Church Under Pressure – Return of The King
Welcome and introduction
****Call to Worship: Colossians 1:15-20 (Steve, Luka and Clement)
Song – You were the word at the beginning (What a beautiful name)
Prayers of Intercession
Covid 19 – USA, Brazil, India, Russia, Peru, South Africa, Mexico, Chile, UK, Iran
Mission Prayer – Lewcas – Judith
*Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11
(during reading –other versions have ‘sleep’ in 4:13. Sleep was widely and frequently used as a euphemism for death both by pagans and by Jews and Christians.
**Message: Church under pressure (4) – The return of the King
On a cemetery not far from Windsor Castle there is an inscription on a gravestone that reads:
Pause my friend, as you walk by;
As you once were, so once was I.
As I am now, so you will be
Prepare, my friend, to follow me.
A visitor had added these lines:
To follow you is not my intent
Until I know which way you went.
We may prepare for our retirement. We may make wills. We may prepare budgets. But the greatest preparation of all, in terms of importance and lasting value, is the one so many people either never choose to or want to think about, don’t believe is important or necessary, or leave to chance and hope – it’s the preparation we make for eternity.
This passage ought to make clear that being prepared for the return of Jesus Christ, the centrepiece of history, the return of the King – *if I may borrow a title from The Lord of the Rings – the king who will reign on the earth throughout eternity, is no small thing. It takes two things to be prepared for an event, great or small – we should be well-informed – and we should be ready by acting on the information.
The Bible teaches that the return of Jesus Christ is the joyous climax of God’s eternal purpose. This is when God will complete the plan he began in Christ. He will return in power and glory and every eye will see him. His kingdom will be finally and fully established.
To these early Christians, a church under great pressure to renounce their faith in Jesus, and facing the real possibility of serious and deadly persecution, this promise offered unwavering hope in the midst of fierce persecution. Christians greeted each other in the street with the word ‘Maranatha’ – lit. ‘our Lord, come’. There was a general belief that his return was imminent, and they lived with and were sustained by this hope, almost expectation. In fact, they longed for it.
The questions the Thessalonians raised reflect at least in part an assumption that death was the final reality of human existence, an end point or barrier that even the return of Jesus could not cross or affect. The writer of Ecclesiastes surveyed everything that happened under the sun, and found only meaninglessness, frustration and despair. Similarly today, there is so much around us that could cause us to feel a sense of despair and hopelessness.
But Paul affirms that there is more to life than can be known only on the basis of human experience and that it’s this hope that really distinguished these followers of Jesus Christ from the world. *He says, ‘I want you to know what will happen to the Christians who have died so you will not be full of sorrow like people who have no hope’ (4:13).
Because death is not an end, but a transition. That’s not at all to deny or minimize the destructive effects of death, which include the disruption of valued and significant human relationships. But even in the midst of mourning and sorrow, Paul reminds us not to lose sight of the resurrection of Jesus – the decisive victory over death in which all believers will participate.
For this reason, the way in which we mourn ought to have a different nature from those who ‘have no hope.’ Grieve, says Paul, but don’t grieve as if there’s no hope. Of course the struggle may well be to bring our faith and our emotions together. That is the challenge death presents to Christians – to live out our beliefs when it is most difficult to do so.
One American Christian preacher writes about his own sorrow. He says, ‘The longest 24 hours of my life were those after my daughter’s death. When making the funeral arrangements with her husband and his parents, I had to listen to a salesman who was an incessant talker and who told us thirty times he wasn’t a salesman. Twice while we were making decisions about her casket and burial, I had to leave the room; I simply couldn’t handle him. The night before, I had hallucinated. Half asleep, half awake, I kept thinking my daughter was wondering when her daddy was going to come get her. The next morning, I took a walk, and was praying and crying the whole way. When I returned, the Lord spoke in such a distinct way: “She’s fine. She’s with me. And you’re going to be fine, too. I’m all you need. You just keep walking. Keep talking. Keep praying. Keep crying.”
Life is both brutal and beautiful. But is seems to me that we need more than just an ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ view on life – much, much more. We need an unbreakable, unquenchable hope.
Martin Luther King was speaking at a funeral for four young girls killed by a racist’s bomb in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. *He said, ‘I hope you can find some consolation from Christianity’s affirmation that death is not the end. Death is not a period that ends a great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible sunrise, be your sustaining power during these trying days.’
*Jesus encourages us to not let our hearts be troubled because he has gone to prepare a place for us, and he will return again and receive us to himself, that where he is, we will be also (John 14:1-3). The future of believers is not so much a place, as a relationship. To believers who may spend time wondering what happens or ‘where we go when we die’, Paul says, ‘We will be with the Lord forever.’
And this being with the Lord forever includes the acquisition of a transformed resurrection body, which is glorious and imperishable, and the enjoyment of a relationship with Jesus which is much, much closer, richer and fuller than the relationship we currently experience – a state of existence that Paul himself considers in his letter to the Philippians *to be ‘better by far’ (1:23). Our present experience of Christ is only a foretaste of what lies before us. And what Paul says is not founded on baseless speculation, but is grounded in God’s resurrection and exaltation of Jesus the Messiah. Our confident outlook towards the future is grounded in our knowledge of the past.
Because a passage like this deals with events that have not yet happened, they have often fascinated people. But they also have a long history of being misunderstood, misused and fiercely debated. We need to remember that in this passage Paul is dealing with a fairly narrow question – the fate of believers who die before Jesus returns. The Thessalonian Christians believed this to be imminent and were concerned that their friends and relatives who had already died would somehow be at a disadvantage. And so to this question Paul gives a clear and unambiguous answer – the ultimate fate of all believers, regardless of when or if they die, *is to ‘be with the Lord forever’ (v.`17). This is the final word of his answer and the central point of the passage.
Jesus taught us he would come quickly, like ‘a thief’, or ‘a thief in the night.’ We’re specifically told not even to try and suggest when that might be. But that has not stopped people. In fact no time in church history seems to have been free from people trying to work out and proclaim to the world when Jesus will return. In the middle of the 19th century the Millerites (followers of William Miller) sold their farms, quit jobs and waited for the second coming between 21st March 1843 and 21st March 1844. In the late 1800’s, members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect set the spring of 1874 as the ‘Parousia’ or ‘appearing of our Lord.’ And when nothing happened they moved the date to 18 months later. More recently, in 1987 a book caused quite a stir. The title was ‘88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Happen in 1988’. There was a sequel in 1989. We are told that only God knows the date.
Jesus spoke of his coming again in personal, visible and heavenly terms. So did the ‘men in white’ at his ascension. He also emphasized that the event would be as unmissable as lightning flashing across the whole sky. The Lord Jesus is himself the central reality and glory. Everything else will pale into insignificance. Nothing will compare with the beauty of Jesus. He will be there at the centre of angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven, the redeemed from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. He will at last unroll the scroll he alone was worthy to open. He will call the roll of those whose names are written there. The clouds speak of the presence of God.
*Paul says that to unbelievers the ‘day of the Lord’ will be a sudden and unexpected surprise (5:2). He says unbelievers have a false sense of security, but believers have genuine security grounded in the death and (by implication) resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. For believers (regardless of whether they are dead or alive at the time) the coming of the Day of the Lord will mean life together with him.
In the meantime we should stay alert and disciplined, as we encourage and build up one another in faith, hope and love. We should not be so fascinated by the return of Jesus that we fail to be his ministers in the present. A proper understanding and awareness of the return of Jesus will energize us in the present, as we comfort and encourage one another, confident in the hope of salvation grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
*What we know and believe about the future ought to shape how we live in the present (4:18). Paul clearly expects the information he has imparted to the Thessalonians to affect their attitudes and behaviour. *If the assumption of some of them that death is the end is true then yes – let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die – as Paul himself recognizes (1 Corinthians 15:32). But it is precisely because that view of life is not true, because we do look forward to the resurrection of the dead, that we live not for the moment, but with an eye to the future. And how we live now ought to be shaped in fundamental ways by that future.
Suicide bombers, tragically convinced that they will enter paradise when they die, willingly give their lives for political and religious causes. JW’s labour in the hope that they may be found among the 144,000 who qualify for heaven. If mistaken beliefs such as these can have such an impact on those who hold them, should the beliefs of Christians, grounded as they are in the resurrection of Jesus, have any less impact? But often we are unwilling to risk much of anything, despite *Jesus saying ‘whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it’.
Paul is directing the Thessalonian believers’ attention away from the ‘when’ to the matter of ‘how’ they should conduct themselves in the light of the unexpectedness of Jesus’ coming. The Day of the Lord will include both punishment and blessing. ‘Pax et securitas’ (peace and security) was what Rome offered to the people under its power and dominion, and to many it was an appealing slogan. But actually nothing can ultimately guarantee our security. 9/11 made sure of that – if not before – and now the devastating impact on all of our lives of something that no one anticipated even six months ago. Any such claim is illusory and deceptive. No form of government can deliver on the promise of peace and safety.
This passage challenges us to confront our own mortality. *Do we really believe like Paul that to die is gain? (Philippians 1:21) The good news is that we do not need to confront death only on the basis of our resources, but in the basis of faith in Jesus, who has already conquered death. Death is the last enemy, but it is not the final victor, for the ultimate victory belongs to God, who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s where our hope lies. Paul called on the Thessalonians to see what God intends to do, and then to apply that vision of the future to guide current choices and adjust present attitudes.
*‘This world isn’t our permanent home (or city). We’re looking forward to a home (or city) yet to come’ (Hebrews 13:14). How much do we long for it? How attached are we to this world and the things of this world? Because one day the king will return – that’s the basis of our hope – and we need to be ready.
Song – My hope is built on nothing less (Cornerstone)
News and Information – Clement