Summary: Paul provides three insights for a congregation faced with the death of one of its members.
Friday was a difficult day for this congregation when we learned that a person who often worshiped with us had suddenly passed away.
We all recognize that life can be cut short at any time, but when it happens without warning to a person so young, whose family we have come to appreciate, we struggle with our grief and wonder how we can find hope and comfort. Yalonda’s death affects not just family members and friends, but her absence affects this entire congregation. All of us will miss her. And I hope the message God has given me will strengthen all of us gathered here today.
As always, in times like these, we turn to God’s Word for insight and courage. And this morning, in addition to the scriptures, prayers, and hymns we have already heard, I invite you to consider the words we find in a short New Testament letter, written by the Apostle Paul, to a congregation that was facing similar circumstances. Some of their number had died and they were faced with the reality of that loss. So the question is, How can the community of faith keep its focus when death invades the congregation?
I want to highlight three words from this scripture as we consider what God might be saying to us today. Those words are grief, hope, and comfort, as you find them listed in the bulletin with the hymns we have sung. They form the outline for today’s message – death brings grief, God gives hope, and the congregation shares comfort.
We find these thoughts in the paragraph that I read from I Thessalonians 4. The church Paul was writing to was quite young. If you read Acts 17, you will see that this church was born in the midst of turmoil. You recall that Paul had traveled throughout the known world to spread the good news of Jesus. Many people accepted his message, but there were some who opposed Paul and insisted that he was a threat to the government because he talked about another king named Jesus. Some of these people formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. And Paul had to leave the city and the new church after just being there three weeks.
After he left, the church evidently continued, because later Paul sent one of his co-workers back to see how they were doing. And after that, Paul wrote this letter to the Thessalonians, in which we learn that all had not been well. The small church there had suffered some hard times because of their faith. The persecution that began when Paul was there had continued. And that reality sets the stage for our scripture today.
Evidently, some of their number had died - possibly because of the persecution. Members of the congregation may have been troubled by their death because they thought anyone who becomes a believer in Jesus should be spared that kind of trouble. Even today, some people seem to think that Christians should not have to go through hard times. Whatever happened, verse 13 tells us that the congregation was grieving. And Paul accepts that. He doesn’t scold them for grieving. He doesn’t say to get on with it or to get over it, because the reality is that death brings grief. Many of us have experienced it. We know how it feels.
Think about the shock and disbelief we all felt when we first heard the news last Friday. Maybe you said to yourself, “This can’t be.” More than one person called us to confirm that what they heard was really true. Denial is one of the first emotional responses we have when someone dies. It is one way we try to protect ourselves from the blow we feel so we can manage our feelings.
Another evidence of grief is the pain we feel. Everywhere we turn today we are reminded that something is wrong, a chair is empty. Someone isn’t here. We will miss Yalonda when we meet for worship. Her family will find it hard to gather without her. Counselors tell us, though, that when the numbness is over and you begin to feel the pain, you are coming to terms with the enormity of the loss. Pain really hurts. It is part of the grieving process and it is all right to experience that pain.
Eventually, after the emotional highs and lows, the grief and the pain, we begin to move through the valley of the shadow of death, and begin to heal.
I think one of the most important verses in the Bible is the one that describes the response of Jesus when he found out about the death of his dear friend Lazarus. That verse is only two words long. The Bible says “Jesus wept.” That says a lot about his friendship with Lazarus. It says a lot about Jesus. Death brings grief. It is OK to weep. We have permission to feel the pain. Let’s not scold ourselves for feeling bad.