I'm sure most of us keep a diary. Whether it be an old-fashioned pocket one, a huge Filofax one like mine or, increasingly these days, an electronic one. Diaries are good because they allow us to plan for things and make preparations for future events. So, I don't know, anyone here planning for a wedding at the moment?! Matt and Adele know they are getting married in two weeks' time and so knowing that date has enabled them to make preparations– everything from booking a venue, sorting out the guest list, sorting out what clothes to wear.
Knowing that date, keeping it in the diary, is enabling them to live today in the light of the future. The decisions they are making in the present are all in light of that massive event that will happen in just two weeks' time!
Which makes perfect sense doesn't it? And that's all well and good for human activity. But the difficulty we find with the promised return of Jesus, is that while we may be convinced it's going to happen, we don't know when or how to put that event in our diaries. And when an event doesn't go into our diary, then the decisions of today are unlikely to be shaped by it. Which is exactly the kind of issue Paul was trying to address with the young Christian church in Thessalonica. Even though they don't know when, how will Jesus' return shape the way they live in the present and the decisions they make?
Paul's general thrust in 1 Thessalonians really positive and affirming letter. He is thankful for the believers and he wants them to be encouraged by the truth and by hope. We saw that last time. At the end of chapter 4 he writes to encourage those whose friends had already died and were worried about that. "What had happened to them?" they'd obviously asked. "Well," Paul says, "Don't worry - those Christians who have died – they're just asleep! Jesus is coming back and they will rise when he does so." Of course, one obvious question leads straight on from that though. So, when is Jesus coming back? Let us know and we'll put it in the diary so we can be ready!" Paul anticipates this question and having used the fact of Jesus' return to transform thinking about death, he now uses the timing of Jesus return to transform thinking about life. So, let's look at how he does that. Firstly he addresses:
1. When And How Will Jesus Return? (1. Thessalonians 5.1-3)
1 Thessalonians 5.1: "Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you".
Now I don't know about you, but when I hear or read that sort of thing, I immediately think, well they obviously do need to have something written to them otherwise you wouldn't have mentioned it Paul or at the very least signed off 'grace and peace, Paul'! Do you know what I mean? We usually associate this style with a rebuke "I shouldn't really have to say this, but I'm going to anyway!" But in actual fact, Paul isn't about rebuking here, he's about reminding and encouraging folk to hold fast to what they were already aware of.
1 Thessalonians 5.2: "For you yourselves are fully aware..."
In other words, they already know! He knows that they already know the answer to the question. Why? Because Jesus himself had taught it and probably Paul had already had the opportunity to reinforce Jesus teaching with them in person. And so, writing to them now, he knows they know!
Nevertheless, never one to pass up an opportunity, Paul reminds them of a number of insights as to what the return of Jesus will be like. Briefly, he gives three:
a. It will be momentous
"For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come…" (1 Thessalonians 5.2)
Paul describes the return of Jesus as the Day of the Lord. We heard earlier in our reading from Joel 2 how the Jews would have understood that phrase. They understood it to be a hugely unique, earth-shattering, momentous event when God would step in to judge his people. For the faithful: rescue. For all those opposed to Him: destruction.
· A day the "…like has never been before, nor will be again…" (Joel 2.2),
· A day when "the earth quakes… and the heavens tremble…" (Joel 2.10)
· A day that "…is great and very awesome…" (Joel 2.11)
One thing that is very clear from such Old Testament texts, this won't be a private event. Everyone will know about it and there will be consequences for everyone: believer and unbeliever. It will be momentous. Secondly:
b. It will be unexpected
1 Thessalonians 5.2 again:
"…the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night".
This is the first of two metaphors, it's one Jesus used himself actually: a thief. And a thief in the night doesn't tend to announce his schedule. He doesn't put up his tour dates on a poster. That would be stupid. He plans to come when you least expect it. And you may think – yeah I get that, but why is Jesus likened to a thief? Let me just be clear and say that the comparison is not to the thief's character, but to the surprise and speed of the thief's arrival. So, the lesson here is about timing, not character. We need to be alert to the fact that Jesus will come again when we do not expect him. That's why, when you hear all these predictions and prophecies about the end of the world – you can be certain of one thing. They are wrong because both Jesus and Paul said we won't be expecting it! Thirdly,
c. It will be sudden and inescapable
Second metaphor – a woman in labour. Take a look at 1 Thessalonians 5.3:
"While people are saying, "There is peace and security", then sudden destruction will come upon them as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape".
Unlike the analogy of the thief, a pregnant woman expects to go into labour, but still she doesn't know exactly when. But once she's in labour, there is no avoiding it. It's an intentionally graphic and painful metaphor.
Judgement is coming – it will be momentous, unexpected, sudden and inescapable. So, it's not unreasonable to think like some of the Thessalonians may have been thinking and wonder if we can work out when Jesus is coming back. But have you ever stopped to considered what it would be like if we did know the exact date? How would we live then, knowing the 'Jesus deadline'? I'm not sure that would be very useful at all. You know what it is like when we have a deadline, we often slack before it and then work like mad when it comes upon us, don't we?! As most of you know I used to be in the RAF and as in many areas of work, the Nimrod force had its own standards unit. The dreaded checkers! I guess they were a bit like Ofsted. What we all dreaded on my crew was our annual check week. They would fly with us and there would be ground tests on our theory and all sorts of things. But we had notice and knew when they were coming. Three weeks prior to the Standards Visit the crew would be working their socks off making sure that our procedures, and equipment knowledge and safety checks were top notch. Then one year the standards unit changed their minds. They said, we're not going to give you any notice. You should be working and operating at your expected standard all the time. So, we needed to be ready and alert and prepared so that we would not be caught off guard when we walked into the Operations Building for a training sortie only to be met by the Standards Unit. Friends, in the same way, we need to be ready for the momentous, unexpected, sudden and inescapable return of Jesus. Part of the reason why we can't put the date in our diaries is because the Lord expects faithful readiness now. If we knew Jesus was coming back in…say 2020, when would we really start living and working flat out for him? Next week? Next year? Three weeks before? We need to be ready. Fortunately, Paul saw this need and identified four things to help the believers in Thessalonica stay ready. So, let's look at those next under our second main heading this morning:
2. Are We Ready? (1 Thessalonians 5.4-11)
I'm sure you picked up on it when the passage was read through for us earlier, but let me just underline the main image that Paul uses in these verses. He sets it up in 1 Thessalonians 5.4-5:
"But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness."
Do you see his main metaphor here? According to Paul we are all either people of the day or people of the night; people who believe and trust in Jesus or people who don't, people who are; awake, sober and ready for action – or people who are asleep, drunk and still in our pyjamas! Paul writes elsewhere that Christians are those who have been rescued form the domain of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of light. They are those who live in the light of truth. The truth that judgement is coming, but with gratitude that they have found their escape through the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, for those of us who are children of the day, which for the sake of this morning I'm assuming is most of us here, let's see how Paul encourages us to be ready.
Firstly, he says:
i. Keep Awake! (v.6)
"So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake..." (1 Thessalonians 5.6)
Does this mean that if the Lord returns when I'm tucked in bed allowing my body to physically rest and recover, then that's just tough luck? No! Of course not. Paul isn't talking about physical sleep. He wants us to keep awake spiritually. It's a bit like when you hit your alarm clock's snooze button instead of getting up straight away in the morning! You get caught in that kind of no man's land of falling back asleep whilst dreaming and coming under the illusion of getting up and on with your day. Do you know what I mean, have you experienced that? So, in a way, Paul is saying "keep awake – don't hit the snooze button!" What does that look like? To keep awake means not drifting back to the darkness, and living as if the life, death and resurrection of Jesus has no bearing on how we live in the here and now of 2017. To keep awake means to not get lazy or careless in what we allow ourselves to read, watch and listen to. To keep awake means being alert to the spiritual battle raging around you, and especially to the way and time you are most susceptible to temptation. For me that's when I'm tired or I've got too much time on my hands. What about you? When are you at your most vulnerable to temptation? When are you most snoozy? When you're worn out, annoyed, cast down, stressed? Keep awake St. Joseph's!
Secondly, Paul says:
ii. Stay Sober! (1 Thessalonians 5.6-8)
"…let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober…"
You see if 'keeping awake' is all about our spiritual readiness, then 'staying sober' is all about our moral readiness. And it's hard to be morally ready when we're impatient, lustful, angry, reckless, drunk or wasting time. So, amongst other things, to stay sober means living now in a self-controlled manner which anticipates and points to the return of Jesus. To stay sober means not coming under the influence of our culture and accepting immorality, abuse or hatred of any kind. To stay sober means remembering the reality of hell, and that unless we cross the awkward threshold and actually talk to our neighbours about Jesus, then many of them are heading straight for it. And that is a sobering thought indeed is it not? Stay sober St. Joseph's!
Thirdly, Paul encourages us to:
iii. Get dressed! (1 Thessalonians 5.8)
"But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation."
Often our clothing is deliberately and carefully chosen isn't it? What we wear at night in bed is generally not what we wear when engaged in the activities of the day. And what we do during the day determines what we wear, especially if there is an element of danger involved. If we step out in the winter we protect ourselves with jumpers and coats. If we're stepping out to play cricket we may well pad up and put on a helmet. So it is, with everyday living as a Christian. Each day we're in a spiritual battle and we need to clothe ourselves with the breastplate of faith and love. Each day we need to look up and remember that one day we'll meet Jesus face to face and so wearing the hope of salvation as a helmet is a helpful reminder of our ultimate destination. Paul develops this idea of what to wear in Ephesians 6. Clothe yourselves then, with the best things you can: faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, hope for the future and love for each other!
Finally, Pauls says
iv. Keep encouraging each other! (1 Thessalonians 5.9-11)
" For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing."
I love how Paul wraps it up here. He doesn't ramp up the rhetoric, or resort to a panicky billboard message "The end is nigh. Repent!" No! Instead, he gives a loving reminder of the glorious destiny for all believers. Regardless of whether we are dead or alive when Jesus returns our eternal future is safe. And right now we need to live in the light of this reality, eagerly looking forward to Christ's return, confident that he will come as our rescuer and not our executioner! And so finally, in light of these encouraging but sobering words, we come to the challenge of how we apply what we've learnt this morning.
3. The Challenge
I said earlier that for the sake of this sermon I was assuming that most of us here would identify as being believers. But that doesn't mean that if you are still working things through this passage doesn't have anything to say to you. In fact, I think there are two main challenges Paul leaves us with here, one for the unbeliever and one for the believer. Firstly, then
To the unbeliever: don't be fooled when today seems calm
I mean I know that there is a lot going on in the world that is far from calm, and tragically we have another stark reminder of that this morning. But generally, we in the west live in relative peace, stability, prosperity, and compared to much of the world, we live in safety. But the Bible is clear, there is a major storm coming, the like of which has never been seen before. And without Jesus as your shelter and protection, there will be no escape. Maybe an illustration will help you understand the urgency. One pastor tells the story of an American man who ordered an extremely sensitive barometer from a respected company. When the instrument arrived at his Long Island home he was disappointed to discover that the indicating needle appeared to be stuck to the sector marked 'hurricane'. After shaking the barometer several times (never a good idea with a sensitive mechanism) the new owner wrote a scathing letter to the store and on the following morning, on his way to his office in New York, put it in the post. That evening he returned to Long Island to find not only the barometer missing, but his house as well! The needle had been pointing correctly all along. There was a hurricane!
Today you may feel like life is okay. Your health is good, there's some money in the bank and summer has arrived! But this doesn't change the fact the needle on God's barometer is pointing to judgement; judgement for living a life of ignoring him. Jesus may come tomorrow. It may be next year. It may not be for quite a while. But whether you face that judgement now or in the future Jesus is the only one who can rescue you. So that's the challenge for those here who may not call themselves Christians. And to the believers here?
To the believer: don't do anything today you wouldn't want to be doing when Jesus returns
Again, perhaps an illustration may help. Let me take you back to May 19th 1780 in New England, America. An unusual darkening of the sky was observed then. The primary cause of which is believed to have been a combination of smoke from forest fires, a thick fog, and a cloud cover. The darkness was so complete that candles were required from noon on. It did not disperse until the middle of the next day. So, imagine you're in New England at this time. There's no forest fire near you. (It actually came from northern Canada and drifted south). But you're just going about your normal day on May 19th 1780. And all of a sudden, at noontime, what happens is the sun turns blood red, the sky turns black, and it feels and looks like the end of the world! And on that day, the local government in Connecticut was meeting and they had to bring in candles in the darkness. And like almost everyone else, these men are in fear. They think the world is ending because instant media hasn't been invented yet that can explain where the smoke is coming from! All they know is yesterday the sun was shining and now its blood red and the sky is darkened and they're afraid. So they looked to a Christian man named Abraham Davenport and they said, "Should we cancel? Should we stop meeting? Should we go home to our families so the end might come?" and this is what he said: "This well may be the day of judgment, which the world awaits. But be it so or not, I know only my present duty and my Lord's command to occupy till he come. So at the post where he hath set me in his providence, I choose for one to meet him face to face. No faithless servant frightened from my task, but ready when the Lord of the harvest calls. Therefore, with all reverence, I would say let God do his work. We will see to ours. Bring in the candles." (as quoted by Timothy Dwight, Connecticut Historical Collections 2nd edition (1836), p. 403)
And they did! Friends we need to live in such a way that, if we knew Jesus was coming back tomorrow, we'd say, "We'd still be doing what God has called us to do today." In other words, we wouldn't change a thing. That's the attitude we need to live in the present. Awake, Sober. Dressed for action and encouraging each other in the process.