I Know of a Sleep in Jesus' Name
A sermon based on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Sunday, November 13, 2011 - Saints Triumphant B
One of the longest days of my life began as a day of recreation. A couple of friends and I got up while it was still dark and drove several hours to the start of a trail. We then spent the better part of the day hiking into the Cascade mountains in Washington state. But as evening approached, maybe 10 miles in, the rain started falling (as it's apt to do in that part of the country). We only had 2 or 3 miles to go until we came to the place where we intended to camp for the night, but the rain soon became a downpour. And as we continued on the hike, now fairly soaked, we came to a spot where the trail had washed out. There was a cliff wall on the left, a sheer drop on the right, and a big mudslide down the mountain in front of us. There was no way around and no place to camp around there so there was no other choice but to turn around. We backtracked a mile or so until we found a place that was fairly flat and just big enough for a tent and campfire under the trees.
We tried to start a fire to warm up and dry off, but the rain was relentless and there was no dry fuel to be found. So we pitched the tent and huddled inside determined to make the best of a miserable situation. But before long we realized the tent had a leak and the level ground we'd found was the perfect place for the water to pool as it ran down the side of the mountain. But now we were stuck. It was dark and unsafe to hike even if we had the energy to break camp and plod on. So there we spent a sleepless night, our sleeping bags and us inside them soaked through. It was also a surprisingly chilly night for early June. I don't think any of us slept a wink.
The next morning, when dawn finally arrived, the rain still hadn't let up. So we broke camp and hiked the absolutely miserable 10 or 12 miles back to the car while the torrents of rain continued to drench us, hoping that the trail between us and the car hadn't washed out too. When we finally got back to the car, we cranked the heater to try to dry out and drove several hours back home.
And when I finally got home, took a hot shower and climbed into bed that night, I don't think I've ever slept better. Physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted, I crashed and I crashed hard. What welcome that sweet, soothing, reviving sleep was. Safe and comfortable at last!
This morning, the apostle Paul describes for us another sleep that is sweet, soothing, and reviving for every believer in Jesus. The sleep of death is not terrifying for the believer, but safe and comfortable at last! For death is not the end, but only a sleep from which we will awake... to a glorious reunion with those saints who have gone before us, and better still, with Jesus himself.
Listen to the way the apostle describes that blessed sleep through Jesus in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18...
13Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For 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. 17After 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. 18Therefore encourage each other with these words.
I. We Will Awake...
Paul wasn't just using a euphemism when he called those who had died, "those who had fallen asleep." He was talking reality. You see, someone had led the Thessalonians to believe that all believers would stay alive until Christ came back to earth again. And so, when their loved ones died, they wondered what happened to them. Were they forever lost? Were they in hell? Was there any hope for their immortal souls? So Paul set pen to paper to clear up some of the confusion they had.
"Brothers," he said, " we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep..." You see, what you don't know can hurt you. If you don't know the bridge is out up ahead, you could be in mortal danger. If you don't know you're sick, you can't get the help you need. And if you don't know what happens when you die... well, that ignorance has eternal consequences. It may seem like Paul is a bit harsh when he calls them "ignorant," but that's how they were acting. They were grieving like men who have no hope as if death were the final word.
And to be sure, that's what they deserved. Roman poet, Gaius Valerius Catulus, once wrote, "When once our brief day has set, we must sleep one everlasting night." And many would agree that at death we simply become worm food and face annihilation. But that's only wishful thinking. The reality is that without hope in Christ, death brings far worse than annihilation. It brings an eternal punishment in an unquenchable lake of fire, where, as Jesus put it, "[the] worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched." (Mark 9:48)
And to be sure, that's what we deserve. We may not be ignorant about what happens at death, but all too often we sure act like it...
Did you notice who Paul said would be caught up with the Lord? He didn't say "Those who are still alive," but "We who are still alive..." You see Paul wanted the Thessalonians and every generation of believers to live with the continued expectation that Jesus would return in their lifetime. But have you lived that way? Always ready to go? Always eager to share the gospel with another as if today were your very last chance to do so? Always with the eager hope and expectation that today will be the day that you fall asleep to be with the Lord? Have your actions indicated that you live with that certain hope? Have your thoughts about others? Your attitudes toward the possessions and the wealth that God has given you on loan for a while? Mine either. And we deserve to die forever in hell, never to be awakened from that endless nightmare.
But we don't get what we deserve. Death is not the end. It's only a sleep. How come? Paul explains, "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." Jesus didn't just fall asleep. He died. He was cut off from God the Father and endured hell itself to pay for the sins of all mankind. And he was cut off from the land of the living to complete the sacrifice.
Now, those who trust in Jesus' work on their behalf, will not die forever in hell, but will live. They—we—will wake up from death! And because Jesus rose again, we know that his payment is complete and acceptable to God, and therefore, that we too will rise from the dead! Just as we don't dread going to sleep at night, but rather welcome the rest and relief and peace from the worries of the day that sleep brings, so too, we can honestly look forward to death. For it will bring eternal rest, relief from our sinful natures that always haunt us here, and peace from all the problems and pain that this life brings. In fact, the word cemetery comes from the Greek word meaning "a sleeping place." After all, that's what death is for a Christian. Not the final answer, but a restful sleep from which we will awake. And so, we can—and we do—look forward to that sleep...
II. ...To a Happy Reunion
I know that some of you of here have lost loved ones to death. Parents, spouses, and children, some of which were never born, have been victims of that unnatural result of sin. And we grieve our loss. And that's okay. Jesus himself cried tears of sorrow at the loss of his good friend, Lazarus—even though he knew he'd see him alive again in matter of minutes! It is okay to grieve. But we don't "grieve like the rest of men," (like unbelievers), "who have no hope." We do have hope.
And you know that the Biblical concept of "hope" is not like our English word for hope, like, "I hope it doesn't snow tomorrow because I don't want to shovel anymore," or "I hope I can find a job soon—one that pays well" or "I hope that I can make it home for Thanksgiving." No. We have the certain expectation of our resurrection, and of a happy reunion with that resurrection.
Paul says, "the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds..." We will be reunited with the Saints Triumphant—those who have gone before us and died trusting in Jesus' forgiveness won for them on the cross. But our reunion in heaven will be even greater still! For we'll be reunited, not just with our loved ones, but even better… with Jesus! Paul says, "the dead in Christ will rise first. 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."
And what a great day that will be! In the words of the Christian band, Mercy Me... "I can only imagine what it will be like when I walk by [Jesus'] side... I can only imagine what my eyes will see when [his] face Is before me... Surrounded by [his glory, what will my heart feel? Will I dance for... Jesus or in honor of him be still? Will I stand in [his] presence or to my knees will I fall? Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all? I can only imagine..." What an awesome day that will be!
But what about now? What do we do until that great and awesome day? Paul tells us that too. "Therefore," he says—that is, because of our hope; our certain expectation that when we fall asleep in death, we will wake up again to be reunited with the Saints Triumphant and with our Savior—"Therefore encourage each other with these words." Encourage one another. You are not a Christian that's isolated in a bubble. You're a part of a family, part of a body. So encourage one another. Share the comforting truth of the certain resurrection we look forward to with one another. Share the message with those who don't have any hope.
Remind each other that death is just like falling asleep. And when this life leaves us physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted, we know we can look forward to that sweet, soothing, reviving sleep. Safe and comfortable at last, we'll wake up free of every burden, worry, sorrow, and pain. "We will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words." Amen.