Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, dear friends in Christ, Poor Irene. Poor Irene. It’s impossible to console someone when you have no consolation to offer. Archaeologists have found an ancient letter written in the 2nd Century AD. It was from a lady named Irene who sent it to a couple who were grieving the loss of a loved one. This is what she wrote: “Irene to _________ good comfort. I am sorry and weep over the departed one as I wept for Didymas. And all things, whatsoever were fitting, I have done, and all mine, …. But, nevertheless, against such things one can do nothing. Therefore comfort one another. Fare well. October 28” In essence she said: “Sorry for your loss, I lost someone too, we did the customary things to do when someone dies, there’s nothing you can do, comfort each other, farewell, bye.” Poor Irene. There are still people like Irene today, aren’t there? What’s a death or a funeral like apart from Jesus? The number one hit on an internet search on “funeral sympathy” gave this as a sample sympathy note:
Dear _____, I was very saddened to hear about ______’s death. She was someone that really lived every day to the fullest. While I know that words are only a small gesture of support, I want you to know that her spirit has touched many people’s lives as it has mine. You and your family are in our thoughts. I would like to extend an open invitation to run errands and watch the kids. I will call shortly to find out what I can do. My deepest sympathy, ______
Over 1800 years a death apart from Jesus hasn’t changed a bit, has it? If you eliminate Jesus all you can offer someone is empty consolations and hopeless condolences. It’s impossible to console someone when you have no consolation to offer, isn’t it? Today we thank the Lord that we are not ignorant about death and we do not grieve like people who have no hope. When we consider our death or the death of a Christian loved one we are not in the dark. We have the sure hope and the certain comfort in both life and death: knowing that we will be with the Lord forever! There’s a third letter that I haven’t read yet.
The apostle Paul was in Thessalonica for only several weeks on his mission trip there. By God’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s work a number of people were brought to faith in Jesus as their Savior. But Paul had to leave Thessalonica fast because some people began to persecute him. This little fledgling group of Christians knew they were living in the Last Days and Christ could come at any moment. But there was a problem. One or more of their fellow Christians recently died. So they were wondering, “If so-and-so died, are they going to miss out on or be at some disadvantage when Christ returns?” So Paul wrote, “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Did you hear it? Jesus died and rose, believers… fall asleep. Since Jesus died he paid the penalty of sin which is death, he suffered death in our place, His death was a punishment for all sins of all time. But believers in Jesus? Their death is simply called a sleep. When Christians die, their death is not a punishment. What’s the difference? Well, when a Christian dies their death is a consequence of sin in the world, but because of what Jesus has done God has turned their death around into something actually wonderful. What a beautiful way to describe death for a Christian: sleep. Most people look forward to sleep, it’s restful, and you know that when you fall asleep you’re going to wake up again. We fall asleep here and wake up in heaven. There’s an old hymn (which we’ll have to sing sometime) that has a refrain that says, “We’ll say good-night here, but good-morning up there!” That really captures what a Christian’s death is.
When a believer in Jesus dies his/her soul goes to be with the Lord in heaven and his/her body is either buried in the ground or becomes dust or ashes and awaits the Last Day, the Last Judgment. And what exactly is going to happen on the Last Day when Jesus returns? Paul goes on, “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, 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 are left will be snatched up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”
Some people are led to believe that they might miss the Last Day when it comes. Some think it’s going to happen secretly and they’re going to miss out. Some think it’s going to come and go without them ever knowing it happened! Well, what does God say? The Lord himself will come down from heaven in a visible way for everyone to see, there’s going to be a loud command, the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet call of God! There’s no one in this room who doesn’t realize it when Kyle beautifully accompanies one of our hymns, well when God plays His trumpet you aren’t going to miss it! J
And notice what else is going to happen. The dead in Christ will rise. Believers in Jesus will rise from the dead and every believer in Jesus who is still living will in a public and open way meet the Lord in the air. This is going to be a glorious and awesome event and Jesus will take every believer with Him to heaven forever.
And what’s the purpose for God telling us these things? “Therefore encourage each other with these words.” To build each other up. Literally the verb “encourage” in the Greek is word for putting your arm over someone’s shoulder and say, “Let’s talk.” And why is it that we need to be encouraged?
We face death all the time in our lives. There’s nothing that shows our sinfulness more clearly than standing in front of a coffin and realizing that because of sin in the world we are dust and to dust we will return. And it’s even more jarring when the person lying in that coffin is a friend, a relative, a parent, a spouse. All the things you wish you could say, all the questions you wish you could ask, all the things you wish you could do… not happening anymore. It really struck my wife and I hard when this past summer her dad was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Now we pray that he will recover, but news like that makes a person stop and think. As far as we know, if Jesus doesn’t return soon, one day we will have to bury our parents, perhaps a brother, a sister, a friend, a spouse, a child. We don’t like to think about that. We’d much rather live our lives as if death were not a constant reality. We’d much rather do our own thing or live the way we want to live. Then all of a sudden a Christian loved one dies. And it hits us. Why God? Why now? Why them? Why God? Why? It’s those times that make one of the hardest prayers to pray: “O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good and His love endures forever?” And then we think about our own death. One day our hearts are going to stop beating and it doesn’t sound like fun. Perhaps at times we even raise our eyebrows to heaven and wonder, “Could a loving God really allow this horrid thing like death happen in the world? What’s going on? Does anyone really deserve death?” Well, the sad fact is because of sin in this world dust we are and to dust we will return.
So where is hope in death? Where is joy in death? Where is encouragement in death? Where do you look when a Christian loved one passes away? Where do you look when you’re facing your own death? An empty letter of sympathy with empty consolations and hopeless condolences?
Far from it! Rather we look to the love letter of God’s Word. We know and believe that Jesus died and Jesus rose and Jesus will come again. Jesus went to the cross for a reason. He did so to rescue us from our sins to fling wide open the gates of heaven for us. We know that since Jesus rose from the dead death no longer holds any power over us. When we die we fall asleep and wake up in heaven. Death is the door to heaven! We know with certainty that our friends, relatives, children, parents, spouses who have died in the Lord are right now enjoying the wedding feast of the Lamb, joys that have no end and bliss beyond compare. What greater encouragement could we have other than knowing that those whom we love who have died believing in Jesus as their Savior are in heaven!
And WE have certain hope! Often people will say, “Well, I hope I’ll be in heaven when I die.” But that is not certainty. The gospel, God’s Word, gives you certainty! Because Jesus died and rose for you, you know with absolute certainty that you will be with the Lord forever! It’s NOT arrogant to say, “Because Jesus lived died and rose for me I’m absolutely confident that I’m going to spend eternity in heaven.” That’s confidence! That’s encouragement!
And what does God want us to do? Encourage each other with these words. To our loved ones who don’t believe Jesus is their Savior, tell them! So that they might also be a saint triumphant! One of the best things you can do as a Christian friend, spouse, parent, relative, etc is to express your faith to your loved ones. To tell them that you believe in Jesus. To live as a believer in Jesus. To make sure they know without a doubt that you trust in Jesus as your Savior. The one thing, the only thing that is going to comfort your loved ones after you die, the one thing, is that you had faith in Jesus as your Savior. And so they know without a doubt that you are in heaven and that they will see you again in heaven.
What could possibly give greater comfort, greater joy, greater encouragement than knowing that YOU will be a saint triumphant and will be with the Lord forever! Just picture it: Multitudes of people from every nation, tribe, people, and language wearing white robes who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb …never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their Shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:14-17) Yes, YOU, saint triumphant, will be there, forever with the Lord! Amen.