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Good Grief

A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on November 6, 2011.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Had she still been alive, my mother would have celebrated her 84th birthday this past week.  Many of you remember that my mother died from injuries suffered in a car accident.  And even though she died a decade ago, I still grieve her passing. 

On this All Saints Sunday, I know many of you carry your own grief as well.  It doesn’t matter if your loved one died last month, last year, the last decade, or the last century.  Your grief may still be surprisingly fresh and real.

The question the Apostle Paul poses for all of us who grieve is this—“Is our grief good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, informed by the Christian faith or ignorant of the Christian faith?”  Because the answer to that question makes all the difference.

What does bad, unhealthy grief look like?

One example would be repressed grief.  Some people refuse to express their sadness over the death of a loved one, publicly or privately.  They shed no tears and work very hard to keep a stiff upper lip.  They behave as though a public display of emotion would somehow be beneath to their dignity.  They may even believe grief is an unnecessary response to death.  Some Christians imply this when they say our belief in heaven should make our grief either very brief, or altogether unnecessary.

I learned a long time ago that if you don’t deal with your feelings, your feelings inevitably will deal with you.  And you can count on the fact that your repressed grief will come back to haunt you in a variety of ways, physically and emotionally.

The other extreme is represented by those who obsess on their grief.  They are fixated on their suffering, and refuse to be consoled.  They never put aside their grieving clothes or their grief.  In effect they are stuck in their grief, and never return to the business of living. 

But according to Paul, the worst kind of grief is hopeless grief.  People in this category remain mired in grief because they consider death to be final.  In Paul’s day much of the surrounding Greco-Roman world believed death to be the end of human existence. 

An early pagan’s tombstone epitaph reads, “I was not; I became; I am not; I care not.”  And another man of Paul’s era named Catullus wrote, “When once our brief light sets, there is one perpetual night through which we must sleep.”

Paul was especially sensitive to people who suffered from hopeless grief.  Of course, Paul profoundly disagreed with those who declared death to be final, for one simple reason—death wasn’t final for Jesus, and it won’t be final for those who follow Jesus.  The good news of the gospel is that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead means the death of death for those in Christ!

Paul went all over the Mediterranean world spreading the good news of Jesus.  Along the way he visited the Greek village of Thessaloniki where God used Paul’s ministry to win still more converts to Christ.  Paul preached not only that Jesus had been raised from the dead, but that he would physically and visibly return to this earth just as he had left, and his return could be literally at any moment. 

The new Thessalonian Christians took this word to heart, and in fact were waiting breathlessly for Jesus’ glorious return.  But great concern arose when Jesus’ return was delayed long enough that some of Jesus’ new followers began to die.  Naturally the new Christians in Thessaloniki wondered if those who were dead and buried would be a part of the new heaven and earth that Jesus would usher in upon his return.  And some even fell into a hopeless kind of grief, fearing that their loved ones who were dead and gone would be forgotten and left behind. 

Sensing their grief, Paul dramatically shifted roles.  For a moment, he stopped being the chief evangelist of the Mediterranean world and instead became a pastoral counselor for this small Thessalonian congregation.   We do not want you to be uniformed, Paul writes with evident concern, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others who have no hope.    

Paul then proceeds to lay the ground work for what we might call “good” grief.  Today, on this All Saints Day when we remember our dead and celebrate their homecoming in Christ, I want to review what Paul has to teach us about the good, healthy, appropriate grief.

For starters, good grief is expressed grief.   Please notice that Paul does not say, “Do not grieve.”  He says we should not grieve as others who have no hope.  In fact, Paul openly grieves when the occasion calls for it.  And so does Jesus, who weeps openly and unashamedly out over the grave of his good friend Lazarus just before he raises him from the dead. 

Ten years ago I preached a sermon based on 1 Thessalonians soon after my mother died.  My grief was still raw, and it oozed out in that sermon.   I spoke that day about the need for time and opportunity to grieve.  I said, “Please don’t expect me and others who grieve to instantly bury our grief and move on.  Our 24/7 society gives us so little time to grieve.  This is not a biblical attitude.   Folks throughout the Bible grieve openly, unashamedly, almost leisurely.  They are given ample time to weep and tear their clothes and put on sack cloth and ashes, to live with the pain rather than run from their pain in work or drugs.  Give us the opportunity to grieve.”

Good grief is expressed grief.  It’s also grief that embraces the mystery that accompanies life and death, and life after death.    

To this day I wonder why my mother had to die in a car wreck.  And I wonder about the circumstances of many deaths in our congregation.

Earlier in our service we called the name of Rhonda Wooten from our list of deceased members. If you knew Ronda you knew she waited a long time to get married.  Finally the big day came and I’ve never performed a wedding for a happier bride.  Just over a year after her marriage Ronda became deathly ill with cancer, and despite waging a valiant battle died less than two years after her wedding day, leaving her young husband, parents, and loved ones devastated.  And leaving all of us who cared for her with lots of hard questions.

Evangelist Vance Havner, who I heard speak many years ago in his home church, FBC Greensboro, was a man of deep faith and conservative theology who prayed faithfully for his wife to be healed of cancer.  When she died anyway this is what Havner wrote:  “Whoever thinks he has the ways of God conveniently tabulated, analyzed, and correlated with convenient, glib answers to ease every question from aching hearts has not been far in this maze of mystery we call life and death.”

The same kind of mystery surrounds the details of the afterlife and Jesus’ return to earth.  The Bible is crystal clear that there is life after death, and Jesus will return to this earth at the end of the age.  But the particulars about how and when all this will happen are anything but clear.  Many fans of end-of-the-world prophecy love 1 Thessalonians 4, and use it as a basis for understanding how believers will be raptured at the end of time to meet Jesus in the air. 

Remember—Paul’s primary goal in this passage is to reassure those whose loved ones have already died (“fallen asleep” is an even better translation) that the dead in Christ will indeed be made alive in Christ.  In fact, they will be at the head of the line!  But the truth is the Christian tradition has many interpretations of heaven and hell, of the return of Jesus before or after the Great Tribulation, etc., etc. 

Whatever you do, as you read the scriptures on the end times, don’t lose the forest for the trees.  While the timing and the details are ultimately a mystery, we know that when followers of Christ die, they are with Jesus.  And they are with other followers of Jesus forever in a state of joy and peace impossible to describe with human words.  At the end of the day, and at the end of our lives, this knowledge is what will be important.

You see, healthy grief is hopeful grief because it focuses on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  The simple, thrilling truth is that every Christ-follower will undergo the same transformation Jesus did—from a dead corpse to a new spiritual body with properties that boggle the mind and defy imagination.   That’s why it’s okay for Paul to compare death to falling asleep.  Because those who fall asleep in Christ will in fact wake up—refreshed, alive, transformed forever—thanks to the resurrection of Christ, who defeated death for all eternity.   

Finally, says Paul, good grief is shared grief.   Notice how Paul ends this dramatic passage on a pastoral note –  Therefore encourage one another with these words.

The implication is—grief is not to be borne alone, not among followers of Christ.  Grief is to be shared with others.  That’s why Paul commands Christians in Romans 12 to mourn with those who mourn.  To be in community with brothers and sisters in Christ does not insulate us from our grief.  But it does make grief easier to bear because we are not alone.  God is with us.  Our fellow Christians are with us.  And somehow we know that with God and our friends we too will get through that dark the valley of the shadow of death.

Because I am on the sanctuary platform for most of our funerals, I am able to watch grieving families sitting at the front during the course of the service.  I watch them laugh and cry, and try to hold it together through the service.  Often I watch them struggle to sing the hymns, and many cannot because the emotion is too great.

But the congregation seated behind the family sings when they cannot sing, prays when they cannot pray, hopes when they cannot hope.  And in that moment you see the Body of Christ at its best, bearing one another’s burdens of grief and so fulfilling the law of Christ.

And so I say today, to all who grieve—grieve away.  There is no shame in grieving.  But if you are a follower of Jesus—grieve with hope.  For a new day is coming.  And oh what a day that will be!