23rd Sunday after Pentecost

November 16, 2014

Summary

Living with God

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 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. 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. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but 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, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 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. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 ESV)

I heard this week of the phenomenon of ‘death cafes’ where people gather to drink tea, eat cake, and discuss death. The taboo topic of the age and now largely hidden away from public gaze and our homes since the vast majority of people die in an institutional setting, death is discussed to help people make the most of their finite lives – according to the website. I am happy for such discussions to occur – though I suspect that most of the talk will be pooled ignorance or fear – but knowing the big picture of life, the future landscape that might come suddenly upon us does help us live.

Of course congregations are already in place to have such discussions – and indeed while a touch macabre, I teach that one of the roles of clergy is that they are ‘death educators’ – because the fear of death produces lifelong slavery but with the Good Shepherd – the one who gave his life for the sheep – who knows death itself and has defeated its powers, we can fear no evil for he is with us; his rod and staff, they comfort us. Congregations are thus places of teaching and consolation, quiet words and cups of tea, tears and hugs – yes, death hurts and cuts deep – but we have hope and we live in the face of death. And Paul addressed these issues last week in the reading from 1 Thessalonians.

This week he is responding to – and we’re not sure what specific questions the Thessalonians sent back with Timothy – the times and seasons issues that affect all of us – how we face this or that emperor and his policies – war or pestilence that changes the whole landscape – and today we might hear it in terms of what shapes all of society for good or ill or how events 100 years ago still impact us today. This historical awareness when projected forward within a framework of linear time asks the question about endings. Will this world end? How? Then it isn’t a matter of one death but everyone’s … or is it? For people steeped in the Old Testament and with Jesus’ words still echoing, there will be a Day of the Lord when God will settle accounts and bring in his kingdom and which Jesus described with some detail – but not much – as his coming.

Paul had already taught them about this. It is part of all adult enquirers’ classes still today – this dealing with the last things, the end, the end times, eschatology. And Paul reminds them that they don’t need anything written – they’ve already been taught and he doesn’t have more to say – no timetables or even a map with details and specifics – and so he returns to what he has already taught – that the world denies or rejects the final judgement – and if people are in good and prosperous seasons they can be especially in denial that an end will come. But come it will – and the images are stark – we’re not in control – it is a sudden event like a thief in the night – it is the labour prior to birth which the mother must go through (she can’t stop and start as she might wish) – and the outcome is something received not something we determine – that those who reject the Lord face destruction – they get their wish – and those who are in Christ, realise that they have been spared the destruction because Jesus was destroyed for them and has given his life to them.

Paul uses the image of darkness and light, night and day, drunkenness and sobriety to capture or express the mysterious truth that at the end of time those who are destroyed have only themselves to blame and those who live have only Jesus to praise. An end point is a culmination, a tallying, an accounting or reckoning – and the Christian Church has throughout its history lost the plot by teaching ‘mathematically’ or logically – when it comes to the end, God chooses those he saves and those he damns or we determine our destiny by either accepting or rejecting Jesus. Both these systems make sense to us but they bring no comfort and no hope, just stress and anxiety – Am I saved? Has God chosen me? Do I believe? If I’ve accepted Jesus, why do I doubt? Why do I sin? – or they bring pride and arrogance as we remake God in our image – and neither system presents the absurdity of the Gospel – that God justifies the ungodly – that Jesus dwells only with sinners – and that by grace we are saved while faith without works is dead. So often people think of eternity in terms of themselves – I did wrong God won’t let me in sort of thing – which implicitly (because people don’t say this out loud) means – I did right or more right than wrong and so God has to let me in. This is end times accounting according to the world if it is thought about at all. But it is bankrupt.

Instead Paul reminds the Thessalonians that Christians live in the day – in the Day of Lord – with the judgement, the end, with the tallying up already known. We hear it every Sunday from our own lips – I am guilty. More importantly we hear what God says: You are forgiven for the sake of Christ. This judgement will not change at the end with God walking up to us and saying ‘Fooled you! Just joking!’. Rather God wants us to trust his Word each Sunday and live in it each day and night – each 24 hours – aware of the certainty of what is happening on the Day of the Lord – and so he gives us what we need to live – faith and love and hope – not just generic faith, love, and hope – not just self generated faith, love, and hope – but faith in Christ, love of God, and hope of salvation. In Jesus God gives himself to us and he makes himself accessible through words, water, bread and wine. That is what living with him – obtaining salvation (not just an end sum moment but a daily moment) is about – I am baptised, I am saved, I am with Christ whether I live or die, I am guilty and I am forgiven – and those truths shape how I live today.

The Day of the Lord will be a dramatic event – cataclysmic and all that – but it is not one in which we do not know the outcome – unsure of what the Judge will say – for the message is already known by those in Christ for they have been hearing it at each absolution, each Holy Communion, it is echoed at each baptism. It will not be new or a surprise. If you already know what the Judge will say, if you already know that the Judge will declare you ‘not guilty’ then no one will fear and have to be dragged into court.

But it is hard to believe. We live by faith and not by sight. Our sinful flesh – that’s us – the world, and the devil and his hordes all conspire to block our ears – did God really say? – to move our foundation to something ‘more secure’ than words – perhaps deeds, perhaps experiences – or seek to destabilise us with fear and uncertainty. And so Paul reminds or calls on the Thessalonians to encourage each other to keep awake, to stay in the light, to keep listening – even to words we say to ourselves:

But deliver us from evil.

What does this mean? We pray in this petition, in summary, that our Father in heaven would rescue us from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation, and finally, when our last hour comes, give us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.
Can this be for me? Look to the cross. Go to the font.

What benefits does Baptism give? It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.
Which are these words and promises of God? Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Mark: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).

Paul calls on the Thessalonians to build one another up – not in death cafes – but as we see those around us stumble, struggle, go through hard times in the faith, in life, when endings become trauma – and none of us is immune to such dark nights of the soul – then walk along side – one to one – and share the struggles and hurt and pain and fear – maybe in silence, maybe with tears, maybe with words but always in the shape of the cross – so that the future may again become secure and the present be the moment for living with God no matter the times and seasons.

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Bible References

  • 1 Thessalonians 5:1 - 11