Sunday, November 04, 2018

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 Good Grief

When I was growing up, my heart was set on becoming a journalist. So all my work experience was in local newspapers. My subjects for A-Level and my university were all geared towards journalism. And then, in the summer before I started university, God ambushed me with the call to ministry.

For the three years of my course, I was fighting against God’s call. And I had my reasons all stacked up. I didn’t think I would be able to preach (maybe you think that too!); I didn’t really like hospitals and medical stuff; and I definitely wouldn’t be able to be do funerals. As you can see, God won out in the end, and here I am. And when I was ordained as Curate, I had a few weeks to work with the rector before he headed off on holidays. We’d be able to do any funerals together. Well, there were none. And then the morning he was heading off on holiday, probably just as he was getting onto the plane, the local undertaker rang to say that I was about to do my first funeral.

When it comes to death and dying and what happens next, there are lots of questions. Questions that you might think, but have never said out loud. And as time goes on, and you encounter loss - whether sudden or expected - the questions are still there, and never really answered.

It seems that the Thessalonian Christians had questions too. You see, so far, we’ve heard all about the things that they knew. Last week, we saw that they knew how to live to please God, by loving one another. But there were some things they weren’t quite sure about. And it’s understandable. Paul and the team had only been in Thessalonica a short time. He had shared as much as he could, but he wasn’t able to tell them everything. That’s why he prays that he’ll be able to get back to see them. It’s why he sent Timothy to see them.

And now Timothy has returned to Paul, bringing the good news of their continuing faith, but also bringing news of their uncertainty about death. It seems that some of the Christians in Thessalonica had died in the short time since Paul’s visit. And that leads to the question - what happens to them when they die? Will they miss out on the excitement of the return of Jesus? Are they gone forever or will we see them again?

Those are the questions that Paul is answering as he writes this section of the letter. And in verse 13, we see his purpose in writing these verses: ‘Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.’

Paul’s purpose is to provide information, so that they won’t be ignorant (without knowledge); but more than that, he wants to provide inspiration. We don’t want you to be ignorant, so we’ll tell you what the story really is. And we don’t want you to grieve like other people, who have no hope.

He is’t saying that Christians shouldn’t grieve. He’s saying that we shouldn’t grieve like other people, who don’t have the hope that we do. We mourn and grieve - but we don’t do it in the same way as other people. The answer is to have ‘good grief’ or hope-filled grief.

Rather than speculating about what may or may not happen, Paul grounds everything that he says in objective fact. He points to what has already happened to the Lord Jesus: ‘We believe that Jesus died and rose again.’ (14) That shouldn’t come as a surprise to you - we say that every week in the creed, whichever creed we use. It’s the basis of our Holy Communion service, as we reflect on all that Jesus did - he died on the cross, and he rose again to new life.

This is what we believe as Christians. But it also leads us to believe something else: ‘and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.’ (14)

Because Jesus died and rose again, it means that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. Did you notice how Paul describes these believers? They have ‘fallen asleep’ - verse 13 and here in verse 14. To die as a Christian is like falling asleep - with the understanding that the one sleeping will waken again. And they have ‘fallen asleep in him.’ They are in Christ - united to him, with him - which is why God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. When the believer dies, their soul is immediately with the Lord in what we call heaven; their body is laid in the ground, sleeping, awaiting the resurrection to new life.

To be in Jesus is to be with Jesus - to go where he goes and to stay where he stays. It’s a bit like getting onto a bus. Where the driver takes the bus, you go too. Where he goes, you go. And the hope that we have is that Jesus is going to return.

Now, sometimes, we use that word hope in a wishful thinking, not sure if this really will happen kind of way. I hope it’s a nice day tomorrow. I hope my team win. I hope I get a space at the hospital car park. But the hope that we have - the hope of Jesus’ return to this earth - this isn’t like those wishful thinking, maybe possibly kind of hopes. No, this hope of Jesus’ return is absolutely certain. It’s sure enough to build your life upon. It means that you don’t have to grieve like people who have no hope.

And in verse 15, we see what our hope is. ‘According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.’ Those who have died, trusting in Christ, aren’t going to miss out; they’re not going to be second class citizens; they’re not going to be at the back of the queue. And we, who are left, who are alive when Jesus returns - we aren’t going to precede them.

So what will it be like? Verse 16 shows the events of that day: ‘For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God.’ When Jesus returns, we’re not going to miss it - he will be accompanied by these sounds - a loud command, an archangel’s voice, and the trumpet of God. All announcing his return. All heralding his coming.

And what will happen when Jesus returns? ‘and the dead in Christ will rise first.’ (16). When Jesus returns, those who have died in Christ will rise from their graves. Do you remember when Jesus raises Lazarus from the grave in John 11, and he calls to him, ‘Lazarus, come out’? A famous preacher said that he used the name of Lazarus, otherwise everyone in the tomb would have arisen. But that’s what will happen on the last day, when Jesus returns.

Then, the next bit in verse 17. ‘After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord for ever.’

All believers, whether they have died or whether they are living, will meet the Lord. And it’s not just a passing glance, or a brief encounter - we will be with the Lord for ever. Maybe over the halfterm holiday, you’ve gone to visit family. You’ve spent a day or two with them, but the time comes when you have to return home again. School or work is back tomorrow. Or maybe over the summer holiday you spent the whole two months with family, and it was great, but even then, the time comes to leave them. When that day comes, when we see the Lord, we will be with him for ever. There’ll never come a time when we have to depart. We’ll never again be absent from him.

This is good grief; or hope-filled grief. When a loved one dies, of course we miss them; of course we mourn for them. But as Christians, we have this cure and certain hope - we will see them again, and we will be with them again - because we will be with the Lord Jesus. For ever.

This is the Christian hope, rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus - that we too will share in his resurrection, his victory over death. We will be with him.

And the application of this morning’s passage is straightforward. Sometimes, it can be hard to know what to do with a passage; what God is calling us to do in response to his word. This morning, though, it’s easy to know what to do. Paul tells us in verse 18. In light of all that we’ve heard, here’s how to do it: ‘Therefore encourage each other with these words.’

There is encouragement in these words, in this passage of Scripture. And so we can remind each other about the hope that we have in Jesus.

The grieving process can be different for everybody; some seem can mourn for a long time, others for a shorter time. But in the message of Jesus, we have the words to share, the hope to bring, the encouragement that we need to have hope-filled grief. And it’s this hope that means that I could deal with the medical stuff, and lead funeral services, and even try to preach. And it’s this hope that we can hold on to in difficult days, when we lose a loved one, or when we face our own death - as we’ll say later on in the Communion prayer:

Christ has died;
Christ is risen;
Christ will come again.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 4th November 2018.

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