THE COMING OF THE LORD

I THESSALONIANS 4:13-18

NOVEMBER 23, 2014

Dr. Rev. Richard Meyer

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            A woman was dieting and complaining to her grown daughter that, although she had worked hard to lose twenty pounds, she had not lost it in the right places. Her daughter replied, "Mom, don't be too hard on yourself. After all, we both know that you have an hourglass figure. It's just that the hour is getting late.

            Thats what the Thessalonians thought.  They thought the hour was late.  They thought the end of the world was at hand.  They thought Jesus would return during their lifetime to gather them all into his new kingdom, but they had a question about their loved ones who had accepted Christ but had died before Christs return. They wondered what would become of them?

            This is our last Sunday on our quick trip to Thessalonica.  Paul wrote two letters to the good folk there.  Last week we saw Paul respond to his critics in Thessalonica.  Today he attempts to set church straight on a particular theological issue.  Listen to his words.  

 

            But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others 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 died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.  For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, will the archangels call and with the sound of Gods trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.  Therefore encourage one another with these words.

 

            I want us to note four things.  The Contrast.  The Creed.  The Correction, and finally, the Call. 

            First, the contrast (verse 13) We do not want you to be uniformed, brothers and sister, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others who have no hope.

            We hope for a number of things.  We hope to live to a ripe old age.  We hope the Huskers finally win a big game.  We hope the sermon wont be boring.  We hope our adult son or daughter will someday move out of the basement.  Hope is a much needed commodity in life, but when it came to death, hope was a scarce commodity in the Greek world. 

            Even though Thessalonica had been under Roman rule for over two centuries, culturally it remained a Greek city filled with Greek influences.  One of those influences had to do with death.  Ill quote two influential Greeks.  Aeschylus wrote, Once a man dies there is no resurrection.  Theocritus wrote, There is hope for those who are alive, but those who have died are without hope.  Grim epitaphs adorned tombstones such as, I was not; I became; I am not; I care not. 

            In other words hope for those who died was a scarce commodity in a Greek city like Thessalonica.  So much so that some sixty years after Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, around 125 A.D., when Christianity was gaining momentum in the ancient world, another Greek by the name of Aristeides wrote to one of his friends, trying to explain the extraordinary success of the new religion, Christianity. In his letter, and remember this comes some sixty plus years after Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, in his letter Aristeides incredulously writes these words: "If any righteous man among the Christians passes from this world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God, and they accompany his body with songs and thanksgiving as if he were setting out from one place to another nearby.

            Paul says, Do not grieve like those who have no hope.  I love the failed attempt at comfort between two little girls.  A little toddler at daycare was crying. A three-year-old girl walked over, patted her arm, and in her sweetest voice said, "It's okay. Don't cry. It's okay." But when the tears kept flowing, the three-year-old changed her tactics. She stomped her foot and announced in her most authoritative voice, "I . . . said . . . it's . . . OKAY!

            Losing someone hurts.  It hurts deeply.  Paul does not deny that.  He does not deny grief, but he does tells us not to grieve like those who have no hope.   He reminds us, Its going to be OKAY!

            So, thats the contrast.  Next note the creed.  Verse 14, For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.

            Many scholars believe Paul was quoting an early creed, a confessional statement of the early church, a belief paired down to its essentials … “We believe that Jesus died and rose again.  Thats the confession.  Thats the creed.

            Ben Austin had long been a history buff, and after retirement, he enjoyed spending his free time as a guide at the Museum of American History. If you havent ever been there its part of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.  It has cool things displayed there like the original copy of the Star Spangled Banner and Archie Bunkers chair.  Anyway, Ben Austin began to portray historical figures at the museum while guiding school children through the exhibits. Shopping on-line, Ben had acquired a few period costumes, complete with white wigs. He delved into the lives of these figures, sharing their trials, tribulations, and achievements with the visiting students. Benjamin Franklin was Ben's favorite character, possibly because they shared the same first name.

            One morning, Ben was guiding a group of first graders when one small girl asked Benjamin Franklin how he could live so long. She remarked that Ben must be very, very old indeed. Searching for a quick explanation, Ben explained that he had died long ago and had come back to earth just for the purpose of helping girls and boys to learn about life in the olden days. The girl then asked if he had come from heaven, and Ben replied, "Yes. I have come especially for your school class."

            Ben was totally unprepared for the next question as that young girl asked, "Did you see my mommy up there in heaven?" Ben was at a loss for words as it dawned on him that her mother had died. He told her, "Yes. I saw your mother. I think she is probably the most beautiful of any of the angels in heaven. I'm sure she wants you to know how very much she loves you."

            Ben told the little girl the story of the resurrection. We believe that Jesus died and rose again.  We have a sure and certain hope that because Jesus lives, we, too, shall live.  Like the Thessalonians, thats what we believe.

            Now, note the correction Verse 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.  For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangels call and with the sound of Gods trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then, we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 

            Last Sunday I mentioned that much, not all, but much of Pauls letters dealt with two things: criticism and correction.  Last week we listened in as Paul answered his critics in First Church Thessalonica.  This Sunday he corrects a mistaken understanding of Christs return.  The Thessalonians had become obsessed with questions and concerns about Christs second coming.  When Paul was with them, he had preached the Lords return with such urgency that the Thessalonians fully expected Christs return immediately, and if not immediately, then at least next week or next month, or next year.  

            Fast forward a few months.  After leaving Thessalonica, Paul continued his missionary journey, establishing churches as he went.  From Thessalonica he went to Berea, and after Berea to Athens and after Athens to Corinth and then back to his home base in Antioch.  Somewhere along the line he sent back Timothy and Silas to check on the churches he had planted, one of them being the church in Thessalonica and Timothy and Silas reported back to Paul of the Thessalonians distress about the delay of Christs return.  As time went on, more and more of their friends and loved ones died.  With each death there was not only the normal grief, but also the fear and remorse in knowing that their loved one had indeed missed out on the imminent return of Christ by the virtue of having died too soon.  Having died too soon would they also miss out on heaven, of being with the Lord forever?  That was their fear, that they would never see their loved ones again.

            Paul corrected their thinking, assuring them, that they will indeed see their loved one again. Their loved one will not miss out.  Listen to his corrective words once again beginning with the end of verse 16 and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then, we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 

            Im reminded of the author who likened heaven to the receiving station at Ellis Island. At the old receiving station at Ellis Island in New York harbor, the immigrants would come off the ship after many days on an ocean voyage. After their papers had been carefully examined and they had been cleared for entrance, they would rush to what was called "the Kissing Post." There they met and kissed and hugged and loved the ones from whom they had been separated so long. Tears flowed and laughter rang out in many glad reunions. Maybe that's what heaven will be like not so much a place with streets of gold as it is a place where glad reunions occur.

            One more thing to note, the call Therefore encourage one another with these words.

            Death hurts.  It hurts badly, but it is not the end.  We will be raised to eternal life, and we will be with each other and the Lord forever.  Take heart. Encourage one another with these words.

            Let me close with an encouraging story.  Dr. Diane Komp, a pediatric oncologist, described herself as an agnostic/atheist when she first entered the medical field, but working with dying children gave Dr. Komp an unshakable faith in God. She tells of a typical case from her early years: seven-year-old Anna had fought leukemia for five years. She had no more strength to fight, but moments before she died, the little girl suddenly sat up in bed and announced that she saw angels. A smile lit up her small face as she described their beautiful singing. And then this little child, radiant with joy, lay down and died.[1]

            Diane Komp came to believe that God came for little Anna. She had seen the Lord face to face, and she lives with him now forever.

            How do we face grief? Openly and honestly, and always in the knowledge that Christ has overcome the grave.  Lets encourage one another with these words.  Thats our call.  Amen.

 



[1] Diane M. Komp, M.D. A Window To Heaven (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), pp. 28-29.