Sermon Transcript November 15, 2020
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ~ Sunday, November 15, 2020
3 months. That’s how long it was between her diagnosis and her death. She told her family in July it was pancreatic cancer. We gathered for her funeral in early October. In those 3 short months many of her family members asked me: “How can anyone face something like this without faith?” As they watched their loved one’s health’s deteriorate rapidly, it was a very personal question.
It’s also very practical. Greek philosopher, Aristotle, called death, “The end of everything.” A French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote, “Death removes all meaning from life.” Another French philosopher, François Rabelais, made this his last sentence, “I am going to the great Perhaps.” Death confounds this world’s greatest thinkers. Even the sharpest human thinking cannot pierce through the darkness of death. How can someone face something like death without faith? Not well.
But not just any faith will do when it comes to facing death. There were at the time of the writing of the New Testament a group of Jewish faith leaders called the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. They did not believe that a day was coming when the dead would be raised up. In their opinion the best you could hope for was to be fondly remembered by God, by your friends, by your neighbors, by your family. What comes next? They couldn’t see anything beyond death, so their faith believed that death was lights out, darkness, game over. There is nothing else, nothing more. Does that kind of faith, a faith that doesn’t believe in life beyond death, does that kind of faith help you face death? Not really. Not in a hopeful way.
And to be honest, even with a faith that believes there is more beyond death, better life in the world to come, the specter of death can still rattle you to your core. When the diagnosis you receive is life-threatening, when the disease you or a loved one has is rapidly taking its toll and earthly life is slipping away, and there’s nothing anyone can do except make a person as comfortable as possible, and yet, at times, it seems impossible – you feel incredibly helpless. For all the great medical advances humanity has made, we still can’t cheat death. When you’re in that place, where the helplessness weighs on you, and the inevitability of death closes in around you, even the strongest faith is attacked and assaulted by feelings of hopelessness!
That’s one of Satan’s most effective weapons against us. Scripture says, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for.” (Hebrews 11:1). If Satan can take away your Christian hope, your faith in Christ will soon fall too. That what Satan’s tactic with the Thessalonian Christians. He assaulted them with questions about their loved ones who had died what would become of them. He plagued them with doubts about whether their dear ones might miss out in some way on the full joy of heaven because they hadn’t lived long enough to see Jesus’ return. Maybe you wrestle with the same question for believing loved ones whom you’ve mourned. Maybe you wonder and worry about that question for yourself. Or maybe your question about death, and the Day of Judgment, and the life after is different. One thing I know with certainty: when it comes to death and what happens next, we all have questions.
It’s not wrong to have questions, just as it is not wrong to grieve the death of a Christian loved one. Questions and grief are part of life in this world. But it’s also important to see how Satan manipulates our doubt and sadness to turn our hearts away from the Lord. When questions plague you and grief weighs on you, where do you turn and how do you process what you’re feeling? Do you rely on your heart and the limits of what it perceives? Or do you turn to the Lord and lean on the extraordinary promises that he gives?
The death of a Christian loved one provides a powerful window into our souls. At the deepest depths of who we are, where do look for comfort? Where do we turn for answers to our questions and solace for our sadness? Some cling to fond memories of their departed loved one. Others seek comfort in conducting a grand funeral with beautiful arrangements and an expensive casket. But if that’s all there is, that consolation won’t bring lasting resolution.
It’s not wrong to grieve, Paul says. Listen to how Paul says it: “We do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (v. 13) Why is it wrong to grieve without hope over those who have died in the faith? Because, Paul says, they have just fallen asleep! This is not a euphemism – Paul isn’t trying to sugarcoat the difficulties of death – he is describing what death really is for the believer! You aren’t afraid to go to sleep at night, right? When you lay your head on your pillow, you know that you will wake up in the morning. Death for a believer is just like sleep in this way: that person is going to awaken from that slumber at some point to once again use all their abilities and senses again.
If that sounds like the happy talk of people who are in denial about reality, remember Jesus. Do you remember how many times he wrecked a perfectly sad funeral filled with people weeping and wailing over the person they’ve lost? One time Jesus walked up to the house of a recently deceased twelve year old girl, friends and neighbors are howling in grief, the girl’s parents are a wreck, people are appalled at the tragedy of the whole situation. Do you remember what Jesus said when he arrived on the scene? “The child is not dead but asleep.” They laughed at him – that’s the happy talk of a religious nutjob! No, Jesus, this is a tragedy! She was taken from us way too soon – you can’t make our sadness go away by sugarcoating the situation with some happy sounding words! Remember what Jesus said next? “Little girl, I say to you, get up!” And she stood up. She wasn’t one of the walking dead. She was fully awake, alert, all of her sense intact, ready to fully interact.
Or what about the widow who was marching out of town to bury the second man in her life – she was leading her silent, somber parade, but then Jesus crashed the funeral. Oh no, what’s he going to say? This poor woman lost her husband and now she’s burying her son! Yet again Jesus talks to a corpse like he’s speaking someone who is merely asleep: “Young man, I say to you, get up!” And the young man did!
Or who can forget when Jesus’ own friend, Lazarus, had died. Four days had passed by the time Jesus gets there. The putrid smell of death causing people to gag when Jesus told them “Take away the stone.” The river of sadness that was flowing turns into a torrent of joy when Jesus says: “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus comes walking out awake, alert, alive!
Death still causes grief. It should. Remember Jesus himself wept at Lazarus’ tomb, his real heart, really hurting, pained by the heartache that death causes. Jesus knows the struggles of grief. He also knows its ultimate cause. Moved by compassion, Jesus overcomes the hopeless of grief. Paul tells us how: We believe that Jesus died and rose. The wages of sin is death, so Jesus paid for sin by his death, and then rose again…for you! He separated you from your sin as far as the east is from the west. That means you have a hope unlike any other – because this one is guaranteed. Faced with death you can too can grieve like Jesus: in hope!
This sure hope of life in the face of death is what the Apostle Paul wants us to focus on. Think of it like the ultimate family reunion. Reunions are wonderful opportunities to see people you love. The reunion Paul points us to will be unlike any other. People’s bodies reunited with their spirits for eternity. Family members seeing each other for the first time in years as they rise to meet Jesus Christ. Through faith in Christ, we, too, will be reunited with them and the Lord forever!
This experience tops everything. I can look each of you in the eye and say with absolute confidence that the most exciting experience in your life has not happened yet. I don’t care what you’ve done. You may have skied down the Rocky Mountains. You may have landed that dream job; purchased that dream house; gone on that dream vacation. You may have skydived again and again. On the Last Day, though, you will defy gravity. You will fly! You will be caught up to join this joyful and wonderful reunion with Jesus in midair, the reunion that will never need to end!
With these thoughts in mind, Paul has just one more thing to tell us: “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (v. 18). I’d like give you some encouragement with these words in mind and in light of the news that Liz Johnson, former teacher at CTK, died yesterday. When a person dies we often say that they have passed away. We’ve heard the saying so often we accept it as an accurate description of reality. I catch myself saying it too. Though Liz has died she didn’t pass away as though she no longer exists. She didn’t pass away. In Christ what passed away is her cancer. Through Jesus what passed away is the suffering she was going through. What passed away for Liz is all the troubles and the trials that come with living in fallen flesh in a sin-broken world. Yesterday, that, and all of what that means: the pain, the discomfort, and even death passed away for Liz. None of that will ever bother her again because through Jesus all of that passed away when she fell asleep in her Savior’s arms. And when she awoke, his is the face she saw.
And while we grieve, we do so in hope. We do so encouraged by these words to see her death through the eyes of faith. Through faith we see that she is now in heaven, where all the hardship she’s been through over the last several months, all of it had passed away. And our tears of sadness pass away as through the eyes of faith we see that all that remains for Liz is love, and joy, and peace, and perfect contentment, never to be disrupted nor destroyed, ever again! Encouraged by these biblical thoughts and these words of Scripture, through the eyes of faith keep our sights set on heaven as we continue our journey with Jesus here on earth, until the day that the King of kings calls us to meet him, whether that is in midair in the clouds when he comes again on the Last Day or the day of our own death when he calls us from this broken world to join him in his heavenly palace and see him face-to-face together with Liz. Until that glorious day, keep on encouraging each other with this truth! Amen.