Hope in the aftermath of grief

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This is a guest article from my dad, Roger Williams. Dad was due to preach at a little church north of Bradford last Sunday and was preparing his sermon whilst my mum was in hospital. After mum died, dad felt strongly that he had been given a message to bring and that he should fulfil his preaching obligation – which he did. I thought it was worth sharing his talk notes here.

It’s the third Sunday in Advent.*  I’m not sure what the official title for the third Advent Candle is, but I want to talk about Hope today.  With my wife Margot in intensive care after her operation, we had been living in hope for a couple of weeks – hope of her recovery, hope to have her home again…  As you know, it didn’t happen. 

But it made me ask the question, what is hope?  My mother’s old school dictionary – and that dates back a good few years now! – defines it as “a looking out for something good; a belief or feeling that what we wish for will come.”  So there are two things there:  it is a “looking out for,” an expectation, belief or feeling that something will happen.  And that something is something good.  Or at least, it is something that we want to happen. 

The problem is, what we want to happen doesn’t always happen: we don’t always get what we hope to get.  We hope the weather will be fine when we go on holiday, that the price of petrol will have come down by then, or that Bradford City will win their next match – and all too often we are disappointed.  Indeed, this is so often the case that “I hope…” has come to be an expression of doubt rather than certainty – that we mean “I would like… but I don’t have much hope…”

And so we hope.  We live wishing or wanting something to happen, we picture to ourselves the joy and pleasure that that happening would bring, and we say “I hope…”  I had been hoping that Margot would be able to come home…  But in fact we have no control over what we are hoping for: I cannot control what the weather will be like in the Lake District next July, and I cannot control the fate of someone I love, no matter how precious they are to me.

So it is for all men – and so it is for us as Christians too.  We hope – we long for various good things to happen to us.  We hope that disasters will be averted and that blessings will come.  We hope for great things – the end of wars, or that fuel and food will be affordable by all.  And we hope for smaller (in a sense), more personal things – that the weather will be good where we are tomorrow, or that someone we love will get better and not die.  But all these things are outside our control.  They are all in God’s hands, and he may plan to deal with them in ways which we would not choose to think of at all.  But we may be sure that his ways are the best ways – always – even though they may not be to our liking at the time and may bring us grief and tears for a season. 

So, although our hopes may often be dashed, as Christians our situation is never hopeless.  For, as Paul says in Romans 8:28, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him…”  There’s a three-point sermon in there.  1: it’s in all things that God works – not in some things, or the nice things, or what we would call the good things, but in all things.  2: he works for the good of those who love him – not for their harm or their bafflement but for their good.  And it’s for their good – not for some wishy-washy undefined good, nor for some wide-ranging universal good, but for their good, their personal good as recognized and identified by their all-knowing, loving Heavenly Father.  But, 3: God works for the good of those who love him.  Not for the good of those who ignore him or mock him or hate him, but those who love him.  Are you one of them? 

If you are, there are things you can hope for, not with doubts or fears that those hopes may be dashed, but with absolute certainty.  Why?  Because these are things that God has promised, and we can confidently look forward to them because we know that God is a God who keeps his word.

So – three things to hope for…

No 1:  Hope of a heavenly home.  John 14 says – and you can’t beat the Authorized Version here: “In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”  And our Lord’s words to that thief or, better, robber on the cross beside him – “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” Here is a promise of a future, for death is not the end – it would not be for Jesus and it would not be for that man who had thrown himself on Chris’s mercy.  There was forgiveness, too, even for so great a sinner as he.  For instead of being cast into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41), he had been promised the eternal joys of paradise.  And this would be that very same day.  And there was the favour of God – showered undeservedly upon that man invited into paradise itself.  How can we begin to imagine the blessings and joys of that place?  But, most wonderful of all, Jesus had said “You will be with me in paradise.”  He had acknowledged Jesus as Lord before men as he hung there on his cross: Jesus would acknowledge him before the Father in Heaven, with all the holy angels crowding round.

No. 2:  Hope of a heavenly body.  Margot’s body had been growing steadily weaker, so that in the end she was unable to benefit from the operation to correct her condition.  Her eyesight was failing and she was suffering from a number of other problems.  Was she doomed to be like that through all eternity?  Of course not, for we are promised a brand-new, trouble-free body in the life to come.  Paul speaks of this at length in 1 Corinthians 15, where our mortal bodies are said to be perishable, “sown” or buried in dishonour and weakness, but will be raised imperishable, in glory and power {v. 42-44).

Again in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul tells us, “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”  That tent is a temporary structure, a shelter of sticks and canvas that may last us for a season but sooner or later will be uprooted and cast down by the storms of life.  In contrast, says Paul, we have waiting for us “a building from God” – a solid, permanent home, “an eternal house in heaven.”  The tent, of course, is a picture of this mortal body we inhabit now: the building in heaven a picture of our resurrection body.  When Margot died and went to be with Christ, we looked at that poor abandoned tent of a body lying there on the hospital bed – poles broken, canvas torn, pegs uprooted – and we said “She’s not here any more…”  She had gone to find that eternal home prepared for her by Jesus, where pain and tears, gasping for breath and failing eyesight are no more, where she can dance and sing for joy on the mountains of God.

No. 3:  Hope of a heavenly kingdom.  For the King is surely coming, bringing his glorious kingdom with him, as Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

This is a hope that the whole of creation shares – for we read in Romans 8:20 that “the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”  As John Stott daid at Keswick back in 1965, “Futility, decay, pain.  These are the words that the apostle uses to depict the present suffering of nature, of the creation.  But it is only temporary, for the present sufferings of nature are going to give way to a future glory…”[1]                                                                                                                                                                                                          

But to go back to 1 Thessalonians 4:  “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…” says Paul.

Note that first, Paul is talking about grieving for those who have “fallen asleep” in Christ.  And he says we are not to be ignorant about what happens to them.  It may be easy to be so overwhelmed with grief, to be so swallowed up in our loss, to be so distressed by the absence of the loved one, that we forget what Jesus has said, what God has promised, what the Bible teaches us.  Note, too, that we are not told here not to grieve.  We remember that Jesus himself wept at the tomb of Lazarus.  What we are told not to do is to grieve like those others who have no hope – those for whom death is simply the end and who therefore have nothing at all to look forward to.   It is worth noting that while what we are going to think about may help us and give us confidence as we face death ourselves, Paul was writing in Thessalonians to those who were grieving over the loss of loved ones.  We don’t have to grieve like those who have no hope, because we – even as we mourn – do have something to look forward to.  And he says here that as Christ died and rose again, so the dead in Christ shall rise also…

But this will happen, he says, when Christ returns – when ”the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first…” 

So we have a wonderful hope – things that we can look forward to with certainty because of what God has promised.

Two things in conclusion.

Firstly, the greatest blessing in all these promises is not simply that we shall live, or that we shall be raised with glorious new bodies, or that we will enjoy the wonders of paradise, but that we shall be with Jesus.  The Saviour is going to raise us up so that we can be with him for ever.  John 14:  “I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”  2 Corinthians 5 – Paul goes on to say in v. 6-8 that “as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord… and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”   And of course in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 he reminds us that “the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, 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.”  And finally, note that these blessings are promised only to those who are God’s people, who belong to Jesus Christ.  I must ask you as I close, for I cannot take anything for granted when your eternal future is at stake, “Are you one of them?  Do you belong to Christ?  Can you sing with Stuart Townend, “In Christ alone my hope is found”?

[1] John Stott at Keswick, Authentic Media, Milton Keynes, 2008, p. 73.

* It is of course by now the 4th Sunday but I’ve chosen not to edit Dad’s sermon.

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