Sunday, May 24th
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 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! 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. 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 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. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
–I Thessalonians 5:1-11
One of the things I have found myself doing during these days of isolation is planning out my trips with a bit more care. Whether I’m headed to the grocery store, the gas station, or the neighborhood mailbox, I try to anticipate where I’m going, what my route will be, and what I need to take with me. That certainly rings true with our travel guide for these next few days, the Apostle Paul. Paul was a brilliant strategist. His journeys were not spontaneous events, but thought-out and prayed-for experiences. Like Alexander the Great’s desire to conquer the whole world, Paul had intentions of winning the entire world for Jesus Christ. It doesn’t take a military strategist to observe the method in Paul’s travels. He intentionally went to the largest, most cosmopolitan, most traveled places in his world. He felt that if he could create strongholds for the Gospel in those places, then the fires of faith would naturally spread along the major highways and by-ways of the world.
The port city of Thessalonica was one of these prosperous urban areas. Located on a gulf in the northwest corner of the Aegean Sea, it was on a major trade route connecting Greece and southeastern Europe. Paul traveled there and began preaching and teaching, first to the Jews in the synagogue, but then to the Gentiles. It was among the Gentiles that Paul had his best results. People came to Christ, and the fellowship was great, so great that it frightened the Jews and authorities. Thus, Paul had to make an earlier-than-planned exit, going on to Athens and then to Corinth. It was in Corinth that he wrote his letters to the church at Thessalonica, which, by the way were the very first of his correspondence to churches. If you read this first letter in entirety, you will find it to be pastoral and personal. How Paul remembered the Thessalonians; how he loved them! The first three chapters are evidence of that. In the following two chapters we see the more pastoral side of Paul, teaching in a very careful way matters of great consequence. His point in today’s Scripture passage deals with the future. And as Eugene Peterson reminds us, the way we conceive of the future very much affects the way we live in the present. Paul is attempting here to re-invigorate this church with hope of a future in Jesus Christ that will permeate the present with expectant living.
When I was a Baylor student, one of my jobs was that of being the reference librarian for the Waco-McLennan Library on evenings and Saturdays. It was a great job, because I learned so much about the library in general and the reference area in particular. I mean, I would field all sorts of questions . . . from sports questions to scientific questions, to political questions, to historical questions . . . all kinds of questions. It made things lively, to say the least. One intriguing aspect about my work was that for the nearly three years I was there, a man would come in every morning and stay until the library closed at night, charting the book of Revelation and its close cousins, Ezekiel and Daniel. He would work diligently, head bowed, pencil furiously pushing numbers and dates. Occasionally he would come over and tell me about his work, about how he was getting close to plotting the end of time. I was always amazed. I mean, I appreciated the fervor of his obsession, but I also thought, “What a waste.” He spent all of his time in that library, quite literally, with charts and numbers, while the world raced by him. I’ve wondered whether in these days he’s still there, getting even more persistent with all of the talk about the end-times.
Evidently there were a lot of people in the church at Thessalonica who were obsessed with the idea of the second coming, originating perhaps from Paul’s teaching, which also espoused the imminent return of Jesus. However, the Thessalonians’ concerns with this belief began to verge on hysteria, so much so, that Paul wrote his letter to assuage their fears and focus their callings.
His choice of the phrase, “like a thief in the night,” has become legendary. What a strange way of attempting to comfort anxieties about the possibility of Jesus’ impending return. I mean, envisioning Jesus as a thief? The New Testament gives all kinds of metaphors about Jesus — the Living Word, the Light of the world, the Good Shepherd, the Son of Man — all good descriptions, sure enough. But how about this one… a thief in the night? Paul Minear, the wonderful New Testament scholar, reminds us that the New Testament writers “did not hesitate to speak of Christ as a robber.” You can check it out for yourselves in Matthew 24, Luke 12, Mark 13, Luke 29, II Peter 3, not to mention Revelation. Scripture seems quite comfortable in the use of this simile, “Our Lord comes as a thief in the night.”
Now, I’ve heard a lot of preachers use this phrase to startle people, to try to, quite literally, scare the hell out of people. Their line of questioning usually goes something like this: “How are you going to feel if Jesus comes and you are in a bar or on a dance floor or in a movie or playing golf or mahjong?” Garrison Keillor, in his self-deprecating humorous way, remembers his formative years in the little Plymouth Brethren Church his family attended: “The basic question in my mind, then and now, is what does God want me to do? I think about it every day. Or I try not to think about it and thus think even harder about it.”
As guilt-inducing and unsophisticated as those questions are, they are not bad questions, not really. But if those negatively-framed questions turn you off and tune you out, let me ask the question in a different way . . . “If Christ should actually appear during your lifetime, where would you like to be?” “What would you like to be doing?” When Paul wrote that phrase, he wasn’t trying to frighten the Thessalonians. He wasn’t trying to scare the hell out of them; rather, he was trying to encourage the heaven in them. You see, Paul’s theology had shifted dramatically from laws and orders and scare-tactics to love and grace. His words were simply encouragement to do what they knew to be Christ’s calling. The letter, after all, seems to have been intended to be pastoral in nature. And the importance here for Paul was not so much knowing the time of Jesus’ return as it was understanding Christ’s purpose for our lives. With his hymn in I Corinthians 13 being the touchstone of Pauline theology, this letter could be a pastor’s reminder that we were created by love for love. Therefore, the idea of Jesus’ coming, for those who really follow, won’t be scary at all. It will be great joy.
John Killinger, the great teacher of preachers, once told about having to walk past a cemetery each evening on the way to his girlfriend’s house, the girl who became his wife. He said it was scary on the way over, thinking about all those spooky things that take place around a graveyard. But he said, strangely enough, on the way home, when it was the darkest, he was not thinking about the cemetery; he was remembering his sweetheart. You see, love changes the world, quite literally. Today the words of Paul remind us that whatever the future may hold, our lives have a purpose in God’s love, and that is meant to be good news. In this time when our world seems to be coming apart, these words are to remind us of an ultimate reality.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Sitting beside my mother as a child in our church in Odessa, Texas, I remember hearing an old Fanny Crosby hymn, “Will Jesus Find us Watching?” If you were raised in the church, you may have memories of sermons, lessons, and hymns related to the idea of the “end-times” or the “second coming.” What part do those play in your spiritual life today?
How do you feel about Eugene Peterson’s idea mentioned above that the way we conceive of the future very much affects the way we live in the present? In prayer, seek an awareness of God’s creative, unfolding vision for our world. Are there ways in which you seek God’s guidance in your personal, daily choices, decisions and interactions with others?
How may we, even in this time apart, follow Paul’s admonition to encourage one another and build up each other?