Always with the Lord

This morning, on Remembrance Sunday I need to speak about the reality of death. The Imperial War Museum estimate that 187 million people have died as a result of war from 1900 until the present. And they add:

The actual number is likely far higher.

The Second World War was the most destructive in human history, and war or conflict took place in every year of the 20th century and that still continues to be the case. So how the world needs to think rightly about death and dying our subject this morning. Let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, we thank you for your word through the Apostle Paul and his teaching on death. May your Holy Spirit encourage us all as we look forward to the hope of Christ’s second Coming and the glory and wonder that can follow, for his name’s sake. Amen.

So will you open your Bibles or devices (which of course should be on silent or airplane mode) at 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 our passage for this morning. And I have three headings, first, the coming of the lord; secondly, the reality of death; and, thirdly, always with the lord. So:

1. The coming of the Lord.

Let me begin with some history. In February 1965 the Queen with the Duke of Edinburgh made a visit to the Sudan, which, until 1956 had been under joint British and Egyptian control. In 2015, on the 50th Anniversary of that visit, the media officer at the British Embassy in Khartoum provided a report of the Queen’s 1965 visit. In it he said, I quote, that:

Let me begin with some history. In February 1965 the Queen with the Duke of Edinburgh made a visit to the Sudan, which, until 1956 had been under joint British and Egyptian control. In 2015, on the 50th Anniversary of that visit, the media officer at the British Embassy in Khartoum provided a report of the Queen’s 1965 visit. In it he said, I quote, that:

She arrived at a time of great political tension; yet despite this, Sudan gave her a very hospitable welcome.

However, Hala Elhaj, the media officer, I expect was not there at the time. So 50 years later relying on file records, old Pathe newsreels on the web, and one or two phone calls, he wrote that report. From those newsreels you can see how thousands upon thousands were on the streets, with commands inevitably being shouted. Also you can see the traditional long-horned Sudanese 'wazzas' being blown, as well as modern trumpets. But someone watching as I did, the BBC news after last Sunday evening’s service, might find it hard to believe. For there on the TV were scenes of hundreds upon hundreds in the streets protesting against the recent military coup. And we saw people in hospital interviewed having been shot by the army. Sadly, such violence has been too regular in the Sudan since that visit in February 1965. So in 2021 it’s hard to believe that such a visit was possible. For in late October of 1964 there had been rioting another coup, and soon after the visit there was extreme violence between northerners and southerners. But I can believe it. For as one of the relatively few British people working then in the capital three-towns, I was privileged to meet her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh at a tiny garden party in the embassy garden.

Well, our passage for this morning predicts a supernatural divine royal visit at the end of world history as we know it. For there will be a coming again of Jesus, now the heavenly risen and reigning Lord of Lords and King of Kings. But many in the modern secular world will find that hard to believe. However, Paul believed it and with good reasons. Let me explain. The Apostle Paul knew all about imperial visits around the great Roman Empire and similar to our Queen’s visits. For similar things to modern times happened at such a Roman 'coming' as an imperial visit was called (in Greek 'parousia'). And Paul was confident this is going to happen in the future, from his research and reliable sources, like that media officer in Khartoum was confident about the past. For Paul knew that Jesus, the divine Son of God, God’s agent at the start of this created space-time order of existence and this wonderful world, he (Jesus) himself actually had taught this.

Jesus taught that he was coming back to wind up history, with God going radically to create a renewed or transformed heaven and earth, as we can learn from the Gospels. Paul, however, didn’t confuse the imaginable with the believable. He knew that Jesus analogies or pictures or parables were the only way to describe what is otherwise unimaginable and so indescribable – the recreation of the space-time universe. And we can know that this second coming (the first coming of Jesus, of course, we celebrate at Christmas) went back to Jesus himself as we can see from the Gospels. But this particular teaching uniquely here in our passage was the teaching of Jesus some people remembered that Jesus had high-lighted. So look at 1 Thessalonians 4.15-17:

For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord.

This is going to be a cosmic 'parousia' a divinely Royal visit with a cry of command, the trumpet and risen billions of people. And this was not Paul’s own inspired teaching. Jesus taught this. It is a word from the Lord. However, Paul writes up all this because of a particular problem. And that brings us on to our second, heading:

2. The reality of death

Let me list some facts about death. Fact one, and the fact of grief without hope. For the death of a person you love can only bring grief without true hope if you do not believe in Jesus Christ. Only the Christian believer can have true hope. This was the case in Paul’s day with its Greco-Roman culture and it is true today – just two examples. Aristotle, a Greek, and the greatest philosopher of the ancient world classically said:

Now death is the most terrible of all things; for it is the end.

And Catullus, the famous Roman poet, wrote:

The sun can set and rise again,
But once our brief light sets
There is one unending night to be slept through.

I haven’t time to quote many modern writers to the same effect. For some did argue for an immortality of the soul; but it was only to a shadowy existence. And this sort of thinking had seeped into the Church at Thessalonica. So, says Paul, they must change their thinking. 1 Thessalonians 4.13:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep [or died], that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

The Christians in Thessalonica seemed to have thought that their loved ones who died before Christ’s return would be shut out of Christ’s kingdom that he was coming back to establish. And they were grieving just as their pagan neighbours grieved for whom death was the end and without hope. So the Apostle is concerned to correct their error and bring them hope and comfort. He does so in 1 Thessalonians 4.14 where he writes:

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.

Dead believers will rise to new life. This is a wonderful hope but when Paul says, you may not grieve as others do who have no hope he does not mean there is not a place for Christian grieving or mourning. So fact two – Christian grieving or mourning is right and proper. For death is the enemy and is due to the fall and human sin and calls for grieving not three cheers! Death is not what God had in mind for creation which was all good (according to Genesis 1). But because of inherited sin, death or degeneration is a characteristic not only of all human life but of all animate life. And human sin has affected inanimate nature also. Genesis 3.17 is clear:

cursed is the ground because of you

God said to Adam. So grieving is an inevitable response to death and decay. Sudden death or death of a young person or of a close relative is cause for great grief. My mother died relatively young and quite suddenly – she was healthy (apparently) and alive in the morning and dead in the evening. And her death left a big hole. She was a believer, however. Of course, there was grieving but not (verse 13) as others do who have no hope. That is what Paul is forbidding - hopeless grieving. He is allowing the Thessalonian Christians to grieve for themselves but not for their dead Christian brothers and sisters which they were doing. But why? Look again at 1 Thessalonians 4.14:

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.

So fact three is that the Christian dead will rise to new life, as the New Testament explains, because there is a fundamental union between Christ and those who trust in him. And Christ not only died but rose from the dead. Romans 6.5 says:

If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

That faith-union is so close that all that Jesus has experienced will be experienced by those that believe in him. So death does not break the bond between the believer and Jesus Christ. It breaks the bond between and man and wife and a woman and her husband. But there is no such separation between our Saviour and us. He is with us in death and he will be with us in what is to come. Paul put that in Romans 8.35, 38-39:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword [execution]?… For I am sure that neither death nor life…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And Jesus himself taught about how that union means he will be with us in the process of death itself and what lies beyond. In John 14.1-3 he told his disciples:

Let not your heart be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.

Notice Jesus’ three promises in verses 2, 3 and 4.1 Thessalonians 4.2: I go to prepare a place for you. 1 Thessalonians 4.3: I will come back. And also 1 Thessalonians 4.3: I will take you to myself. Having gone there to prepare for us, he doesn’t expect us to travel there on our own – such is the unity the believer has with him, 1 Thessalonians 4.3 again:

I will take you to myself.

Yes, “I will come back” may have a primary reference to Jesus second Coming and the prelude to the general resurrection and our final state. But the faith-union with Christ means we can see a secondary reference to death the act of dying when it may be said that Christ comes to take us to himself. So facing death yourself, remember those three verses! My time has nearly gone - so finally our third heading:

3. Always with the Lord

And look at 1 Thessalonians 4.16-17 again with 1 Thessalonians 4.18:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words

There is great hope in the coming day of the Lord. For believers will then always be with the Lord. And because the resurrection is bodily (with perfect bodies) the General Resurrection will mean we see old friends and loved ones. And as Revelation 21.4-5 says, God…

…will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

But we have to be careful about interpreting the details of Christ’s second coming in 1 Thessalonians 4.16-17. First, this event (the second coming) involves the radical transforming of our history of time and space and so transcends our present human experience. And Revelation 1.7 says:

Behold, he is coming with the clouds and every eye will see him.

That means billions upon billions and it will be personal somehow. As we’ve said, the Bible has to use picture language or analogies such as a royal visit. But only when it happens we shall understand how appropriate that imagery has been. Also this is prophecy. And biblical prophecy, certainly in Old Testament times, was rarely fully understood until it had been fulfilled. With all that said, why are these verses this morning encouraging? Well, on the one hand we will always be with Lord who wants the best for everyone. On the other hand they encourage us to watch and resist temptation. For 2 Corinthians 5.10 says:

we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

Jesus will be utterly fair and understanding. But a believer, secure in his or her salvation, still needs to 'live each day as if thy last' to quote the 17th century hymn writer, Thomas Ken.

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