St Barnabas & St Michael’s, November 2nd 2014
On 1st November 1914 – one hundred years ago yesterday – Britain suffered its first naval defeat for over a century. In the battle of Coronel, off the coast of Chile, HMS Monmouth and HMS Good Hope were lost with all hands on board. Sixteen hundred men perished, including ten recorded on the memorial at St Michael’s and a further three at St Barnabas. One of them was Thomas William Andrew Gilbert whose parents lived at number 14, Coxside, on the Barbican. His rank was Boy, first class. He was just seventeen years old.
Death is something we all struggle with, particularly the death of the young, the good and the kind. Even today, after so many scientific and technological advances, it remains the great mystery of human existence. The biologist can explain the process of death and what happens to our mortal remains. The historian can record the names of the dying and explain their significance. The counsellor can tend to the grief of the bereaved, and help with the psychological scars.
But why we are born, why we live and then die, that is the question we humans struggle to answer. King Solomon in his old age reflected: I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Eccl 3:10-11). As I hope to show this morning, without a faith in Jesus Christ, all we are left with is a puzzle that is too big for us to solve.
This week has seen the centenary of the poet and broadcaster Dylan Thomas. When his father lay dying, all he could advise him to do was to: Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Now of course I recognise that there is a right anger against the futility and waste that death brings. But so much modern music and literature is filled with the impotent rage of the hopeless, that can see no way out beyond the fleeting span of three score years and ten, and this poem by Dylan Thomas perhaps captures this sentiment more than any other.
On Friday we’ve also had Halloween, originally a Christian festival and now either a cynical marketing exercise to sell the most revolting trash or an excuse to get involved in all kinds of pagan practices. I for one find it fascinating that for all that we are supposed to be so rational and scientific, Halloween is growing in popularity. Teenagers seem to love dressing up as zombies. Meanwhile on our screens TV series about the undead continue to attract large audiences, while film producers churn out horror movies one after another. Perhaps all this interest in fantasy and horror is another way of masking the fear of death. Whether it is healthy – well, that’s another question.
And then today we come to our reading from 1 Thessalonians. What a wonderful contrast here! No element of despair. No escape into fantasy. This passage is full of the most wonderful and most precious hope, and it’s little wonder that many Christians have found such great comfort in Paul’s words over the years.
But before we look at Paul’s words in any great detail we must, as always, consider the reason why he wrote them. Now it’s not totally clear what situation the church in Thessalonica was facing. But when Timothy reported back to Paul what was happening there, it appears that one issue which was really shaking the church was the death of some of their members. For whatever reason, the Thessalonians thought those who died would fail to miss out in some way when the Lord Jesus returned. Even though they had a hope in Jesus Christ, as chapter 1 verse 5 tells us, that hope was being undermined by some tragedy that was affecting the whole congregation.
I have to say, I have a lot of sympathy for these Thessalonians. The most difficult task I ever face on a Sunday morning is when I have to start the service by announcing the death of yet another church member. As we gather in this place on All Saints Sunday, I think of the many over the past twelve years that we have mourned, and it’s fair to say we miss them and those who have gone before terribly.
But I would also add that it is precisely at our time of loss that our faith in Jesus Christ should really count. Let’s listen again to those words Paul writes to the Thessalonians in chapter 4, verse 13: Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.
All throughout this chapter Paul has been showing us that our faith should make a real difference in the areas of sexual purity, of brotherly love, of honest endeavour. But the acid test of whether a faith is true and genuine comes when we are faced with death itself. Because our attitude towards death shows whether we have understood the cross and the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, or whether it is all just another mystery too deep for us to fathom.
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. Why not? Paul goes on: We believe that Jesus died and rose again. You see, that is the central claim of the Christian faith. It is a claim, perhaps, that when you first hear about it, seems absurd or far-fetched. After all, every other person who has died has failed to come alive again. It is a given of human existence that death is the end. Yet something about the death of Jesus of Nazareth was different. Three days later the tomb was empty. The stone was rolled away. Jesus in some wonderful and powerful way came to back to life.
Don’t just take my word for this, however. Listen to the historians who attest it is one of the most certain facts of the ancient world. Listen to the lawyers who say that the balance of probability points in that direction. Listen to the literary experts who say the manuscript evidence is overwhelming. The Christian faith is not based on wishful thinking. It is based on the most solid and reliable fact.
And it is good to be reminded of this fact when we start grappling with life’s great mysteries. If our Christian faith is simply about trying to do good, then, yes, we might possibly live a better life. If our Christian faith is about feeling spiritual, then, yes, we might have some wonderful experiences. But unless our faith is based on the belief that Jesus died and rose again in our place for our sins, then we will have no answer in the face of death. We will end up grieving like the rest of men who have no hope.
Maybe the problem with the Thessalonians was that for all their faith and love, they had somewhere along the line lost their focus on what was really important. After all, I know from my own experience how easy it is to lose track of what the Christian faith is all about. We can end up doing lots of good things for the local church. We can be sidetracked into concentrating, say, on the music or the forms of service. And without quite knowing why, somehow these other concerns become more important than the fact Jesus died and rose again.
So today as we think of the fallen, as we look at a world which so often seems to be hopeless, I want us all to put the resurrection back at the very centre of our faith. It is vitally important that we do so, not for just for own sake, but for the sake of the many who live close by this church who are living and dying without knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Because, you see, it is the resurrection that, first of all, proves that Jesus is all that He says He is. If Jesus had not been raised from the dead, He would have remained just another human being who wrongly believed He was different from other people. Those who worshipped Him and called Him the Son of God were in that case just plain wrong or deluded, and those who wrote the gospels peddlers of the most elaborate and tragic hoax. Yet because the tomb was empty, Jesus’ claims about Himself do make sense. He is indeed the resurrection and the life. He is the good shepherd, who lays down His life for the sheep. He is the one who can promise the penitent thief that today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 22:43).
And it follows that if we can trust Jesus’ words about Himself, we can also trust Jesus’ words about the future. We do not know precisely how or when Jesus will come, but if Jesus says that is going to happen, then the resurrection tells us one day this will come to pass. We would love to know more about the end times. Plenty of people have speculated about the signs of the end of the age. I could easily spend hours going through our gospel reading looking at all the different ways people have tried to understand this passage. But we should be content to know that if Jesus is who He says He is, then we can trust His words.
In short, the resurrection guarantees that one day the last page of history will be written. There will no more names to add to our war memorials. There will be no more wistful songs and poems mourning the loss of loved ones. There will be no more festivals commemorating the dead and the funeral director will no longer be in business. Why not? Because the words of our passage in verse 16 will come true: 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. In some dramatic, unimagined way Jesus will reappear on this earth in a way that is unmistakeable, so that every eye will see and every tongue confess that He is Lord.
And what will that day mean for us? Well, let me briefly share three things:
First of all, it means that those who have already died will rise. That, as we have seen, was the big concern for the Thessalonians. They were afraid that some of their nearest and dearest would miss out on that big day. But Paul says clearly in verse 15: 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. In other words, the resurrection of Jesus in some way guarantees that those who know and love Him will also rise to new life, whatever physical state they happen to be in. Again, we would love precisely how this will happen, and plenty of people have tried to speculate over the years. Maybe to some of us the idea of life after death seems too difficult to grasp or too fanciful. Yet if the Lord says it will happen, it will happen. Our part is simply to believe and trust.
Secondly, at whatever point Jesus returns, He will not come as He did the first time in weakness and humility. Although the English translations don’t bring it out very well, the language Paul uses in verse 16 to describe His return was used at that time to describe the arrival of a king. Imagine a great emperor coming home to his city with great crowds flocking to meet him, fanfares filling the air, and shouts of acclamation. Well, says Paul, all this will be as nothing when Jesus returns.
Jesus will come as king not just to one particular place, or to one particular group of people. He will come as king over the whole earth. He will come as king over the troubled areas of the world such as the Middle East. He will come as king over Morice Town, Stoke and Devonport. He will come as king over our homes, our streets and our schools. There will not be a single square inch of this earth where He will not rule, and where He will not claim authority.
It follows then, that thirdly, the focus on that day will very much be on Him. Let’s carry on reading from verse 16:
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 caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord for ever.
Now folk sometimes quite rightly ask me at a time of loss, will I see my loved ones again? Of course there is no way I can give a definite answer to that question because I am only a servant of the Lord. What I can say is that the Lord is just, and will act according to His love and mercy. But what we need to realise is that when He returns, our focus will not be on those around us, although we might glimpse them as faces in a crowd. Our focus will be on Jesus. We will be with Him forever to worship Him, to give Him thanks and praise, to rejoice that finally we have received the goal of our salvation. We will be in the fullest sense of the word home, safe with Jesus, forever.
So the question I have to ask is, will you be ready? Because the terrible truth is, that when the Lord Jesus returns, there will be many, many people who will not be ready. When they hear the trumpet sound and see Jesus face to face, they will realise too late what an awful mistake they have made by rejecting Him in this life. As they confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord they will realise too late what sin and folly they have committed by serving other gods, or indeed denying there is a God at all. While those who are in Christ will go rejoicing into the wedding banquet of the king, they will be left outside, excluded from His love forever.
So let me ask again, will you be ready? You see, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ demands a response. It isn’t an event you can ignore or think about on another day. Jesus has taken upon His shoulders your sin and your guilt and borne the punishment that should have been yours. How you respond to that historical fact matters. It really matters. Because only in Jesus do we find the answer to life’s great mysteries. Only in Jesus do we find the grace and the forgiveness that can save us. And if anyone here has not yet responded to Christ, then may I ask you to consider carefully what you need to do this morning. There is nothing more important that you can do than put your faith in Jesus Christ today.