In his gospel, John likes to tell the story of Jesus through personal encounters Jesus had with people. In telling the story of Jesus’ resurrection, John begins with an encounter the risen Lord had with a woman whom we know as Mary Magdalene.
For close to three years, Mary had been part of a group of devout women who followed Jesus and helped care for His daily needs. Jesus had become the joy of Mary’s life and the strength of her soul. Like many others had, Mary found in Jesus the words of life.
But then came the hideous day when she stood at the foot of an executioner’s cross along with Jesus’ mother and some other female followers, and they witnessed the horror of the crucifixion. She watched the nails driven through His wrists and feet. She heard Him cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” She watched Him struggle for each breath He took, and she wept when He took His final breath. She watched as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea laid His corpse in a tomb, and a great stone was slid into place, sealing the tomb. Then she and the other women followers went to a home to prepare spices and perfumes that would be used to anoint His body.
The next day was the Sabbath, so they could do nothing, but Mary’s grief percolated. She went to bed Saturday night, but she could not stay asleep. Stirred by anxiousness and desperation, she gets up early—while it is still dark. Though there were no street lights in Jerusalem, she hurries to the tomb. She feels driven to be near Jesus—even if He is lying dead in a tomb. That’s what grief does to a person. Even when your loved one is dead, you can’t bear to be apart. You wear the shirt they used to wear; you postpone clearing out their closet; you leave their voice on the answering machine and listen to it again and again; you go to their grave to be near them. That’s what Mary Magdalene does.
At the tomb, she finds that the stone has been rolled away and the body is gone. Filled with bewilderment, confusion, and aggravation, she runs back into the city to tell Peter and John. It’s not that they can do anything, but it’s too much for Mary to handle on her own. She longs for someone to stand beside her in her sorrow and confusion. But Peter and John are also overwhelmed with grief and confusion. They rush ahead of her to the tomb, then turn around and leave again, leaving her alone again in her sorrow. Unfortunately, that’s often what happens to people who are mourning; they get left alone to bear their sorrow by themselves.
In His mercy, God sends angels to console her, but Mary is inconsolable. The other gospels report that the angels announce Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, but Mary cannot take that in. That’s what happens in grief. Good news is inconceivable so we cannot take it in.
Jesus Himself appears before Mary and asks her, “Why are you weeping?” But Mary cannot recognize Him. Her senses are so fogged by despair that she cannot accurately see what is before her eyes—until He calls her by name.
There is something deeply powerful about being called by your own name. For Mary it lifted the fog of despair from her soul.
Apparently, she turned to Jesus and clung to Him. That only makes sense. When you lose someone who is dear to you, then suddenly that person reappears, you cling to that person. You hold him or her like you will never let them go again.
For Mary, despair has been turned to joy!
At this, Jesus gives her two commands.
With the first, He tells her, “Do not hold on to Me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”
The most natural thing for Mary to do is to cling to Him—to cling to His physical body. But any physical body—even a resurrected body—has its limitations. If Mary clings to His body, how can He also be with Peter when Peter gets locked in prison? How can He be with Thomas when Thomas brings the good news to India? How can He be with John while John is imprisoned on the island of Patmos? How can He be with Paul in jail in Rome? How can He be with you wherever you may go? Not even One who walks on water can be with all of His people around the world at the same time if He is confined to a physical body that Mary can cling to. The reason Jesus tells her not to cling to Him is so that He can ascend to heaven and send His Spirit to fill the hearts of all of His followers.
With the second command He tells her, “Go to My brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.’”
The great good news of Jesus’ resurrection is not to be kept to ourselves but shared with others so that everyone can know the wonderful news that Jesus is alive forevermore and that we need fear death no more!
Many who observed the original Palm Sunday would have been shocked by what they saw.
Many Jewish people would have been shocked by the waving of palm branches and by the shouting of “Hosanna” on that particular day—the first day of the Feast of Passover. The waving of palm branches and the shouting of “Hosanna” was something the people typically did during Succoth, otherwise known as the Feast of Booths or the Feast of Tabernacles, which takes place each year in September or October. During this great Jewish holiday, believers leave the comfort of their homes for seven days to sleep under the shelter of a temporary cover in a “booth” or “tabernacle.” In doing so, they recall their deliverance from Egypt and how they lived in temporary shelters while God led them through the desert. The booths remind believers of the shade God provided as the Jewish people wandered through the hot desert for forty years. Their shade came in the form of a cloud that hovered above them throughout the hot day. The cloud was actually the glory of God covering them, sheltering them, and leading them. At the time of Jesus, the Jewish people would celebrate Succoth each fall by waving palm branches and singing “Hosanna! O LORD, save us. O LORD grant us success. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.”
But when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey, it was spring, a half a year away from Succoth. It was not the right time of year for the people to wave palm branches and to sing “Hosanna.” But they believed Jesus might be the fulfillment of their Succoth prayers, that He might be the One who had come to deliver them from Roman rule, and to shelter them from harm. So they waved branches from Him, and they shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!”
The Roman soldiers would have been shocked for a different reason. They would have been shocked to observe the excitement of the crowd over something that appeared so diminutive to the Romans. Philip Yancey comments, “What stands out to me now is the slapstick nature of the affair. I imagine a Roman officer galloping up to check on the disturbance. He has attended processions in Rome, where they do it right. The conquering general sits in a chariot of gold, with stallions straining at the reigns and wheel spikes flashing in the sunlight. Behind him, officers in polished armor display the banners captured from vanquished armies. At the rear comes a ragtag procession of slaves and prisoners in chains, living proof of what happens to those who defy Rome. In Jesus’ triumphal entry, the adoring crowd makes up the ragtag procession: the lame, the blind, the children, the peasants from Galilee and Bethany. When the officer looks for the object of their attention he spies a forlorn figure, weeping, riding on no stallion or chariot but on the back of a baby donkey.” (The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 190)
What particularly grabs my interest in the Palm Sunday story is something else. The day Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem was the day that had been stipulated in the Mosaic Law as the day when Jewish faithful were to choose their Passover lamb. They were to select their lamb on the first day of the week of Passover and bring the lamb into their home for four days before they slaughtered it for the Passover meal (mirroring how God came to live among us in Jesus before we slaughtered Him). By coming into Jerusalem on that precise day, Jesus was announcing to the people that He had come to be their Passover lamb—that He had come to be the One who would lay down His life to set His people free!
The crowd was ecstatic when they thought Jesus had come to be their conquering hero. They waved palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna!” But a few days later, when He was led sheepishly to the slaughter, they turned against Him. They shouted, “Crucify Him!”
I am struck by how similar I am to the crowd. When I think Jesus will trample my enemies, I wave a palm branch. When I think He will bring to me a happy life where everything goes the way I want it to go, I shout “Hosanna!” But I am not as excited when He speaks of His kingdom coming through sacrifice and forgiveness and unconditional love—especially when He wants those things from me. But, as it turns out, it is the kingdom of the Passover Lamb that I truly long for as opposed to the kingdom of a conquering warrior. Human history reveals the failure of warrior kingdoms over and over again, but the Passover Lamb has been transforming people’s lives through love and forgiveness for centuries now, and I long to see the fulfillment of this kingdom!
Sadly, we live in a world where ethics get compromised for the sake of personal convenience and morals get set aside for one’s own gain.
Amy Choate-Nielsen reports, “According to a Reader’s Digest poll in 2004, 93 percent of respondents reported one or more kinds of dishonesty at work or school, and 96 percent reported lying to or committing other dishonest acts toward those close to them.” (Deseret News, March 28, 2014)
According to a report shared by Madeline Boehmer, 75 percent of employees admit to having stolen at least once from their employer, and 37.5 percent admit to having stolen at least twice from their employer. Employee thefts result in $50 billion stolen from U.S. businesses each year. (SheerID Inc.)
On the flip side, David Cooper and Teresa Kroeger report that in the 10 most populous U.S. states, employers rob the lowest earning workers: “2.4 million workers lose $8 billion annually (an average of $3,300 per year for year-round workers) to minimum wage violations—nearly a quarter of their earned wages.” (Economic Policy Institute, May 10, 2017)
In the midst of such corruption, 1 Thessalonians 5:21 commands us, “Hold fast to what is good.”
Those who seek to be followers of the God who is good need to be careful not to settle for the collapsed ethics and morals of our world. We need to pursue the good that matches the loving heart of God.
Mother Teresa once commented, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody. The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity.”
The good that God tells us to hold fast to has to do with applying love and charity to the people we meet.
Ruth Haley Barton puts it this way: “In every decision we make we could hope that somewhere along the way someone will ask, ‘What does love call us to?’” (Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, p. 197)
I think that’s what Pee Wee Reese tried to do. According to Larry Wise, “Jackie Robinson was the first black to play major league baseball. While breaking the ‘color barrier,’ he faced jeering crowds in every stadium. While playing one day in his home stadium in Brooklyn, he committed an error. His own fans began to ridicule him. He stood at second base, humiliated, while the fans jeered. Then shortstop Pee Wee Reese came over and stood next to him. He put his arm around Jackie Robinson and faced the crowd. The fans grew quiet. Robinson later said that arm around his shoulder saved his career.”
May we hold fast to what is good by asking repeatedly, ‘What does love call me to do?’
In my experience, 1 Thessalonians 5:16 (“Rejoice always”) is one of the most challenging verses in the Bible and one of the most soul-restoring verses in the Bible.
The verse is challenging to me because I have the tendency to get discouraged at times, and when I get discouraged I tend to wallow in my discouragement. This verse does not scold me for being discouraged. It doesn’t insist that I be happy always, nor does the verse accuse me of being a lousy Christian for not being constantly happy. But it does challenge me away from wallowing in discouragement. It calls me to make a deliberate decision to lift up my heart to God even when I am downcast. It calls me to turn my focus to the God of hope when I am disheartened.
Tim Hansel wrote the book, You Gotta Keep Dancin’, out of his own struggle with constant pain following a climbing mishap in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In this book he points out, “Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional. We cannot avoid pain, but we can avoid joy. God has given us such immense freedom that He will allow us to be as miserable as we want to be. I know some people who spend their entire lives practicing being unhappy, diligently pursuing joylessness.”
Seen from this perspective, the command to us to “rejoice always” is the soul-rescuing and life-restoring command to make that vital decision not to lock up our hearts in the realm of misery but to turn our focus to the God of hope.
How do we do it?
Perhaps some spiritual giants are able to rejoice always more easily and more naturally than I. For me, rejoicing involves three disciplines:
1: Honest Prayer: That’s what David and others did in the Psalms. They did not simply put on a happy face and pretend that everything was fine. They honestly and painfully poured out their struggles, complaints and questions to God. That was the first step of rejoicing for them. It was their way of deliberately turning their attention to God. It was the way they made sure their hearts would not be locked in the realm of misery but opened up to God.
Perhaps this is why John Bunyan pointed out, “The best prayers have often more groans than words.”
Henri Nouwen wrote the book The Return of the Prodigal during a time of deep pain in his own life. In that book he stresses, “Joy never denies the sadness, but transforms it to a fertile soil for more joy.” We never get to a place of true rejoicing unless we honestly deal with the sadness that is in us.
2: Praise: Praise is the deliberate act of remembering and declaring the goodness of God. It is in the process of doing this that our hearts begin to settle into the truth that God’s goodness withstands all of our hard times. True praise is not the declaration that we are happy about how things are turning out in our lives. Instead, it is the declaration that we cast our hope on the goodness of God whether things are going well or poorly.
Praise is a corrective recognition of who God is and who we are in comparison. As Henri Nouwen points out, “To pray is to walk in the full light of God, and to say simply, without holding back, ‘I am human and You are God.’ At that moment, conversion occurs, the restoration of the true relationship. A human being is not someone who once in a while makes a mistake, and God is not someone who now and then forgives. No, human beings are sinners and God is love.”
3: Cling to Scripture: Throughout my Christian life, I have worked at memorizing verses of Scripture, but for many years it was more a matter of doing what I thought Christians were supposed to do. A few years ago, I went through some great struggles in my life. At that time I found myself turning to specific verses that enabled me to focus my heart on God’s care and sovereignty and on the assurance of peace and strength and help which God promises us. At set points during the day, I would recite those verses to myself. Those verses became a lifesaver to me. They filled me with hope and encouragement amidst the darkness that surrounded me. I continue to say those verses daily, and they continue to tune my soul to rejoicing.
Paul Tournier once commented, “There are two things we cannot do alone, one is to be married and the other is be a Christian.” The reality of the Christian life is that we need one another. So when Paul begins to conclude his first letter to the Thessalonians with a string of practical instructions, most of them have to do with how we ought to interact with one another. Two of these practical, relational instructions are recorded in 1 Thessalonians 5:14: “Encourage the fainthearted; cling to the weak.”
The literal translation from the Greek for the first instruction (paramutheisthe tous oligopsuxous) is: “Speak alongside the small-souled, or speak beside those who souls are small.”
Whenever our souls are deflated, we need someone to come alongside of us and to speak the right words to our deflated soul. That’s what Paul calls us to do for one another.
Tim Madigan tells about how Fred Rogers did that for him. At a very difficult time in his life, when he thought his marriage was going to break up, he wrote to Fred Rogers about his struggles. In his book, I’m Proud of You: Life Lessons from my Friend Fred Rogers, he records what happened: “I finally summoned my nerve, went inside to our computer, and typed out a letter to my friend, tears of remorse streaming down my cheeks. After years of counseling and struggle, my marriage was probably ending and I was the one ending it, I told Mister Rogers in my letter that day. Could he forgive such a person? Could he continue to love such a man?
“His reply arrived within the week, dated December 20, 1997, two full pages on the stationery of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood…. I did not make it through the first paragraph before I again began to cry: ‘My dear Tim, Bless your heart. I feel so for you—for you all—but, Tim, please know that I would never forsake you, that I will never be disappointed with you, that I would never stop loving you. How I wish we could be closer geographically! I’d get in my car, drive to your house, knock on your door, and when you answered I’d hug you tight.
“‘You are a beautiful man, inside and out, and those who care about you are privileged to share your pain…. As for suffering: I believe that there are fewer people than ever who escape major suffering in this life. In fact, I’m fairly convinced that the Kingdom of God is for the broken-hearted. You write of “powerlessness.” Join the club; we are not in control: God is.
“‘Our trust and affection run very deep. You know you are in my prayers—now and always. If you ever need me you have only to call and I would do my best to get to you, or you to me….
“‘You are my beloved brother, Tim. You are God’s beloved son.’”
That’s the kind of encouragement 1 Thessalonians 5:14 calls us to. That’s coming alongside of a friend when their soul is deflated.
The second instruction (antexesthe ton asthenon) is translated literally, “Hold firmly to or cling to the weak.” This instruction recognizes how easy it is for a person to stumble when he or she is weak, and how important it is for us to hold onto such a person so as to keep them from hurting themselves.
On May 29, 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay became the first people in history to climb to the top of Mount Everest. On their descent from the mountain peak, Sir Edmund lost his footing, but Tenzing dug his ax into the ice and held the line taut, keeping them both from falling to their deaths. When reporters asked about this later, Tenzing refused any special credit for saving Sir Edmund’s life. He considered it a routine part of the job. He said simply, “Mountain climbers always help each other.”
That’s what should be said about Christians as well: We always help each other; we always hold firmly to the one who is in danger of falling.
At times, Christians have been accused of being so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good.
Paul had that concern about the believers in Thessalonica (in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). They had become so excited about the prospect of Jesus coming back that they lost sight of their place in this world. In 1st Thessalonians 5:6, Paul challenges them, “So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.”
What does it mean for a Christian to be awake and sober?
It means that while we wait for the incredible happiness of heaven, we need to keep our eyes open on this earth—alert and attentive to what is going on around us.
Joyce Meyer compares our waiting for heaven to the diligence of an expectant mother: “It’s just like when a woman is pregnant; it’s said that she is expecting a baby. She carries inside her the promise of a baby, and even though she can’t see it, she knows it’s there. The moment she learns of her pregnancy, she begins to plan for her baby’s arrival. She starts collecting items she’ll need and busily gets the nursery ready. She actively prepares for the arrival of the baby because she knows the promise will be fulfilled—it’s just a matter of time. She is expectant, and she’ll wait as long as it takes…. Our act of waiting isn’t supposed to be spent sitting around passively hoping that something will happen sometime soon.”
While we wait to enter the joy of heaven, or while we wait for Christ to return, we are to do so expectantly, alertly, actively.
What should we be alert to?
1: We should be alert to the presence of God. Though heaven is the place where we will experience closeness to God without any kind of barrier or interruption, we should be attentive to His presence now as well. In verse 10, Paul expresses his concern that “whether we are awake or asleep, we may live with Him.” David Benner points out, “The Christian spiritual journey is unlike any other journey. Christ’s call to follow Him is a call not simply to obedience but to a relationship in which He leads us to the source of His life—the source of all life…. God’s intended home is our heart, and it is meeting God in our depths that transforms us from the inside out.” Be alert to God’s presence.
2: We should be alert to dangers to our soul. In verse 8 Paul repeats that we should be sober; this time he adds that we should “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” We need a breastplate and a helmet when we are in danger, and the reality is that our souls are in danger everyday of our lives. The former mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia remarked, “The devil is easy to identify. He appears when you’re terribly tired and makes a very reasonable request which you know you shouldn’t grant.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn comments, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” So be alert to the sin in each of us, to our tiredness, and to the devil’s temptations.
3: We should be alert to opportunities God opens up to us to do something good. Paul ends this passage with this challenge: “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other.” F.B. Meyer once lamented that if he could live his life over again, he’d spend much more time in the ministry of encouragement. One of the greatest things we can do in life is to encourage others. It is encouragement that builds others up, making them greater. Let us be alert to such opportunities to build others up.
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul tells us that he does not want us to grieve over death like those “who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
What does that mean for us? Is a Christian not supposed to cry when a loved one dies? Is a believer expected to ‘suck it up’ and trust that ‘everything happens for a reason’? Are God’s children not allowed to admit to the pain of a broken heart?
It is not by mistake that the Bible records that Jesus cried at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35). It is okay for Christians to cry. Indeed, it is right for a Christian to grieve with a depth of sorrow over the hole that is pierced into one’s heart by the death of a loved one.
In their book When You Can’t Come Back, Dave & Jan Dravecky point out, “Katherine Patterson wrote the Newbery-Award-winning children’s book, Bridge to Terabithia, because of a loss that her son David suffered. The loss was the death of his best friend, a girl named Lisa. Katherine Patterson describes the effect of that loss on her son: ‘But he is not fully healed. Perhaps he will never be, and I am beginning to believe that this is right. How many people in their whole lifetimes have a friend who is to them what Lisa was to David? When you have had such a gift, should you ever forget it? Of course he will forget a little. Even now he is making other friendships. His life will go on, though hers could not. And selfishly I want his pain to ease. But how can I say that I want him to “get over it,” as though having loved and been loved were some sort of disease? I want the joy of knowing Lisa and the sorrow of losing her to be a part of him and to shape him into growing levels of caring and understanding.’”
Earl Grollman adds, “Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”
When Paul encourages us not to grieve like those “who have no hope,” he is not advocating the absence of grief, but he is inviting us to a different kind of grief. We can grieve with deep sorrow over the hole that is left in our heart by the death of the person we love, and we can grieve with confidence that the One who gave His life to conquer death is graciously caring for the one who is now out of our sight. We can grieve with confidence that the One who rose from the dead has raised our loved one to new and eternal and glorious life.
In his book, Till Armageddon, Billy Graham tells the story of a widow and her son who lived in a miserable attic. Years before, she had married against her parents’ wishes and had gone with her husband to live in a foreign land. He had proved to be unfaithful and irresponsible. After a few years, he deserted her without leaving any provision for her and the child. It was with the utmost difficulty that she managed to scrape together the bare necessities of life.
The happiest times in the child’s life were when his mother took him in her arms and told him about her father’s house in the old country. She told him of the grassy lawn, the noble trees, the wild flowers, the lovely pictures, and the delicious meals. The child had never seen his grandfather’s home, but to him it was the most beautiful place in the world. He longed for the chance to go there to live.
One day the mail carrier knocked at the attic door. The mother recognized the handwriting on the letter he brought. With trembling fingers, she broke the seal. There was a check and a slip of paper with just two words, “Come home.”
Someday a similar experience will be ours—an experience shared by all who know Christ. Someday a loving hand will be laid on our shoulder, and this brief message will be given: “Come home.”
A Christian can grieve with deep sorrow over the loss of a loved one from our lives and with the confidence and peace that our loved one has been invited to “Come home.”