1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 27—Series A)
“Grief with Hope”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
November 12, 2017
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Epistle lesson recorded in 1 Thessalonians 4:
13Now we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, concerning those who are asleep, in order that you do not grieve just as the rest do who do not have hope. 14For if we believe that Jesus died and was raised, so also God through Jesus will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep. 15For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep 16because the Lord Himself, with a shouted command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet sound of God, will come down from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise first, 17then we who are alive, who are left, together with them, will be taken away in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord. 18For this reason, encourage one another with these words.
This has been a difficult year for us as a congregation. It has been a most difficult year for individuals and families of our congregation. We have lost many loved ones this year to death. Last Sunday, as I read the names of those members who are now with the Lord, I also recalled the number of non-member saints, members’ parents and other family members, who were also called home to be with Christ. Truly, I think we can all agree that it has been a year of grief for this gathered people of God.
Pastor Michael Newman writes in his book Hope When Your Heart Breaks, “Grief has shown up on your doorstep. This unwelcome visitor has gained access to your life. That’s usually how grief appears on the scene. When you least expect it, an interloper hacks into your system, breaks into your home, and invades your life. Now you’re stuck with an unwanted guest who casts a dark shadow over your heart, mind, and soul. Grief has settled in. You feel its oppressive presence, and you don’t like it. . . . Grieving is . . . [a] journey. It can be messy, chaotic, and exhausting. You will walk through dark valleys. You will also see the sun shine its warm and hope-filled rays over the horizon. Sometimes, God will replace your weeping with gladness, and your grief will become a thing of the past. At other times, grief may keep making visits until that day when winter has gone, the leaves never fall, and the tree of life is always in bloom for the complete healing of your soul. . . . When grief shows up, you do not have to take the journey alone. Jesus walks with you. Because of His love and grace, you can take the journey of grief with certain hope.”
Yes, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we grieve. But, it is not a hopeless grief. The Thessalonian Christians, who were still young in their faith, had some of their loved ones die. Apparently, they had expected that Jesus would return before any believer died. They were perplexed about the destiny of their deceased Christian family and friends. They wondered if their beloved dead would be safe and will live again. St. Paul writes to these confused Christians to provide them with comfort and hope. He encourages them by pointing them to the promises that God has made regarding the glorious reappearing of His Son, Jesus Christ. These same words bring great encouragement and hope to us who face the tyranny of death so that you and I can continue to encourage one another with these Gospel words.
It is quite often asked by Christians, “How can anyone who doesn’t know Jesus cope with death?” I don’t believe they honestly can. Perhaps in some way emotionally, physically, and mentally they can come to terms with death and grief. But coming to terms with something and actually coping with it are two different things in my mind. “Coming to terms” with death means that an individual meets death on its terms and consents to it. Death’s terms are an absolute victory over a person. Death’s terms are complete power over a person. I am not willing to agree to those terms. I am not willing to consent to death’s wishes and demands. To do so would confess death to be the winner and put me in a situation of hopeless grief. But death is not the winner!
We have a word from God Himself that tells us that Jesus, the very Son of God, took upon Himself human flesh so that He might face death on behalf of all humanity. On the cross, Jesus suffered God’s wrath and the judgment of God against humanity’s sin, the wages of which is death. Paul writes to the Corinthian believers, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4 ESV). Christ died on the cross to win the forgiveness of our sins. He rose again so that we can not only be certain that our sins are paid in full, but also so that we are rescued from the punishment of sin which is death.
On Ascension Day in 1527, Luther proclaimed, “Death goes at Christ, intending to devour a tasty morsel for a change. He opens wide his jaws and gulps Him down, too, as he does all other human beings. Christ does not defend Himself against death, but permits Himself to be devoured by him and stays lodged in him until the third day. But the ‘tasty morsel’ would not agree with death. He could not digest it, because it was too heavy for him. So he had to cast it up again, but [death] killed himself in the act of doing so. In this way Christ by His innocent death overcame our death, the horror of all the world. If we now believe on Him, we must, to be sure, pass through temporal death, must be put underground and decay. But we have this advantage that henceforth our temporal death is an entrance into eternal life. And add to this that the death we do suffer is no more real, that is, a terrible death, but a picture of death, aye, a sweet slumber. This is the effect of Christ’s death, who has overcome and captured our death.”
How can we who believe that Jesus Christ died and was raised ever agree to death’s terms? Death has not won the victory. Death is not the winner. Death is the loser. “God through Jesus will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep. . . . The dead in Christ will rise first.” Jesus’ death and resurrection are the assurance of the believer’s resurrection to eternal life in body and soul. It was Jesus who stepped into death and then stepped out of it again. The power of Jesus’ death and resurrection doesn’t stop when our bodies sleep in physical death. His power will show itself on the day of His coming again when the dead will be raised. The souls of the believers who are now in heaven will be reunited with their bodies that once lay in the grave and on that Last Day, those bodies will be raised immortal, imperishable, and glorified.
Contrary to what the Thessalonian’s were thinking, the dead in Christ are not lost. They are not gone forever. They are now, as Scripture says, “with the Lord” while their bodies “sleep” in the ground. And even before we who might be alive at the Coming of Christ have our bodies transformed into glorious spiritual bodies, these beloved dead will be raised again. Then all believers in Christ, in glorified bodies and souls, will meet the King, Jesus Christ, in His glory. Yes, death is defeated and believers in Jesus possess the hope of “the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.”
There were no telegrams in 1815 as the Duke of Wellington was facing Napoleon in a great battle at Waterloo. A sailing ship semaphored news to a signalman on top of Winchester Cathedral. He signaled to another man on a hill and thus the news of the battle was replayed, by hand semaphore, from station to station to London and all across England. When the ship came in, the signalman on board semaphored the first word—“Wellington.” The next word was “defeated,” and then the fog came and the ship could not be seen. “Wellington defeated” went across England, and there was great gloom over all the countryside. After two or three hours, the fog lifted, and the signal came again, “Wellington defeated the enemy.” Then all England rejoiced!
When they put the body of the Lord Jesus in the tomb the message seemed to be, “Jesus defeated.” People might have said, “Everything is ended, all is gone, sin has conquered, man is defeated, death has triumphed.” But then three days later, the fog lifted. The message was incomplete, you see. “Jesus defeated the enemy” is the complete message. And that enemy is death. Jesus Christ rose from the dead promising resurrection life to all who trust in Him by faith.
We have this word from the Lord in Holy Scripture. Christ has died for our sins. Forgiveness is ours. Jesus is risen from the dead. Eternal life and resurrection on the Last Day is ours. Also given to us as believers in Jesus is a ministry of comfort and encouragement to one another in the face of death and grief. Paul concludes our Epistle text, “And so we will always be with the Lord. For this reason, encourage one another with these words.” We have the Gospel comfort of Jesus’ death and resurrection to share with one another. We have a trustworthy word from God to speak to our sisters and brothers in Christ when they cope with death and live with grief. We will not let the family of God in Christ meet death on its terms, but on Jesus’ terms—death is a defeated enemy. Our loved ones who have lived and died with faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior are now with Him and will most certainly be raised again when Jesus comes again in glory. This is the hope that we share and hold before the eyes of the grieving. We point them to Christ and to His resurrection victory in which we share in the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting.
This has been a difficult year for us as a congregation. We have said auf Wiedersehen to our loved ones, to our brothers and sisters in Christ. And we have encouraged and, by the grace of God, will continue to comfort one another in our grief. We do not grieve as others do who do not have hope. Our Lord Jesus is risen from the dead. Death is defeated. And so we look forward to resurrection life with those we love who have died in the faith. They are with the Lord. One day, we shall be with Him and them, too. Amen.
 Michael W. Newman, Grief When Your Heart Breaks (St. Louis: Concordia, 2017), 10, 12.