A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor , Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on November 6, 2011
Psalm 70:1-5; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
My friend John Killinger writes of a particularly difficult time in his life. Spanning six years, it began when he left his teaching position at my alma mater to assume the pulpit of a church in Virginia. He had been at Vanderbilt Divinity School fifteen years, during which time he and his wife Anne had built their dream house and had raised their two sons. As John puts it, “We left the familiar stores where we had shopped for years, the streets we had walked and driven, the churches we had worshiped in, the friends with whom we had loved and argued and laughed over the years. I thought my heart would break.”
Two years later, his mother died. Soon, his boys left home to go to college, then his father died. There were other difficulties that led him to say, “I am not sure I have ever fully recovered from the feelings of grief that assailed me during those years.” He makes the case that grief doesn’t just come when there is a death in the family. Grief comes from separation, from loss, from change.1
He recognizes that he is not alone in these feelings. That, I think, is why he writes about it, other than the fact that John has always been very transparent and personal in sharing his feelings. He knows there are others who feel this way, and he wants to help. Above all else, my friend John wants to help.
So did the Apostle Paul, which brings us to the portion of his letter we read a moment ago. As apocalyptic as this passage may seem to be, it is not entirely about that. If the word apocalyptic is new and strange to you, allow me to explain briefly. In essence, it has to do with that day when God will choose to end this world as we know it and bring human and earthly history to a close. So those who are into this are concerned about such things… what will happen, how, and sometimes they even try to guess when. Some have even made an industry of it. And while it sounds like that is what Paul is talking about in his epistle to the Christians in the city of Thessalonica, it is not. Not really. What he has to say is about grief, and how to deal with the loss of a loved one or friend.
Those of you who have known me for some time are aware that this sermon was prepared earlier in the week. I’m hardly one to bring what is called a “Saturday night special” into the pulpit on Sunday morning. So what I was going to say next was based on the fact that we buried two of our long-time devoted members in the past few weeks. Then, with Mike Munns’ tragic death yesterday (Mike is the younger brother of our Minister of Music, Jim Munns), it takes on even more poignancy. What I was going to say next was…
Rather timely for all of us, don’t you think? Little did I know when I first prepared those words.
Do you mind if I give you just a little background? It is thought by most Bible scholars that Paul’s epistles to the Thessalonians are his earliest writings. Long before he wrote Romans, or even corresponded with the Corinthians, he sent letters to the followers of Jesus in Thessalonica. So these letters constitute not only his earliest communications with the congregations he served, but they also convey his earliest theological thought. Hold on to that idea, if you will. Hang it on a peg in your memory and consciousness, because it’s important to our understanding of what Paul has to say.
Add to this the belief that these early Christians, Paul evidently included, thought Jesus was coming again very soon and would usher in his final kingdom, and they would be physically present to witness this great occurrence themselves. But by the time Paul writes these epistles, that obviously hasn’t happened. And in the meantime, they have repeatedly stood at the edge of the graves of their loved ones and friends who have died.
So what you find in those days, when Paul writes his letters to the Christians in Thessalonica, is the belief in Jesus’ soon return mixed in with the dying off of the first generation of believers. When you add these two elements together, what do you have? Anxiety, misunderstanding, people possibly losing their faith. The believers in Thessalonica are seeing their loved ones and friends, their fellow believers, yielding up their lives on earth and passing to… well, what is happening to them? They don’t know! Once, they had been so sure, if for no other reason than the comforting and assuring words that Paul had given them. But now, as they attend funeral after funeral, they’re wondering about all these things. And, they have concern about what will happen when this inevitable day comes to them.
Was Paul wrong? Were they naive to believe what he told them? Was Paul mistaken in his idea of last things?
It is their very own road to Emmaus. You’re familiar with that story, aren’t you? You’ll find it in Luke, the only gospel that includes it. One of Jesus’ followers – his name is Cleopas – and his companion are walking from Jerusalem to their home in the village of Emmaus, about seven miles from the big city. They have just seen their hopes dashed and their beliefs crushed as Jesus, their Master, has died on a Roman cross. So the road to Emmaus is the long journey back to an empty house, to the “piles of unopened mail, to life as usual, if life can ever be usual again.”2
In Luke’s story, of course, the risen Christ, joins up with them along the way, and after explaining to them the scriptures that support his life and ministry, his death and resurrection, they invite him to their home. He accepts and eats with them at their table. When he breaks the bread in their presence, he leaves them… leaves them with the promise that all is not lost, that he is with them to “the end of the world.”
But now, decades later, those who follow this same Jesus are beginning to wonder what it all means and if it was really true. They have staked their lives on Jesus, and the things they have learned about him.
It is not easy to be a Jesus follower in a world that has little or no sympathy for such things. In that part of the world, and in those difficult times, persecution is the name of the game. It’s hard enough to walk in the steps of the Nazarene without all these lingering questions about death and the life to come. They believe in the risen Christ, to be sure, but why hasn’t Jesus come back? Didn’t Paul promise that he would? What is happening to their loved ones who have died in the Lord? Is all this futile after all?
So they have written their friend Paul and asked for his assurances of the time to come. What does Paul believe about those who have died in the Lord? They had thought that Jesus would come again and death would be no more. Now that death is very real to them, what are they supposed to do? What are they supposed to believe?
Since coming to be the pastor of this church, I have officiated 159 funerals of those who were associated with our congregation, my father included. Consistently, in every service, we have talked about the departed one now being in the presence of Jesus in the kingdom of heaven. But according to the way Paul describes it, it seems that all those who have departed are not with Jesus. They are in a holding pattern, as it were. They will have to wait in the grave until what is called “the day of the Lord” before they will rise to be with Christ. At least, that’s what Paul appears to be saying.
Then, Paul says that “we who are left will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.” But Paul and all those who constitute “we who are left” are now long gone as well. We are the ones who are now “left,” and because of that this passage of scripture leaves us with more questions than it does answers.
Did Paul still think Jesus would return soon? Was Paul wrong? Was his theology about such things, his apocalyptic understanding, incorrect? He begins this portion of his letter by saying, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters…” Some translations don’t say “uninformed,” they use the word “ignorant.” “We do not want you to be ignorant…” But somehow we get the idea that it’s Paul who is uninformed, and his misinformation is indeed leading to ignorance on the part of these poor – and possibly naive – believers.
Now, some two millennia later, is this a passage of scripture we need to simply ignore, as being the opinion of a mortal man who was mistaken in his idea of what God’s plans might be for the end of the age? Why do we even bother to consider this when it’s obviously an antiquated first-century idea that has no merit whatsoever twenty centuries later?
You see, we are left with a lot of questions, aren’t we?
Well, I’ll tell you why we need to consider this. Because if we don’t, we are like those Paul described who find themselves in grief and have no hope. And grieving without hope is worse than being ignorant. If we are to grieve, and we know that grief inevitably comes to all of us, we want to be able to do so with a hope that is borne of Jesus’ promises. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said in the beatitudes, “for they shall be comforted.”
How so? How, indeed, are we comforted by these words? May I ask you to consider this?… If you are now, or have ever found yourself, in grief, think of how it has changed your perspective on life. You just don’t look at things the same anymore. When you look at your world – your daily existence, your faith – through the tears of grief, you see in a whole new and different way.
Macro photography is the art of taking pictures up close. Photographers use this technique especially with flowers or food. If you’ve ever seen a picture of a bee on a flower, or a beautifully-designed gourmet dish, it is macro photography. In taking such pictures, photographers will utilize a technique known as shallow depth-of-field, where the focus – “tack sharp” focus, it is called – may be on a single leaf or rose petal, or the light reflected on an apple, while every thing else around it and behind it is blurred out. The next time you see a picture like this, take a good and long look at it. You’ll see what I mean.
If this is being done outside, it works best if it has rained so the object of the photograph is wet. It adds a luster, a dimension, to the photo that otherwise doesn’t exist. And, if it hasn’t rained, professional photographers suggest you simulate it by applying water yourself. Macro photographers often have with them a spray bottle filled with water for that purpose. Why? Because they know it is like looking through the lens of the camera with teary eyes. It offers a different perspective. You see things in a new and different light through tears.
Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote a book entitled Lament for a Son. When his son died, he says, he thought that for the rest of his life he would look at the world through tears. Perhaps those of you who have had this same experience know exactly what he means. “Perhaps I shall see things,” he says, “that dry-eyed I could not see… Be open to the wounds of the world. Mourn humanity’s mourning, weep over humanity’s weeping, be wounded by humanity’s wounds, be in agony over humanity’s agony. But do so in the good cheer that a day of peace is coming.”3
Jesus and Paul, when they talk about grief, use the same word. When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” and Paul says to his Thessalonian friends, “Comfort one another with these words,” the Greek word for comfort is the same that is used to describe the Holy Spirit. Comfort, encouragement, comes to those who look at their world through tears.
I began this sermon by telling you about my friend and mentor John Killinger. I think I’ll close it by sharing with you another insight he provides. John, who obviously has known grief in his life, has written about it on a number of occasions. Inevitably, when he does, he quotes Alfred North Whitehead, who once said, “God is a tender care that nothing be lost.”
You see, it doesn’t matter how, or even when, we will be reunited with God for eternity, however eternity is revealed in the kingdom of heaven. What really matters is that in the presence of God, nothing – absolutely nothing – is lost. Surely, we can find comfort in that, don’t you think? And in that comfort we will be blessed. That’s a promise.
Lord, comfort us in our grief, that when we look at our world through tears, we see you. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1John Killinger, Letting God Bless You: The Beatitudes for Today (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992), pp. 42f.
2Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995), p. 20.
3quoted by James Howell, “Living by the Word: Hopeful Grieving,” The Christian Century, November 1, 2005, p. 18.