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.
Verse Three notes, “When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!” Paul acknowledges that things are bad. For some people the day of the Lord won’t be a wedding but a funeral. For some the suddenness of its coming will mean terror not joy. Preaching pastorally meant being honest about painful things that linger and don’t go away quickly.
Verses four and five bring comfort to the chaos, “But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.” Despite the darkness and difficulty, for the followers of Jesus the coming day of the Lord is not hopeless. The surprise of the thief is undone by the fact that they are children of the light. The wait might be long and fearful, but their hearts are full, alive and prepared.
Verses six through eight call the hurting Thessalonians to stay alert. “So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” For those who have suffered loss and are surrounded by struggle, the temptation whether you are a child of the light or not is to do things that numb the pain and distract from it. Followers of Jesus don’t numb themselves to the horrors around them because unlike others, they belong to the day. Rather, like a bride looking for her groom, Christ followers are to remain sober, awake and attentive. Hearts are to be covered in faith and love, while minds are to be full of hope. John Wesley said of this passage that, “Being awakened, let us have all our spiritual senses about us.”
In verses nine and ten, Paul reminds his hearers that the groom who will return to his bride comes not to bring wrath, but rescue and salvation. “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” The merits of Christ’s shed blood are not only for those who are living and awake, but for who have died and who fell asleep knowing Jesus. Awake or asleep, alive or dead, because of Jesus the son, and groom, we the bride may enjoy life with him eternally in house of God our father.
John Chrysostom wrote, “Affairs change often. We are not master of our end. Let us be master of virtue. Our Master Christ is loving.” As we preach this text lets remind our hearers that Jesus is a loving groom. In the face of the chaotic affairs of this world which change often, our sermons need to encourage and build up. What is needed is not more prophetic fear, or moral scolding. Instead we need to follow the example of Paul and preach pastorally by calling our people to remain awake and alert and to live from a place of faith, love and hope. Like a bride waiting for her groom we need to tell her she is beautiful and keep encouraging her, “as indeed you are doing.”