|Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:13,14
Our friends, we want you to know the truth about those who have died, so that you will not be sad, as are those who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will take back with Jesus those who have died believing in him.
One of the lessons that we learn early in life is that things in this world do not last forever. Often we learn this lesson with a good deal of sadness and along with that sadness a good deal of confusion.
As our children were growing up we always had pets – cats, dogs, budgies, bantams, chickens, guinea pigs, even a horse. These were pets that they loved to hold, cuddle, wrap in blankets, push around in their prams, pretend they were babies. Our eldest daughter was often found out in the chook yard nursing a bantam. Another daughter loved her guinea pigs. When one of our dogs was suffering from a back injury and it was clear that he wasn’t going to get any better, our son carried the dog into his room and took special care of him. When the dog died each child disappeared to their own rooms and we found them on their beds with tears running down their faces. They were old enough to know (primary school age) that when something dies it doesn’t come back again. Their grief was enough for Miriam and me to agree that we would not have any more dogs, though that decision was overturned by our youngest daughter’s pleading for a puppy of her own.
Those who are keen gardeners know that the most beautiful bed of flowers doesn’t last forever. Eventually they droop, drop their petals, and we pull them up and throw them into the bin.
We are approaching the end of the church year. At this time of the year we begin to look at the end of things. We look toward the end of time when Christ will come again and the world as we know it will come to an end.
We look to the end of our own lives when we will pass through ‘the valley of the shadow of death’. We can’t be certain when this will happen but we can be certain that it will happen.
The church father St. Augustine once said, “On the first day of our lives, someone might look into our cribs and mutter, ‘I’m afraid, you are in a bad way. You won’t get out of this alive.’” We, you and I, are terminal. And the older we get the more we realise that life is short.
On the morning of my 40th birthday my son greeted me with all the sensitivity that a young teen can muster, “Happy Birthday, Pops. What’s it like knowing that half your life is over?” We laughed but I didn’t really need to be reminded of that fact at that very moment. But as much as we might deny it, life does pass by quickly and our bodies start to slow down and show signs of wearing out. We might even go into a panic as we realise that the psalmist was right, ‘We are like weeds that sprout in the morning, that grow and burst into bloom, then dry up and die in the evening… Seventy years is all we have – eighty if we are strong … life is soon over and we are gone (Psalm 90 5,6,10).
A writer once said, Looking at death is like looking at the sun. A man can look directly at it for a moment, but must then turn away.
That’s how so many people live with death. They cannot bear the thought of either a last day for the world, or their own last day. So many people these days have grabbed on to the idea of reincarnation – they will come back again in another life. That idea is plainly not true. Some simply go into denial; they shut their eyes to it and try to pretend that it won’t happen to them. Others adopt a more fatalistic approach. It’s going to happen and there’s nothing anyone can do change that.
All this talk about how short life is and our inevitable death can be rather depressing. It hurts all the more when we recall those special people who have left this life. Maybe the death of someone who was near and dear to you is still fresh in your mind. You recall with sadness what these people meant to you, how they impacted on your lives, the fun times you had with them. But now they are gone. Their memory is firmly fixed in our mind, but their presence in our lives is missed.
Will we hope ever to see their faces again?
Is it only wishful thinking, pure fantasy to believe that there is something beyond death?
As we say farewell to love ones, or look ahead to the day when we will gasp our last, is there any hope that will ease our grief and help us to be more relaxed about our own day of dying?
St Paul often tackled this very difficult subject in his letters. For instance, when he wrote to the Thessalonians he was speaking to a church in grief. The little congregation had risked so much; they had gone against their culture and the local authorities and stood firm in their faith in Jesus. They firmly believed that Christ would return soon. But where was Jesus? They had been waiting for years now. And while they were waiting some of their most beloved leaders and saints had died. Since they had died before Christ’s return are they lost forever? Will they be part of that great day when the dead will rise again?
Paul tells his readers not to grieve as if there was no hope; as if there was nothing more to look forward to once we reached the end of our life on earth. And what hope do we have? He says, “We believe that Jesus died and rose again …. Those who have died believing in Christ will rise to life …. We will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:14,16,17). In his letters Paul encouraged those Christians who were anxious about what will happen when time will stop and the world will end as well as comforting those who were concerned about what will happen when time will stop for each of us and our life will come to an end.
Like the Christians in Paul’s time, we too are sad when someone leaves this life. But this sadness does not lead us to despair or lose all hope. Because of Jesus we know there is life beyond death. There is no need for hopeless despair. There is no need to fear what will happen to us beyond this life.
Of course we will still have our moments of panic as we face our own mortality. As we wait for surgery, or realise how fast life is flying by, or stand by the grave of a loved one, we will still have those pangs of fear shoot through us.
We may wonder what will death be like;
how will we die;
what will happen to the family we leave behind;
and how we will miss seeing our children or grandchildren grow up and having their own families?
But these moments of panic are replaced with the confidence that Jesus has everything under control. And that includes death. Because of Jesus ‘death has been swallowed up in victory’.
Jesus has prepared the way. He has died to cleanse us from our sin and make us ready to enter into God’s presence in heaven. There is no reason to fear the outcome of our last day at all. Christ has died for us. We trust in him as our Saviour to rescue us from everything that would stand in our way to enjoying eternal life. There can be no doubt about our resurrection to eternal life. Paul talks about what will happen when Christ comes again, when he says,
“When the trumpet sounds, the dead will be raised, never to die again, and we shall all be changed. For what is mortal must be changed into what is immortal; what will die must be changed into what cannot die. So when this takes place, and the mortal has been changed into the immortal, then the scripture will come true: “Death is destroyed; victory is complete!” (1 Cor 15:52-54).
The witness of the Scriptures is clear. Death is not the end because our Saviour Jesus has changed everything to the point that death is no longer the penalty that it was. Jesus took care of death’s power over is through his own death and resurrection. He has made death the doorway to eternal life with God in heaven. Death is no longer a terrifying and frightening thing for those who trust in Jesus, but is the stepping off point to eternal life.
Last week we celebrated All Saints Day and we heard about that wonderful vision of heaven that John gives us in the Book of Revelation. He sees all these people from all around the world dressed in white robes standing before the throne of the Lamb. He asks, “Who are these people?”
This is the answer he receives, “They are the people … who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. That is why they stand before God’s throne” (Revelation 7:14,15).
We are certain of eternal life because our sins have been washed away in the blood of the Lamb. Jesus has made us holy, clean, pure and perfect through the giving of his own life for us and thus making us fit to enter God’s presence in heaven. God offers this to everyone and invites everyone to trust in the love and forgiveness that Jesus offers.
As the end of the church year gets nearer our eyes are focused beyond this life to the eternal joy that we will experience when we pass from this life. And we know that heaven will be a wonderful place. We read, “God himself will be with his people, and he will be their God. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes. There will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain” (Rev 21:3,4).
Nick, a ten year old, had been diagnosed with leukemia 3 years ago but all attempts by doctors had failed to hold back its devastating course. His parents sat by his bed helplessly as the colour drained from his cheeks. Nick was buried on the Tuesday of Holy Week. Easter Day dawned unusually warm and bright. Late that day, Nick’s parents sat on their verandah watching the sunset. Their six-year-old daughter, Hannah, played beside them. Nick’s dad said to Hannah, “Look at that beautiful sunset. Do you see all those beautiful colours – the pink and blue and gold colours in the clouds?”
Hannah thoughtfully replied, “Do you think Nick can see all those beautiful colours?”
Her dad replied, “He sees an even more beautiful sunset than we can see, Hannah. He’s in heaven with Jesus the most beautiful place that anyone can imagine”.
© Pastor Vince Gerhardy