“Encourage Each Other” – November 8, 2020
1 Thessalonians 4:15-18
Today’s lectionary Scripture readings show us more about the times to come. Or, some say, the end times. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we hurried up and got to the end of days and met the Lord in the air? That is exactly what our Scripture reading describes today.
Here the apostle Paul calms the fears of his Thessalonian church. His former church members are mourning the deaths of some of their congregation, and they wrote to Paul to ask what happened to their friends and loved ones. Where did they go after they died?
That is a great question! As a hospital chaplain, I was sometimes asked that very question. What happens after we die? Sometimes I’d be asked by a loved one, sitting by the bed of a dying patient. But, sometimes the patient – who had just received the worst news you can possibly receive – would ask me that question, in all sincerity. With all their heart.
When we are talking about life and death matters, many other things pale in comparison. I have walked the halls in the intensive care unit, or cardiac care, late at night or early in the morning. I have seen loved ones keeping vigil next to patients’ beds. I have hesitated, not wanting to disturb their intimate time with their precious family member. Yet, Paul’s words go straight to the heart of this vital question. What happens when we die?
Considering our Bible reading today, commentator Scott Hoezee says, “Probably the Thessalonians did not know Jesus’ words from John 11, but if they could hear Jesus telling Martha that ’anyone who believes in me will never die,’ they may have heard that as confirming this idea that being a Christian meant not dying. Ever.
“And then members of their church started dying. Funerals were being held after all. A cloud of painful questions arose: were these people not Christians after all? Had they had inadequate faith? If so, how can any of us be sure we are good and faithful enough? Paul had said it was all faith, all grace, all Jesus. But is it? Or, far more darkly, was Paul just wrong? Is the Gospel a hoax? Is there no true victory of life over death?” 
Again, Paul reminds us: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of humankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”
As I write this sermon, the nation is still on tenterhooks, wondering who the next President of the United States will be. This nation is more divided now than in any time I can remember in recent history. Whoever “wins” will have an extremely difficult next four years in office, with all of the upheaval and dissention in this country. How will we manage to bridge such a cavernous gap? “Regardless of what we read in the headlines, whether or not it goes the way we hoped, how it brings discord, how can there be a place of peace in us, even in the midst of upheaval?”  How can we continue to live Godly lives in such a turbulent time?
Are these not similar to the serious questions that the Thessalonian congregation brought to their pastor Paul? Paul brought words of encouragement and comfort to his former church. Yes, and words of great hope, too! “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. 17 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 forever.”
I am not minimizing the turbulent times we are living through, right now. This past week. These next weeks and months ahead. Yet, I am taking Paul at his word. He tells us to encourage each other with these supremely hopeful words to the Thessalonians.
Yes, we are living through times of great distress and tumult. Yes, many may feel like the mountains are crumbling and falling into the sea, as Psalm 46 tells us. I preached on Psalm 46 just two weeks ago, and we found hope and encouragement through that sermon. This precious psalm also grounds us, always giving space to both feel the turmoil and to have a center of peace, unshaken by the headlines and the prevailing news of the day.
This center of peace is not a forced peace brought on by force of arms or oppression, but a peace that grows from the very nature of the One who rules with justice and joy, our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the peace that passes all understanding, God’s peace that knows no boundaries, no divisions, no human separation or dissention.
Let us visualize, for just a moment, God’s peace that passes all understanding. Now, God’s hope that fills our hopeless and helpless lives and hearts. And now, God’s love that is so all encompassing, it can fill the whole universe. That is one mighty and powerful God.
Yes, Paul tells us to encourage each other with these words.
The Center for Excellence in Preaching, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, Illustration Ideas, 2017.