Scripture: 1 Thess 4:13-18; Psalm 70
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep [k]in Jesus. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.
I suppose every pastor has his or her own approach to preaching. Basically preachers pick a subject that seems important and find things to back up the point. Then you talk about it. I tend to take the Bible passages as they come and then ask a simple question: What is this talking about? And then I ask a second question: So what? What is the teaching, and what difference does it make?
A little bit of history might be in order this morning. The passage from Thessalonians addresses a concern held by the early Christians. They evidently expected the immediate return of Christ, and when that happened living believers would be transported, somehow, into eternal life. The problem came when Jesus’ physical return didn’t take place right away. What was going on? Had they misunderstood the teachings about his coming? Had he really been raised from the dead? And if he had been, some believers were dying before Jesus came back. What would happen to them? Would they still be saved, or would they be left out?
It’s unfortunate that some people have taken this passage and twisted it around so much it doesn’t make any sense at all. They’ve used it to make a case for how those who don’t believe in Christ are going to be punished. Hal Lindsay wrote several books along this line. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins wrote the Left Behind series. It was a great series. It provided the opportunity to scare lots of children. They could worry about coming home to an empty house because their parents got caught up in the rapture without them, or they could imagine the person driving their car disappearing from behind the wheel.
Anyway, it might seem like this passage isn’t really connected to us. Especially if we don’t link our eternal destinies to Christ’s immediate return. But Paul does raise two issues that we can relate to. One is, how do we grieve? And the other is, what does the “Coming of the Lord” mean for us who are alive today?
Psalm 70, which we read earlier, is called a lament. It’s a psalm of grief. It talks about the value of lament, and it expresses frustration over being the target of those who seek the psalmist’s life, of being put to shame, of being a victim of injustice. “I am poor and needy, O God. Hasten to help me!”
This Psalmist might not fit in too well in our culture. We’re discouraged from grieving publicly. That doesn’t mean we can’t relate to lament. A child who is bullied, or a spouse who’s abused, or an immigrant who is incarcerated, would probably like to see those who torture them put to shame and become confused. The media presents tragic events like school shootings or missing children as things that need closure, families need to move on with life, and do it quickly. If we spend too long dwelling on a loss of any kind we might be encouraged to just get over it.
Or ignore it. A Christian hymn went this way:
Let us greet with a song of hope each day Tho’ the moments be cloudy or fair Let us trust in our Saviour alway Who keepeth everyone in His care.
[chorus] Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side, Keep on the sunny side of life It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way If we’ll keep on the sunny side of life
Paul doesn’t negate grief. He understands that people who are closely tied together in Christian community grieve when someone dies. So for Paul the question becomes, how do we grieve as believers? It’s easy to get lost in Paul’s double negatives: 13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. When we strip the negatives away it reads something like this: We want you to know about the dead, so you can grieve as people who have hope.
How do people without hope grieve? I suppose it comes down to fatalism. What you see is what you get, and that’s all there is. When life is over, it’s over. You might miss being with someone you love, but missing them won’t change anything. What’s done is done, and it is a waste of time and energy to even think about it.
But Paul says that those with hope grieve differently, and the difference is found in those who are alive and await the coming of the Lord. For Paul, the people with hope have positioned themselves in a new reality.
In Stephen King’s story “The Langoliers,” a group of airline passengers finds itself trapped at the border of time, with everything in the past being devoured by the Langoliers, strange invisible creatures who eat up what has already taken place in history. It’s as if history itself is disappearing, and the passengers are on the edge of the destruction. If they can’t find a way to get back to the present they too will be destroyed. It’s a pretty cool story.
For Paul, those with hope are not on the back edge of the present, they’re on the front edge, where the future is occurring. The defining reality for them isn’t the destruction of the past. It’s the reality of the resurrection, the reality of God breaking into the future with the coming of Christ, the Lord descending from heaven, resurrection from the dead, creation out of nothing, the genuinely new, the unexpected surprise, more than we could ask for or imagine.
The Psalmist anticipates that kind of hope when he confesses that God is his help and his deliverer. Those who seek God will rejoice and be glad in the Lord. He believes in a future that hasn’t yet occurred. In fact it is a future that defies the reality of the present: he is surrounded by enemies, he is taunted and mocked and ridiculed. People jeer at him saying “Aha, Aha!” He is poor and needy.
But his glimpse of a new reality, a new future, allows him to say, “God is Great!” And Paul concurs. It wouldn’t seem to matter whether the coming of the Lord is seen in the birth of the Christ Child, the descent from heaven, or the coming of the Holy Spirit. A woman was asked what held the earth up and she said, “An elephant.” So she was asked, “What’s under the elephant?” She said, “Its elephants all the way down.”
If we were to ask Paul what defines the future, he would say it’s the coming, the advent of the Lord. And it’s Advent all the way down.” The advent of Christ occurs in the birth of the Christ child that we will celebrate in the weeks ahead. It occurs in the second coming when Christ returns in glory. It occurs in the Spirit who brings the new into our present worldly life. People of hope are the ones who eagerly await the new and unexpected thing that the resurrected Christ brings.
How might that work? Here’s one way. I’ve talked to the folks who do outreach down in the Star Room. They provide breakfast on Monday and Friday mornings to anyone who comes through the door. And from their point of view, this was not very comfortable when they first began the ministry. People came in the door, but they were pretty hostile. Distrustful. They resisted being orderly, and their language wasn’t always socially acceptable. In fact some of our volunteers were kind of frightened by the whole situation. But they persisted. They kept opening the doors and serving the meals.
And things began to change. Not only did they hand out coffee and toast and hardboiled eggs and cereal, but they sat and talked with people while they were eating. They introduced themselves. They asked how people were doing. What else did they need besides breakfast? We have some clothes. We have some paperback books. We have some toiletries, we have a sandwich for you to take with you.
What happened was something totally new and unexpected. Relationships were formed. Volunteers and guests started to care about each other as people. They expressed interest in each other’s lives. A volunteer learned about a guest’s grandchild. A guest asked about a volunteer’s health.
If you walked into the Star Room today you might look around and say “So what? Just a bunch of people eating and talking. That isn’t anything special.” But if you hold that picture up beside what was going on last January it would look like a miracle. Because it is. A new future, totally unexpected and really unplanned, has unfolded right in our laps.
The truth is we don’t just grieve for the dead. We grieve for the past when we can’t recover it – the way families used to do families, or churches used to do church, or businesses used to do business. We grieve the present when it gets troubling, when we feel victimized by injustice or the people around us are going “Aha! Aha!” And we grieve the loss of the future when a child is stillborn and our dreams for ourselves and that child collapse, or a spouse dies and the widow or widower says, “Now everything we planned to do together is gone.”
We grieve when things look hopeless, and it feels like tomorrow has been gobbled up before it even had a chance to get here. But the Star Room, both volunteers and guests, have seemed to grieve with hope.
My hope is that you’re a part of that ministry, and part of the other ministries here at First Baptist. That doesn’t mean you have to serve hard-boiled eggs or go to Nicaragua. But it means you have to have a vested interest in the church community. We all have to have buy-in.
That’s what stewardship is all about. It isn’t about how much we give, but the fact that we give together. We give sacrificially, letting some things go unpurchased so the ministry can go forward. We forgo a Starbucks every week so the carpets can get cleaned and the hungry can get fed. We have a financial part in the present and the future of the church. To sit on the sidelines and be a church shopper isn’t productive. To say, well, I liked this worship service but not that one, or I liked that choir number but not this one, that just makes us into armchair critics.
Stewardship is financial participation in the life of the church. And if we aren’t doing that, we’re missing out. The joy and excitement, the real hopeful living, comes when we work and pray and give together to make the ministry a reality. If you haven’t taken that step yet, please do. Don’t be an observer. Be a full participant in the life of Christ. Or ask yourself, “Could I do a little bit more?”
And when the new and unexpected comes, participating believers will embrace it and rejoice in it together. Good for them. Good for us. Good for God, who does the impossibly new and unimaginable and dumps it right in our laps.