Sermon Title: Hope in the Face of Death (I Thes. 4:13-18)
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
November 8, 2020
The year 2020 might be remembered in history for many things, but in my opinion it is most characterized by fear. As our nation lies in complete anxiety over who our next president will be and what that along with 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 not only in our country but also all around the world almost seems to have eclipsed even the paranoia that gripped our country at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and it’s accompanying threat of nuclear war.
But when has our country, as well as the world, ever not experienced political unrest, threats of war and mass destruction, and, yes, even pandemics? Pandemics and plagues, I might add, that proved to be far worse than the one presently assaulting us. In my opinion, 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 which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Because COVID is novel; that is, a new strain that our world has not seen before, knows little about, is not fully certain how it is transmitted, nor has a 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 death of over 200,000 people in our country alone.
But for some perspective, we must acknowledge that the flu and influenza respectively kill their thousands every year also. Cancer takes the lives of tens of thousands every single year. Heart disease claims hundreds of thousands of our population annually. Yet, none of these plagues ever seem to cause the kind of mass hysteria that COVID has. 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 one thing I know for certain, we come by the fear of death quite naturally. 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 rightful 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 itself 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 actually 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 worst of God’s punishment against sin. His judgment against sin includes not only physical death but 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 rightful and holy fear that we all ought to have is not the fear of COVID or even political uncertainty. Rightful and holy fear is the fear God and His eternal judgment.
You want to fear something, fellow sinners? Don’t fear COVID or even death. Fear God’s coming in Judgment of heaven and Earth. There’s good reason God has shrouded it in dark clouds and peals of thunder. There is good reason God has given you and me and our whole world wake up calls with plagues, wars, earthquakes, famines and worldly 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, are living as though God is not serious about His judgment. Many live and act as though our physical universe and the fantasy world we have created in our own thoughts and daily existence will just go on forever and there will be no accountability for our sin and unbelief. Think about this as well: What am fearing more when I stay away from public church services out of fear getting the virus but do not seem to fear losing faith by staying away from God’s Word and Holy Sacrament?
But for those of us who do fear God and His impending judgment, today is not about driving us into despair over it but to give us hope in the midst of it. After all, there is another side, a most positive and blessed side, to this final day, or as it is often called Judgment Day. That hope lies in this 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, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”
This is indeed great 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 itself has been defeated for those who believe in Jesus Christ. And our great comfort hereby 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 promises of the Gospel had given way to fear and grief concerning death. Whether it had been fostered by false teaching, or wrong assumptions, or even pure ignorance on their part, the prevailing view was that if members of the church died before Christ came again, they were totally lost to death. Now, just imagine what utter heartache that must have brought them. Your wife, husband, child, dies, and on top of the great 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 griped their hearts!
Paul confronts the Thessalonians’ fears, as well as your and my fears concerning death, head on. He counsels, “But we do not want you to be uninformed (ignorant), brothers, about those who are asleep, 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.”
Truly we should all mourn that death has so besieged our human race. Death was not part of God’s plan for us. God created mankind to be immortal. Yet, as Holy Scripture tells us, death came into our world through Adam’s sin and spread to all of 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 can not escape the sadness death brings when it steals away one of our loved ones. After all, with them death takes away from us the comfort they give us… their companionship… maybe even the physical and financial support they provided for us. For these loses we can weep. But we can also know that it was not at all what God wants for us.
In fact, in Jesus Christ, we have no reason whatsoever 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. In fact, 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 man-made philosophies or 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. Oh, yes, we can cry over our own misery, but we have no need to cry over death as though it somehow has the power to destroy the life of our beloved or our own. After all, the very foundation of our Christian Faith is the fact that Jesus Christ died to defeat death for us. The Son of God became flesh of our flesh precisely so that He could die the death we all deserved. The full wrath of God against your sins and my sins was expended upon Jesus. He experienced the full brunt of being forsaken of God 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 actually now made death the very porthole through which believers in Christ pass through 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 the power to raise it up 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 bring us the assurance of our resurrection from death.
Death can not hold those who enjoy forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. As Scripture assures us, Christ is the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep…when He comes again those who belong to Him will also be raised (I Cor. 15:20ff).
This is why when Paul speaks about Jesus he says Jesus died but when he talks about the others who have become the victims of death he refers to them as those who are sleeping. This 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, then, want to really 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, so Jesus will awaken the dead at His coming.
Does that mean then, that the souls of those who have died are also in some kind of state of soul sleep, a suspended coma of sorts? Not at all, in fact, Paul assures us with a direct “word of the Lord, “God will bring with Him through Jesus Christ those who have fallen asleep.” 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 surely has not been their end.
Yes, their bodies have been placed in the grave, but only to await their “wakening”… their resurrection. Their souls, on the other hand, are, like that of a certain Lazarus Jesus tells us about, already laying 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, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord with 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 to know 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 exactly what we can expect at death as well as what we can look forward to when Christ Jesus comes again. It is not that complicated but it is truly beautiful and comforting.
Picture a victorious conquering King returning to His city. Accompanying him are all those he has recaptured from the enemy who had stolen them, as well as the soldiers who aided him in his victory. The city streets immediately swell with celebratory citizens who rush out to meet their hero… their savior… and their loved ones they had given up for lost. It is a true reunion of relief, joy, and celebration of victory!
So it will be at our victorious Lord’s second coming. There will be nothing quiet about this rapture of the believers. The thunderous 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 and all who are in them will hear His voice (Jn. 5:28). First, as if to proclaim that they have not been forgotten by the Lord, 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 a 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 believer in Christ!
I’m reminded of 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 total destruction of the city seems certain. In his 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 rain-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, of light and darkness, of death and life. Amen.