Good news for the grieving – 1 Thessalonians 4 v. 13 – 18
For the past two months, I have been working my way through a preaching series on ‘good news for…’. We have thought about good news for the nations, the old, the young, the curious…and yesterday it was ‘good news for the grieving’. Preparation for the sermon started by asking people on Twitter about the least helpful thing people had ever said to them when grieving. Answers came back on the #dontsayit hashtag as follows:
1. I know how you feel
2. Any sentence which begins with “at least”
4. Offering support…which you cannot deliver
5. Its for the best
6. Any sentence which begins with “you should”
7. Are you feeling better yet?
8. Think of the good times – memories are a powerful reminder that they are not there any more.
9. Have a good Christmas
10. When are you coming back to work? (Boss)
To be fair – all those people also said that they believed the vast majority of people who had said these things had meant well when they did so. When we grieve, we are hurting (C.S Lewis described it as ‘an amputation’) and even the best meant things can sound like the worst.
There are many, smaller, griefs too:
• Loss of income (redundancy)
• Loss of status (retirement)
• Loss of mobility
• Loss of proximity (empty nest)
• Falling out of love
Where is the good news to be found?
If you read only part of v.13, you get the phrase “you do not grieve”. If any Christian ever tries to say or imply that we do not grieve, they are lying. To suggest that Christians do not grieve is as daft as saying they do not sweat. Of course we grieve, but we grieve differently. We do it differently over death. We do it differently over other, smaller griefs too.
V.13 tells us that hopelessness is born of ignorance – about the wider, deeper picture and about the specific and irreversible actions of God.
v.14 When it comes to dying, others may pussyfoot around and call it other things – fallen asleep, called home, at rest, gone away, but Paul uses no such phrase when he talks about Jesus here. He calls a spade a spade and says that our hope is born of this one fact:
JESUS DIED AND ROSE AGAIN
That single fact changes the way we grieve over those other smaller things. If Christ has died and risen then no matter what we have lost – this CANNOT be a day entirely without hope. As Martin Luther King said : live each day as if Christ died yesterday, rose today, and was coming back tomorrow.
That single fact changes how we look at greater grief of death too. It concerns me when a Christian who has lost their husband or wife says ‘they were EVERYTHING to me’. That cannot really be true, surely? To say that does nothing to detract from the pain. He or she may have been unspeakably wonderful and enriched your life beyond the capacity of words to say but they could not and should not have been your ‘everything’. Note that Jesus himself shed tears when he saw what the loss of Lazarus was doing to his family (even knowing he would go on to reverse it).However, as Christians we grieve DIFFERENTLY because we see things DIFFERENTLY.
Note Paul’s contemporary Aristides on how Christians dealt with their dead: ‘they rejoice and offer thanks to God, and they escort the body as if he were setting out from one place to another nearby’.
In general, the New Testament does not say much about the day Christ returns. Details are kept to a minimum – as if it is all too wonderful, sublime and spectacular to be described. In v.16 Paul breaks with that tradition. What he describe is not the quiet Jesus explaining parables to the disciples, nor is he the gentle Jesus blessing children, nor the silent Jesus before his accusers. Instead, we see the commander of heaven’s armies coming for his own in triumph as he splits the skies.
The worldview at the time held that above the earth was the air,and above that were seven layers of heavens. So when Paul writes in v.17 that we shall meet the risen Lord ‘in the air’ it is an assurance that he is coming to get us. Paul concludes this verse by saying that ‘WE WILL BE WITH THE LORD FOREVER’. For him, this is the absolute bottom line. Never mind his loss of status in Jewish establishment. Never mind being cut off from his family because of following Jesus. Never mind all the things he had lost – it was worth it all to know that come the day, Jesus would fetch him home. Is that prospect enough for us too?
3. Mind the gap
There is a gap here, though, between belief and praxis. I have often heard the phrase ‘so heavenly minded that we are no earthly use’, but never yet met a Christian to whom it applies. In the churches where I have worked and worshipped the problem is usually the other way round. Fully aware that we do not want to sound like the #dontstayit phrases above – how do we fulfill Paul’s instruction in v.18 to ‘encourage one another with these words’?
It is a tightrope to tread – but we must try to learn how to do it. I close with a quote from the closing chapters of #journey:
The refusal to think about journey’s end is one which no pilgrim could afford. For a start, they had to actually know where they were going. Not only that, but the prospect of their glorious arrival would be enough to sustain them on a long and arduous journey. As Christians we have shied away from talking about journey’s end, and laid up all kinds of problems for the dying and the bereaved by doing so. It is time we put this right.
Phil 3 v. 7 – 9