Listen: Simon Manchester presents Christian Growth
In this series, Simon looks at what Christianity has to say in difficult times. Pain and suffering continuously conjures up important and personal questions for everybody.
Gracious God, we pray this morning that the things that we don’t know, you’d be pleased to teach us, and the qualities and the graces that we don’t have, you’d be pleased to give us. And the people that we are not yet, you would make us. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I want to begin by reading to you a very sad death notice which a man wrote for himself while he was dying and ask that it be published in the local paper when he had died. I saw this a few years ago, and this is what he had put in the paper for himself. “I am dead. I have not passed away. I have not passed over. I am not asleep. I have not departed. I am not at rest. I am just dead. I am to be cremated. I want no flowers. I want no prayers. Goodbye to those who mattered.” That was his notice in the paper.
A sad, tragic final message. And today the question is, what does Christianity have to say in time of grief? This is a very important question for everybody and every day, but for some who are here today, this is a very urgent and a deeply personal question. So let me say that Christianity is not going to subtract grief in the immediate. It would just be an illusion to think that somebody has got a magic sentence, or a magic wand to remove grief in the immediate. Christianity will not do that, but Christianity will add the solution to grief in the immediate, or to put it in another way, a person without Christ will find that grief is something of a tyrant, but a person who has Christ will find that grief is a servant. And there isn’t anyone here this morning listening to this who is a stranger to grief, and I am not a stranger to grief myself.
Some people here have lost husbands. Some may have lost wife. Some may have even lost a child. Some people are grieving because they don’t have husband, wife, or child. Perhaps you know what it’s like to lose a friend, or to lose a relationship, it brings great grief, or somebody has hurt you, betrayed you, rejected you, or attacked you. There is the grief of losing your health, losing your faculties, losing your freedom, losing your opportunities. There’s the grief of losing your job, losing your money, losing your business, losing your reputation. And then there is the losing of faith and the losing of hope. We know, of course, that grief can be a very small thing like a child losing a toy, but it can be a very huge thing. And there are many things that people do and say in the face of grief, for example, time will heal.
Time will heal, people say, a broken bone, and time will heal a broken heart. There may be some truth to that. Shakespeare is recorded of saying, tears are the water by which we grow. The Queen said not long ago, grief is the price that we pay for love. And what I want to do this morning is take one phrase from that reading we had, our second reading from the New Testament, which is Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians in chapter four. And this little phrase really does change everything. It doesn’t subtract the grief, but it adds the solution. And the little is that a Christian is marked by grief and hope, grief and hope.
It isn’t that a person needs to be marked by grief alone, that’s tragic. It isn’t that a person needs to be marked by hope alone, that’s just naive, but grief and hope. And the privilege for the Christian is that a Christian can have grief, great grief, but also a great future. The grief that a Christian feels is the same as anybody else. It’s very real, it can be very terrible, it can be very, very painful, but it’s temporary. The hope which the Christian experiences is also very real, well founded and eternal. And it’s the two things that mark out the Christian. So grief, you see, is everywhere. Everybody will experience grief, but the Christian is able to take hold of a person, and I’m talking about Jesus Christ, who will in the end, outweigh the grief and outlast the grief. So this is the message of God. This is the offer of God. This is the gift of God. Grief and hope.
It’s to have the darkness and a torch. It’s to have the desert and a compass. It’s to have the prison and a key. It’s to have the ocean and an anchor. Without Christ a person can really only grieve and try and find something to relieve, but with Christ, a person can grieve and have a real solution. I’ve often said that there are two kinds of funerals. There are those look back with grief and gratitude, and there are those that look back and forwards. And therefore, this morning, I just want to look at these two words very briefly, grief and hope. Grief, as I say again, is part of life.
In a fallen world the Bible tells us that the price of our defying of God, as we do, is that the world is now marked by loss. And there is no good, or astute explanation for the messy world that we are in, except the biblical explanation, which is that we have turned our backs on God as a people, as a nation, as an intonation, and he’s the one who must bring us back. And often he brings us back through grief. And then grief is very painful. A person may whale rightly, loudly, as we often see, or a person may ache inwardly very profoundly.
There are the loud cries of grief, and there’s the deep quiet sadness of grief. And there are the waves that keep coming again, and again, and again, the memories, the longings, and sometimes a sense of panic. CS Lewis said that nobody ever told him that grief would be so much like fear. And the tears for this painful grief are good and normal and rut. Remember Jesus wept often, he wept over individuals and he wept over cities. And we need to avoid the nonsense, that tears are weak or unmanly. I was at a dinner recently and the father welcomed everybody, the father of the boy we were remembering welcomed everybody. And he wept and wept as he thought about his son not being present. And it was very impressive, and it was very manly, and it was very powerful.
So grief is part of life, it’s painful. And thirdly, it’s personal, different people respond different ways. Some go through grief quite quickly. Some go through grief very slowly. One widow I know went on with life almost as if nothing had happened, back to work, on with the family, as if things had just taken a small turn. But another widow who I knew said that it took her four years to leave the house and to face people again. That’s why we need to let people grieve very personally. We must listen well to people in their grief, and not be too quick to solve everything, or expect them to grieve as we would. Not long ago, I spent a lot of time with a young mother who lost a child through a negligent midwife. And this young mother just said again and again, and again, how unjust, how unfair, how incompetent, how unjust, how unfair, how incompetent, and just went on and on and on, and every conversation was exactly the same thing, like a cracked record.
And I must confess I was impatient, but this was the way she was working through and emerged from her grief. And grief is a process, it can’t be harried and it can’t be programmed. Samuel Johnson said grief has its time, and every attempt to divert it only irritates us. So whether a person is grieving over days, or weeks, or months, or even years, it may be that they are locked into some kind of shock, or fear, or guilt, or depression, or anger, or all of the above. And there’s a series of steps through which a person must walk that cannot be sped up, or just dismissed, but along will come a good friend, and the friend will listen well, and can sometimes steer the process so that the steps are actually walked through and can prevent things becoming destructive. And believe it, or not, grief is also purposeful.
If you’ve lost a dear and precious person, you don’t just switch off like a light. If you lose something that you treasure, you can’t just treat it as nothing. And the grief that we go through is very necessary because it helps us to adjust to loss for the new days ahead. And it also points us to the things that are lasting forever, because we have to be prepared and equipped for eternity. If you tell children that they are about to move country, then the children must prepare themselves for change and adjustment and difference. And God tells us in his word that we must prepare ourselves for moving, we must prepare ourselves for leaving, and therefore griefs have their role to play in helping us to prepare.
Martin Luther said, I’ve held many things in my hands, but I’ve lost them all, but whatever I have placed in the hands of Jesus Christ, I still possess. So there is a very brief, and all too brief sketch of the subject of grief, and I now want to say a few things about the subject of hope. The word hope in the New Testament, I think is unfortunate because in the English language, it sounds just like wishful thinking, or optimism. It sounds as though it’s just a game with no real reason, or evidence, it’s a bit like Santa, but actually when the Bible talks about hope, it means faith looking forward, faith that is well-grounded looking forward. So for example, if a doctor says to you, we fixed you, in a few days you can go home. That is hope. If a prime minister says to you, we have a plane organised, you can catch up with your family. That is hope. And when Jesus Christ says in the pages of the New Testament, I can forgive sin and organise your future, that’s hope. And hope begins the minutes the words come into your ear.
As soon as you hear from the doctor, we fixed you, you can go home soon, the hope begins. And as soon as the prime minister says, we have arranged the plane, you can catch up with your family soon, the hope begins. And as soon as Jesus Christ says I can forgive you and arrange your future, the hope begins. That’s why when Paul wrote to the Thessalonians who had lost loved ones, and were wondering if they had been completely lost and had disappeared, he said to them, no, there’s a hope that is found in Jesus Christ. And he will gather not only the people who’ve left us, but those who are waiting for him, he’ll gather them all together into one reunion, which may seem to you and to me to be almost too good to believe, but it is believable because he’s promised it and proved it in his own resurrection.
And so the hope for a Christian is a now thing, I have a now hope, and I have a future forever hope. It is not just a pie in the sky. And in the face of grief let me tell you what Jesus Christ is like. The Bible tells us that he sees what we go through. It says in Psalm 10, you see our trouble, and you consider our grief. In other words, he’s not unaware of what we’re going through. He doesn’t live too far away. He’s not disinterested. He’s not unmoved by what we go through. We watch a lot of grief maybe in the work we do, or the home where we live, or the television we watch. And we can’t do much about it, but he sees grief and brings relief and progress and hope.
One of the lovely verses in the Old Testament says this, in all their distress, he too, that is God, was distressed. And in his love and mercy, he redeemed them, and lifted them, and carried them all their days. Isaiah 63. So he sees what we go through, then secondly, he measures what we go through. He portions very carefully what we experience. The book of Lamentations in the Old Testament, chapter three says, he brings grief and compassion for he does not willingly bring grief to anyone. Well, it seems a strange thing to say, doesn’t it? But you see, it’s like a parent sitting beside a hospital bed wishing that there was another way for the child to get well. So it is with God and people in this world, he is a God with feelings.
Paul says in two Corinthians chapter one, he balances trouble with comfort. Peter says in his letter, he brings gold from the furnace. He measures carefully providing the supply of what is needed for this particular path. And then he converts, or he changes, or he transforms things. He makes the corner turn around. He turns trials into hope. I was reading this week that one of the great sayings of the Chinese goes like this. What is long divided must come together. That’s a lovely thought, isn’t it? What is long divided must come together. But then it says this, what has come together must fall apart, because there is this cycle and order of order and chaos. Now Jesus Christ says something very different. He says in John’s gospel chapter 16, now is your time of grief, but I will see you again, and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.
Now is your time of grief says, Jesus, but I’ll see you again, and you’ll rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. And his disciples did see him again, and they did rejoice, and they will rejoice, because he’s able to convert a dead end into a highway. So he’s planned and promised a reunion, I hope you know this, when you lose loved ones, that he has planned and promised a reunion. You may be worried about somebody who’s passed away, but you need to remember that God desires people to be saved. And he says the one who calls to him, that’s it, calls to him, will be saved. So we must trust him. And then he promises, when Paul says in one Thessalonians chapter four, that there should be grief and hope, it’s because he says Jesus has uniquely solved death. In history, he has died to pay for debts, and he has risen to prove there is a future. Now, I don’t know anybody, friends, who’s done this. Who has done, through the grave and back, changing the world, except Jesus Christ?
And we’re not going to make it without him because he says, I’m the way, the truth, the life, no one comes to the father, but by me, and he says to the person who does join him, I will take you to be with me. That where I am, you may be also. The most reliable person in the universe, the most loving person, the most powerful person says this to the world. He promises, and finally he comforts. He comforts in a whole range of ways. He comforts through his people. He comforts us through his promises, and he comforts us through the Holy Spirit who we’re remembering this particular Sunday, the Holy Spirit who is able to inhabit the heart. As soon as you put your trust in Jesus Christ, you have a father in heaven, a saviour in Jesus, and the Holy Spirit inhabiting your heart. He comes as the comforter.
So I close by saying this to you, dear friends, on this particular day, again, I want to say to you, Christianity is not going to subtract the grief, but Christianity will add the solution who is Christ. And I urge you as kindly as I can, do take hold of Christ. Don’t stay distant from him. Don’t stay separated from him. Don’t stay confused, or vague, or lost, but take hold of Christ. And keep looking to him for your safety, and keep looking to him for your comfort. He has endless supplies to keep us going day by day.
And know, friends, that he is at work, taking people from here to heaven, here where there is grief and hope, and heaven where there is no grief and hope has turned into sight. So take hold of him, trust him, lean on him, look to him. He is sufficient.
Let’s bow our heads and pray.
We thank you heavenly father, that in the midst of a world which deserves very little, that you have in great and amazing grace sent your son to be our saviour, our shepherd, and to see people safely home. We pray that you would wonderfully comfort and care for those who are in grief of so many kinds, especially those today who are feeling and burdened with the great weight of grief. Please lift them up. Please enable them to go forward and please help each one of us to appreciate, to value, and to belong to Christ. We ask it in his name. Amen.