WHAT ABOUT THE SECOND COMING?
I Thessalonians 4: 13-18
Now more than 12 years ago, a man named Bill Holton told this story:
“I couldn’t have been more than seven years old the night I climbed out of my bed and tiptoed downstairs to look for my grandmother. Gramma liked to sit up watching Marcus Welby, M.D., and sometimes I’d sneak down in my pajamas, stand quietly behind the chair where she couldn’t see me, and watch the show with her. Only tonight, Gramma wasn’t watching TV. Nor was she in her room when I returned upstairs to look for her. ‘Gramma?’ I called, my young heart pounding with alarm. I couldn’t even remember wanting my grandmother when she wasn’t there to answer the call. Then I remembered that Gramma had gone on an overnight trip with some friends. That made me feel better, but there were still tears in my eyes. I dashed back to my room and burrowed beneath the afghan Gramma had crocheted, as snug and warm as one of her hugs. Gramma will be home tomorrow, I comforted myself. She wouldn’t ever go away and not come back.” [Excerpted from Women’s World]
Of course there was a time when his gramma did not come back. When he was seventeen, his gramma had a heart attack from which she could not recover. But Bill Holton never forgot his grandmother and what she meant to him. He was sad that she had missed his graduation and his marriage to his wife, Carla. Later as they had their first child, they had a son, and named him “Christian.” One afternoon when the new family was home from the hospital, a package arrived. Inside was a box. In his grandmother’s handwriting, the card read, “To a very special grandbaby.” Bill couldn’t believe his eyes as they filled with tears of disbelief. They opened the wrapping paper and found inside a hand crocheted baby-blanket and a pair of booties. There was also a card: in her handwriting, Bill read the words to his new son: “I knew I wouldn’t be here for the grand day of your birth. I made arrangements to get this blanket to you.” And it was signed “Great-grandma.”
Who are the grammas in your life? Who are the ones who are so special to you, yet they have gone before you? They represent many ages and relationships. Some of you might have had a special note or gift left for you to find or receive after a loved one has died. Some of you have told me of hearing the words of your grandparent or parent, of you husband or wife, of your dear friend or even your dear child. Some of you have even felt their touch on your arm, or their warmth near you. Your senses of touch, smell, sight, hearing, and taste go on high alert when it seems your loved one is near again. Many say they would give anything to see him; they say they long to see her one more time.
There is good news in God’s Word today. We can see our loved ones again! There are believers and non-believers, and people with different faith systems who don’t hold out hope that such is the case. But today, we have an extraordinary account in the pages of the New Testament. If we were putting the books and letters of the New Testament in chronological order, First Thessalonians would have been at the beginning instead of Matthew. Written most certainly by Paul himself around 51 A.D., the letter is short, like a modern sound bite, it is as current as today, and it addresses questions that continue to be on people’s minds. “We do not want you to uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Verse 13; take it as if Paul, like Bill’s grandmother from the dead, addresses your exact concerns today. From the other side of the curtain, image these words being written to you. Certainly in Paul’s day they were written because people were sure Christ would return in their lifetime, and what would happen if their loved one died before he came back? To us, the context is different, but the comfort is the same. Paul’s letter from the other side continues “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again [Do you believe that? If so, then what follows is true], even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” The heart of Paul’s message to us is in verses 16 and 17: “The Lord himself will descend from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise first.” Your loved ones who were believers will rise first. They will not be left out of the grand gathering that is to come. In fact, the reunion is still ahead of us! “We who are alive,” Paul continues, “who are left, will be taken up in the clouds with our loved ones and will meet the Lord in the air; we will be with him forever.” The descriptions is highly imaginative, not meant literally, and it has comforted people for ages.
There is a grand reunion that is to come. It is recorded in this earliest piece of New Testament Scripture. And it is there to encourage them, and us.
Who knows when that reunion will be? Who knows when Christ will return? Who knows how long we have on this earth? Sometimes those who have gone before us give us, by the way they lived and died, the living reassurance about what lies ahead. But many times those of us in ministry find people unprepared for death. Then funerals can be some of the most trying and tension filled times for families who have put off planning for sickness or death. Families get into fights over medical care, over how long to prolong life, over funeral and burial plans, and, of course, over money. Last week, we received from our chaplain daughter Jenny and her husband Brian, their Advanced Directives: they wrote out what they want done if they cannot speak for themselves in a medical emergency; they wrote out who they give the power to make choices for them at the end of their lives. They are only 26! What a reminder that, truly, all of us are better served by preparing. How should we get ready? This week, nudged by our daughter’s actions, Mary Ann and I filled out our Advanced Directive Instructions in a document called Five Wishes. And our Body, Mind, and Soul seminar November 17th is on End of Life Issues. Why not plan to come if you can? Ministers watch the bickering that can go on by family members who have no clear instructions from their dying loved one. Jenny said she doesn’t ever want to put us through that. Well done, Rev. Carswell. Well done, Apostle Paul. Well done, Gramma. And well done, precious Lord, for telling your disciples, including us, that you have gone to prepare a place for us, and that in all certainty, you will come again, and take us unto yourself. Thanks be to God. What will you now do to prepare for the day when Jesus returns for you?
Jeffrey A. Sumner November 7, 2010