November 10, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
“Well done, good and faithful servant.” How often haven’t we heard—or even spoken—these words at the funeral of some beloved member of the church? How often haven’t we seen these words etched onto tombstones in a cemetery or printed on the cover of the memorial folder for a funeral? This is what every believer hopes to hear his or her Lord say when approaching those proverbial “pearly gates” of heaven.
Since no less than Jesus himself speaks these words twice in Matthew 25, there is no denying that they carry biblical clout. But is it really a great idea to latch onto this phrase and use it as the be-all and end-all of how we assess what the Christian life is all about?
I thought we were saved by grace alone!
We do teach that and yet I have long held the suspicion that a lot of people come to church each week with the nagging fear that they are not “good enough” for God. Hence, a lot of even the most virtuous of Christian deeds get fueled by guilt and fear accompanied by an overwhelming desire to hear God say “Well done . . .” when the roll is called up yonder.
So a main job of gospel preachers is again and again to proclaim the real good news that in Christ, we are all saved by grace. If we are in Christ, then what God will say to us at the end of days is not in question and is most certainly not determined by whatever grade we managed to achieve on the Report Card of life.
So what is Christian living? Where does it fit? Maybe the Parable of the Talents gives us a ready-made answer and maybe it is one that ties in with an image Eugene Peterson has used. Peterson says that in most languages (like English, for instance) there are just two verb voices: the Active and the Passive. In the Active Voice, the subject is solely responsible to initiate action: “The boy throws the ball.” “I am painting the wall.” In the Passive Voice something is done TO the subject: “The boy was hit by the ball.” “The tree got struck by lightning.” This linguistic way of talking affects our thinking in other areas: we assume that all of life comes down to a choice between our initiating activity or activity being visited upon us. Either I do it or someone else does it but there is not much in between.
But in the Greek language there is also the Middle Voice. In the Middle Voice the subject enters into an action that was started by someone else and that will ultimately be finished by someone else. It’s sort of like jumping with an inner tube into an already-flowing river. You didn’t create the river nor cause the current to flow. What’s more, it will keep flowing to its destination even if you hop out of the river at some point. But in the meantime you can jump in, float happily on the current, and also do things to steer yourself well, to position yourself well, to avoid rocks and overhanging tree limbs, etc.
And the Christian life, Peterson suggests, is like that. We are saved by God’s grace alone but then are also given the opportunity to jump into that already flowing river of grace. The river and everything we get a chance to do while floating in it are ultimately all the work of God. Our actions in the river would not be possible were it not for God. But what a joy and privilege it is to be in that river at all!
Of course, if like the third servant you are convinced that there is no joy to be had—that the Master is a “hard man” who is more to be feared than loved—then even grace cannot make a dent. But if you catch all the joy of the grace that kicks all this off in the first place, it makes all the difference in the world in what you then do in response.
In the Parable of the Talents, although the third servant missed it, the very giving of the talents was itself a divinely initiated act of grace. Everything else that happened after that was all a direct result of grace, grace, grace. What we do in the midst of this great river of grace is important and every true follower of Jesus who knows and experiences something of his holy joy must want to get in on “the master’s happiness” with every fiber of their being.
Indeed, we demonstrate that we understand this joy when we do throw ourselves into such Christian living wholeheartedly. Hence, the motivation for getting busy with our talents is not fear and not guilt but the very joy with which those talents were handed out in the first place! And it’s not a matter of what we do versus what God does but is a matter of our cooperating with God by participating with God in his great program of cosmic restoration!
Frederick Dale Bruner notes that a talent was a huge denomination of currency in Jesus’ day. One talent would have been the equivalent of a lifetime’s worth of wages! But as Bruner notes, that means that what this master gave away at the outset of this story was a whopping sum of money. And to Bruner’s mind, that is semaphore for grace. Giving that much away indicates the master’s confidence in these people and is indeed a shorthand way of getting at the idea that this story begins with grace. The question for each servant is not firstly what will he do with what he has been given but will he realize what the very reception of this means?
Near the end of C. S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” Aslan the Lion takes Lucy, Edmund, Peter and everyone to the New Narnia–to what we would call “heaven” or the New Creation. It is a place of astonishing light and beauty; a place where every blade of grass seems to mean more and where every creature sings for the sheer joy of the Creator. It is a place where everything is just so real in depth and color that the mere sight of a daisy takes your breath away and makes you weep for the sheer beauty of the thing.
But then, in the midst of all this splendor, the children see a group of dwarves huddled together, convinced that they are sitting in the rank stench of a barn–a place so dark that they cannot see their hands in front of their faces. Lucy is so upset that the dwarves are not enjoying the New Narnia that she begs Aslan to help them to see. Aslan replies, “Dearest Lucy, I will show you what I can do and what I cannot do.” Aslan then shakes his golden mane and a sumptuous banquet instantly appears in front of the dwarves. Each dwarf is given a plate heaped with juicy meats, glistening vegetables, plump grains of rice. Each also receives a goblet brimming with the finest wine anyone could ever imagine.
But when the dwarves dive in and begin eating, they start gagging and complaining.
“Doesn’t this beat all,” they lament. “Not only are we in this stinking stable but now we’ve got to eat hay and dried cow dung as well!” When they sip the wine, they sputter, “And look at this now! Dirty water out of a donkey’s trough!” The dwarves, Aslan goes on to say, had chosen suspicion instead of trust and love. They were prisoners of their own minds. They could not see Aslan’s gift of the New Narnia for they would not see it. Aslan can but leave them alone to the hell of their own devising.
Might something similar be going on with the third servant in this parable? Could it be that he just could not see the goodness of his master, choosing fear and suspicion over hope and joy?
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
If ever you want to get a sense of how screwed up, messy, and downright tawdry the world can get—and yet how just maybe God is able to stick with the whole stinking thing anyway—then you are definitely in the right neighborhood if you’re most anywhere in the Book of Judges. I suppose it’s a testament to the faith of the Israelites in their always gracious God that they even dared to include a book like this in the canon of their sacred writings. Me? I think I would have left it out. True, maybe we’d all miss the story of Samson, and Gideon’s story is the stuff that good Sunday school is made of. Other than that . . . well, this book is as down and dirty as it gets.
The Common Lectionary oddly enough assigns a scant 7 verses from the 4th chapter for Year A cycle, but those verses are barely sufficient to set up the narrative that consumes the balance of the 4th chapter and then takes up all of Judges 5 in the song Deborah composed to celebrate the goings-on of Judges 4. Deborah comes off pretty well in that song (though as Frederick Buechner once mused, perhaps modesty compelled Deborah to ask General Barak to sing the parts that lauded her the most even as she stood by blushing at all the accolades that came her way via her own composition).
It strikes me that there is little to say about Judges 4:1-7 unless you encompass the wider story, so that’s what I will do here.
But as noted, it isn’t pretty.
The people are once again described as doing evil in the eyes of Yahweh and so, once again, Yahweh lifts whatever blanket of protection he had used to cover the people such that a Canaanite king found them to be easy pickings and pretty well took over the Israelites and made them miserable in every devious way he could. True to form the Israelites somehow managed to remember that they did once have a God who loved them—and whom they were supposed to love back presumably—and so they summoned up the audacity once more to ask for help from the very God whose ways they typically treated as take-‘em-or-leave-‘em lifestyle options (and they more often than not just left ‘em).
But if there is anything astonishing in the Bible and in Judges in particular, it is how regularly God responds to such pleas. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me” is the adage by which most ordinary people live. True, God may not be capable of being fooled in any ultimate sense but if there is one thing Scripture makes abundantly clear it is that God will stay faithful to his people no matter what. “You people are going to be the death of me” God as much as says again and again in the early parts of the Bible, and a truer word was never spoken.
Even so, God responds. He taps the one decent person he can find, a prophetess named Deborah who also had a flair for settling disputes. God gets through to Deborah what needs doing and so Deborah summons General Barak, who turns out to be a four-star piece of milquetoast who won’t go into battle until and unless Deborah goes with him.
So they go into battle, things go as God predicted, but like more recent examples like Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi, a certain Canaanite general named Sisera decides that saving his own skin is more important than being courageous in battle to the end and so he high-tails it away from the battle and takes refuge in the tent of some harmless woman from a “friendly” tribe of folks.
At this point you can cue the theme music for The Sopranos . . . “Woke up this morning and got myself a [tent peg], mama always said I was the chosen one.” And so in a narrative twist more gruesome, bloody, and shocking than even most of the murders that did take place on The Sopranos, the woman Jael dispatches with Sisera and does so, apparently, with cool, calculating abandon. Deborah will go on to sing about this—and adds even more graphic detail at that—and then tacks on the cruel extra vignette of envisioning Sisera’s old mother peering through the curtains to see when that boy of hers was going to amble up the driveway and come home for supper.
It’s difficult to know how to handle these R-rated sections of the Bible. Deborah and Barak may have sung about it—and it may be that rotten folks among the Canaanites deserved what they got at the end of the day—but as New Testament people, it’s powerfully hard to crank up joy and pleasure at all such things, especially in case Jesus’ words about forgiving our enemies and loving those who persecute us happen to be ringing in our ears.
Perhaps one thing that can be appreciated—albeit in a minor key and with due acknowledgement of the fierce brokenness of this world—is the fact that somehow, some way, God is not undone by even the most terrible facts about this fallen world. God’s people keep falling away from him in a kind of serial faithlessness that is sickening to behold. The rest of the world keeps churning in violence and ugliness and brutalities of all kinds.
Yet somehow, some way, God manages to get something done, manages to stay with his people, manages to move the salvation ball a bit farther down the field. God consistently hits straight shots with crooked sticks and manages to pour out his dearest gospel treasure into earthen vessels and cracked pots.
As the Book of Judges bears grim witness, the story of God’s salvation of this world is often not pretty to look at. But many days we manage to forget that, which is an amazing fact considering that at the very center of our faith is a bloody cross on which no less than the only Son of God once met a singularly ugly demise for our sakes. But if the extent to which God was willing to go to save us does not strike you as at least as amazing as the fact that a tent peg through the temple is also a part of the larger story, then it’s possible that time and familiarity have emptied even the cross of its true wonder and meaning.
When the holiness of God’s divine determination to save us intersects with a brutal world such as ours, the results are often raw and hard to look at. But through all that agony, somehow, the grace shines through, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness is put on notice that its days are as numbered as old Sisera’s were.
And maybe that’s some good news out of a bad news story after all.
From Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979, pp. 58-9.
Regarding Jael’s actions: “In view of the fact that her victim was a) her guest and b) asleep and c) had never harmed a hair of either her head of her people’s, it would seem that to call her deed heroic is to stretch the term to the breaking point. As for calling her patriotic, if she had done it for love of country—maybe. But a) her country had no quarrel with Sisera and b) if she killed him for anything but kicks, it was out of love for nothing more exalted than the idea of maybe getting a pay-off from the Israelites the next time they hit town. It is not the only instance, of course, of how people in wartime get medals for doing what in peacetime would get them the chair.”
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments and Observations
Psalm 123 is the poet’s poignant plea for God to show him mercy. However, this is also a prayer that he offers on behalf of the entire embattled worshiping community. It’s a good reminder that even those who find themselves under duress should never forget to pray on behalf of others who are also experiencing pain.
The psalmist speaks about eyes four times in the first two verses alone of Psalm 123 alone. Those who preach and teach may see this as an opportunity to talk about all sorts of features of eyes. However, the psalm’s specific context of talk about eyes should discipline teachers and preachers.
Perhaps one way to think about eyes in this setting is to explore where people generally look when they find themselves in some kind of trouble. After all, misery has a way of focusing our attention on our own problems. So those who find themselves, like the psalmist, beleaguered, naturally look “inward” at our own problems and ourselves. We can scarcely figuratively look more than just a few feet in front of us as we walk through dark valleys.
Or people who find ourselves in trouble may look around at other people, groups, organizations or even nations for help. We sometimes look, for example, around at various modern medicines to cure our sicknesses or at some kind of loan to help pay our debts and bills.
By contrast, the miserable psalmist looks not inward, down or around for help, but “up” at the Lord her God. After all, the poet and her contemporaries thought of God as living about the firmament, essentially in the sky. They thought of God’s throne being “in heaven.”
Most Christians no longer think of God as living somewhere seven miles above the earth. We, instead, recognize that God lives in the heavenly realm, in a dimension that’s beyond our full comprehension. Yet we recognize the essential truth expressed by the psalmist’s lifting his eyes “up.” While God lives in and among God’s children by God’s Holy Spirit, God also rules over the heavens and the earth. While various people, organizations and even nations may claim authority over some part or even all of the earth, the psalmist asserts that God rules over everything and everyone God has made.
Psalm 123’s poet’s resulting sense of deep dependence on that God the King is radically counter-cultural. Perhaps North Americans in particular treasure the myth of independence. Many of us assume that we can take of ourselves and that any expression of dependence is a sign of weakness. Of course, God has given many of us great gifts and talents. God has equipped us to largely provide for ourselves. So we don’t like to think of ourselves as anyone’s “slaves” or “maids” (2). However, the psalmist challenges us to remember that we still depend on God for every good gift we have. In fact, we depend on the Lord our God for everything we have fully as much as slaves and maids depend on their masters and mistresses for every good thing they have.
Yet James May points to the sense of trust that the psalmist’s looking to God as our master expresses. After all, as he notes, ancient Near Eastern masters and mistresses both recognized and accepted their responsibility for their slaves and maids’ well-being. So even as the poet compares the Lord his God to a “master” (and mistress!), he’s affirming God’s deep concern for God’s servants’ welfare.
Nancy deClasse-Walford shifts the imagery of the relationship between God the master and worshipers the servants from eyes to hands. She notes that as servants look to their masters and mistresses, they stretch out their hands in an appeal for help. As masters and mistresses, in turn, look at their servants, they stretch out their hands to show them kindness and mercy. In a similar way, when worshipers stretch out our hands to beg for God’s help, God stretches out God’s hands to show favor to God’s dependent servants.
Of course, with an awareness of such dependence comes a fundamental humility. It’s not easy to think of ourselves as slaves or maids. We’re the masters of our own “castles.” We give rather than take orders. We generally don’t think of ourselves as needing anyone’s “mercy.” (2) So Psalm 123 expresses a kind of humility that doesn’t come naturally to most citizens of the 21st century.
In fact, the poet’s plea for God to show God’s sons and daughters “mercy” reflects an awareness that she doesn’t deserve God’s kindness for which she begs. This gives those who preach and teach Psalm 123 an opportunity to reflect with hearers on our natural religious self-confidence. We assume we don’t need God’s mercy. We’re nice people. After all, even at our worst, we’re not nearly as evil as the criminals and terrorists out there. In fact, Christians sometimes assert, we’re far more deserving of God’s favor than those faithless Israelites who surrounded the psalmists.
Yet Psalm 123, with its plea for God to show kindness in spite of the worshipers’ unfaithfulness, brings all of us up a bit short. It reminds us that we too have sinned and fallen far short of the glory of God. Psalm 123 reminds us that all of us desperately depend on God’s grace that we can only humbly receive with our faith. Our eyes too look to the Lord our God till the Lord shows us mercy.
That mercy stands in stark contrast to the “contempt” (3) and “ridicule” (4) the worshipers’ enemies are piling on them. There’s a strong tone of lament as the psalmist grieves mockery’s flourishing even as the righteous worshipers suffer. The poet doesn’t identify the exact nature of the disdain being experienced. That leaves its modern relevance open to various applications by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the psalmist’s enemies are deriding the worshipers for their trust in the Lord. That would make Psalm 123 a fitting prayer for those who are being persecuted for their faith across the world today. Or maybe Israel’s enemies are ridiculing for her vulnerability. Then Psalm 123 could be a prayer for all those who are tormented by powerful people and groups.
The worshipers’ humility is certainly very different from her enemies’ pride and arrogance. While God’s children look up to the heavenly king, their haughty enemies look down on them. While God’s sons and daughters live by the mercy of God alone, those enemies live by their own devices. Yet instead of looking around at their enemies, the faithful look up to their God.
Those who have pets understand a bit of the complete dependence that Psalm 123 expresses. After all, most household pets can’t feed themselves. They depend on their masters to fill their food and water dish. When we get up in the morning, our cats sprint ahead of us to our refrigerator where they beg us for a “treat.” Then again at night, almost like clockwork, they run ahead of us toward our refrigerator in anticipation of another treat. Were we to cruelly withhold their food and water, they’d eventually die.
Few people created in God’s image like to compare ourselves to such household pets. However, Psalm 123’s poet suggests that even the most independent people depend as much on God for every good thing as pets depend on their owners for food and water.
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.
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.”