10 years ago yesterday, January 29, my father, Gary Hartley Sr., died one day after having his third open heart surgery. He was 60 years-old. His obituary began with these words: "On January 29, 2005, a messenger of good news was taken home to the Lord having finished the race." If I had been asked, I would have preached a message like this at his funeral among family and friends:
In his first letter to the church at Thessalonica the apostle Paul addressed head-on the heartache of death:
“Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).
This apostle of Christ is telling Christians who have seen their sweet friends die that there is hope and this hope must govern their grief and mourning.
Hope. It is not a word that has been lost in the modern era. We hear about hope everywhere. Just a few days ago I heard a news report about how giving a child in the Third World a pencil can give them hope. Hope was a very marketable concept in a Barack Obama's campaign to become president. Hope is a delightful idea to people. It lightens the heart of man. It quickens the imagination. It is not an idea that easily lost.
But hope is an idea that seems foolishly out of place when speaking of the dead.
What hope is there for the dead? Isn’t hope just for this life? No. No, because Jesus Christ lived and died and rose again there is hope for the dead and therefore there is hope that clings to the grieving and mourning we have for the dead
Why is there hope for the dead?
Well, listen again to Christ’s apostle: “We believe, he says, "that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” What do these words mean? They mean that Jesus was dead and then He wasn’t dead anymore. Death took the life of this man named Jesus but death could not do with Him what death appears to do with all other men—it could not hold him.
Why? Because the power of death is sin, the scriptures say, and power of sin is the law. And this man, Jesus, had no sin of His own to reckon with. And this man, Jesus, fulfilled the entirety of divine law - in fact, the scriptures say He was the fullness of deity in bodily form. So death could not hold Him. His perfect life was vindicated by the power and authority of the eternal Father through resurrection.
His perfect life - the truthfulness of His speech; the righteousness of His ways; the compassion of His heart; the faithfulness of His obedience; the endurance of His sufferings - it all proved Him to be the very One heaven said He was: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.
This all makes Jesus the first man not worthy of death. Yet He died even so. Why? He died not for his own sins but for the sins of the disobedient: the sins of drunkards and pornographers and adulterers and thieves and murderers and gossips and gluttons and cowards and self-righteous religious people. And because Jesus died the death of a sinner while having no sin of his own, God vindicated his life, raising Him from the dead, and now Jesus gladly shares his indestructible life with all hope in him. This is what the apostle means when he says, “God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”
To “fall asleep in him” is to die trusting Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins and deliverance from the death you deserve. Eternal life is now such a sure thing for those who trust Jesus that death for them is just called “falling asleep.”
So there is hope for the dead because Jesus died and rose again to be alive forevermore.
What then does it mean to let this hope govern our mourning and grief?
Well it can not mean less than this: we will mourn. We will mourn even though we have this hope. Having hope doesn’t not mean we pretend death isn’t real.
C.S. Lewis rightly said: “It is hard to have patience with people who say ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn't matter.’ There is death. And whatever is...matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn't matter.”
No, Christian hope does not mean we somehow escape mourning. We do mourn. We mourn the loss of our friend from among our company. We mourn the loss of that which he alone brought into our circle. We mourn the loss of life that is gone from our life because he has died. We mourn the end of his laugh and his charming smile and the slight accent in his speech. He was a gentleman full of mirth and we grieve the passing of such a man from among us. We mourn the end of his obscure stories told with great conviction as if they were all true. We mourn his quick acquiescence to an idea that he at first resisted but soon conceded because he saw how happy it made the rest of us. We mourn the loss of his committed service to the church of Jesus Christ. We mourn knowing that we will not accidentally find him in the cafe or the store or walking out of the library. We mourn knowing that it will be awhile before we hear him again say, “I never had a better day.” cvv
Having the hope Jesus establishes still means we mourn.
But it also means we will do more than mourn. We will mourn with hope. This means we will not fall all the way into our sadness. We will wade out into it, it will cover us in part, but it will not drown us. We will not disappear under mourning. Resurrection hope keeps our heads above water.
You see, the Christian does not grieve like the rest of men who have no hope. The Christian grieves but he knows his grief is a kind ofwaiting. He is waiting to see his Christian friend, his Christ-kept friend, again. After waiting a little while, we will pick up with him where we left off. We will finish those stories together. We will sing those songs again. We will laugh again and delight again to see each other. After waiting a little while our same Lord will straighten out whatever misunderstandings we had or those regrets we have now. We will say those words that we wanted to say, we will have that visit we wanted to have. All of this will come when our waiting is done.
What are we waiting for?
We are waiting on Jesus to complete what Jesus has begun. Jesus has begun to remove death from this weary and groaning world. Through His own resurrection He has taken our flesh and bone into His eternal Kingdom and very soon He will bring His Kingdom to earth in its fullness and then death will be completely swallowed up. The imperishable world will open to those who have only known the perishable. The realm of the immortal will open to those who have only known mortality. All and only because the firstborn from among the dead, Jesus, has begun to renew all of creation through His indestructible life and so we wait for Him to complete what He has begun.
And why do we wait? Because there are men who still move toward death without hope because they have not yet repented and trusted Christ. Jesus in His wisdom and love patiently lingers on the edge of eternity while His church declares to mortal men who live on the threshold of death and judgment that there is hope in the one man whom God has appointed—the Lord Jesus Christ, whose death makes peace between sinners and God and whose resurrection lays an anchor of hope in the soul for all who hope in Him. God offers you no other comfort than this comfort—His Son, Jesus Christ. There is no comfort greater.