Since the beginning of time, human beings have fought for survival. We run from death as the final enemy. Each of us, who draws breath, wants to fight to stay alive. Our lives matter. They have value. We don’t want to die.
I read a psychology book in college written by Ernest Becker called The Denial of Death. It poignantly describes how we, as human beings, run from the truth of our own mortality. We deny the profound truth that someday we will all breathe our last. How, then, do we have the courage and the hope to face this truth? Some philosophers have said until we face the truth of our own dying, we can’t begin to understand the value of life.
Today’s text from Thessalonians contains some very significant promises for us as believers. In them we find truths – God’s truths – that change our perspective of facing death. It tells us death actually is a temporary existence of sleep – not a permanent state – and we should not grieve as do those who have no hope.
I remember as a boy visiting with my grandpa and grandma, Martin and Anna Laaveg, who were farmers on the plains of eastern North Dakota. Anna was a typical farm wife. As a boy I marveled at how she could cook elegant delicious meals for us on an old wood stove in her kitchen. She would open the doors and throw just the right amount of logs in to stoke the fire. I loved to feel its warmth, see the brightness of the flames light, and then consider how she could get the temperature just right to cook for us.
Imagine if this wood stove were a symbol for the fire of hope that gives us the courage to face death. What would God use as logs to stoke the fire of our hope and enable us to live with faith and courage even when we will die? This passage in I Thessalonians 4 gives us five logs for the fire of our hope.
The first log is simply that Jesus, the perfect Son of God, died on the cross for the sins of the world, including our sins. Scriptures tell us that He was the Lamb of God who was slain. His blood was shed on the cross and bought our forgiveness and our salvation. An old Gospel song sings it well, “He Took My Place.”
I recently read a story told from the seafaring days of yesteryear about an old sea captain. He was very ill and knew he was going to die. So he called his first mate into the cabin and asked, “Please fetch me a Bible and find some comforting words to read. I am not a religious man, but I know I’m not long for this world. I need a word of hope to help me find the courage to die.”
“I’m sorry,” said the first mate. “I don’t know the Scriptures, and I don’t have a Bible. I’m afraid, captain, that I can’t help you.”
So the captain called the second mate who also said, “I don’t have a Bible in my possession, captain. What’s more, I haven’t heard anything from the Scriptures since I was a wee lad.”
“Could you pray for me then?” said the captain.
“I’m afraid I don’t know how to pray sir.”
“Well, can’t anybody on the ship find a Bible and give me hope?” So they searched the whole crew and found the cook’s assistant had a Bible. The captain summoned him into the cabin and said, “Lad, I am very sick. I’m soon to die. I need a word from the Bible to give me hope and comfort.”
“Well,” the lad said to the captain. “I don’t know exactly what to read for you. Would you like me to read the last passage my grandma read for me before I boarded the ship?”
“Yes, lad,” said the captain.
So the boy turned to Isaiah 53 and read theses words, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrow. The Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all.”
“Aye, lad,” he said. “That’s it! God has placed on another my iniquity, my guilt!”
The lad said, “Would you like me to read it for you like my grandma read it? She told me to put my own name in the reading.”
“Yes, lad. Read it that way.”
So the boy read, “The Lord laid upon Him the iniquity of Bobby. All of Bobby’s sin and guilt was laid upon Him.”
“Aye, lad. That’s comforting words. Now read it again and put the captain’s name in it, if you please.”
“The Lord laid upon Him the iniquity of the captain. He took away the captain’s guilt.”
“That’s the word for me, lad,” he said. “Could you pray for me?” So the boy, in simple words, prayed God would stir faith in the heart of the captain to believe Jesus came to earth, went to the cross, and was raised from the dead, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 53. God made a promise in the name of Jesus that the iniquity of us all was laid upon Jesus Christ.
The first log of our hope that gives us the courage to face death is the truth that Jesus Christ, the Innocent, has died for the guilty like me. My heart is full of sin – my attitudes, my mind, my actions. I need the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
The second log on the fire of my hope is the truth that Jesus rose from the dead. Death could not hold Him. We read in Romans, “Jesus was raised from the dead never to die again, for death no more had mastery over him” (Romans 6:9). Jesus, the Son of God who was crucified, conquered death. The grave could not hold Him.
This is true for us, too. Because He lives, we will live also. Just as it powerfully tells us in Jesus’ words spoken to His dear friends Mary and Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this? (John 11:25-26)”
The third log of our hope that gives us the courage to face death is the promise in First Thessalonians that Jesus is coming again! This same Jesus, who came with a vulnerability and was laid in a manger, who emptied Himself of all His power and glory and took on the form of a servant – a man with all the limits of being a man – who was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven, will come again in power and glory. He will be riding a white horse and every eye shall see Him.
Jesus tells us, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14:2-4). “Every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess: Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10-11).
The fourth log that stokes the fire of our hope so we have courage to face death is the promise of a grand family reunion someday. Those who have died before us will come back with Jesus. He will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in His name.
Not long ago, the best friend of the woman who had passed on, related that she told her friend on her deathbed, “If you get there first, know that I’ll be coming to join you soon.” Even in the funeral liturgy, in the prayers of the Church, we sometimes speak of the mystical body of Jesus Christ. Those who are in heaven and we who still remain on earth are one body with Christ. We are one with the saints of light who have gone on before us and are in the presence of Jesus now.
Someday, when time as we know it ends, Jesus, according to the will and plan of the Father, will come back for His people, and there will be a glorious family reunion! We will all be caught up together with the Lord in the air.
The fifth log that stokes the fire of our hope so we have faith and courage to face even our own death is the promise that we are given eternal life by God our Father in the name of our blessed Savior, Jesus. This means that when we breathe our last breath in this world, we don’t come to an end. Instead, we awaken on the other side of our physical death in the presence of the Lord Himself. Our eyes will see Him in His glory.
Remember when Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Or the verse we learned as children, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him will never perish but have eternal life. For God didn’t come in the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16, 17). Jesus offers His life, His forgiving grace, to us that we might believe in Him as our Savior and our God. In our believing, He gives us eternal life. We will be with the Lord for ever.
It’s not just the life that goes on forever, but it’s also the quality of life. It’s a life without tears or sorrow. A life free of pain. A life that exceeds our imaginations. It will be so wonderful!
So the fire burns in my heart with the living hope, just like the fire in the wood stove of Grandma Anna in the kitchen of that farmhouse on the plains of North Dakota. The fire of my hope gives me light when I walk in darkness. It warms my heart when terror makes my heart cold. It heals my grief when I lay dear ones to rest and weep because they are gone. Most of all, it gives me courage to face what each day of life brings as long as God grants me life.
The gift of faith allows me to cling to hope. All these promises are true. Jesus died on the cross for my sins. He rose from the dead never to die again. Jesus is coming again to take us to be with Him. We who are still alive when Jesus comes again will have a grand family reunion with those who have gone before us. Jesus promises us eternal life.
Jesus comes to you today and says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I’ll come in and sup with him and he with me” (Rev. 3:20).
Today is a wonderful day to stoke the fire of your hope, to embrace Jesus as the Son of God and your Savior, and by faith to receive the courage to face your own death, because Jesus is greater than death. He is the Lord of life. Amen.
Pastor Lee Laaveg