a sermon for Desert Mission Anglican Church on November 12, 2017
Passage: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Just this last Sunday, November 5th, a young man named Devin Kelley entered First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, and opened fire. On the observance of All Saints Day, 26 men, women, and children died in their house of worship. 20 more were injured. Pastor Frank Pomeroy and his wife, Sherri, happened to be out of town, but their 14 year old daughter, Annabelle, was among those ruthlessly killed.
Although I did not know anyone at that church personally, this news feels close, first because regardless of location or denominational difference, First Southern Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs is my community and your community because it is comprised of Christian brothers and sisters. We are one body, which means their loss is our loss and their suffering is our suffering.
This tragedy also hits close to home for me and Amber because we were raised Southern Baptist. This is the church that brought us to Jesus, taught us to treasure the Bible, and gave us a passion for the mission of God in the world. This is the church Amber’s parents still serve. My father-in-law pastors a small, rural, Southern Baptist church.
This terrible act of violence will have a lasting effect on the survivors, their small town (only about 700 people), their denomination, and the entire church in the United States.
Events like this shake us deeply because we intuitively know that a place of Christian worship, of all places, should be a safe place.
Everything we do when we gather for worship is contrary to the way of violence. We pray for peace. We ask to receive grace to live in love with all people. We celebrate the great Gospel of Jesus, that one man died so that no one else would have to die to make the world right, and was raised to life that all might have life and life abundant. When so much death comes upon us in that context, we see with sudden clarity that while death has been defeated, it has not yet been destroyed.
For many people in our country and in our world, a confrontation with death and evil like this will result in shock, anger, grief, and ultimately despair. This is completely understandable.
As Christians, we will certainly grieve. Grief is a normal, healthy, and appropriate response to loss. We should never act as death is okay. It’s not okay.
As Christians, we can and should grieve with our brothers and sisters. What will set us apart in this tragedy, and in every failed attempt of the Evil One to cause us to despair, will be hope.
In his first letter to the church at Thessalonica, St. Paul writes,
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, ESV)
In many ancient writings, sleep is a euphemism for death. Here we see Paul using this expression to emphasize the non-permanent nature of death for those that hope in Jesus to share in his resurrection. Paul wants the church to know that those not alive at the time of Jesus’ return are not at all lost to God.
“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14, ESV)
In other words, if God the Father brought Jesus back to life in the power of the Spirit, and we are joined to Jesus, we can be confident that God will bring each of us back to life as well.
“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.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15, ESV)
Paul wants us know that this isn’t just his pious opinion, this is a word from the Lord, that not only will those that die before the return of Christ be included in the new creation, but there is a special blessing for them as they are the first to share in the resurrection glory.
“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.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16, ESV)
This is the bodily return of Christ (the Lord himself), not simply a vision, or angelic appearance or spiritual visitation.
“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.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17, ESV)
The idea here is of the Roman custom of the nobles going out to meet Caesar, the emperor, and accompanying him back to the city. Like those nobles, we will—together with those that have gone before us—accompany Jesus as takes his place on Earth as ultimate ruler over a renewed creation. The clouds in the Hebrew Scriptures always represent a manifestation of the presence of God. So we will be with our Lord and our God, Jesus, forever.
“Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:18, ESV)
The point of all this isn’t to give us an exact end-time chronology or a literal description of heaven, but rather provide encouragement and comfort in the midst of grief; there is hope for all those that live and die believing in Christ.
We grieve our loss when we are confronted with death, but we grief with hope that death now is not at all the end for those in Jesus. No, because he died for our sins and to make the world right, we have hope and confidence that we will also live with him in the age to come.
To grieve with hope for new life means we can still grieve.
We can and should lament that death still operates in this world, and that sometimes God seems distant to us. We can and should cry out with Jesus,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34, ESV)
To grieve with hope for new life also means to we can grieve and lament without succumbing to despair. Jesus said,
“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”” (John 16:33, NLT)
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18, ESV)
To grieve with hope for new life means that we love our enemies without fear, and forgo revenge in favor of forgiveness.
Jesus said we should love our enemies and pray for those that persecute us, and echoing this, Paul says
“Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, “I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19, NLT)
We trust God that those that died on November 5th in Jesus, will be raised with Jesus one day.
Devin, the shooter at First Baptist Sutherland, took his own life, yet we may pray and hope that in the justice and mercy of God, he was healed and delivered from the bondage to sin that drove him to such evil.
A newspaper reported that,
Sherri Pomeroy said the church was more than just a collection of members.
“We were a very close family,” she said. “We ate together. We laughed together. We cried together. And we worshiped together. Now most of our church family is gone. Our building is probably beyond repair. And the few of us left behind lost tragically yesterday.”
When asked how he makes sense of the tragedy, the pastor said, “I don’t understand, but I know my God does…Whatever life brings to you, lean on the Lord rather than your own understanding,” he said.
Brothers and sisters, as we process this tragic loss in the Body of Christ, and as we continue to confront the reality of physical death and suffering in this life, let us grieve. Let us lament. Let us be honest when there is pain we simply don’t understand. But let us grieve with hope in the promises of God in Jesus for new life. Amen.