2010-03-07 (am) 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Eternal Hope
Sometimes we can trivialise things that have very deep meanings. We can argue and jest about interpretation of scripture. We really see this in the discussion surrounding the end times. What will happen when Christ returns?
As many witnessed this week, death is real. The wages of sin is a terrible thing. For an 89 year old woman who had suffered a heart attack, who fell victim to death slowly and at a grand age, well, it is expected. Knowing how much she loved the Lord, how ready she was to enter the true promised land, we are able to rejoice even in our mourning. And yet, even so, we know that death should not win.
Then, for a 38 year old young man, with a wife and three young children, who were just hitting their stride, getting things together, life was going smoother and smoother, wham! Gone. And we’re left to ask why? What’s the good in this? What good could possibly come?
In the light of death’s ugliness, debate over the how’s and why’s of the end times seems silly. In fact, such debate clouds the issue; it thwarts the plans of Christ. It causes us to miss the forest for the trees. We become so focussed on individual texts and words and phrases, that we can lose sight of the bigger picture.
This is the bigger picture: What happens in the end? Where do we go? Where are our loved ones who have passed away? How does the resurrection give comfort? How are we to grieve in a way that is different from those who have no hope?
Rather than trying to explain what all the possible interpretations might be and what they mean, we must consider what the author’s intent is. The style of literature helps us. Most apocalyptic literature, that is literature or writings the concern the end times, share much in common with prophetic literature, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Minor Prophets.
Prophetic literature contains two elements. First, it has a call to repentance, which also teaches proper worship and daily living. Second, it gives hope to the faithful, that God will avenge evil and wickedness; that the righteous will be restored; and that God is their present comfort and strength.
We can see this second sense in our passage this morning. Paul says, “I don’t want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men who have no hope.” When Timothy came to Paul he gave not only a good report concerning their faith, worship and Christian living, he also brought some of their concerns.
These concerns included the fact that some people were going around saying that Christ had already returned but they missed it. Another concern had to do with believers who died.
For us, we have 2000 years of church history, of waiting for Christ’s return. But they expected Christ’s return sooner. They did not expect anyone to die in the faith. That is, they thought that when you came to faith in Jesus you would live until his return because they thought that his return wasn’t very far off.
So here’s their situation. You’re a believer, your friends are also believers. Life is difficult because of all the reasons I’ve mentioned already, the socio-economic hardships, the temptations, the peer pressure from the rest of society. But you put your faith in Christ, believing that it is just a matter of time until he returns again.
Then it happens. A friend gets sick. Okay no problem, we’ll call the elders over to pray. They pray. She doesn’t get better. Okay, well, Christ is returning soon, so she’ll make it. She dies. Okay, now what? We believed that Christ would come back first. So what’s the answer? What happens to Christians if they die before Christ returns?
This is Paul’s comforting answer. Again, I cannot stress this enough. Paul is not giving a prescription of exactly what will happen when Christ returns. Paul’s answer is about peace and hope for the mourners. The dead in Christ will not miss out on anything. Rather, they will have pride of privilege. They will meet Christ in the air, and escort him to the earth.
Believers who have died will accompany Jesus when he returns. There is no way they will somehow forfeit their position in God’s family by being dead before Christ arrives. In fact, there is no real advantage in hoping to be alive when Christ returns. For those who die before Christ returns go in spirit to be with Jesus. Then, when that day arrives, they will accompany Christ from heaven to earth.
In Revelation 19, Jesus return is described. He is the reigning victor. He’s the conquering king who leads his army away from the battle where he annihilated all his and our enemies. He comes in power and authority.
In those days, when the conquering king returned from battle, he would lead his army with the sound of trumpets. Heralds would go ahead proclaiming the victory. Messengers would travel ahead and let the capital city know that the king was coming in victory.
The city would begin rejoicing, and they would send a delegation who would go out and meet the king, and then escort him to the city.
That’s what Paul is using to explain Christ’s return. It is something that the Thessalonian people would have seen before, and they would have understood it.
When reading books about the end of WWII, particularly the liberation of the Netherlands, there were countless descriptions of the underground army breaking through enemy lines to escort the Allies as they came liberating villages. Or, when people heard the sound of tanks and saw the flags and banners, they ran out to the allies and walked beside the tanks and troop carriers, shouting and cheering.
That’s the idea here.
Even though, during the darkest days of WWII, people had very little hope. There were jokes like, “The war is over, the queen arrives by plane. She’s a little old lady. Yes, Wilhemina of course. No, it’s her granddaughter Beatrix!” This showed that there was a sentiment that it seemed like the war would last forever.
And yet even the most cynical person had reason to hope the war would end soon. There were rumours, there were plans, there was talk of a massive invasion. They kept expecting it. They kept becoming discouraged when it didn’t happen. But at just the right time, the invasion happened and it led to the liberation of Europe.
What Paul is telling us in this passage is that at just the right time, Christ will return. He will come. Those who believe in Him, who have died, will accompany him when he returns. This is a sure thing.
This morning, we celebrated the source of this hope, this sure thing. We participated in communion. We remembered Christ’s death. We proclaimed his death. We will continue to do so until he comes again.
Right at the beginning of our passage, Paul says, “for since we believe that Christ died and rose again...” Because we believe this, we have hope. We have eternal hope. Christ didn’t just escape death like Enoch or Elijah. He conquered it. He didn’t stay dead. He arose again. And, he promises that for all who believe in him, for all who receive him, who put their faith in him, all who trust his promises, he will raise them from the dead too. Those who die in Christ, really live, they conquer death too, and they live eternally.
Beloved in Christ Jesus, we’ve seen it with our eyes, we’ve touched it with our hands, we’ve tasted it with our mouths, the symbolic truth of Christ’s sacrifice. His resurrection is as real as that bread and wine/grape juice. Jesus is alive. If you trust Jesus, you will truly be alive too.
And that gives us comfort. That gives us hope. That is reality. Death does not win. Christ won. For the believers, we have this glorious future. We have this wonderful news. We have this eternal hope!
Doesn’t that settle your heart? Doesn’t that bring you comfort? Knowing that your eternal destination is secure, aren’t you just totally pumped?
No? Me neither. I can’t help thinking about people who don’t know Jesus. I keep thinking about people who refuse to believe. I think of those who have purposely turned their back on Christ, and have believed lies instead. They comfort themselves with thoughts that have no bearing in reality.
And my heart breaks for Scott’s family. They don’t know the hope that we know. And I struggle with what to say, if I should happen to meet them. I wonder how we can share the good news of the gospel with Scott’s family without sounding like religious fanatics, or freaks, or insensitive, callous people.
How can we communicate the hope that we have? And why are we so reluctant to do so?
Maybe we just need to tell it like it is, tell it as people know it must be, but don’t want to believe it. When Paul first preached to the Thessalonians, he probably faced that. It is not unlikely to think that there might have been someone who was going through a tough time. What would Paul say to them?
He would tell them about Jesus. The key thing for Christians is the death and resurrection of Christ. That’s why we persist in celebrating Lord’s Supper. It is foundational. Jesus conquered death, Jesus is the way. Jesus brings salvation.
Jesus died. Jesus’ friends were broken, defeated, they lost their best friend. They were lost themselves. They became like sheep without a shepherd. But Jesus rose from the dead as he promised he would. And their sorrow turned to joy.
And so, as we visit with people, as we listen to their pain. As we take in their sorrow. As we experience their sorrow with them, we speak to them words of hope. We speak to them words of comfort. We tell them about Jesus, who conquered the grave, who defeated death. We talk about him who brings life out of death.
And we allow the Spirit to work through us. And we bathe our conversations in prayer. And we witness to the amazing grace God has revealed to us, and we pass that peace on. We pray for them to experience the peace that is like a river attends our souls. Even though life and death storms about us, no matter what, Jesus has taught us, as to our soul’s it is well.
And it is well with our souls. God has made it so. Come, let’s pass it on. Let’s reflect God’s love and peace to those who need to receive it. Go, go into the world, and be agents of peace, agents of hope, agents of comfort to those who have such a deep need for it! Behold, Christ is with you always, even to the end of the age! Amen.