Fallen Leaves, Rising Saints

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Let the bare trees remind you that the dead in Christ will live again.

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As I wrote this, fallen leaves were drifting across my lawn. Throughout our community the green trees that were recently red and gold will soon be bare. If this happened in June or July we would be concerned, but because we have seen this before, we’ve learned that the trees are preparing for their annual winter nap. They will sleep until spring when they will wake up and adorn themselves in glorious blooms and with fresh, green leaves begin to breath again.

The apostle Paul never saw an Iowa fall, but in this morning’s epistle lesson he likens death to a long sleep. Like trees in the fall, a person who dies stops breathing. The breath, Ecclesiastes says, returns to God who gave it and the body is laid in the ground to return to the dust from which it came. But we also believe that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us, too, restoring our bodies and the breath and spirit that animates them. That’s why we call death a rest or sleep. It is why we stand by the sides of the graves of our loved ones with a grief that has been tempered by hope in the work and promises of God.

Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: 

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 1 Thessalonians 4:14

Paul taught that our hope is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You know, just as the Thessalonians did, that Jesus was crucified, that he died, and was buried. You also know that he did not stay dead, but that on the third day he rose again, just as the Old Testament had foretold.

The tomb in which he was laid was empty. The grave clothes had been discarded. Angels testified to his resurrection and the women who had come in mourning fled in fear and confusion to tell the apostles. Later they and the apostle’s saw him, touched him, and ate with him. It was no ghostly apparition that they encountered, but the man Jesus, alive in body and soul.

Thomas doubted but became convinced when he saw and touched Jesus hands and side. His friend and teacher, who had died, stood bodily before him, chiding him gently for his unbelief.

Someday, we will experience similar wonder and awe. The graves in which our loved ones have lain will open. The bodies that have decayed will be restored and the breath from God will return to them. For Christ will bring those who have died in faith with him. Though their bodies have lain in their graves, their spirits have been with him in paradise. At his command the dead will arise, just as Lazarus did so long ago. The archangel will shout and the trumpet will rally the newly resurrected saints and those who did not die before his return and we will all be gathered to Jesus. From the least of them to the greatest, we will rally to him, as he comes again in glory.

What a day that will be. For some of us it will be like awakening from a glorious dream on a beautiful morning, eager for the day to begin. For those who had not died, it will be a time of terrifying joy as Christ returns and the graves are emptied.

The first funeral I ever attended was my grandfather’s in the fall of 1975. The trees were turning, there may have even been a bit of snow on the ground. The committal services was held in a mausoleum. I remember standing there and looking up at all the marble doors that covered the wall. Each had a name it and most had a casket behind. As I looked at them, the pastor read this lesson, and I imagined all of those marble doors splitting and crumbling, as Christ called forth the people who had been entombed behind them. And I smiled.

Since then I have said goodbye to the rest of my grandparents and to my mother, to the pastor who trained me and so many friends to whom I ministered in their last days, that I have lost count. Each time I remind myself the goodbye is temporary, that the morning will come when we awaken with joy as Christ returns. My Lord, what a morning that will be! Yes, what a morning that will be when death’s work is undone and life triumphs forever, through Jesus Christ and his resurrection.

Not everyone has this hope. Most of the people Paul wrote to had been raised to believe in some kind of afterlife. Before they became Christians, many would have expected a bleak, bodiless existence perhaps followed by a return to this earth with all it’s troubles. Others would have been more materialistic, thinking (like so many atheists and agnostics today) that when you’re dead that’s it, there is no more–anywhere. None, but a few of the Jewish believers, would have ever heard of an afterlife that was paradise or would have believed that the dead could live bodily once again.

The meager hopes that they had grown up with Paul called “no hope.” They were no hope in part because they were so dismal that they had no real ability to comfort people and, in the greater part, because these hopes were false. They had no reality. Such hopes were like those of a man who hasn’t any food hoping that, if he just wishes hard enough, he will find some leftovers when he opens the door to his empty refrigerator.

But our hope is far stronger. First because it is grounded in historical fact: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and, second, because it is grounded in the Word and promises of Almighty God.

There is nothing that can prevent him from accomplishing his purposes and fulfilling His Word. The same God who brought order out of chaos, light out of darkness, dry land out of water, and Jesus from his tomb, will also raise us from our graves. Maybe you’ve noticed that the Old Testament frequently refers to him as the God who puts to death and makes alive. And it’s always in that order, because he is the God who gives life to the dead. 

Isaiah wrote:

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken. Isaiah 25:6-8

The mountain Isaiah refers to is Calvary and the shroud is the cloth pulled over a corpse before burial. Through the cross of Jesus, death’s power was broken, and the day will come when it ceases to be. When there is no more death then death will have been swallowed up forever by eternal life.

Likewise, Christ has said, 

Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. John 5:25

And before raising Lazarus he told Martha

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die;”

John11:25

What beautiful promises these are! What hope they give us!

So then, this is our faith, our hope, and our comfort: Christ has won eternal life for all who trust in him and he will restore life to our mortal bodies when he comes again in glory.

When we see the trees standing bare and devoid of leaves, we look forward to the spring when they will awaken in all their glory. In the same way, when we stand next to the graves of those we love who have believed in Christ, let us look forward to the day when Jesus calls them out of those graves and they shine with the splendor of his glory. Let this be our comfort; for so it was written and so it will be done. Amen. 

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