Friday, November 17, 2023

The Shadow of Death

This is an edited and expanded version of the sermon for the Third Sunday before Advent. The sermon itself is available as a podcast. To hear it, click the link below.

The Shadow of Death

The Third Sunday of Advent

Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13

‘We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.’ (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

Yesterday was St Martin's Day. In the past in some parts of the Church, this marked the beginning of an extended season of Advent. Although we do not follow that practice nowadays, our readings and our service nevertheless take on an Advent theme. In our reading this morning, St Paul tells the Thessalonians that he does not want them to be uninformed about those who have died. This, he writes, is so that they will not grieve as others do who have no hope.

St Paul raises two issues here. Firstly, what has happened to those who have died? And, secondly, just how are we as believers to grieve?

In response to the first issue of what has happened to those who have died, the standard Christian response is that those who have died have gone to heaven to be with God. In heaven, we believe, they enjoy a blissful existence, hence the phrase, ‘they have gone to a better place’.

So secondly, when it comes to the question of how we should grieve as believers, while understandably we miss those who have died and passed away and feel their loss, we can be happy for them - or so the argument goes. This even leads to Christians saying that funerals can be a time of rejoicing.

If all this is what St Paul believed, it is not what he says, not here at least, and certainly not as most Christians mean it. We need to backtrack a bit and ask why St Paul writes what he does. A clue to the explanation lies, in fact, in our Gospel reading (Matthew 25:1-13). Jesus tells his disciples the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids to teach them that they should always be ready for his return. He warns the disciples that he will return at any time and at a time when they least expect it

So, after Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension, the first believers took Jesus at his word and expected his return at any time. It was imminent in their minds. Jesus was coming soon, and when he came, he would bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, as we pray for every week in the Lord's Prayer.

When Jesus came back, they believed, he would judge the living and the dead; he would give eternal life to those who had trusted in him, and he would punish those who had not. This hope of Jesus’ return was a central part of their message. It was not something peripheral to it but belonged to the very core of the Gospel they preached. It followed that if Jesus was coming soon, the majority of believers would still be alive when he did. Their focus, then, was not on those who had died and passed away, but on those who were still alive and being prepared for when their Lord came back. Those who were still alive had to be ready for his return.

As time went on, however, Christ’s return seemed to have been delayed and the issue of what would happen to those who had died became much more pressing. Would those who had died before Christ’s return miss out?

St Paul is anxious to reassure the Thessalonian who were worried that this would be the case, and the answer he gives is perhaps not quite what we would expect. St Paul does not say that those who have died have gone to be with Jesus in heaven; he says that when he returns those who have died will rise to meet Christ first, and it only after he has gathered up those believers who have died that he will then gather those who are alive to himself. We do not grieve for those who have died as others do who have no hope, St Paul writes, because Christ, when he comes, will come for them too. The hope that St Paul talks about remained firmly the hope of Christ's return: Christ’s return to us and for us.

The hope was not that we would go to be with Christ in heaven but that Christ would come to us on earth. It was possible to hold onto this hope while believers thought that Christ could return at any time. As time passed, however, and Christ did not return, believers had to face the reality that Jesus was not going to be coming back any time soon.

So, there developed in the Church what we can describe as a two-sided hope. Firstly, the fundamental hope remained that Christ would one day return, and believers’ hopes remained focused on this expectation. It was then, and only then, that our salvation would be complete. Believers in Christ would be rewarded with the gift of eternal life; sinners would be punished; and the kingdom of God instated here on earth.

Secondly, in the meantime, however, those who died before Christ’s return would go to be with Jesus in heaven to wait for the Day of Judgment and Christ's return. This received some refinement over the years, but you get the general idea! Heaven was not the destination; heaven was the waiting room. It is here that believers waited with Christ for the Day when God would raise them, and Christ would take them with him when returned to earth in glory.

This hope of the return of Christ was not just about the future; it affected how believers saw their life in this world in the present. This life, they believed, was a preparation for the life to come. They saw this life as transient, temporary, and testing. This life, in other words, was about God getting us ready to live, as we saw last week, in the City of God.

In the old funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer, there are these words:

‘Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?’

Full of misery! Believers in the past were far more realistic in their assessment of life in this world. Their hope, as a result, was very much for a better life in the future when Christ’s Kingdom came and Christ returned. This life here and now was a preparation for it, but the life of the world to come would only be fully ours when Christ returned.

This, however, has all changed in today’s Church and for most believers. It is, though, only comparatively recently that it has changed. The reason it has changed is because we have largely given up on the idea of Christ's return. This is why we never talk about it. On those occasions when we cannot avoid talking about it, such as at Advent, we talk about it without any expectation that it will actually happen. What is more, we have also largely rejected the idea of any future judgment. God is just too loving and too nice. Our belief now is that we are all, each and everyone of us, going to a better place, regardless of what we do or fail to do here.

So, what about here? Well, we find all this talk of life being short and full of misery and of being cut down like a flower far too depressing for words, and far too depressing for us modern day Christians to believe. Rather than worrying about the future and what will happen to us when we die, our focus is on getting the most out of life now. In any case, we do not think we have to worry about the future, for the simple reason that there is nothing to worry about. God is going to look after us anyway. Instead of worrying about the future, we want to make the most of this life for ourselves and for our family, and, if we have any time left over, to use that time in making this world a better place for our children to grow up in.

Our goal now as believers is to enjoy this life and all that we have, following our hopes and ambitions in this world, doing what good we can as we do. The problem for Christians, of course, is that this does not sound very different to what everyone else is doing. Where does God fit into all this?

I think God fits into modern-day Christians’ hopes and dreams in three ways. Firstly, as a way to justify our goals and give them divine authority. Secondly, in helping us to achieve those goals. And thirdly, by being there for us when we do not achieve them or find it hard to do so.

As believers in the 21st century, we need to see that all this leaves us with a very different faith and hope to that of the Thessalonians and to that of previous generations of believers.

Now I am not asking you this morning to choose between these two different ways of seeing things, just to see the difference. To see the difference between the sort of faith expressed, for example, in the Old Book of Common Prayer and the faith of most modern-day believers.

Rather than having a hope centred on Christ and what God is going to do in the future when Christ returns, our focus has become on ourselves in the present and what God can do for us now. We often use the same words and phrases as they used in the past, but we have given them a very different context and certainly a very different meaning. If we can see this, it is at least a step in the right direction.

Over Advent and the time leading up to it, I hope to examine more fully the direction I believe we should be going in. But in closing this morning, let me just ask briefly, what practical difference does this make? What I have been saying can seem very theoretical and perhaps even irrelevant. What difference, if any, would it make if we regained the perspective of the past?

The first difference it would make to us is that we would stop deceiving ourselves! We who live in the 21st century have a narrative of progress. Things are better now, we think, than they were in the past, and what is more, they are only going to go getting better. We are so much wiser, cleverer, and richer than previous generations. They lived in ignorance, superstition, and fear. We know better! But is that really true? Well, it is certainly true that some things are better materially now than they were.

I, for one, prefer living in a world with anesthetic, antibiotics, and vaccines, for example. But let me ask this question. If things are so much better nowadays, why doesn't it feel like it?

Only this week, here in Christ Church, I was recorded as part of a video for secondary school students to attempt to give them some hope when they are feeling suicidal. Because, as you will have read, suicides among secondary school students have risen, and risen dramatically. What is all the talk amongst young people today? It is of mental health issues. Huge numbers of young girls, for example, are engaging in self-harm and in self-destructive behaviour. Our material achievements have resulted in our spiritual poverty. And so, blinded by our material wealth, we continue to gamble on everything being okay in the end as we concentrate on trying to enjoy our life in this world now, and not doing a very good job of it.

How can we talk of a narrative of progress when there are two major wars taking place in our world, sucking in the nations of the world? Who would have thought that after two world wars we would see war in Europe and war in the Middle East? And these are just the wars we are talking about. Any thought that we give now for the well-being of others is for well-being in the present, and we are not even achieving that.

‘We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope’, St Paul writes.

We believers do grieve, we grieve as people who know that death is terrible. Death is an enemy still waiting to be destroyed. In this life, in the present, we, like all people, are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Death isn't just something that happens at the end of life; it is a powerful enemy that casts its shadow over the whole of life and the whole of human endeavor. But while a powerful enemy that is to be taken with the utmost seriousness, we as believers face that enemy with hope.

As we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we do not walk through it alone. We walk through it with the Lamb who is our shepherd, who will lead us to the springs of the waters of the river of life (Revelation 7:17). We walk through the valley of the shadow of death with the One who has conquered death and who will one day seal that victory with his return.

And so today, as we remember those whose lives were cruelly cut short in war, and as we think of the power of death, we think too of the power of Christ, and we rejoice in him and look for his coming again. We rejoice in his triumph and his victory over sin and death, a victory in which one day we will share.

Even so, come Lord Jesus!


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