23rd Sunday after Pentecost – 11/8/2020
2020 might be remembered in history for many things, but it is most characterized by fear. As our nation lies in complete anxiety over who our next president will be and the changes the election has made in the makeup of Congress, both political sides are expressing their misgivings and fears. But, of course, what reigns supreme over all is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The uneasiness and outright fear it has garnered in our country and worldwide almost seem to have eclipsed even the paranoia that gripped our country at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its accompanying threat of nuclear war.
But when has our country, as well as the rest of the world, ever not experienced political unrest, threats of war and mass destruction, and, yes, even pandemics? Pandemics and plagues proved far worse than the ones we are currently facing. The real pandemic proving to be the scourge of our planet is not COVID. It is fear itself!
At his first inauguration during the height of the Great Depression, the newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is reported to have said in his address: "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is... fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror that paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
Because COVID is novel, a new strain that our world has not seen before, knows little about, is not entirely certain how it is transmitted, and has neither vaccine to cure it. It has evoked an almost irrational fear among us. This virus is something we ought to take very seriously. COVID can and does make some people very sick and has been blamed for the deaths of over 200,000 people in our country alone.
But from some perspective, we must acknowledge that the flu and influenza kill thousands yearly. Cancer takes the lives of tens of thousands of people every single year. Heart disease claims hundreds of thousands of our population annually. Yet, none of these plagues ever seem to cause the mass hysteria that COVID does. Why is that?
I will leave the post-mortem of this latest pandemic to the media pundits, politicians, and so-called experts in the field of virology. But I know that we naturally come from the fear of death. As Holy Scripture assures us, death, as the judgment of God, is the fate that awaits us all because we all sin (Ro. 5:12; 6:23). The fear of death is the reasonable fear of God's righteous wrath. Death is the antithesis of life, and we all have the God-given desire to live.
But the fear of death can not only become irrational at times; it can also become a form of idolatry. As we rightly learned in our catechetical instruction concerning the meaning of the First Commandment to have no other gods, we do have other gods when we do not "fear, love, and trust in God above all things."
After all, God Almighty, our Creator, is the one who holds the power of life and death, both temporal and eternal. He is the Eternal Judge of all things. Death of our bodies is not the worst of God's punishment against sin. His judgment against sin includes physical death and eternal destruction in hell.
As we hear the prophet Amos this morning rhetorically ask the people of Israel in his appeal that they repent of their sin, "Is not the day of the LORD darkness and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?" The reasonable and holy fear that we all ought to have is not fear of COVID or political uncertainty. Rightful and holy fear is the fear of God and His eternal judgment.
Do you want to fear something, fellow sinners? Don't fear COVID or even death. Fear God's coming in judgment on heaven and earth. There's a good reason God has shrouded it in dark clouds and peals of thunder. There is a good reason God has given you, and me and our whole world wake-up calls with plagues, wars, earthquakes, famines, and otherworldly disasters. Such disasters are fair and gracious warnings of the terrible judgment to come. And yet, like the people of old Israel to whom Amos was preaching, many in our society, Christian and non-Christian alike, live as though God is not serious about His judgment. Many live and act like our physical universe, and the fantasy world we have created in our thoughts and daily existence will continue forever. There will be no accountability for our sins and unbelief. Think about this as well: What am I more afraid of when I stay away from public church services out of fear of getting the virus but do not seem to fear losing faith by staying away from God's Word and Holy Sacrament?
But for those who fear God and His impending judgment, today is not about driving us into despair but about giving us hope. After all, there is another side, a very positive and blessed side, to this final day, or as it is often called, Judgment Day. That hope lies in the fact that the Son of God, Jesus Christ, will, as St. Paul, the apostle of the Lord, says, "descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and left will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air."
That is excellent news for those of us who take death and the judgment of God seriously. Here we are assured that even though death is God's judgment upon the sinner, death has been defeated for those who believe in Jesus Christ. And our great comfort now given is that this hope of victory over death is not just a hope for the soul but hope for the body also!
Such news was especially good and great for Paul's original audience, the believers in Thessalonica. Paul and his companions had brought these people to faith in Jesus Christ through the gospel they had preached there. But after Paul had left them, their hope in the gospel's promises had given way to fear and grief concerning death. Whether it had been fostered by false teaching, wrong assumptions, or even pure ignorance on their part, the prevailing view was that if church members died before Christ came again, they were lost to death. Now, imagine what utter heartache that must have brought them. Your wife, husband, or child dies, and on top of the significant loss of their presence, you would feel utterly mortified that they are forever gone, never to enjoy heaven, never to be with their loved ones again. Sorrow does not begin to describe what must have gripped their hearts!
Paul confronts the Thessalonians' fears, as well as yours and mine, concerning death head-on. He counsels, "But we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, about those who are asleep, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep."
Indeed, we should all mourn that death has besieged our human race. Death was not part of God's plan for us. God created humankind to be immortal. Yet, as Holy Scripture tells us, death came into our world through Adam's sin and spread to us because we all have sinned. It is natural, then, that death should make us sad. It robs us of life and the other good gifts God desires us to have. You and I cannot escape the sadness that death brings when it steals away one of our loved ones. After all, with their deaths, death takes away from us the comfort they give us, their companionship, and maybe even the physical and financial support they provide us. For these losses, we can weep. But we can also know it was not what God wanted for us.
In Jesus Christ, we have no reason to grieve as those who do not have hope. If we grieve concerning our beloved who died in faith in Jesus Christ as though they are now lost or that somehow they would still be better off remaining here with us, then we are simply grieving as the pagans do. We are witnessing with our grief that the Christian faith is nothing but a sham, a false hope, which offers people no more hope in the face of death than any of the many manufactured philosophies, religions, or activities the world offers.
Paul shares with us, however, grief-defying good news. With the very Word of the Lord, He assures us that we do not need to grieve as those who have no hope. We can cry over our misery, but we do not need to cry over death as though it somehow has the power to destroy the lives of our beloved or our own. After all, the foundation of our Christian faith is that Jesus Christ died to defeat death for us. The Son of God became flesh from our flesh precisely so He could die the death we deserved. The full wrath of God against your and my sins was expended on Jesus. He experienced the full brunt of being forsaken by God, as we deserved.
Even though Jesus' death did not do away with death's full effects on us in that we still physically die, Jesus' death in our place has removed the sting of death. Our physical death is not a lasting punishment for our sins. His death has now made death the same porthole through which believers in Christ pass to their real life with God, which here in this world is hidden away in God from our sight.
After all, Jesus stepped into death and stepped out of it again. He had the power to lay down His life and raise it again (Jn 10:17). After three days in the grave, Jesus rose again from the dead. The One who died our death raised Himself from the dead to assure us of our resurrection from death.
Death cannot hold those who enjoy forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. As Scripture assures us, Christ is the first fruit of those who have fallen asleep. When He comes again, those who belong to Him will also be raised (I Cor. 15:20ff).
That is why when Paul speaks about Jesus, he says Jesus died, but when he talks about the others who have become death victims, he refers to them as those who are sleeping. That is more than simply using a euphemism to reduce the harsh sound of the word death.
The ancient Christian father Chrysostom has written, "You see, death is now not death but only carries the name of death—or, rather, even the very name has been abolished. I mean, we no longer call it death but sleeping and dreaming. Hence Christ Himself said, 'Our friend Lazarus is asleep.'" Jesus Christ has destroyed the finality of death with His genuine death and actual resurrection. If we want to speak the truth concerning the one who has died in faith in Jesus Christ, we say they have fallen asleep. Just as you and I woke up this morning from our slumber, Jesus will awaken the dead at His coming.
Does that mean the souls of those who have died are also in some state of soul sleep, a suspended coma? Not at all; Paul assures us with a direct "word of the Lord, "God will bring those who have fallen asleep with Him through Jesus Christ." If those who died in faith in Christ are already with the Lord so that He will bring them with Him when He comes, then death has not been their end.
Their bodies have been placed in the grave, but only to await their "awakening"—theirresurrection. On the other hand, their souls are like that of a certain Lazarus, whom Jesus tells us about, already in the bosom of Abraham; that is, enjoying the care, protection, and soothing comfort of the Lord in His presence.
For added assurance, the apostle Paul, as we already heard, adds another wonderful word of the Lord. He states, "For this, we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep, for the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and left will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air."
Now, as if the promise of the resurrection were not enough to end all our fears concerning death, here we have been given the knowledge of exactly how the Lord will accomplish the raising of the dead, the reunification of bodies and souls, as well as the joining of all His people in His presence, both the dead and the living. There is no secret rapture of believers up and away from the earth before Christ comes. "Those remaining" that Paul speaks of are believers left behind by their loved ones who have already died and gone to be with their Lord. With these words of the Lord Himself, we are shown what we can expect at death and what we can look forward to when Christ Jesus comes again. It is not that complicated, but it is truly beautiful and comforting.
Imagine a victorious, conquering king returning to his city. Accompanying him are all those he has recaptured from the enemy who had stolen them and the soldiers who aided him in his victory. The city streets immediately swell with celebratory citizens who rush out to meet their heroes, saviors, and loved ones they had given up for lost. It is a true reunion of relief, joy, and victory celebration!
So it will be at our victorious Lord's second coming. There will be nothing quiet about this rapture of the believers. The booming voice of the Lord's mighty archangel and commander of His angelic troops will proclaim the victorious king's arrival. The bugle of God's victory trumpet will reverberate off every mountain and hillside. The General King's forceful command will rip open the graves of the dead. All who are in them will hear His voice (Jn. 5:28). First as if to proclaim that the Lord has not forgotten them, the bodies of the deceased believers will immediately be raised and be reunited with their souls, which are with the returning Lord. Then the believers who are still alive at Jesus' coming will be "snatched up" and, in the twinkling of an eye (I Cor. 15), be transformed into their heavenly attire to join with their brothers and sisters in the air in one grand and glorious meeting of the redeemed! What a vision of hope is yours, dear believers in Christ!
I remember a scene in J.R.R. Tolkien's classic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. The great white wizard, Gandalf, and the diminutive hobbit, Pippin, stand together along the wall of the great human city of Gondor, looking out over the advancing, seemingly undefeatable thousands upon thousands of troops of Mordor. The destruction of the city seems inevitable. In utter fear and astonishment, Pippin remarks, "I didn't think it would end this way. Gandalf replies, "End? No, the journey does not end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it." "See what? Gandalf? See what?" Pippin asks. Gandalf responds, "White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise." "Well, that isn't so bad," Pippin joyfully remarks. "No, no. It isn't," Gandalf adds.
Be of good cheer and comfort, dear friends in Christ. You have nothing to fear. Your hope of salvation from God's wrath against your sin is guaranteed in the blood of Jesus, and your hope of life again for both your soul and your body has been made sure for you in the death and resurrection of your Savior, the LORD God of heaven and earth, light and darkness, of death and life. Amen.