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Anybody ever learned to drive a stick shift? I was driving down Savannah highway going to a meeting in Charleston this week and 35 years ago flashed in my mind. I was seated in my mother’s car. She was next to me because I had my learner’s permit my older sister was in the backseat, as well as one of our friends from the volleyball team that I wanted to impress. Mom was letting me drive something bad happens: the light turned red. It’s not good when you’re just learning to drive a stick shift to get a red light. So I prepared myself mentally for the green–clutch out, gas in. The light turned green and there I went, but the clutch came out too quickly–sputter sputter shake shake–the engines off. Quickly turn the engine back on to giggles from the backseat. Same result. Again and again. The light turned red. I thought deep breath I can do this. Light turned green and the same results. It took three light cycles before I got away.
That’s the humiliation of not knowing how. Maybe you’ve experienced it. I want you to imagine what it was like on that first day of the week when the women went down to the tomb. Mark tells us that it was very early. They had something in mind. They thought how are we going to roll back this tomb get into this grave and prepare Jesus body for burial? They thought one thing but when they got there, the stone was rolled back and there was a man in white, and he said “he is not here. He is risen see where he laid.” Imagine not understanding those words, it could be humiliating. It caused them to fear greatly. Jesus had sent that angel to tell them to go and tell but what do the women do? It says in verse eight “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
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
The humiliation of not knowing how leads us to be afraid, to shut our mouths, to not bear witness to what God has called us to say, and that’s why Paul writes in Thessalonians that he did not want the church to be uninformed. In fact, in our reading today from 1 Thessalonians 4, he said, “but I don’t want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” In fact, the heart that Paul brought as a church planter, as one who had founded that church, who had written letters to that church and loved them, was that he didn’t want them to be uninformed–to know the humiliation of not knowing. Paul writes this section in 1 Thessalonians that I want to draw our attention to today, but in so doing, I want you to know that I have that same heart for you today. No matter why you’ve come–whether someone invited you or whether you come seeking a new relationship with the Lord, or whether somebody threatened that you couldn’t have Easter dinner if you didn’t come to church. Whatever the reason, I don’t want you to leave here uninformed. I want you to know what we celebrate, why we are here today, and what the victory is.
An Easter Question
The question at hand in the church in Thessolonica was what happens to those who fall asleep before Jesus comes again? The reality is, in the early church there was a sense that the return of Jesus was imminent, so then when a believer died, the question was, what will happen to them? What happens after we die? That’s an Easter question, and that’s the question that Paul is answering in this section. What he tells them are the things that he doesn’t want them to the uninformed about. Again, remember this is the heart of a pastor, one who wants the believers, the church, to understand their faith. He tells them three things that he wants to inform them about, and the first one is found there in verse 14: it’s what we believe.
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
Paul says that because of what we believe, God is going to raise up those who died before the Second Coming. That’s the answer to the question; but notice what the hinge is: since we believe. Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again. Paul says that’s what we believe, that’s the heart of our faith, that Jesus died and rose again. Those words scholars tell us are probably from an ancient formula or hymn. Maybe many of you learned the liturgy the way I did, and remember the saying “Christ has died. Christ is risen.” That’s what Paul is proclaiming here today. It’s what we believe. The cross and the empty tomb are before us. That’s the heart of our faith, and so Paul says, “since we believe that Jesus died and rose again.”
What we believe
If you were here on Good Friday, you saw a rugged wooden cross brought into the midst of our worship and put up before us as we honored and praised the Lord Jesus for the sacrifice he made on our behalf. That cross was the place where sinless Son of God died a harsh and cruel death for your sins and mine. The cross is before us even on this Easter morning. You saw it as you came in, and although the cross now is empty and it’s covered in flowers because of our Easter hope, hear this: we never get beyond the cross, even on Easter day. We never go beyond the hope that we find in the forgiveness of sins found at the cross; so Paul says to the church, “since we believe that Jesus died and rose again.”
The other side of that is the empty tomb, and the empty tomb comes squarely into focus on this Easter day. It is supremely what we’re talking about on this Easter morning, that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead on the third day. Friends, today the tomb is empty as the angel said in Luke, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here. He has risen!” You can go to Mecca and see the grave of Muhammad; you can go to Illinois and see the grave of Joseph Smith; but you cannot go to the Holy Land and find the grave of Jesus. There is no grave that contained him. As the Jews say, the body was stolen; as the Muslims say, he didn’t die, he was swooning; but we say, he is risen from the dead.
Friends, that’s what we believe: that Christ has died and Christ is risen. But that bears a question for us this morning. Do you believe this? Do you believe that Jesus Christ died for your sins? Do you believe that he was risen again so that you might conquer death and have hope for eternal life? When Jesus went down to the grave of his friend Lazarus, he went down and he encountered Lazarus’s sister Martha and she said to him, Lord, if you’d been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that the Lord will give you whatever you ask. Jesus turned the tables on her. He said, Martha, I am the resurrection. I am the life. Whoever believes in me, though he died yet shall live and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Then he looked at Martha and said, do you believe this? Friends, that’s the question of Easter. Do you believe this? If you’ve never believed, I invite you today to call on the name of the Lord Jesus. Our prayer ministers would be happy to pray with you during communion. We’d be happy to pray with you at the rail if the Lord calls you to surrender your life to Him, do so today. As Paul said, today is the day of salvation.
What we proclaim
Today is the favorable time. That’s what we believe. Christ has died, Christ is risen; but that’s not all. It’s not just what we believe that Paul does not want us to be uninformed about, but also what we proclaim. Look at verse 15. Paul says this:
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
Paul says, I have a declaration to make, and the declaration has come by word of the LORD, and the LORD has revealed this to me: Jesus is coming again. When he does, those who are dead in Christ will rise first. Those who are alive will not proceed those who have died; but the heart of this proclamation is that Jesus Christ will come again. Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again.
Friends, the important part of this message is that Jesus will return, that the things that still hurt, the things that still draw pain in our lives, will be finally set to rights. There’s a juxtaposition here: the beauty of the church, the flowers, the majesty of the music, the worship that we share, the time with family and friends–all these things point to great joy, and yet some of us sit in pews that have empty seats of people who have gone to be with the Lord since last year, and some of you will sit around tables today that will have empty chairs, and those chairs will be empty because relationships will be fractured. Sin still has its way in the world. Brokenness still abounds. We live in a country that is torn over racial strife and torn over political struggles. We live in a world where countries threaten to destroy one another with nuclear weapons. In the midst of that, the church says we have hope because Christ will come again. That is our hope today, and that is why we grieve differently than those who have no hope. We have hope today. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. This is what we proclaim.
I might ask you today, how is your hope? Even in the midst of life’s struggles, do you trust in Jesus for eternal life? Do you know that hope, day by day in the midst of struggles? That message of hope is what we proclaim today, that there is hope for all those who put their trust in Him. Paul did not want the church to be uninformed. He loved them. He said, here’s what we believe: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Here’s what we proclaim: Christ will come again.
What we know
Finally, number three. Here’s what we know. Friends, this is tucked in at the end of verse 17–it’s one last thing and it’s so beautiful. This is what we know.
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
He says, “so we will always be with the Lord.” We will always be with the Lord. Let that truth rest upon you this morning. Friends, we will always be with the Lord. For those who are in Christ, the promises of Scripture are true. God will never leave us nor forsake us. The resurrection proves that, because Jesus is alive, and when Jesus ascended into heaven, God sent His Holy Spirit. God is with you in the midst of life’s struggles. This is the Easter message.
We have great hope today. Friends, Paul did not want the church to be uninformed. He did not want them to suffer because they didn’t know what we believe, or what we proclaim, or what we know; so he taught them. Notice how he closes with this short passage.
Therefore encourage one another with these words.
1 Thessalonians 4:18
He said literally comfort one another, come alongside one another. The Greek there is parakaléō, meaning to stand beside. He says stand alongside one another, and this is my Easter charge to you: the message that we’ve heard today does not stay in these four walls. It’s a message to be carried to the world, and so go, comfort and encourage one another with these words. Come alongside someone else in the name of Jesus. We come alongside them because God first came alongside us and continues to come alongside us by his paráklēto, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. When God comes alongside you, you can do more than you could ever imagine. So, be bold and take a risk today, because he has come alongside us.
The power of the Spirit
I’ve had the joy of coaching all four of my daughters in basketball when they were younger and I remember gladly coming alongside them, showing them what I knew about the sport, encouraging them in what they were learning. I remember very well my number two daughter, Mary Foster, when she was five years old and I was coaching her team. She was the youngest and the smallest in the league. The baskets were set at six feet, the foul line was only eight feet from the basket, and Mary ran up and down that court for several games trying as hard as she could to hoist that basketball into the basket. Finally, in about the third game of the season, she got the ball up into the basket. Not only that, but she got fouled. She went to the foul line and she was standing further from the basket than she had ever shot it. She looked over at me with those eyes like I don’t think I can do this. I said, Sure you can. You can do it. I gave her the thumbs up. She reared back and threw that ball and it went right into the basket. And I remember her joy. She ran over to the sideline. She said, “Dad, I can’t even shoot it that far.”
Friends, that’s the reality of what happens when God comes alongside of you; you do things that you don’t think you can do. That’s our Easter message today. That’s our hope. Our hope is in Jesus Christ. What we believe: Christ has died. Christ is risen. What we proclaim: Christ will come again. What we know: that God is with us in every stage and every step of our lives. This is our Easter hope and my charge to you is to go and encourage one another with this good news. Amen.