The following was a sermon given on Sunday, November 20th, 2016 at Nelson Covenant Church.
Today many within our community are still in shock at the news of the tragic death of Devon Dunkley this week. Devon’s family is part of our sister church at the Junction, and he was a part of our youth group for many years. This past Wednesday Blair invited me to share from the Scriptures at our youth group, and I thought it would be important to pass along those thoughts to our entire community this morning.
We have record of an early Christian community in the ancient city of Thessalonica. These were new believers in Jesus, and after experiencing a series of deaths within their community, they were seeking to understand how they were supposed to process death as believers in Jesus. Paul addressed their questions in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
What is our posture towards death? How are we called to live as Christians in the face of death?
The first thing that must be said, is that We MOURN. We MOURN the loss that comes through death.
“13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.”
Notice Paul doesn’t say, “You’re Christians—so you shouldn’t mourn!” He says, “I don’t want you to grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” Paul wants these early Christians to know that they will grieve and mourn, but their grief and mourning will take on a different shape.
I’ll expand on that in a second, but let’s stay on this first crucial point: Christians MOURN the loss that comes from death. Death is a monster, because it takes someone from us who was an image-bearer of God; someone who was valuable and loved, beautiful and good. That’s why it’s important—critical—to mourn.
Jesus taught, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5:4. In the kingdom of God it’s not a virtue to remain stoic and unfeeling in the presence of significant loss. We are not more spiritual if we can keep sorrow at bay, nor are we stronger if we manage to keep our grief contained and controlled.
Jesus wept in the face of tragedy. When his cousin John was beheaded, Jesus mourned. When Jesus was informed that his close friend Lazarus had died, he wept.
That we can allow the searing pain that comes from losing a loved one find expression through our tears and our crying out to God…reveals we are becoming more like Jesus, not less.
Christians mourn in the face of death.
But there is a second thing that must be said. In the face of death, We MOCK. We MOCK the powerlessness of death. Paul continues:
14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
And in 1 Corinthians 15:22–26 Paul declares:
22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
I’ve been reading through St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation (written in the 4th century). In a chapter on the resurrection Athanasius shares how he has witnessed the truth of Jesus’ resurrection transform how the Christians of his day responded in the face of death. Specifically, he highlights how the resurrection has led to Christians “despising” death (and by “despising” he means mocking/belittling). Listen to his words:
A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection.
“There is proof of this too; for men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Savior’s resurrection from it. Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing robbed of all its strength. Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot the passers-by sneer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, “O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?
If you are a Christian, you serve a King who has broken death and trampled it underfoot. When Jesus was resurrected, he overcame death’s power and signaled the beginning of the end of death’s rule and reign over God’s good creation.
Therefore, those in Christ are no longer held hostage by death’s power. Death is a defeated foe, so that we now live without fear, knowing that “We are confident…and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” 2 Corinthians 5:8. Even more astonishing than the hope of life after death, is the hope of life after, life after death. The Christian’s ultimate hope is that one day Jesus will return and bring full Restoration and Redemption to this broken world. Then his kingdom will be fully established within the context of a new heavens and new earth, and “‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
In light of this great hope, Christians mock death, seeing it for the temporary inconvenience that it is.
And so death causes us to mourn, but it ought never cause us to despair. Christians must never be frozen by the fear of death, nor overwhelmed by a misunderstanding of its grasp.
Because of what Jesus has accomplished–for you, for me, for Devon–death does not have the final word. It has been swallowed up in the life and victory of King Jesus; a life and victory that Devon now knows fully, even as he is fully known (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12).