In Victorian England, in the 1800s, everyone talked about death and no-one talked about sex. There was a death-culture. Some of this was because death surrounded them. The life-expectancy was half of what it is today and many people died at home,X rather than off in hospitals, (where their death was witnessed by families). Of course, one reason death was the subject of conversation was that they had a queen who made a lifestyle out of grieving. She had lost her beloved husband, Prince Albert, when he was forty-two, and Queen Victoria publicly grieved him for the next forty years.
Our society is the reverse of Victorian England. We talk freely and obsessively about sex, but never mention death. If you want to make a conversation awkward, bring up the subject of death. In particular bring up the topic of our own impending death. Woody Allen once quipped, ‘it’s not that I am afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’ However, in a later magazine interview he talked about death’s stupefying terror, and how it renders all achievements meaningless and void.
However, as Christians, we need not fear death. Jesus has removed the sting of death for those who trust him. We need not fear our own passing and we need not grieve hopelessly for those who loved him. This is what we see in this morning’s passage. Remember that Paul is telling them how to please God. He now says that we please God as we grieve our Christian friends with hope.
Remember that when Paul was with them, he had told them that the next big event of God’s calendar was the second coming of Jesus. The Thessalonians began to look forward to it. They thought it would happen very soon. Indeed, some thought Jesus would return before any of them would die. They all looked forward to welcoming Jesus together. However, a year has passed since Paul’s visit and some of the Christians have passed on. Some of the Christians hadn’t prepared themselves for the experience of bereavement. They began to worry. ‘What about our friends who have died? They won’t be around when Jesus comes back. Will they miss out?’ It is to this confusion that Paul now writes.
Don’t be ignorant about death
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep (13). These words are tragically relevant to our society. If you want to find out how little our society understands about the gospel you should talk to people about the issue of death. Ask them why they think they are going to heaven. Most people will say, ‘because I am a good person.’ I told you about my neighbour, who is an atheist, but says that if there is a heaven he is going there because he is a good guy. He is a very nice guy, but no-one is going to heaven because they were good. Read the memorial notices in the paper, and you will read claims that the deceased is now an angel in heaven. Going to heaven has nothing to do with becoming an angel. Attend a funeral and listen to what people say, and you will see that there is a general ignorance about death. At Hazel’s funeral someone (not from this church) said to me, ‘we now no longer pray for Hazel, we pray to her.’ Hazel would not have approved of any of her friends trying to pray to her rather than praying to her Saviour.
We want to dispel the ignorance people have about death because we want people to hear the great news that Jesus has removed the sting of death. Jesus said, ‘I have not come for the self-righteous, but for those who know that they are sinners.’ Jesus doesn’t reserve heaven for good and respectable people, instead he opens the gates wide to all who will admit their wickedness and trust him as their leader. It isn’t people’s badness that keeps them out of God’s kingdom (if they bring that badness before Jesus), it is people’s goodness (their refusal to admit they are evil) that keeps people out of heaven.
Notice how the apostle Paul describes death for those who are trusting Jesus. He speaks of them falling asleep. Why falling asleep? Falling asleep, because like falling asleep the believer’s death is temporary and followed by an awakening. I listened to one preacher who suggested that it was significant that Jesus is said to ‘die’ but his people are said to ‘sleep’. You see Jesus experienced the full weight of death, including the punishment for our sins and separation from the Father, so that his people would not die but sleep. Did you know that the word ‘cemetery’ literally means, ‘sleeping place’?
Don’t grieve as those without hope
Because we are not ignorant about those who fall asleep, we do not grieve as those who have no hope.
I have presided over a number of funerals, and it makes the world of difference when you know that the deceased was at peace with God. One of the hardest things to do is comfort someone who is grieving a friend or relative who they suspect had no time for God. All you can do is pray that God would give them a comfort that goes beyond understanding and that he would ease their pain. However, when you are at the funeral of someone who loved Jesus, there is sure hope in the midst the sorrow. There is the feeling of ‘see you soon’ rather than ‘goodbye.’
Now, Paul does not say that we do not grieve. If I am saying good-bye to someone who I will not see for a year or so, I feel sad. I feel much more sorrow when someone died and I know I will not see them until my life in this world is over. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit. There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. We are called to mourn with those who mourn. Leighton Ford, a Canadian evangelist, whose son Sandy died in 1982, at the age of twenty-one, said, ‘when you love deeply, you hurt deeply.’
But we do not grieve as those are without hope. When someone like Hazel dies there is sorrow. We love her and we miss her. But there is also celebration. She is now more alive than she has ever been. She is happier than she ever was in life. She is now enjoying the Saviour she loved in this life.
We will be raised to be with Jesus for ever
We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep with him.
Our hope is found in the resurrection of Jesus. He has defeated death. He was raised from the dead and promised to be our resurrection and life. When I do funerals, I tend to read Jesus’ words as the coffin is brought into the church. Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and life, those who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live.’ The risen Jesus ascended to heaven, and promised to be with us until he returns.
The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.
I just want to make sure you are clear of the order here. When Hazel died she went to be with the Lord—for we are told that to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord. However, even in heaven Hazel is looking forward to the Lord’s return. For it is then that she will receive her new resurrected body. And if Jesus happens to come before we have passed on, we will then join her and have our bodies transformed for heaven.
And so we will be with the Lord for ever. Paul addressed their concerns regarding their loved one who have died. It will be wonderful to be reunited with them for ever (particularly because our friends will no longer be spoiled by our sin). However, see that the greatest thing about heaven is being with the Lord for ever. That’s what makes my neighbour’s comments about going to heaven so silly. If he doesn’t want his life centred around the person of Jesus now, why would he want to place where Jesus is literally the light of the place (Revelation 21:23)?
Can I just talk to you for a moment if you don’t know where you stand with Jesus? Jesus offers heaven but he also warns of hell. Contrary to what you may have been told, you will not go to heaven on the basis of going to church or being a nice guy. There is only one way. That way is a person, Jesus—Jesus who loves like no-one has ever loved; Jesus who died for the guilt of those who would trust in him; Jesus who wants to transform your life now and who wants you to be at peace about death; Jesus who calls you to enjoy him today and for all eternity.
Finally, what are we to do with these truths? We are to encourage each other with these words. When was the last time you had a conversation with a fellow Christian about life after death and the Lord’s return? These truths can be hard to grasp because they picture things that are beyond our experience. Pray that God would give you the sort of faith that lives in sure expectant hope. Pray that he would take any fear of death away from you.
It is interesting to compare the inscriptions on the catacombs of Rome of the ancient Roman pagans and the early Christians. One pagan inscription reads, ‘while I lived, I lived well. My play is now ended. Soon yours will be. Farewell and applaud me.’ That’s a proud man, who thinks he lived a good life, but has no explanation for what happens after death. Another pagan inscription reads, ‘bath, wine and love ruin the constitution, but they made life what it is. Farewell.’ Compare those with the simple words of a Christian inscription. ‘Valarias, sleep in peace.’ I love the words of the hymn-writer, Augustus Toplady, who wrote, ’Believers should not have a slavish dread of death. Where is the baby that is afraid to go to sleep in its mother's arms?’