and I Thessalonians 4:13-18
Let’s pray, ok. Lord, thank you so much for calling us here today to this place. We know that you love us, we know that you care. We have been ushered into your presence . Thank you that your Spirit is with us, and we now ask, as we turn to your Word, that it would be indeed your Word to us. That we would discover from your Spirit, as you shine upon us, those areas that need to grow, that need to be eliminated, that need to be more developed. We pray that you would pour out your Spirit now and help us to understand in a deep way as only you could. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rabbi Harold Kushner is best known as the author of the book, “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People” and it has been a book of encouragement for many, many folks who have gone through a difficult time. In fact, he wrote it as a result of his own suffering. One of the things that he wrote about in that book was an experience that he had on the beach. He said he was sitting on the beach one summer day, and he was watching two children play. One was a boy and one was a girl. They were building an elaborate sand castle very near the waters edge. It had moats on it. It had towers. It had drawbridges. It had some internal passageways. They had worked so very hard and long, and wouldn’t you know as always happens, a wave comes along and reduces the sand castle to wet sand. He expected them, he said, to burst into tears and they did the very opposite. They grabbed each other by the hand, and they ran up from the shore to another place. They were singing, laughing and running, and they just plopped down and starting doing another sand castle. He said that it taught him a lesson. He said he realized an important lesson that all things in our lives, all the complicated structures that we spend so much time and energy creating are built on sand. Only our relationships to other people endure. And he said that sooner or later all the intricate things we try to build, all the things we labor for, sooner or later a wave is going to come and knock them down. And then he said, when that happens; only the person who had somebody’s hand to hold will be able to laugh.
You know there are two basic groups that come to church on any Sunday. You could put them in a ledger kind of column. One side of the column is folks who need to be comforted. You know, maybe some of you today really could use some comfort from God or from other people. Life is tough and maybe you have made some mistakes. Maybe you are needing forgiveness and you need God’s comfort. You are in that first category. And maybe through no fault of your own circumstances, some wave has come along and knocked something over and you need to be comforted by God. The other column is those who need to provide comfort. You know, people need people and you may not need comforting today, but you may be called by God very soon to provide comfort for someone else, to encourage someone else. You know husbands and wives, this is the most important thing we can do for one another, is to be present to one another and comfort each other in the difficulties. Sometimes we become the person that causes us to need comfort elsewhere, and that’s not good. We are called to comfort one another. I hope you can immediately identify someone who will hold your hand when one of your sand castles gets knocked over.
You know the apostle Paul was a hand holder, and he was an encourager, and he encouraged other people to in turn encourage each other. And this is very important because we become hardened, we can become cynical, and we can forget that people need people. I was reading about a mom who had eight kids, and she said that it was so different how she raised each of the eight. She said the first child, if the first child coughed or sneezed she would call the doctor. She said the eighth child swallowed a dime, and she said, “That’s coming out of your allowance!” Right? So we can become hardened. We have to be reminded that God wants us to have soft hearts, not hard hearts. And so the apostle Paul in one of his earliest letters sought to comfort his friends and encourage them. He was writing to Gentiles, Greeks and Thessalonica. And he wrote some very comforting words when he said to them these words from 1st Thessalonians, Chapter 4, verses 13-18. We often hear this passage read at funeral services because it is so comforting. So let’s look at it together. He says:
“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. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven ,with a loud command, and with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.”
The King James Version says comfort one another with these words. See Paul was not only providing comfort, he was saying, now you in turn provide comfort to others. You know the Greek word here is ________ and it means “to call beside.” It’s where we get the same sense of the Holy Spirit being a comforter. Usually it can be translated comfort, it can be translated console, it can be translated encourage. It’s also translated in the Bible as exhort. In fact, if you look at 1st Thessalonians, chapter 5 in verse 11, after Paul has comforted them, he now challenges them and at the end of 5 he says, “Therefore encourage one another” and it’s the same word as he used where is says comfort one another. And I think the distinction is this. That if we are thinking about somebody’s future experiences where they need to follow the Lord and encourage it, it is translated encourage. You know, like you can do it. You can do it. But, if somebody has gone through a hardship or a trial or a difficulty, Paul uses the word and he says, “I am here for you. I am here for you.” So, either way there is a sense, like two sides of a coin. There is an exhortation, and then there is a comforting coming along side, connection to this word.
And every Christian can learn to be a better encourager or comforter when they do what Paul did. And he gives us an example. You see, the circumstance that Paul was in, and the people that he was writing to was that he was trying to help his hearers who had grown confused over the nature of death, and the fate of their loved ones who had died. And he was writing to these Greeks who in most cases back in those days had very little hope. If you go back and you look at ancient literature you will see all kinds of symbols for death. Things like a broken column would be a symbol for death. Or an extinguished torch or a flawed rose. They are all symbols of hopelessness. And Paul’s friends were distraught. They were worried over past events, and they were ignorant about future events and if you are constantly hopeless about what’s happened in the past and hopeless about what’s happening in the future, you are not going to be too hopeful in the present. And so, Paul writes in verse 13, “Brethren, we don’t want you to be ignorant. We don’t want you to be ignorant about those who have fallen asleep or grieve like the rest of people who are not believers, who have no hope, people who don’t know where to find hope.” We don’t want you to be like that. And, see he addressed their fears and he addressed their lack of knowledge and so the first thing to learn about being a better comforter to others is that we must dispel the darkness of ignorance through the light of God’s word.
If you look at verse 15. He says, “According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you.” You see how he tried to speak into their hopelessness or their fear by referring to the word of the Lord. Now what word would he be referring to? Where did Jesus say these things about what’s written in 1st Thessalonians 4? Well, if you go back to Matthew for instance, Matthew 24, in verse 27, the Bible says, “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be he coming of the Son of Man.” And if you flip to 30 and 31, “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with the loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” You see, he thinks back to what Jesus’ own words were and he says that according to the Word of the Lord, God is going to come and the trumpet will sound, the angels will come, he will gather his people to himself and we will be forever with the Lord. And he is saying that the dead in Christ will not, they will precede us. We will not precede them. They will be risen first. He says that if we know we are forgiven of our past, and we have knowledge and assurance about the future, we are going to have hope and confidence in the presence. See, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance leads to despair and knowledge leads to hope.
You know, in the gospel, Jesus is walking around, and it says that he went to every place. He went to the synagogues, he taught in their synagogue. And, in that same context he said he saw them harassed and hopeless as sheep without a shepherd. What did he do as a shepherd? He taught them. He taught them. He tried to help them understand God’s will and God’s word.
One time I went to a hospital visit and the woman who I was visiting was kind of anxious, I could tell, and I had just been in the hospital a couple of weeks earlier because our daughter Mandy had had a really serious asthma attack, and she was in the hospital for four days. And so I got to know a little bit about what those monitors mean. I was really focused on those monitors, and one of the things that I learned about was your blood oxygen count. You know? That it should be in the high 90’s and so normally I look at those things and it means nothing to me, but now I knew that when I look at that, that one number is a blood oxygen count. Right? So, I am visiting this lady a couple of weeks later, and I could tell she was anxious. She was not sure what was going on and I said, “Well, boy your blood oxygen count looks really good.” I felt like Dr. George, right? I said, “Your blood oxygen count looks great.” She goes, really? It does.” And, I could just tell that her anxiety level was coming down from about a 10 to a 2 right away. Why? Because she had some knowledge. She had some understanding. She had some hope that what was happening was no as bad as she thought it was. Now, that’s nice, but the only way to be really assured of our hope, really to be assured of our hope is to know the Word of God personally through Jesus Christ. To have an experience, an encounter with Him. When we know and are assured that he lives in us, that his blood covered our sins, that’s where true hope comes from, and that when we die, it is not the end. We will see Him. We will be gathered up in the air with the Lord. If we are walking this earth and if we died, we will be raised from the dead. There is not much more hopeful than that. Because if you don’t have that, where is hope? So Paul realizes that his fellow Christians are going to grieve, but he does not want them to grieve as those who have no hope and he encourages them to the teaching of Jesus.
You know, Romans 15:4 is also a place where this word comforter and encourage comes from. And it says, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope.” You see? How it says the actual encouragement of the Scriptures, the comfort of the Scriptures. We might have hope. So one person said, “God does not comfort us to make us comfortable, but to make us comforters.” And we are to be human agents of comforts while always understanding that the real true comfort comes from the Lord. I think many of you are very familiar; we looked at this in 40 Days of Purpose, at 2nd Corinthians, chapter 1, verses 3 and 4. Again, this word, _______ is repeated through this text. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort that we ourselves have received from God.” You see? God does not want you to hog your comfort. Okay? God wants you to share what’s comforted you with other people. Sometimes we don’t take the opportunity to share how God has comforted us because we don’t want to come across as holier than thou, or maybe as though we have arrived or something. God wants us to comfort one another with the way that He has spoken to us and touched our lives and share it with those who are struggling.
Now, while this is paramount, we must learn one other important lesson. Not only to comfort people through the Word of God, through the Word of the Lord, and through our own experiences, but also we must be present to one another. We must be present to one another. You know one of the things that disturbs my wife the most about our relationship is when she feels like I am not present to her. And you know what that means. You know that doesn’t mean sitting in the same room. Okay? It means, present to. Focused. Listening. Understanding. Hearing. You see, Paul was present to others by virtue of his letter to them, but listen to what he says in 1st Thessalonians, Chapter 2 in verse 17-18.
“But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you-certainly I, Paul did, again and again- but Satan stopped us.”
You see how Paul is saying I really want to be there. And, I am there for you, and I am there with you. And, so he communicated this desire to his friends. The greatest means of comfort humanly speaking is being there for someone else. A couple of weeks ago when we were trying to convert the eight week new member class to a one day class, and I was looking at all the stuff that had to be changed over and I said, “Man I am in trouble. This is so much work that I can’t believe how much it is going to take.” And Mike Batley, bless his heart, he is so good on the computer, in one day he took all that we needed, and we spent hours looking at it and in one day he took all we needed and he put it into a concise and coherent package, and I thought to myself, thank you Lord for Mike, for his being there, for his being present, and that was my need and he helped with that need. And not just for me, but for those who went through the class. So sharing God’s Word ,and being present to others in their needs is the means of greatest Christian comfort. Do you know why? Because those are the two ways that God is with us.
What’s the greatest verse in the Bible, probably when it comes to comfort? How about Psalm 23:4. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Listen. “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” You see what it says? The rod is the authority of the shepherd. The shepherd would take the rod and would warn the sheep, just like God’s word warns us. Sometimes, he would take his rod and he would throw it, not to hit the sheep, but in the front of the path of the sheep that was straying and that authority, that symbol of authority would turn the person back toward the Lord. And so, in the same way as Moses’ rod was his authority, so the rod of God is his Word.
And now look what it says, also your staff comforts me. The staff is the greatest symbol of a shepherd’s presence. Do you remember the crook? The staff with a crook on it? Do you know how they use that? Sometimes they would take that crook and they would gently lift the little lamb and bring it to its mother. They didn’t want to touch it because the human odor you know would cause the mom to reject it, so they would lift the staff, or the lamb. Or sometimes they would gently guide the sheep along a difficult route. The shepherd would take the tip of his staff and lay it gently on the shoulder, and cause the lamb to go one way or the other. Gentle pressure, guided in the best direction. You see how the rod and the staff comforts? That’s how David thought through God’s comfort for himself. The Word of God. And what’s the staff? The Spirit of God. Jesus said, the Paracletes will come and he will guide you. He will nudge you gently to one side or to the other. So God’s Word and God’s Spirit becomes the source of greatest comfort to us. Sharing God’s words with others. And the power of the Holy Spirit. Being present to them is the greatest way that we can be of comfort to each other.
You know I have been carrying around a letter, actually it is just a little note that I got almost 18 months ago. I just want to say thank you to all the folks who are so encouraging in this congregation. You are all so, you bless me so much. And yet, back on December 24, 2001 I got a note, which I have kept with me. I keep it in my notebook, my folder and I just refer to it often. I am not sure why I have kept this one so much. I think because the person who wrote it was 14 at the time. I think also because there is some prophetic nature to it. I think also because its such an encouraging thing that she wrote. And I just want you to hear this note and I am a little hesitant to read it because I am the recipient of the encouragement, okay? But in the same way I want you to listen to the example of the person who is comforting and encouraging. She wrote this.
“Here it is Christmas Eve, Pastor George and I find myself sitting here needing to express some gratitude toward you and your ministry here at Central.” Now remember this was a year and a half ago, the end of 2001. “Although it is common knowledge that God has the next pastor at Central picked out already to be the best for our needs in our congregation, I like many others at Central will be very sad to see you go. I am sure many have hoped and have already told you that this interim period will last a while longer just so you can stay. But Christ has someone for us here and a new place for you later. As for now, this church is blessed to have you here to teach us God’s will, love and truth. I myself am lucky to have gotten to know a little of you as a youth through Epic and the All-church retreat last spring. You don’t know how terrified I was that weekend when you told me that you wanted me to speak then. However, your confidence and encouragement comforted me to the point where the Summit Lake retreat of spring 2001 ended up being the most spiritual experience I ever had.”
See sometimes that is where the encouragement comes from. You can do it, right? That is what she was saying.
“After going all 7 of 8 years at Central’s retreat last spring was the last time that I had gone home and known that Christ has humbled my heart. So I would like to thank you for that, as well as for the leadership, dedication, faithfulness, friendliness, honesty and integrity that you have displayed to this body of Christ. I hope you have a Merry Christmas tomorrow and a New Year filled with the will of the Lord Jesus. Thank you again.” In Christ, Julie Harp.
14 years old at the time that she wrote that. And I have carried that with me. And I notice that there was a nice cycle of encouragement and comfort. I encouraged her, she comforted me. I read it to you, it’s encouraging again to her and to her folks and to anybody who knows her. And it is an example.
You know the new pastor is going to be here before you know it. Even pastor’s need comfort and encouragement, you see? And I want to encourage you. And now you say, when should we do that? I will tell you when. When he first gets here. He needs a lot of encouragement when he first gets here. He needs you guys to be there thinking he is the greatest thing since sliced bread. You know when else you need it? You need it when the honeymoon period ends. Okay? Now, with you guys the honeymoon period will probably go five years, but whenever that ends, that’s when you need to really encourage and comfort him. And also, when things get stressful, that’s when you need to do that. And whenever you can, just like Julie to me, encouraging and comforting. It will pay great dividends. In fact, I want to remind you that maybe, go back a year ago, and order a tape, “How to care for your new pastor”. Or go online and go back to July of last year. I preached a sermon at the end, which I thought was the end, “How to care for your New Pastor”. Read that again. Okay?
Now, let me close with this. This is a verse, a poem written as an Easter poem by Marva Dawn and she presented it to a family in Seattle that had befriended her. She needed a lot of comfort. You know you really need comfort when you are moving and she moved to a new place in Seattle and this is what it said. It was called, With Gratitude. She wrote it to her friends.
“You said, call us anytime you need us and I felt at home in your words. I poured out my grief and you hugged me. I told you my fears and you prayed that I would sleep protected. I expressed my confusion and you helped me sort out the parts. I tried to face my ugly self and you kept on caring. I gave you my pain and you gave me a kiss. How can I thank you? How do I express this awareness that I found a home in your love, that I have been adopted by your grace. It’s like the resurrection, promising life and healing and hilarity. It’s just that Easter is incarnated in Your care.”
“Easter incarnated in Your care.” What a nice way to say, comfort one another.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you so much for your grace, for your love. We come around this table very soon, and we are reminded again of how you blessed us beyond measure. And so Lord, help us to have soft hearts too, in our homes with our spouse, with the people that we are first and foremost committed to, to demonstrate the care and the love that you have demonstrated to us through sharing your Word, through being present, through encouraging, lifting up, and Lord we pray that that would permeate Central Church in the future, and we ask it in your name. Amen.