Hopeless Sorrow and Hopeful Sorrow
Third Last Sunday Sermon 2008| Rev. Rolf Preus| 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
It’s only natural to be sad when you lose a loved one. No Christian can avoid it. It is not a sin to be sad. Our sinless Savior wept with the family of Lazarus. Before praying at Gethsemane he told his disciples that he was feeling extreme sorrow to the point of death. Death brings sorrow out of us as a matter of course. But the Christian does not sorrow as others who have no hope. The Christian knows that the fellowship we have with God through Christ is unbreakable. Our fellowship is with the God in whose name we are baptized and with His Holy Christian Church in heaven and on earth. Our text makes it crystal clear that the Holy Christian Church is bound together in a holy union that death cannot destroy. This will be seen on Judgment Day. Today we must simply take God’s word for it. The word of God given by St. Paul comforts us Christians with the assurance that Christian loved ones who have fallen asleep in physical death will be raised from the dead when Jesus returns to take His Church home to heaven.
When the Bible here refers to death as a sleep, it doesn’t mean that the soul sleeps but that the body sleeps. There is a popular but unscriptural notion that when Christians die their souls fall asleep and are conscious of nothing until the day of resurrection. The Bible knows nothing of soul-sleep. Whenever the Bible talks about the condition of the Christian between death and resurrection it portrays a state of conscious enjoyment of God’s presence. Jesus said to the penitent robber, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” St. Paul said that he wanted to depart this world and be with Christ, which is far better than the life in this world. The sleep of death is not the sleep of the soul. It is the sleep of the body in the ground. We Christians confess that the body that dies and is buried will not remain dead forever. Jesus will return. His voice will raise all the dead from the sleep of physical death and all of humanity will stand before Him. Those who died “in Jesus” will be raised first. They will be reunited with those who are still living in their bodies here on earth. The bond between the Christians and their Lord shall never be broken.
“I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope.” Those who have no hope have a different kind of a sorrow than those who have hope. Those who have hope lose a Christian loved one and their pain goes only so deep. It is a real pain; that is true. But underneath the pain of losing the father or mother, husband or wife, or even son or daughter is a confidence that God Himself has planted deep inside of us. We are confident that God’s promises are true. We are confident that the covenant of God with us in Holy Baptism will stand. The Father created us: body and soul. The Son redeemed us: body and soul. The Holy Spirit sanctifies us: body and soul. What does this mean? It means that God will raise us up from the grave and reunite the body and soul that were temporarily separated. This is why the pastor says these words over the casket at the committal service in the cemetery:
May God the Father, who created this body;
May God the Son, who by His blood has redeemed this body, together with the soul;
May God the Holy Ghost, who by baptism has sanctified this body to be His temple,
Keep these remains unto the day of the resurrection of all flesh.
The same God who created the bodies in which we live will raise them up from the dead on the last day. The bodies that in this life were beset by temptations to sin will be confirmed in innocence forever. The bodies that grew old and died will remain forever young. The bodies that suffered from cancer, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, blindness, deafness, multiple sclerosis, and every other kind of physical malady will be forever free from any flaw of any kind. God will raise us up to a glory the joy of which cannot be expressed in words. We will forget about all sickness, pain, or weakness.
How do we know this promise is true? Jesus Christ is the eternal uncreated Son of the Father. He took on our own flesh and blood to destroy in Himself the sin, sickness, and death of our flesh. He did so fully on the cross. He rose from the dead bodily on the third day. He has sent into our hearts the Holy Spirit who, by means of the gospel and the sacraments, persuades us that this is true. The gospel is intended for the fallen children of Adam who know that they are deserving of death and punishment. It is for our comfort. It is for us to comfort one another.
We need comfort in the face of death because death is the most fearsome enemy we will ever face in this life. This is why we do our best to avoid death and to avoid even talking about it. We use euphemisms to avoid the bitter truth. But death is the most vivid reality of life. For thousands of years people have speculated about life after death. Apart from God’s revelation in Christ that’s all it ever amounts to: speculation. They guess. They wonder. They hope, but have no hope, and so their hope is empty. They have no certainty of life after death or if there is such a thing where it can be found. The only thing certain is death itself.
Those who do not know Christ do know death. Their sorrow in the face of death is literally hopeless. The sorrow that death brings is like no other. Death is divine judgment. This is why we feel guilt when we face death. The emotions may go through a predictable range from denial, to anger, to sorrow, and so on. But fear underlies them all. And this is true for everyone. Christians as Christians have no fear of death but Christians must contend with their doubts, their weaknesses, and thus their deep down fear of death. This is why the apostle urges Christians to comfort one another with the hope that we share.
Those who do not know Christ and who are not trusting in his blood shed for them on the cross to wash away their sin face death without hope. They may not know or believe that God warned Adam: “The day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Still, the knowledge of sin and death clings to them as they excuse or justify themselves in the face of death. The most brazen of all efforts of unbelievers to deal with death is to attack God himself and deny his very existence. How can death be divine punishment if there is no God? But of course it is all for naught. The wages of sin is death and nobody can break this bond.
There is a need within every human heart. It may be covered up, denied, and explained away. But it will still be there. The simple fact is that sinners need a Savior. Flesh and blood sinners need a flesh and blood Savior. This is their need, even when they don’t know it. When their own bodies are facing sickness and death, their guilty consciences cannot be brought to peace by means of lies. They need the gospel. They need to know that the same God who created them in his own image joined himself to them by becoming incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and became man. The Creator joined his creation to bring us back to him. This they need to know, because when they face death nothing else will bring them comfort.
We stand at the grave and hear the familiar words from the medieval hymn:
In the midst of life we are in death
Of whom may we see comfort, but of thee, O Lord
Who for our sins art justly displeased?
Yet O Lord God most holy,
O Lord most mighty,
O holy and most merciful Savior
Deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.
Thou knowest Lord the secrets of our hearts
Shut not thy merciful ears to our prayers
But spare us Lord most holy,
O God most mighty,
O holy and most merciful Savior
Thou most worthy Judge eternal
Suffer us not at our last hour for any pains of death to fall from thee.
How does God answer this prayer? Does he ignore our need for spiritual strength? Does he watch us slip away into doubt and ultimately despair? Does he shut his ears to our prayers, leaving us to fend for ourselves, rely on ourselves, and fall into unbelief? No, he comforts us.
St. Paul spoke the word of Jesus. And this word has never been and will never be silenced in the Church. The words of comfort are written down. They are publicly proclaimed. They are confessed repeatedly by countless Christians facing sickness, suffering, and death. “I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” This is no mere private hope. This is the confession of the whole Church. It is grounded in the Holy Scriptures. It is revealed in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
See him as he faces death. There he silences the fears of your heart. There he faces every doubt that comes up within you as fruit of your own sins. Every act of rebellion, malice, lust, greed, and envy of which you have ever been guilty was forgiven in Christ’s death. This is why he died. It was for you. See him risen from the dead, free from your sins that he bore. They are washed away forever and he is ascended up on high at the Father’s right hand where he intercedes for you. As he pleads for you before the Father’s throne of justice he shows the Father his holy obedience that he offered in the place of your sin. It is from interceding for you that he will come for you. He will not forget your prayers. He will not forget his prayers that he prayed for you. When he comes to take you home, your body will be instantly glorified whether you are living in it or it has been laid to rest in the ground. In either case, death will be finally and thoroughly destroyed.
Let death come and do his worst. He is defeated. He is undone. We know the One who bore death for us. In him we have life, now and forever. These are the words that comfort us in our times of sorrow so that when we sorrow we do not sorrow as those who have no hope. Amen