1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Matthew 25:1-13
Every great now and then, someone asks me about what it’s like to be a pastor. My general answer is, “If you are called into ministry, it’s the best job in the world!” If I am asked, “What is the worst part of being a pastor,” I would have to say, “funerals and memorial services.” And, if I am asked, “What is the best part of being a pastor?” I would have to say that one of the best things would be funerals and memorial services. I know that sounds confusing, so let me explain.
It is tough to spend time with folks who are grieving the loss of their loved-ones—it’s painful. But it is also a privilege to be with these folks, because they have invited me to be a part of their lives at a time when they are particularly vulnerable. Helping folks plan a service—while they suffer in grief—gives me an opportunity to 1. Help them deal with their loss and 2. Give them a sense that we are going to celebrate the gifts God gave us through this person. But there are two factors that have a tremendous bearing on my experience of this process:
- If the person has been a man or woman of faith, we will plan to use Scriptures that will proclaim our confidence in the saving power of God. We will sing songs that speak of our hope, and the grieving process will be tinged with a note of hope.
- If the person was NOT one who professed a faith, then it would be phony to pretend that they were…to use a lot of Scripture and hymns of the faith. In this case, our focus would be on 1. Celebrating that person’s life and 2. Thanking God for them and 3. Entrusting them to God’s mercy.
Now, I want to make it crystal clear: I don’t take it on myself to judge the person—to determine anything about their relationship with God. Not at all. But I do try to lead a service that is genuine and helpful at a time when families and friends gather to remember their loved-one.
In 40 years of doing this, I have come to rely very heavily on one of our Scripture passages for today, 1 Thessalonians 4. When my mother died, and again when my father died, we used this text in their services. Paul writes, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
Friends, there is a world of difference between the grief of those who have hope in Christ and the grief of those who do not. Again, I am not judging. Those who know something of God’s gift of life in Jesus Christ hear Paul’s words with hope: “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” This is hope that is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. The hope we share has nothing to do with how nice a person is, or how “they would give you the shirt off their back”, or how “their smile would light up a room.” It is hope built on God’s promise that begins in the Old Testament and culminates in the death and resurrection of Jesus!
Paul tells us that Christ makes a difference in the way we grieve—a difference based on our expectations for the future. IF we have our future safely tucked away in the loving hands of Christ, we can live our lives more confidently and with less worry. When we trust God’s love, God’s provision, God’s plan for us—then we will see everything in the light of that trust.
When things happen, we have learned to look for God’s hand at work, working all things to the good! That changes how we grieve. If we have an expectation that our loved-ones are waiting for us, that our separation is not permanent—then we grieve with hope. Death is not the end. “O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?”
I also want to talk today about this sense of expectation for the future, and what it means as we anticipate heaven. Now remember: we DON’T follow Christ in order to get to heaven—that would just make us calculating little weasels! That’s why we really don’t emphasize heaven too much. But heaven is very real, and, as I told the children, having a sense of certainty about God’s eternal care for us changes the way we live our lives. We follow Christ because Christ gives us a renewed life TODAY! We become members of the Kingdom of Heaven while we are still rooted in this earthly life, and we grow in our capacity of GIVE OURSELVES TO GOD. Here’s what I mean: This journey of faith, this pilgrimage road is all about the process of becoming, of growing into the people God knows we can be. And, as we grow, we learn to put more and more of our lives into God’s hands—to trust God with every aspect of living.
Here’s an example: there once was a young woman of God who had a deep sense that she would one day marry a Godly man and have a family. She dated different guys and always wondered, “Is this The One? Is this the man God has been preparing me for?” The guys she dated just never fit the bill, and she worried that she might never find the right guy.
Then she went on a retreat with sever other college-aged Christians. While she was there, she finally decided to give it all up to God. She said something like, “Okay, God. I give up trying to find the right guy. I’m just going to be content being single and live my life for you. If and when you send the guy, I’ll be ready. It’s all in Your hands, now.”
Meanwhile, there was a young man looking for a Godly woman, asking a similar question regarding a future wife. He wrote a letter to God in his journal as he prepared to move to a new city. In it, he asked, “Perhaps you have someone special waiting for me there?” As it turns out, these two had a friend in common, one who introduced them at a church meeting and—well, you guessed it! They got together. They had put the future into God’s hands and deliberately DECIDED to trust whatever God would do.
This is what I would call “Watching with Hope” (Or, as the Choir reminded us, “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning!”) It means being alert and expectant, but not impatient. Watching and Waiting are a big part of the life of faith. As events unfold around us, the temptation is to get all tied up in knots and worry about how things are going to work out. (And, yes, I do this, too.) When it happens, we can turn to this word from Hebrews 12: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” In other words, Keep Watch with Hope.
I will finish by asking this question: What might happen when we “fix our eyes on Jesus”? What might happen:
- When I compare my situation with the agony of the cross?
- And, as awful as the cross was, we know that God used that horrible situation to bring LIFE to the world. Can God use my situation for good?
- When I hear Jesus cry out to God, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” I will remember this quote from Psalm 22 where feelings of forsakenness are replaced with confidence in God’s victory!
- When I depend on the Spirit of God (whom Jesus promised would be with us) to keep from “growing weary and losing heart.”
- When I realized that death no longer has the same sting, and I can grieve the loss of family and friends with a sense of TRUST in God’s provision!
- I will remember, “We believe that Jesus died and rose again. Even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”