All of the songs tell us that this is the most wonderful time of the year. What a special time where—especially for us as Christians—we get to experience the celebration of the coming of our King, the first arrival where we see Jesus arriving on the scene as the God-man to save His people from their sins. It was foretold that it would happen. Jesus comes and He dies on a cross for the sake of our sin. This is a wonderful time of year where we celebrate, rightfully so, the coming of the Lord Jesus. We have great memories of celebrating with family, and even looking forward to doing that. But how do you celebrate a holiday like this during this time of year when it’s supposed to be joyous, but we’ve had so much suffering and difficulty?
If you think about 2020, what a year it has been. As we reflect on it, we shouldn’t gloss over the realities of the suffering and the loss and the death that so many have experienced. The numbers are quite astounding and when you see the numbers of how many people have have died, the lives of those people have touched and interacted with many of our lives.
And I want to do a couple of things today. I want us to address the issue of grief. I want us to talk about it in real terms. I want us to come to grips with it, from maybe a couple of different angles. I hope not to be exhaustive, but to jog your memory about several things from the Scripture that we can focus on.
The first thing I want to say is during this time of year it is exciting, especially if you have children or grandchildren, you’re looking forward to some really wonderful times together. I don’t want to take away from that at all. But I do pray that our listeners, who already have a mind and a heart to care for people, I do pray that you will be extra vigilant even this year. During this time of the year, many of you may not know, this is the highest month of suicide rates typically in a given year. Where you see a lot of people contemplating the realities of life and they find themselves in deep despair.
This is a time of year for us to be vigilant, to be caring, to pay attention to how people are doing—people in our church, people that we come in contact with. Be unafraid to ask questions, probing questions, even in passing moments that you would call out to them, see how they’re doing, check on them, make sure that they’re doing okay. Many of you may know folks who have lost family members during this time of year. Write them a note, give them a phone call, maybe make an intentional stop to go and see them and the check on them to see how they’re doing. Grief is not some sort of disease. Grief is a reality of where we live in a fallen, broken world, because a broken world means that we’re going to have legitimate loss. We’re going to have legitimate pain.
How do we think about grief in this time where we want to focus on joy? I think both can be had at the same time. We fall into some of these traps in our secular culture, thinking about all these different grief models, and stages of grief and this sort of thing, and there will be a time we can critique that, but I want us to at least come to grips with the reality of grief. Sometimes grief is not something you ever fully get over, because especially when you’ve lost someone who’s dear to you and close to you, and your life is sort of wrapped up and interwoven into their life, when you come to a time like Christmas all the memories that you have are interwoven with that person. What a difficult thing to think about. I know we grieve for a lot of reasons.
That person is not there and we say things like, “Man, things will never be the same again,” but don’t equate that as if joy is not possible again. You’re right. I would agree that things will never be the same. I think that speaks to the value of the individual’s life that you’ve lost, the enjoyment that you had with that person—what a wonderful thing. That’s a great memory. And things will never be exactly the same again, and I think it’s okay to come to grips with that reality, but it doesn’t mean that joy is not possible.
Listen to Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, [he’s talking about those who have died] that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” There’s a distinction. Notice what he doesn’t say. You need to give yourself permission, even during the season when everybody else seems joyous and happy and there are lights glittering everywhere, you need to give yourself permission to grieve. The Bible never says it is sinful to grieve.
In fact, Paul, I think makes really good distinction here. He gives us permission to grieve because what we’ve experienced is legitimate loss, legitimate pain. But he says there’s a distinction, there’s a difference. And he’s not talking about stages that you move through. We have some of those ebb and flow experiences surely when we lose someone, but he’s not talking about anything like that. He’s just saying we grieve differently, with a different mindset, with a different focus, and that’s my prayer for all of us who have lost people who are close to us. That we would have a mind, yes to grieve and to mourn, to weep even deeply because of legitimate loss, but that the Christmas season would be one that reminds us of the promises of Christ. That’s exactly where Paul goes in this passage, where he says in verse 14, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” So we can have a different focus. Through our grief, it reminds us of the work of Christ. And Christmas is the inauguration of Christ coming to earth to do His work, to do this work that gives us hope in loss.
I want us to change even the way we think about Christmas, and maybe the way that you, as a counselor, as a friend, as a church member, a family member, that you interact with those who are finding themselves in deep grief. Help them to see the beauty of the meaning of Christmas. Don’t have an expectation that they’re going to laugh as if things are going on as normal, but help to reposition their grief in a direction that it would drive them to hope more in Christ. I think this is a an important piece for all of us.
The idea of grieving is such a key thing. So many books have been written about this, people have contemplated this deeply. The beauty and the grandeur of Christmas helps us to understand how to grieve well. This is not a call when we lose someone to abandon joy all together.
I want us to think through this. We’ve lost people who are close to us, inevitably we have. We find ourself grieving. Maybe there are times, even especially during this season where we see everyone else smiling and we feel like that’s the right thing to do so we try and put on a smile, but we may not feel like smiling. Can I tell you that’s okay? It’s okay, when you’re experiencing loss that you think, “I just can’t muster. I don’t feel like I can muster a smile. I feel like things are difficult.”
But can I also tell you and give you permission that you shouldn’t feel guilty if you do put on a smile? I know that there’s this tension constantly, as you wrestle with the loss of a loved one who’s deeply interwoven into your life that if you have joy, it’s as if you’re dismissing their life. Please don’t think about your relationship to that person in that way. Yes, that person brought immense joy, but we have to make sure of where our hope is lying. Our hope was not in that person—as much as we love them and we are endeared to them, and we cherish them—our hope does not lie in that person because they’re in the same predicament that you and I are. Our hope lies in Christ.
That’s the point that Paul is trying to help us to make. As we think about Christ and the hope that we have in Christ, it changes the way we grieve. It doesn’t mean that you have to feel guilty about smiling when that person is not around. I know you’ve thought about that. I know you’ve probably wrestled with that, but we can still be at peace and have joy because we know that there’s coming a day when those who have fallen asleep in Christ will be raised in newness of life because Christmas happened.
So I pray that during the season we can change a little bit of our focus. I want to mention a couple of other things. We could totally camp out here in 1 Thessalonians 5. There are so many points where Paul concludes this section as he focuses on the resurrection of Christ. And Paul does this everywhere in the New Testament. He does this in places like 1 Corinthians 15, where he talks about the resurrection. People are afraid that some are dying when they thought they were going to have eternal life. He does it here 1 Thessalonians as he’s talking to the church at Thessalonica. What he reminds them about because of Christ, and the promises of Christ, is he tells us to encourage or comfort one another with these types of words. For those of you who are ministering to folks who have lost during this year, can I encourage you don’t be afraid to encourage people with the words of Christ, with the Word of God in the way he tells us to encourage and comfort others.
It’s okay that we address the realities of what happens. I know sometimes we feel like that’s such a tender moment, and we have to say the perfect thing. Sometimes just giving people permission to grieve is helpful. And so I want to sort of finish by focusing on a couple of things that I think could be helpful.
I don’t want to over-spiritualize this. We have to come to grips with the raw reality of grief, especially when we’ve lost someone who’s close, someone who’s so interwoven into our life. Psalm 30 is passage that’s used quite a bit when we think about mourning and weeping. The Bible says this in Psalm 30:5, “For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
I want you to hear a couple of things clearly. It’s really similar to the same tone and attitude that Paul had in the New Testament. The Psalmist here is helping us to see that mourning is not abnormal. Mourning is not weird. Mourning is not something that’s unusual to us in a fallen world. We mourn, absolutely, we weep for sure, but one of the things that we realize (even from this passage) is that grief certainly has its purposes. Weeping has it purposes, where we truly mourn the loss of those who are close to us.
It’s a recognition, first of all, that that this was a meaningful relationship. Praise the Lord for that! That there was a meaningful relationship. I’ve often heard it said that the cost of love is grief. In our grieving, that’s a reminder of the value and the risk of deep love. And that’s a good thing, that’s not a bad thing. Weeping is is real, but one of the things we have to see is grief has its purposes and helps us, as Moses encouraged us, to number our days. We think about our own mortality. Weeping has its purposes, but we also know it has its limits. Listen to verse 5, “but joy comes in the morning.” This idea of the same thing that Paul was pointing to, the coming of Christ, and that He has secured a day in which this weeping and mourning will all be over. Christmas is the inauguration of that promise.
Christmas is the fulfillment of old promises of God’s plan, and God promises new things to come. What I want us to focus on as we finish this time out is this idea of having joy at Christmas, even in grieving. It is a call to several things: Not to abandon joy, because joy is not wrapped up in people, or places, or things. Joy is wrapped up in Christ and who He is. Joy is wrapped up in the promises, which God has given to us, that He has overcome sin and death. It’s also a call to trust in the promises of God. If Christmas doesn’t teach us anything else, it teaches us that God is a trustworthy God. If Christmas doesn’t teach us anything else, it teaches us that God can be trusted with the promises that He makes.
I just read this to my kids the other night, Isaiah 9 where the Prophet tells us that Christ is coming—this wonderful counselor, Mighty God is coming. And Luke 2 bears His name, Jesus, Emmanuel, God with Us, the one who will save His people from their sins. God is a truth teller. When God makes these kinds of promises, He comes through. Christmas is a reminder of that. I pray that you celebrate Advent so that you can be confident in the promises of God.
And if we can be confident in those promises, how much more would we be confident in the promises of His return, that there will be a resurrection from the dead. This mourning is difficult, this weeping is difficult, but joy is coming. Christmas reminds us of that. Christmas is a constant, vivid, valuable reminder that God is true to His promises and that He’s promised to come again. Also as we weep during these days, it’s a reminder to trust in the sovereign plan of God. I don’t know all the answers as to why God does certain things. I don’t. But the Bible makes clear that we can trust Him with it. Why is that person not sitting at your table? I don’t know, truly, but I do know that we can trust the heart of God. We can trust the goodness of God. That is the call constantly in Scripture—that we trust the Lord with the plans that He’s revealed. And in those we can still have joy in Him.
The last thing I want us to think through is a call to be reminded of our true source of joy. Our true source of joy is found in Christ and the hope that He has provided in overcoming sin and all of its consequences to us. And we find, even in this season, as we sing the wonderful carols that proclaim His coming, as we look forward even from His birth and the majesty of God coming to earth in humble form, that coming was not intended to just be a singular event. It was happening on a timeline of God’s favor toward humanity in our wickedness. Him coming in as a baby made possible, then the death on the cross, from which He would rise again and conquer our greatest enemy that causes all of the weeping.
Our true source of joy is not found just in the relationships that we have with people. Our true source of joy is found in the hope that Christ has provided, because He has conquered sin and death. That was made possible because He came in humble form as a babe.
I pray during this season we feel permission to weep, we have lost greatly during the year 2020. But turn your heart, turn your mind to the truths of the Scripture that proclaim how we grieve differently because we have hope. We have hope because of the coming of our Savior the Lord Jesus Christ. May we celebrate Him in true joy well.
And as we pause again to remember where our true joy is rooted, what you will begin to find is you value the relationships that He has given you now. You will find ways to smile again, to hope again. And so I pray that you can enjoy this season as you weep, thinking about your true joy. I want to encourage our counselors to focus on how to help people who are grieving. Be vigilant, pay attention. People are hurting during the season, but we have a message of true legitimate joy, that doesn’t dismiss grief, it doesn’t try to push it aside or sweep it under a rug, it tries to deal with grief in its legitimate hurt and point us to joy that’s found in the baby in the manger and the life that He lived and the death that He died and in the resurrection where He is now seated at the right hand of the Father. We have hope assured.