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Third-Last Sunday of the Church Year
“Always With The Lord”
St. Matthew 24; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18
11 November 2018
Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor
+ In the Name of Jesus +
The sun always rises and sets, and the seasons and years continue to run their regular course. It is therefore easy to take each new day for granted. It is easy to assume that the calendar will continue on counting up the weeks, months, and years. It is difficult to hear our Lord’s warning that His return is imminent, and will come about at a moment’s notice.
But the Law of God speaks this word: there may be no tomorrow. Don’t hold onto the idols of this world, like old Israel did at the base of Mount Sinai. Moses will return off that mountain, angry, and your idols will be broken up, burned, ground up, and you will be forced to drink those ashes to the bitter end. We are definitely in the latter days of great tribulation upon the earth. For the sake of the elect of God, our Lord says, the days of tribulation will be cut short! The coming of the Son of Man will be as the lightning flashing across the sky. Oh, that you would not be caught unawares!
God has been consistent across Holy Scripture about the fleeting nature of this temporal life:
The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. (Job 1:21)
All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. (Is 40:6–8)
You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you? So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. (Ps 90:3–12)
Teach us to number our days, O Lord. Give us true wisdom, to know each day may be our last in this life, and that during each day we are given we eagerly await Your coming, O Lord, that day when You bring us into the eternal splendor You have prepared for those who love You.
The Apostle Paul certainly writes as if the Lord could come back at any time, and indeed was likely to. The earliest Christians had this outlook: the resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus would come back very quickly, within their lifetime. Listen:
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 Thess. 4:15; ESV)
We are the ones who are alive, and we are the ones who remain until the return of the Lord. There is certainly an anticipation that Paul is writing to people who will live to see the return of Christ in judgment. At some point in time, Paul will indeed be writing to those people. It could be any of us living now and hearing his words. It turned out that it would not be the first century Thessalonian Christians. They are sleeping, at rest from their labors. Like so many of our loved ones before us in Christ. So these are words of warning and of comfort for us too.
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 Thess 4:13; ESV)
There seemed to be a question for the Thessalonian Christians behind their grieving for those who had died, even those who had died in the Christian faith. They so anticipated the coming again of Jesus, they were perhaps worried that those who died before His return may be left out, may have received their judgment early.
We are tempted today to think the wrong way about death – but not because we rightly fear the imminent return of Jesus and are ignorant about the status of the dead. We are tempted by today’s culture to see life and living as a “victory”; while we are taught to see death and dying to this life as “defeat” – the world teaches us to grieve with no hope, that there is no tomorrow for the dead, that dead is gone and forgotten and no more in existence. This is truly a horrendous thought, which would lead one to grieve as if one has no hope.
No worries, Paul gently responds. Here is true hope, even in the face of the grave, even in the face of God’s judgement day. 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 Thess. 4:14; ESV)
Jesus died for all transgressions, and was raised again on the third day for our justification before God. The truth of that event, in history, in a real time and in a real place, the most momentous of all events ever to happen on this earth – assures us for today and tomorrow that God will raise those asleep in Jesus, also at a real point in history, at a real time – the end of time – and at a real place – every grave wherever in the world someone rests. Death has no dominion over Jesus Christ; death has no dominion over those who have died in Him, as His children, as members of His living body of faith.
So that is what the dead truly are: asleep, at rest in Jesus. God has granted them rest from their labors, in the arms of Jesus, we might say, and Paul repeats that about the blessed dead not once but three times: the dead in Christ are the ones who have been made to fall asleep by God.
And so we sing and pray,
Lord, let at last Thine angels come, to Abraham’s bosom bear me home, that I may die unfearing. And in its narrow chamber keep my body safe in peaceful sleep until Thy reappearing. And then from death awaken me, that these mine eyes with joy may see, O Son of God, Thy glorious face, My Savior, and my fount of grace. (LSB #708, stanza 3, public domain)
And another hymn:
The [dead in Christ] meanwhile are in their chambers sleeping, quiet and set free from all their weeping; No cross or sadness there can hinder their untroubled gladness. (LSB #679; stanza 3, public domain)
And if the dead in Christ are merely asleep, at rest, there is a yet greater reality to come: there will be an awakening, the reuniting of body and soul, a yet more glorious day will dawn, when with our own eyes we will see the glorious face of our Savior:
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. 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 Thess. 4:16-18; ESV)
Thus, we will always be with the Lord. For our eternal benefit. In life, in tribulation, in suffering, in death, in resurrection, we will be with the Lord. What is true for Him is true for us. Risen. Glorified. Ascended to God’s right hand. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
God grant us to lead lives of vigilance and expectation that give thanks to God for the blessing of each day. God grant us to know and trust each day that He indeed may come again and bring about the end of this creation, or that each day, He may indeed bring our body to rest and sleep in the grave and bring our soul in His arms into His heavenly presence and joy, to await the Last Day. God grant that we believe and trust that no matter what the day may bring, we will always be with the Lord. Always.
Rejoice in heaven, all ye that dwell therein,
Rejoice on earth, ye saints below,
For Christ is coming, is coming soon!
E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come,
And night shall be no more;
they need no light nor lamp nor sun,
For Christ will be their all. (Paul Manz, “E’en So Lord Jesus, Quickly Come”)
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +