Most of us have been caught off guard by the Coronavirus pandemic. People are constantly surprised by having to live in ways and take precautions that would never have been imagined a year ago. But virologists, people who study infectious diseases were caught out by Covid 19. They know that the world is suspectable to vicious virus mutation and that at some point, the genie would be out of the bottle. With everyone interconnected and so much international travel, they were not surprised by the rapid spread of the virus or the measures we have all had to endure in attempts to bring it under control.
There are other stand out events in history that have significantly affected the lives of millions. The terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York was sudden, dramatic, and sparked much fear around the world causing many plans to be changed due to terrorist alerts. Foot and Mouth disease has significantly impacted on farmers and rural communities twice in my lifetime. It the last century, the 2 world conflicts had seismic consequences for so many people, both those in the armed forces and civilians too. It is the dead from these conflicts and those who lives have been marred by war in the years since that we remember today albeit in muted fashion given our current crisis. The reasons for the second world war were obvious and many could see it coming well before it was declared. The first world war was much less predictable, and historians still argue over what sparked it.
So many significant events creep up on us unawares. Politicians and governments as well as the general population are caught napping.
Our reading today comes from the first letter the apostle Paul wrote to Christians at Thessalonica known today as Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. The story of the establishment of the Christian church in the place is told in Acts 17. Now Paul, together with Silvanus and Timothy who helped set it up write to support these new Christian believers with their faith. The world they lived in was just as subject major events and uncertainties as ours, but Paul had told them of one great thing that was sure to happen: ‘The Day of the Lord’. Jewish people already understood this from the old testament. The prophets speak often about ‘a day of the Lord’ but most of the new Christians in Thessalonica were from a pagan background. They were deeply fearful of death and believed that it spelt their extinction or at best an agonising uncertainty
But Paul had spoken to them often of the day of the Lord as a time when Jesus would return. It would be a day of judgement on the sin of the world, but through their faith and belief in Christ, they would be ‘justified’ and could look forward to an eternal life shared with their Lord. In contrast to the fatalism of much Greek religion, the certainty and hope this day offered would have come as great relief to Thessalonian Christians. They would have looked forward to it with longing. They believed it would come soon, in their lifetimes.
Of course it didn’t. It still has not yet come. Christians in Thessalonica began to die of natural causes. What about them? Had they missed out? It is these questions Paul addresses in our reading today. He does not want them to be uninformed.
Firstly, of those who had died or ‘fallen asleep’. Paul uses a gentler Greek word here to assure his readers that the death of a believing Christian is not an end. Just as sleep is welcome and holds no terror at the end of a hard day, so the Christian’s passing is into a rest in the presence of Christ. Far from missing out on the day of the Lord, the ‘dead in Christ’ will rise first to have pride of place in the kingdom.
Paul speaks secondly to those who mourn. He offers the comfort of Christ’s resurrection. Christian belief is that Christ died and rose again. There was an empty grave on the first Easter morning which anticipates an empty grave for each believing Christian. As a contemporary Christian song has it: ‘The plans he has for me don’t finish at my grave.’ Evidence for the empty grave of Jesus is really strong. Get in touch if you would like to know more. It has much more substance than the voice of mediums and spiritualists. Jesus has piloted away through both spiritual and physical death to assure us of life eternal with him. As human beings we will mourn the loss of loved ones, but that mourning is tempered by this great truth we hold dear.
Paul also addresses those who remain: ‘For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then, we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.’ (1 Thessalonians 4.16 & 17) He uses military language here. When a military command is given, it must be acted upon. Shortly, we will hear Last Post and Reveille. They stand for something: sleep and awake. When God sounds Reveille on that great day of the lord the dead in Christ will awake and together with them we will share eternity with God. Let us encourage one another with these words.
Some of the language Paul uses here is weird. It defies description. Of course it does. It describes something we could never imagine, something beyond our understanding. That does not mean to say we should dismiss it. If I had said on Remembrance Sunday last year that in 2020 we would not be allowed in church or that the ceremony at the town war memorial would be restricted to 30 people, you would have said that it was nonsense.
The reality is none of us knows what’s around the corner. If we had listened to virologists a bit more, we might have had an idea about the pandemic. Most of us don’t have the scientific background to be study those things, but we are all blest with the remarkable gift of the bible. We don’t need to be experts in theology to know how it speaks to our human condition, how it reveals Jesus to us, even in the words from the prophets written long before his birth. We have no excuse therefore to be caught out by the day of the Lord; to be like the foolish virgins in Jesus story who did not have oil in their lamps to welcome the bridegroom. Virologists did not know the day or the hour, but they knew a pandemic would come. We do not know the day or hour, but we know Jesus the bridegroom will come. Are we ready? Marantha even so come Lord Jesus.
Jonathan Smith Kingdom 2 Remembrance Sunday