14 Mar 2021
The Lord’s Coming
When it came to writing about difficult issues, Paul didn’t hold back. As we heard last week, in the first eight verses of chapter 4 of 1 Thessalonians Paul confronted the issue of sexual morality. In today’s reading from chapters 4 and 5, Paul addresses two other big issues, death and heaven. The church in Thessaloniki was under a lot of pressure. Paul himself had had to be smuggled out of the city due to fierce opposition to his message about Jesus, and life was not easy for the Christians there. And in today’s passage, Paul gives them a message of hope. Today, we look in particular at how Christian hope, how what the Bible tells us about the future, gives us the ability to face and handle death.
The last year has been especially grim with the pandemic, and that has caused many of us to reflect on our mortality. It’s not surprising if we feel anxious and fearful at times. But Paul says that Christianity gives us something remarkable that can help us deal with that.
In verse 13, at the start of today’s passage, Paul addresses grief and death. “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.”
Now it’s important to note that Paul isn’t saying that it’s wrong for Christians to grieve. The theologian, Tom Wright, states that Paul was concerned that they learnt appropriate Christian grief, instead of the wild and hopeless mourning that typified pagan funerals of the time.
“Don’t grieve like those without hope” is what Paul is saying. He isn’t urging Christians to adopt a stoic, stiff upper-lipped approach to death. Jesus didn’t behave like that, as the account in John’s Gospel regarding the raising of Lazarus shows us.
Jesus’ close friend, Lazarus had died, and when Jesus arrived at Lazarus’ home and met his sisters, Mary and Martha, he wept. “Jesus wept,” John records in his Gospel (John 11:35). And when Jesus reached Lazarus’s tomb, we read that he was “once more deeply moved...” (John 11:38)
Many English translations understate what Jesus felt. The Greek text says that Jesus was quaking with rage. He knew that he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead in a few minutes. But still he was grieving; he was angry.
Why? Because it was not meant to be like this. Death is an intruder. Death is not part of God’s original design: we were meant to last. Jesus raged at death, and his attitude shows that death is a horrific intruder in our world. Death was not part of God’s plan for creation; death is an enemy.
Now, there are actually some fairly attractive alternatives to this view of death as an enemy. For example, there are some Christians who will take a pietistic attitude and say that your loved one is with the Lord and all things work together for good. The idea is that you are not expected to scream or cry out, as that shows a lack of faith. But Jesus was quaking with anger at Lazarus’ death.
Another view is to regard death as part of nature. This view is represented by the Great Circle of Life from The Lion King. Mufasa explains to his son, the young lion cub, Simba, “When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great circle of life.” Death is part of nature, part of life. It’s nothing to be afraid of.
Jesus didn’t say that to Lazarus, that you are part of the great circle of life. Instead, he quaked with rage. The words of the great Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, are closer to what Jesus was saying:
“Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
But just to rage isn’t enough; it damages us if we simply rage against the dying of the light. In the midst of our grief and rage, there is hope. The Bible doesn’t say; “Don’t fear death because it’s natural.” Instead, it says, “Don’t fear death because it’s been defeated.”
Paul then goes on to explain the unique hope that Christians have. And this hope flows from the new world that God is going to create. The language that Paul uses to describe this new world is inevitably symbolic. Tom Wright compares it to describing the colour blue to someone who has been blind their whole life. Where do you start?
Paul’s starting point is verse 14. The Christians at Thessaloniki were concerned about what had happened to their fellow believers who had died, and Paul assures them: “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”
Those who belong to Jesus will rise again. Paul doesn’t say exactly where the dead are, or what state they are in. It’s enough to know that they are in God’s care and that when Jesus rises again, so will they. And Paul then goes on to explain that that those Christians who are still alive when that great day dawns will not be at a disadvantage compared to those who have already died. Essentially we shall share the same destiny.
I think some people believe that after death we become some sort of disembodied spirit. I remember the head teacher at one of my schools said that he had been worried about whether there would be enough room in heaven for everyone. But then he realised there were billions of molecules in a drop of water, so room wasn’t going to be a problem. Actually, room isn’t going to be a problem as there is endless space in the universe, but my old head teacher had misunderstood what heaven is going to be like. Because, as it says in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in...the resurrection of the body.”
And this takes us on to verses 16 and 17: “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. 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.”
These verses are hard to explain, particularly as Paul is using picture language, and so a literal approach doesn’t work. Many people assume that they mean we will go off to heaven and be with God forever. But Paul doesn’t actually mean that. The word “meet” in the phrase “meet the Lord in the air” is difficult to get across in English. The Greek word is a technical term for the people coming out of the city and getting into the entourage of a conquering king coming in.
Imagine that a king of a city had gone out to battle and won a great victory. As he returned to the city with all the spoils of war, instead of waiting for him to come back into the city, the people would go out to meet the king and walk back with him into the city. The people would take part in the victory with the king.
So, when Paul writes that when we’ve been caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, he is not saying that we will be taken out of the world into heaven. We are being caught up with Jesus on his way to earth to make the new creation – to make our world everything it ought to be.
And when we talk about resurrection, we mean physical resurrection. Jesus after his resurrection had a body. He ate, he could be touched by the people he loved, he taught them, he loved them. Our future is not an immaterial, ethereal future. We are not going to float into the Kingdom of God. We’re going to walk, hug and sing. There will be a joy and satisfaction that we can scarcely imagine.
We’re going to eat and drink with Jesus, the Son of God. And that is how death will be defeated.
So, what does this mean for us today? Many people have speculated about when these events will take place, about when Jesus will return. If you’re watching this service, it hasn’t happened yet! And Paul tells the Thessalonians in Chapter 5 that we don’t know when Jesus will return. But we need to be ready, and in verses 4 and 5 Paul explains what being ready means: “But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day.”
Christians are daytime people, even though the rest of the world is in the night. The day is the time when Jesus will make the whole universe new, when we receive our new bodies. And on that day there will be no more suffering and all tears will be wiped away. That day has not yet come, but we are supposed to live in the day.
As Paul says in verse 8: “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.”
Several times in his letters Paul likens Christians to soldiers and stresses the need to put on our armour, because we are in a battle. Jesus’ resurrection heralds the renewal and the putting-right of creation, but there are still forces of darkness in the world. The resurrection means that God will put an end to injustice, racism, poverty and disease. Yet these evils are still rampant in our world. As Christians, as people of the light, we too need to combat them.
As I prepared this sermon, I did catch myself wondering if this is all too good to be true. But Paul, in Chapter 5 verse 10 reminds us that Jesus “died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him”.
We, like the Thessalonians, need to remind ourselves that we live in a very troubled world where shattering events will occur, like the pandemic, like 9/11 and like the war in Yemen. But we also need to remind ourselves that we are children of the day, children of light. Jesus died for us and rose from the dead. Through his resurrection we have hope. The life of the new world is breaking into the old world.