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1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

The earth is literally shaking beneath our feet. Storms are raging and laying waste to homes and villages. The waters are rising leaving cities awash with loss and suffering. Fires are reducing neighborhoods to ashes. Borders are closing, so for the poor who flee there is no refuge; no help. Leaders are spewing their outrage and vitriol promising a never-ending stream of war and destruction. All the news coming in from around the world seems to be bad and hopeless. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are dying, but still Christ has not returned.

Now that we have captured some of the fears of the Thessalonian Christians in Paul’s day we can rightly hear the words of Paul as the encouragement that they are meant to be. In chapter four, Paul speaks clearly of the coming day of the Lord complete with sounding trumpets, archangels calling and divine shouts of command. In the face of such great and terrible things, Paul also offers moral instructions as the paraenesis of any good epistle requires. The Thessalonians are exhorted to please God more and more, while fleeing lust and licentiousness, while instead, pursing all that is pure and holy.

When reading and preaching the end of I Thessalonians we often get stalled in the prophetic and the paranetic. We come to be paralyzed by the fear inducing prospects of being left behind, and the heavy weight of trying to make our hearers good enough and moral enough to make the cut. We forget that Paul is also writing pastorally. Too a people who had lost loved ones before Jesus returned, Paul offers hope. The great and glorious coming of Jesus is not meant to induce fear, but to infuse comfort in the knowledge that though loved ones have died, Jesus has not forgotten them, for in Christ living and dead alike will rise and be with him. The apocalyptic and paranetic are employed in service to the pastoral. Indeed, chapter four leaves readers with a clear pastoral tone, “Therefore, encourage one another with these words.”

Apart from loved ones who have died, as our text this week indicates, the Thessalonians were deeply concerned with the signs of the times and the things they saw happening in their world. Fearful things were unfolding that surely pointed to the end of all things. Paul faces the same challenge we all face as we stand to preach today; in a world full of such horrors where the end seems immanent, what can we say that will be of any use? How can we all at once be honest about the horrors while at the same time pull people beyond the paralysis induced by a seemingly endless negative news stream? What is needed is an image that combines both desperate, painful and impatient waiting, with the promise of endless joy and a sense of eternal belonging that could break in and steal us away at any moment. With one wonderful image Paul steals the apocalyptic fears from a confused people. With one glorious image Paul deadens the pain of his moral exhortations for a people who are already suffering. Nothing changes the tone of things better than a Jewish wedding.

Verse Two says, “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” Paul affirms that his hearers are clearly and rightly discerning that things are bad and that the day of the Lord will come. It is how the day of the Lord comes that makes all the difference. The phrase “a thief in the night” is wedding language. In Jewish weddings, after preparing a room at his father’s house, the bridegroom would come at an unexpected time and kidnap/steal away his bride to make her his own. The bride would no doubt be able to see signs that the place her groom was preparing was near completion. She knew he would be coming to get her soon. Then suddenly, like a thief that sneaks in when no one is looking or expects it, the groom comes to take her away.

In our reading today from the prophet Zephaniah we are reminded that the day of the lord was accompanied by darkness, destruction, trembling, fear and fleeing. The day of the lord meant wrath destress and anguish. As pastor Paul comforts his grieving people he reframes the day of the Lord into something that means wholeness, union, love, belonging, feasting and consummation.