dead missed out on eternal life?
To grasp the problem, we need to remember the timeline. Paul had visited Thessalonica. He had shared the gospel for three weeks, then moved on. Throughout the letter he reminds them of things he has already told them. And he has said that Jesus is coming back to take us to be with him. In the time that Paul has moved on to Berea, Athens and Corinth, some of the believers had died. The church was doubly sad. Not only had their brothers and sisters died. That was bad enough. But to think that that might miss out on Christ’s return and all that lies after? That was even worse. So what’s the answer?
Paul’s answer is hope-filled grieving. Look at how verse 13 opens up. ‘But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.’ Notice that Paul doesn’t say ‘that you may not grieve’ full stop. He’s not saying that Christians shouldn’t grieve. It’s right and proper that we mourn the loss of loved ones (both in our family and in our church family). It’s only natural that we feel sad and miss them. But Christians will grieve in a different way to other people. ‘That you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.’
Perhaps you’ve been at funerals where there is no hope. They can be a wonderful celebration of a full life of achievements and personality, but it’s all there is. End of story. Nothing beyond. Nothing to look forward to. Christians should grieve - but not like that. Our grieving is to be hope-filled.
Now when you hear that hope-filled or (as we would tend to say) hopeful, you might think of lots of situations where it’s just wishful thinking. On Friday night, we were hopeful that there would be nice weather to show off Fermanagh to our visitor. It certainly didn’t seem likely. It was just wishful thinking. Is Paul saying that we’re to ignore reality and hope for the best, however improbable?
Paul says that hope-filled grieving is possible, because it is based on Jesus’ work and his word. First up, Jesus’ work. Do you see how the ‘for’ connects verse 13-14. ‘For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.’ We’ve already declared that we believe it in the creed. Jesus died, Jesus was buried, Jesus was raised on the third day. If that’s what happened to Jesus, then it will happen to those who are his. If God has the power to raise Jesus from the dead, he can do it for everyone else as well. Where Jesus goes, we go too.
On Saturday, we’ll get on a bus. Wherever the driver takes us, we’ll end up. Now, hopefully that will be Glenarm Castle, for Summer Madness, but it’s up to the driver. We’re connected to him. We’re with him. Where he goes, we go too. Jesus’ work gives us hope-filled grieving.
But Jesus’ word also gives us hope-filled grieving. We see this in verses 15-16. The word from the Lord says that we aren’t at an advantage over the dead. We aren’t going to be front of the queue and them straggling along behind, like in some of those zombie movies. There’s an order, a plan, a promise of what is coming. At the moment of the Lord’s return, there’ll be a cry of command, the voice of an archangel, and the sound of the trumpet of God. The three things announce his return. At that moment, ‘the dead in Christ will rise first.’
The dead in Christ - those who are in him (in the same way the Thess are described 1:1) - are raised first. They’ll not miss out. They’ll not be lagging behind for the joyful reunion of verse 17. ‘Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.’
The Lord is coming down, and the dead in Christ and we who are alive are going up, and we meet together. What a great promise this is. To be with the Lord forever. Without end. Whenever you go to visit relatives, there comes a time when you have to leave. Even if you went to stay with a granny for the whole summer, there comes the day when you have to go home, and go back to school. But this promise is forever. Always with the Lord and his people. All his people, those who at the moment are dead or alive.
This is how we can have hope-filled grieving. It’s based on Jesus’ work, his own dying and being raised. And it’s based on Jesus’ word, his promise that all his people will be with him forever. Paul could have ended right there. It’s all we really need to know. But the last verse is the application. Here’s the take away, here’s the action, what we need to do based on what we’ve heard today. Here’s how we can comfort in times of grief. Here’s why I found that I was able to do funerals. Verse 18: ‘Therefore’ - because of all that I’ve said: ‘Therefore encourage one another with these words.’
When we’re in the valley of the shadow of death, the darkness can overwhelm. But with these words, we can encourage. A simple reminder of the hope that is ours. A pointer forward to the joyful reunion. The sharing of the promise that we will be with the Lord forever.
But this encouragement isn’t just for those who are mourning today (whether the loss was recent or a long time ago). There’s encouragement for each one of us as we face our own mortality. If the Lord doesn’t return in our lifetime, then we too can be assured that we will be raised to be with him. This promise is for you, if you’re in Christ, if you’re trusting in him. If you’re not, then why not come today, believe in him, and receive this great promise of hope.
Hope-filled grieving, based on Jesus’ work and word, brings us encouragement. May this be a word of grace and comfort, not just for us who are here, but for anyone we come in contact with.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 28th June 2015.