Proper 28A

November 10, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 25:14-30

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Judges 4:1-7

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 123

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    Having painted such an exciting and encouraging picture of the Parousia in the previous chapter of his letter to the Thessalonians, it is natural that Paul should address the obvious questions that would arise from anyone who has seen that picture.  When will all that happen? How long will it take?  How can we be ready when it does happen?  It is entirely possible that even as the Thessalonians had grieved over the prospect that their departed loved ones might miss the big victory parade, they were now worried that they might not be in the parade themselves.

    Paul answers their questions with words that suggest how we modern-day preachers should preach on eschatological matters like the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the rapture of the living, and the reunion of us all.  Paul does not call us to soaring speculation about the details of the Parousia or to survivalist withdrawal from a dangerous world, but to watchful and sober living in the midst of the world.

    Indeed, Paul strongly discourages speculation about the Parousia, saying in effect, “You ought to know better than to do that.”  Notice the words “you know very well” in his very first words of this chapter.  “Now, brothers, about days and times, we do not need to write you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”  Apparently, when Paul had told these primitive Christians about Christ’s return, he had passed on Christ’s own words.  In Acts 1:7, Jesus said to his overeager disciples, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”  In Matthew 24:36, he was even more definite.  “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”   So there is absolutely no point in trying to calculate the day (the Greek is kairos) and times (chronos).  Don’t waste your time comparing Scripture with current events to discover where we are on the divine calendar.

    No matter how carefully you calculate, the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, that is, unexpectedly, suddenly, without announcement.  Paul’s use of the Old Testament phrase, “the Day of the Lord,” connects the hopes of Israel (Amos 5:18, Joel 2, et al) with the hopes of the new Israel, the church.  God will finally intervene in world history with judgment and blessing.  The Gospel now adds the fact that God will come in the person of Jesus Christ.

    In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul says there will be some preliminary signs that will alert those who are paying attention, namely, the “rebellion” and the revelation of the “man of lawlessness.”  But many will not recognize the signs.  As result, that Day will be as unexpected as a thief breaking into your house in the dark of night.  That metaphor comes directly from Jesus (Matthew 24:42-44) and is repeated by Peter (II Peter 3:10) and John (Rev. 3:3).  The idea is that most people will be absolutely unprepared for that great Day, and it will be an unmitigated disaster for them.  “While people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains come on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.”

    A number of things call for comment in verse 3.  The phrase “peace and security” may be an allusion to the motto of the Roman Empire, pax et securitas.  Isn’t it eerie how that motto resonates with our preoccupation with homeland security?  At a time when the world is preoccupied with establishing peace and security, says Paul, God will break in, Christ will return.  Currently, there is a commercial on TV for a new heart medication.  It focuses on a busy person who receives a note saying, “Your heart attack will arrive tomorrow at 10 AM.”  The idea is that you can now get ready and prevent that catastrophe, if you take the advertised medicine.  Paul says that the return of Christ will come as suddenly as labor pains hit a pregnant woman, so there will be no getting ready and no prevention once he comes.  (Note the fascinating mixing of metaphors in this passage—thief in the night, the labor pains of a pregnant woman, sons of light, breastplate and helmet.  Paul ransacks his vocabulary to capture the attention and understanding of his readers.  Let the preacher take note!)

    Paul uses a disturbing word to describe what will come upon “people” (the Greek is vague so we don’t know who these people are).  “Destruction” (Greek aiphnidios) probably doesn’t mean annihilation, since that is an idea we don’t find elsewhere in Paul.  In his second letter to the Thessalonians (1:9), Paul seems to define “everlasting destruction” as being “shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among those who have believed.”  One can’t help but think of how this passage fits with Rob Bell’s wildly popular thesis that in the end Love Wins and all are saved.  Paul ends this part of our passage by solemnly announcing that “they will not escape.“  Again, he doesn’t specify who “they” are, except that they are the people who won’t be ready for Christ’s return because they are preoccupied with humanly created “peace and security.”  But he is very specific that they will not (Greek ou me, the emphatic double negative) escape.

    What does the modern preacher do with such a text?  We cannot simply ignore it; it is here.  But we shouldn’t use it as an evangelistic club either, though many have done so.  Think, for example, of the lurid 1960’s movie, “Like a Thief in the Night.”  That’s not how Paul uses this truth about the dark side of the Parousia.  Rather it is part of his warning not to speculate about the return of Christ.  No one knows!  It will be unexpectedly sudden, with the result that many will be taken by surprise.

    But you won’t be surprised, or at least you shouldn’t be, says Paul to the Thessalonians.  That is his point—not an evangelistic call to the world (though Paul did talk that way to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17:31), but an encouraging word to the church.  “But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief.”  It is different for you, fellow Christians.  The Day of the Lord will come suddenly, but you won’t be caught unprepared because you will be looking for it.

    That’s because something dramatic, something life-changing has happened to you.  You are “not in darkness, for (gar in the Greek, but not translated in the NIV) you are all sons of the light and sons of the day.”  With apologies to all the female readers of the text, Paul uses a literary device to convey a deep truth.  “Sons of” conveys the idea that Christians not only live in the light of Christ who is the Light, but they partake in the character of the Light.  Light is now the dominating characteristic of our lives.  I think of the dark TV show “Sons of Anarchy” which is about an outlaw biker gang that is characterized by total disregard for the law.  Anarchy is the dominant characteristic of their existence.  Christians are the opposite.

    Paul’s appeal to Christians throughout his corpus is, “You are new creations in Christ. Now be who you are.”  That is his appeal here as he teaches these early Christians how they ought to live as they await the Parousia.  “We (including himself with the Thessalonians now) do not belong (this word is not in the Greek), we are not of the night or the darkness.  So then, let us not be like others who are asleep.”

    Paul then pursues this new metaphor of light and darkness, adding the idea of drunkenness.  Don’t sleep your way through life, completely unaware of what God is doing all around you.   Don’t lose control of yourself, as drunks do, staggering through life, careening from one thing to another.  Since we are children of light, let us be alert and self-controlled.  That’s the essence of Paul’s advice about how to wait for the Parousia.  Don’t waste your time speculating about where we are in the divine calendar of End Time events.  And don’t get lost in frantic efforts to create your own “peace and security.”  Just be alert and self-controlled in your living.

    The word “alert” is gregoreo, which has the idea of standing watch, like a soldier doing guard duty.  Don’t be lulled into spiritual sleep by all the events of life.  Rather, keep your eyes open to what God is doing in and behind the scenes that play out on the media and in your life.  Perhaps I Corinthians 16:13 captures the idea best.  “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage, be strong.”  Along with alertness, Paul calls us to be self-controlled.  The word there is nephomen, which is directly connected to the idea of being drunk.  Don’t lose control of yourself, as drunks do.  The best thing we can do as we await Christ’s return is to avoid intemperance, living excessively, losing ourselves in our love of alcohol, or drugs, or candy, or toys, or cars, or houses, or careers, or….  Don’t let all those things control you; control yourself as you live in a very alluring world.

    Paul then moves on to the next metaphor, “putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.”  He is probably expanding here on the idea of standing guard.  We need to be well armored if we are going to stay alert and self controlled, because we will be under constant attack from “the world, the flesh, and the devil.”  To guard our hearts, we’ll need the breastplate (think of a flak jacket made of Kevlar), composed of faith and love. To guard our minds, we’ll need a helmet composed of the hope of salvation.  The only way to keep your head on straight and to keep your heart from straying is to wrap yourself in the faith, hope and love that belong to all of us in Christ.

    To further encourage such alert and sober living, Paul dwells on that idea of “the hope of salvation.”  In just a few words, he summarizes some profound thoughts.  “For God did not appoint us….”  This is a reference to God’s initiative in our salvation. It began with God’s sovereign appointment.  “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath….”  Clearly this refers back to the dangerous words of verse 3.  “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath, but to receive salvation….”  Here’s the crucial role we play in the hope of salvation.  God has sovereignly appointed us, but we must actively receive salvation, take possession of it.  The word there is the most unusual peripoiesis, the “doing around,” suggesting not salvation by works, but the active role we must play in appropriating salvation.  That salvation comes “through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us….”  Paul is always Christocentric in his soteriology.  And salvation is always attained through his death for us.  Note the substitutionary nature of his death—“for us.”

    Finally, Paul says this hope of salvation is so sure and complete that whether we are awake or asleep, we will “live together with him.”  It hard to know whether Paul means “whether we live or die” or he means “whether we are alert or drunk.”  But if these Christians were concerned that they might miss out on the Grand Parade in the end, then perhaps Paul is assuring them here that they can’t.  If they are indeed saved by Christ, they will always be in Christ (and “live together with him”), even if they aren’t perfectly alert and sober when he comes.

    I think here about my parents’ warning back in the very conservative 50’s.  “Don’t go to movies.  What will you do if Jesus comes back when you are in a theater?”  Or think of the way some Christians fear “dying in sin” and losing the salvation they once had.  Paul is saying that can’t happen, given God’s appointment, your faith, Christ’s death, your union with Christ.  You won’t “suffer wrath.”

    No wonder he closes with these lovely words about encouraging each other (cf. 4:18). Rather than living in fear, speculating about the days and times, wondering if we’ll be ready, let us “encourage one another and build each other up….”  How would that change the atmosphere in our churches?  What a boost to spiritual alertness and self-control it would be!  Imagine a church in which the members were always encouraging each other; that’s the sense here, a continuing activity, a habit of the community.  Imagine how we could grow if we were always trying to build each other up.  The word here is oikodomeo, as in building a house.

    That’s how we should preach on the Parousia, with encouraging sermons that will build up our congregations to live fully alert and delightfully moderate lives in an unconscious and drunken world.

    Illustration Idea

    Paul’s call to be self-controlled and live moderately in a world prone to excess led me to compare Harold Camping to John Sutter.  Mr. Camping was a California radio host who boldly predicted that Christ would return on October 21, 2011.  Somehow the secular press got wind of him, and they covered his prediction on all the major media outlets.  When Christ did not return on that day, Camping recalculated.  When that new prediction did not come to pass, he talked about a spiritual return.  Then he repented of the entire effort.  He was a man with so much faith in his own ideas about the Parousia that he brought ridicule on “the hope of salvation.”

    John Sutter is the main character in a book entitled Gold Coast by Nelson DeMille.  An intelligent and otherwise godly friend encouraged me to read it, because it is great escapist literature, “high class trash.”  It ended up being the inspiration for a sermon on I Thessalonians 4 and 5.  Sutter is a Wall Street lawyer married to a wealthy blue blood.  They live on Long Island’s “Gold Coast,” where the old rich of America live.  Life is good there, until a mafia don named Frank Bellarosa moves in next door and seduces both John and his wife into a life of crime and violence.  Sutter’s life is shattered into so many unfixable pieces that he has no future.

    In his despair he muses about the world and his own future.  “And so, I thought… there is an ebb and flow in all human events, there is a building up and a tearing down, there are brief enchanted moments in history and in the short lives of men and women, there is wonder and there is cynicism, there are dreams that can come true, and dreams that can’t.

    And there was a time, you know, not so long ago, as recently as my own childhood in fact, when everyone believed in the future and eagerly awaited it or rushed to meet it.  But now nearly everyone I know or used to know is trying to slow the speed of the world as the future starts to look more and more like someplace you don’t want to be.”