1 Thessalonians 4:13-18| Rolf D. Preus| Third Last Sunday of the Church Year| November 11, 2001
They say that ignorance is bliss. I suppose that’s true in certain matters. We would probably rather not know about every thoughtless and unkind word spoken against us. We would rather not know about a certain special surprise friends have planned for us. We would rather not know ahead of time the exact hour of our death, or the death of someone we love. But when we face death, and we will, and we do, there are things we want to know, things we need to know.
“I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope.” Folks are naturally curious about the future, about the end times. Sitting in the church pew or in the Bible class or lying in our bed at night we may have thoughts which arise mostly out of curiosity about the unknown. We have questions about the hereafter: life after death, the signs of Christ’s return, Judgment Day, the resurrection of the dead. Some of our questions are answered in the Bible. To some of our questions, God has chosen to remain silent and to give us no answer, and if the Bible doesn’t answer our questions this means that God has decided we don’t need to know. Our questions come from curiosity, mild concern, or maybe from our inability as fallen, sinful creatures to grasp the great issues of eternity. When life is going on as planned, when those we love are reasonably healthy and obviously very much alive, our questions about the hereafter take on no great urgency for us. Days, months, even years may go by without our feeling the need to know, without doubt, the answers to those questions.
Then death strikes. He comes from out of nowhere. He gives you no warning. He takes away the one you love and rips out of you a part of your life. You cannot take it in, it seems so unreal, but the reality won’t be avoided. When this happens, it is too late to find comfort in ignorance. You need to know without any doubt the answers God gives about life after death.
And so we listen to God, we learn from him the answers to our questions before we have to face death. Then, when death hits us, staggers us, and momentarily blinds us with sorrow, he cannot knock us down, he cannot take away from us a joy that is deeper than any temporary sorrow. For we have God’s answers. God has planted them in our hearts. He has taught us beforehand, so that when death comes, we can stand.
Jesus faced our death. We know that. But before that can bring us any comfort, we must do the same. No, I don’t mean that we must die before finding comfort. These words are written to give us comfort here on this earth where we live. Rather, I mean that we must face our death realistically, and that means we must face it theologically. What is the theological meaning of your personal death? That is, what does God have to say about it? This is precisely what folks refuse to face because it’s not a pleasant thought. Well death isn’t pleasant! The reason is that it is God’s judgment against us for our sin. St. Paul writes, “Therefore just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12) The simple, biblical (and that means God-given) explanation of your death is that you are a sinner. You are guilty. You must die because you don’t love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. You must die because you don’t love your neighbor as yourself. If you did love the Lord your God above all things and if you did love your neighbor as yourself, you would not have to die.
This is the real painful sting of death. I deserve it. And more than that, the one whose death has hit me, hurt me, and caused me such sorrow and emptiness inside deserved to die. Oh, what a terrible thought! What a painful truth! No wonder this world is filled with false prophets who deny it! When we cry over the casket we don’t want to know that lying in it is one who richly deserved to die. Imagine the horror you would feel if, at a funeral, you heard someone say to the weeping family, “Well, you know your dead relative got what he deserved!” Unthinkable! But true.
So we face death while living and confess to our God that we most certainly do deserve to die and to receive God’s eternal punishment. We confess that death is God’s just punishment against us and those we love. What sadness it is to know that the pure and holy and loving God has every right to put you to death! That’s sorrow, brothers and sisters, that’s an awful sorrow. And that sorrow drives us to our knees before our God especially when death strikes.
We Christians face sorrow, there’s no denying that. But we do not grieve as those who have no hope. God has answered our questions, he has not left us ignorant, he has given us saving knowledge of the Savior who faced our death on the cross and destroyed it forever.
Jesus comes to sinners offering them life in place of the death that they have earned. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said. “Whoever believes in me will live, even if he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” He foretold his death and resurrection. He would be betrayed, handed over to the heathen, nailed to a cross, and on the third day he would rise from the dead. He would bear the sin of the world, he would suffer the pains of the damned, he would become that sacrifice by which all sin is erased, God’s justice is met, and his judgment is set aside. He said he would do it, he did it, and on Easter Sunday he raised himself from the dead. Our sins, which he, in his innocence chose to bear; our sins, which he as our substitute chose to face; our sins, which condemned us, there on Calvary condemned him, although he was innocent. And on Easter Sunday it was revealed to all the world, all of creation, heaven and earth, that those sins, our sins, were gone forever. His innocence triumphed over our sin. His purity over our deceit. His life over our death.
Now, death, come and take your victims! You cannot touch us. We are Christians! We are baptized into Christ! We bear the name of the Triune God and wear the sign of the holy cross on our minds and hearts! Say what you want, death, show us your power. We defy you. Show us the dead body of our father, our mother, our brother, our sister, even our husband or wife. Show us your destruction, oh death, show us the coldness of the corpse, remind us of the loneliness and emptiness we feel, throw it in our face and cause us to sorrow, but death, you cannot make us grieve, you cannot make us sorrow as if we had no hope.
We believe that Jesus died and rose again. We believe that those who have died in Christ have never been and never will be separated from the One whose blood has bought them. No power, not even the power of death can take away our hope because we have been taught by God. We are not ignorant people. We have the Bible, God’s inerrant word. We have the liturgy, the hymns, and the sermons. We have the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. We have Christ. Death cannot divide us away from him. Those who have Christ, the Christ of the Bible, the Christ of the Creed, the Christ of the Sacrament, remain with him even in death. We know this. God has not left us in ignorance.
We have the guarantee of Jesus who died and rose. He is the one who has told us that the Christian who dies sleeps in the ground as to his body while his soul lives in unspeakable joy with his Savior. All sorrow is gone forever. All pain. Every vestige of sin. All guilt. All regret. It is gone and replaced with the fullness of joy. Yet, the best is yet to come.
Christ will return. He will come to bring his church home. As evil increases, as denial of the faith, false doctrine, and the desecration of what is holy abound to the point where we wonder what will become of Christ’s little flock, we, who are not ignorant, take to heart the promises of Jesus. We know he will return soon. And when he does, he will raise from the dead the bodies of those who have died in the true Christian faith. Then we who are alive will meet Christ with those Christians who have died in the faith. None of us will be apart from our Lord for one minute. The Christian fellowship we have with one another will never be broken. The mystical union between the individual Christian and Christ will never be broken. We will be with the Lord forever. These are the words and promises with which we comfort one another.
Our text concludes, “Therefore comfort one another with these words.” What can be of greater comfort than the sure knowledge that the Christian whose body is laid in the grave is with his Savior forever? What else can break through the tears and lift up the sorrowing heart when death strikes and the one we love is gone? Nothing else can even come close.
“Comfort one another with these words.” Not just any words. We need the words of the gospel spoken to us when we are alive and well. Then, when death strikes or Jesus returns at a moment we cannot anticipate, we will be ready. The gospel that comforted our hearts will bring us the fullness of joy on that day, and nobody will be able to take that joy away from us. So we pray as did St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, “Come Lord Jesus, come quickly! Amen.”