On Tuesday, December 9th, I was asked to speak at the candlelight memorial service for Dickerson Funeral Home in Veedersburg, IN.  It was a beautiful service in which both I and another pastor in town were able to share briefly about hope, grief and the life that is available through Jesus Christ.  The following is my message from that service.  It is based on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
A couple Sundays ago marked the beginning of the season of Advent.  Advent is the four Sundays prior to Christmas Day.  It marks a time in the Christian year when we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ.  It is more than decorating the house, buying Christmas presents, and scheduling parties with loved ones.  It is a time when we can really examine ourselves and prepare ourselves spiritually for the birth of the Savior, but it is also a time to remind us that we don’t know when Christ will return.  It is a time when we face the realization that Christ could come back at any point, and our job is to be ready for it.  Our task is to live our lives in such a way that the hope which comes from above shines before all people.
For centuries, people have struggled with the expectation of the second coming.  And perhaps that has something to do with the unknown nature of it all.  We like to know what is going to happen because it makes things go a little smoother.  But the simple truth of the matter is that just as the birth of Christ was unexpected, so will be the second coming.  We are not to figure out when it will happen; we are to live in expectation of it.
Paul writes this letter to the church in Thessalonica during a time in which so many of the Christians were worried about their friends and family who had passed away.  They despaired because they thought that these people would miss out on the second coming altogether.  They believed that those who passed away would never be able to participate in it.  Because of this, they were having a difficult time coping with their passing.  Paul writes to reassure them that those who have passed on, or “fallen asleep,” will indeed be remembered upon Christ’s return.
Part of the reason why they were worried about this in the first place can be found in Act 17.
Paul and Silas came to Thessalonica during Paul’s second missionary journey.  They went directly to the synagogue for three straight weeks and taught about Jesus and how he fulfilled Scripture, and that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead.  Many Jews and even some prominent Gentiles heard and accepted Paul’s message.  However, there were several people who stirred up trouble, which caused Paul and Silas to leave in the night for Berea.  Because of this disturbance, Paul was unable to teach the Thessalonians on some of the other aspects of the faith, which undoubtedly would have included Christ’s return, which is why he begins in verse 13 by saying, “We do not want you to be uninformed about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
The message of the gospel is essentially one of hope.  There is no need for despair when it comes to the gospel.  It has the power to mend broken relationships.  It has the power to overcome the difficulties of life.  It has the power to defeat even death.  What this means is that life as we know it right now, is not all there is.  The idea that death has the final word is no longer true in light of the truth of the gospel.  Death is not the end; it is the cocoon in which we find ourselves after our life as a catepillar has come to a close.  And, when God’s timing is right, that cocoon opens to reveal a new creation. 
Death is a step that ultimately brings us closer to who we are intended to be.  This is the message of the gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).  The promise of the gospel is that even though we will die, we truly find life in Christ.  God is a God of promise, and what he promises is as good as done.  His Word does not go unfulfilled.
Paul assures his readers that God will not forget those who have fallen asleep.  In fact, he writes that those who have fallen asleep will be among the first to see the Lord upon his return.  The dead are awaken by a great call from heaven, and they are taken up with the living.  The Greek word for “caught up” gives us the picture of one who is suddenly, and unexpectedly, snatched up.  This reinforces the uncertain, but sudden, timing of the return of Christ.  And the Greek word for “to meet” is a specific term that is used when dignitaries would visit an area and all the people would come out of the village to meet him.  Imagine the grand scene that Paul is painting here: we are going about our daily duties, then suddenly and unexpectedly, we are taken up to heaven and reunited with our brothers and sisters in Christ and we form a receiving line for the coming King.
In light of this understanding, we can look at death in a new way.  This isn’t to say that there won’t be sorrow for those who have passed on, but to say that we need to recognize that this sorrow is only temporary.  For the day will come when we will meet again, and it will be the day of Christ’s return.  It will be a day of such significance that everything we know will be flipped upside down.  The world as we know it will not exist because the world as we know it is not how it is supposed to be.  In Isaiah, God promises a new heaven and a new earth.  The same promise can be found in Revelation, alongside the promise that God will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death.
Let me close tonight with some words of encouragement.  The ones we love who have passed away this year are not gone forever.  They are asleep right now and will be awaken with a great trumpet call from heaven as we are taken up to meet our Lord.  It is okay to grieve for those who have passed on, but Paul reminds us in 1 Thessalonians that there is no need for us to grieve as those who have no hope.  We do have hope.  We have the hope of the gospel, which is God’s promise to us that one day, every tear will be wiped away, and there will be nothing but rejoicing and praise as we live out eternity in His loving presence.