Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

Some of you may sometimes wonder how a pastor chooses one Sunday passage to preach on over the others. Most of the time most ministers base their sermons on the gospel. Or, since the gospel and the Old Testament lesson usually have a common theme, then both of them together. As it turns out, all three of today’s readings have to do with the “end times,” that is, the end of the world as we know it—either taking us into a brand new age, or, as we Christians believe, the return, the second coming of Christ. Now this theme at this time is a bit strange because it’s usually reserved for the Season of Advent—the four Sundays before Christmas. But here we are not even halfway through November!

All three of today’s readings approach “the day of the Lord,” as we might call it, from different perspectives. The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids is straightforward: We should prepare ourselves, we should always be ready for the return of Christ (Matthew 25:1-13). On the other hand, the Old Testament lesson has a real edge to it (Amos 5:18-24). The prophet Amos tells the Israelites that the Lord’s day is definitely not going to be a good day—not only for the other nations that have sinned terribly, but also for the people of God. That’s because deeds of justice and mercy should flow naturally from their worship life, but they don’t. There’s a disconnect. It would be as if what we do here on Sunday mornings has little if anything to do with the rest of our week—like helping those who aren’t getting a fair shake out of life.

The third reading (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) also has to do with the end-times, but in yet another way: Certainly, Paul has already told the Thessalonians that Christ will soon return.

That’s what he believes, and that’s what they believe. Obviously, he has the wrong timetable, because two thousand years later, we’re still in the same world. Regardless, the real issue in this passage is the distress that the Thessalonians are feeling. In their small congregation, in their intimate fellowship of believers, some among them have now died—before Christ has come back. As they have understood things, it’s not supposed to be that way. So they’re upset. They’re wondering what to make of it.

Unlike the word of caution, the word of advice in today’s parable or, in the Book of Amos—the prophet’s bold indictment of a people who say one thing and do another—Paul offers something completely different: a pastoral response, a word of hope to those who feel unsure, confused, maybe even demoralized. In the life to come, will they again see their brothers and sisters in Christ? Will they be reunited with them? And, if so, when? If not, why not?

Since yesterday was Veteran’s Day, which, not unlike Memorial Day, is a time to remind ourselves of many who have sacrificed so much, and since last week was All Saints Sunday—when we remember loved ones who have died in the faith and ironically this year also when more than two dozen Christians died in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and since in the last month I have held funeral and graveside services for four church members, I’ve decided to go with the theme in 1 Thessalonians.

Now you might wonder whether we can truly identify at all with the situation in this passage. Do not the differences seem great between the Christians of that day and age and ourselves? For example, Paul encourages his flock not only that they will one day be reunited with those who have died, but also that it will happen in the most dramatic of ways:

For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call

and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven,

and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them… (1 Thessalonians 4:16).

Paul draws this image from some other places in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily expecting his readers to take it literally. For us, it is really picture language. It’s a way not only to reassure them that those who have died will be reunited with them, but that it will be a glorious event! And, at the center of it, will be Jesus. In other words, it’s the “who” and maybe the “when,” but certainly not the “how” that’s important. That means, then, that we may actually have more in common with the Thessalonians than we at first think.

That issue of the time between death and eternity and whom we spend eternity with most likely was what troubled a member of a church I once served. His name was Edgar—Edgar Niemann. In his earlier years, he worked for various farmers and ranchers. At church he had been the longtime caretaker of the cemetery. By the time I got to know him, he was confined to his home. And his wife had died just a couple of years earlier.

When I would visit, it was not uncommon that he’d bring up some question or point about the Bible. His favorite one—that he brought up repeatedly—was this: “Now, Pastor, tell me…When is the body resurrected? In some places, the New Testament says it’s on Judgment Day.”

I’m sure he was referring to passages like the one we have this morning. Or maybe these words from 1 Corinthians (15:51-52): “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we [also] will be changed.”

Edgar would continue: “But what about when the Lord was hanging on the cross and one of the thieves next to him, after rebuking the other one, said to him: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom?’ Pastor, you know his answer, don’t you?” “Yes, Edgar. ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”

“See, that’s what puzzles me. Which is it? When we die, do our spirits stay with our bodies in the tomb? Or do they go somewhere else? Or, is it like Jesus said—do we go straight to heaven to be with him and the saints and the angels?”

“Well, you have me beat on that one. All I can tell you is what another minister once told me: ‘For Christians, death is like falling asleep. We’re in an unconscious state. So we have no awareness of the passing of time. Then, when we awaken and find ourselves in heaven on the

Last Day, it seems as if it happened instantaneously. ’How does that sound?” “That might be all right,” Edgar would reply. “That might make sense.” Then we would inevitably move on to some other subject—something not nearly so mystifying.

I didn’t think about it at the time, but imagine now he might have had his wife on his mind whenever we talked about the resurrection of the body—the timing of it, that is. Maybe he was trying to sort out whether she was already experiencing the inexpressible joy of eternal life or was still spiritually “asleep?” If the former, then whether she also was enjoying the company of loved ones who had gone on before her. And whether it would seem as if, at his death, he would immediately be reunited with her.

When a loved one dies—under whatever circumstances—peacefully at a ripe, old age or younger, perhaps much younger and suddenly, maybe even violently, those who remain can suffer any number of emotions. You know what they are:

·         Shock.

·         Anger.

·         Denial.

·         Disorientation.

·         Sadness.

·         Sorrow.

They testify to the great pain that we feel. But none of them is ever the last word—at least not for Christians. When planning the funeral service for one of those who died last month, I was reminded of that by a relative. She said: “Yes, it’s a very difficult time. We’ve been through so much these last couple of years. And now death has come.” Then she added, quoting St. Paul: “[But we do] not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13b). She is convinced that her loved one is now at rest with the Lord and with all the saints in light—whether immediately, already witnessing the glory of God in heaven or still spiritually asleep until the raising of all at the Last Day. That is the truly important thing. In the end, just how that happens or even exactly when it happens—no longer matters.