1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 “Encourage One Another With His Word”
This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Amen.
Do you know the number one thing that pastors are trained to do at seminary? Preach law and gospel. Sure, it sounds pretty obvious. But in every sermon we are taught to speak the law clearly. Clearly and boldly so that it cuts and shows our sins and need for a Savior. But we are also trained to speak the sweet news of the Gospel that heals up those cuts and builds us up in the faith. We do it because it follows along with how God speaks in the Bible: law and gospel. But today we have a small problem: there is no specific law, no specific sin in the words from Paul. That doesn’t mean that there is no law: in fact here we see some of the clearest evidence of the Law: death. And it’s something we can’t escape. In 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to Jean Baptiste-Leroy in which he said, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” While Franklin was making a sarcastic comment, he hit it right on the head. Death is this heavy burden and threat that always looms over us. Looking back all the way to Adam and Eve we see our ancestors all facing the same result: death. In fact, only two people have avoided death: Bible scholars? Who were those two? Elijah who was taken to heaven in fiery chariots, and Enoch who walked faithfully with God and then was no more because God took him. But besides those two men, every person who has been born has faced the stark reality of death. Ever since Adam and Eve brought sin into the world we all know it can’t be avoided. And so, for those of us who have sat at the bed of a dying family member, who have looked at the face of a friend who is no longer alive, and felt the emptiness that comes when we realize that person is gone, we understand that death is a terrible thing. And this is from a believer’s perspective. Just imagine for a moment the pain for an unbeliever. Death for them is it. Finality. The end. What pain they must feel. What anguish. That, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is the law in its clearest light. For an unbeliever, there is no hope, no comfort, no thought of seeing them again. Just unbearable sadness. That’s not to say that believers don’t’ experience sadness when someone dies. But there is definitely a difference.
Because we know something that the unbelieving world doesn’t. Something revealed to us by God, because he doesn’t want us to be worried and left without knowing: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13) Notice that Paul doesn’t say “so that you don’t grieve…”. Instead he says “so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind.” Of course we will mourn. Of course we’ll be sad. Why do you think that Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus? When something so unnatural, so terrible as death happens to one of God’s creation of course we will have pain. Sadness of the separation, of the missing them, of not being able to see them or talk with them, have them in our presence. But while we grieve, it’s not the same kind of grief of the world. Theirs is a grief that has no end, no comfort, no peace. But we have peace. We have comfort, because we know where our loved ones are.
But it seems like the Thessalonians maybe didn’t fully understand. In our sermon text for today we see that they had faith: they knew God and that Jesus rescues. But it seems that there was a misunderstanding: they thought they had to stay alive until he returned so that they could receive that promise. But each passing day, month, and year, more of their fellow believers died without Jesus’ return. They thought they were lost. So while they put their hope in Jesus they also hoped they would live long enough to enjoy it. Now we know that our loved ones who die in faith are with God. But at times we struggle with worry. We begin to feel the distance between us. The memory of their voice fades and the sound of their laugh isn’t so easy to remember. Their face, which was once burnt into our memory is harder to see. And the world just goes on like nothing happened. One of the first deaths I experienced was when my very close friend Crystal died just after she turned 16. A car accident. A year went by and I still kept expecting to see her at school. But suddenly I couldn’t remember what her voice sounded like, and the people at school stopped talking about her. Was she really forgotten? Never. Because God promises that he remembers all believers who have fallen asleep: “According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15) God loves every one of his children. Don’t worry even for a moment that God has forgotten those who have fallen asleep in death.
In fact God promises us that on the last day, all the Saints Triumphant, all those believers who have died in faith by God’s power, they will we be seen again: “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, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16) And on that day, all the power of God will be on display. Jesus will return with power. He who humbly went to the cross, suffered a sinners death, and was placed in the cold tomb also rose victorious three days later. And he will show his power to the world. No one will be able to ignore it. All of those who have tried to deny God will find themselves facing the Almighty in his full glory. With a loud command, and with the voice of the Archangel, and the trumpet call of God Jesus will appear. And we who are still alive on that last day will see him. But what about all of those people who have died? But what about all of those Christians who couldn’t make it? Who aren’t around for that last day? What about those Old Testament believers, or the family and friends of the Thessalonians? What about our loved ones? How about all of the Saints who have died? Who through disease, or accident, or old age aren’t around? All because of that terrible thing called death. All of those Saints who have been made triumphant by God’s power? At that last and awesome day we will see God raise up their bodies from the grave and reunite them with their souls. Perfect and flawless bodies that will never know pain or suffering or failings because of old age. Saints Triumphant, made triumphant by Christ’s victory over death, Satan, and Sin.
And then there are the Christians who are still alive: us Saints militant who have been eagerly waiting for this last day. We also have been given God’s amazing promises. We will be part of the greatest family reunion of all time! “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 forever.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17) I try to imagine what this would look like, but I just can’t. The believers from all time raised up into the air together, a number that should block out the sun, called from every corner of the earth and all who, through the Holy Spirit, know Jesus as Savior. An ocean of believers proclaiming God’s glory and shouting his victory. A victory that we knew was coming, that was already won by Jesus on the cross, but finally it will be revealed. The surge of joy in each of us in knowing that our struggles with this world are over. Our failures with temptation will be gone. Just time without end in the presence of God, and all of these fellow believers.
But these words aren’t just something that will give us comfort someday. They are where God gives us comfort at the bedside of a loved one during their final moments. It’s where we find joy even through our tears at funerals. These words are what remind us that it’s okay to feel hurt at the absence of our friends and family, but also know that they are with our Savior in Heaven. Because those who fall asleep in Christ are not lost. They are not gone. They are Triumphant with the one who rescued them and all of the Saints. That’s why we can mourn, but not like the rest of the world who has no hope. We have sure and certain hope in the life everlasting for ourselves and all believers. So we celebrate today and everyday with all of the Saints Triumphant. We celebrate the power and wisdom of our God who is coming back for us. “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:18) Amen.
The peace of God , which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.