Hopeful grief

Sermon by Rev Stuart Simpson on 12 November 2017

Readings were 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Matthew 25:1-13

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Song:  ‘I grieve’ by Peter Gabriel

It was only one hour ago
It was all so different then
Nothing yet has really sunk in
Looks like it always did
This flesh and bone
Is just the way that we are tied in
But there’s no one home
I grieve, for you
You leave, me
So hard to move on
Still loving what’s gone
They say life carries on
Carries on and on and on and on

The news that truly shocks
Is the empty, empty page
While the final rattle rocks
It’s empty, empty cage
And I can’t handle this
I grieve, for you
You leave, me
Let it out and move on
Missing what’s gone
They say life carries on
They say life carries on and on and on

If this song was around at the time Paul wrote his letter to the church in Thessalonica – this is what they would have been listening to.

The church community found themselves in the midst of persecution and had witnessed the death of some of their friends. They were deeply grieved and found themselves overcome with pain – the empty page.

In response to this Paul seeks to provide comfort by reminding them of the hope they have in Jesus. This is a hope that is based on the promise of the resurrected Jesus who will come again.

Jesus, who was crucified and died
Arose – defeating death
Ascended to Heaven
And will come again soon

I want to point out here, that in proving this comfort to the church in Thessalonica, Paul is not telling them to simply buck up, stop crying and get on with life. Rather he is telling them that their grief will not overcome the hope that is in Jesus. The deep emotional outpouring of grief is mixed with the overwhelming and profound promise that in Jesus,

death is not the end,
justice will be done,
wrongs will be righted.

Paul uses some wonderful images in the reading today to express this truth.  Those who have died and those who are still alive, when Jesus comes, will be united. Not only that, it will also be a time of joy and triumph,  as those alive and those who have died will go to meet the coming King and welcome Him. They will all be caught up in a wonderful reunion – Matthew’s Gospel captures the image of a bridegroom arriving for the wedding banquet, where there will be celebration.

The dark clouds of grief are real but the sun continues to shine.

Paul wrote this letter of hope with the understanding that he would be alive to see Jesus return. We know now that that didn’t happen; it still hasn’t happened – Jesus is still to come again.

We, like the church in Thessalonica, are worshipping and waiting. And while we wait, all of us experience grief. Grief over pain and illness. Grief at the loss of a job or the loss of a loved one. The grief we feel may not even be for ourselves but for the evil we see in the world, where people lose their gift of life while gathering for worship, or struggle to find enough money to buy food and heat their homes, or have to flee their homes and countries because of war and hate.

It is in this grief that the words Paul expressed to the Church in Thessalonica, ring true to us. As much as we need to lament – we are to remember and hold onto, the overwhelming and profound promise that in Jesus,

death is not the end
justice will be done,
wrongs will be righted
those who are alive will be united with those who have died – united with the Lord of life
and that union will be greater than any party you have ever been to, any celebration that you’ve ever experience,

because the deep emotion of grief will be replaced with the immense joy of being with the one you thought gone for ever and the one who made all of this possible.

The dark clouds of grief are real but the sun continues to shine. 

So what do we do while we wait – mixed with the emotion of grief and the hope we have in Jesus? If we keep listening to Paul we are to ‘encourage one another with these words.’ Encourage each other not by ignoring people’s pain or telling each other to get over it, but to sit alongside, and in the midst of tears speak, sing, and share the hope that is in Jesus.

I want to play a song by Danny Gokey’s called ‘Hope in Front of me’. But before I do, it’s important I tell you a little about Danny.

Danny’s first wife Sophia encouraged him to audition for American Idol. But before his audition, Sophia unexpectedly died from complications surrounding a heart surgery. In the midst of Danny’s devastating sorrow, he honoured Sophia by auditioning for American Idol just a month after she passed.

Viewers were touched by Danny’s story as he advanced through the competition, and the touching story combined with his moving voice made him a fan favourite.

American Idol not only helped Danny Gokey land a record deal and catapulted his voice into the homes of millions, it also help provide a platform for him to launch Sophia’s Heart, an organisation founded to carry on the legacy of giving started by his late wife. The organisation provides a place to live for homeless families in Nashville, and Gokey is proud of the way Sophia’s Heart has expanded to care for a growing number of families each year.

When Danny sings, his experiences lend him a special credibility. Despite the presence of heartache, hope has also always been a consistent presence in his story. Danny’s shares his hope that is in Jesus, hope that is front of him even when he grieves.

‘Hope in front of me’

The dark clouds of grief are real but the sun continues to shine.

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