a sermon on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
It doesn’t take much these days to figure out that we’ve entered a new season. The trees show it off well—we’re well past the peak of fall colors, and the remaining leaves will disappear completely over the next couple weeks. The air is starting to show it too—after a fall that at times felt more like summer, it finally seems cold enough to be headed into winter very soon. And the days are showing it as much as anything—between the end of Daylight Savings Time a couple weeks ago and the generally shorter days that come at this time of year, it seems like we’ve shaved two hours of sunlight off each day in only a couple weeks! So where there is clearly a new season around us, the apostle Paul is right to say that we don’t need anything written to us—we know exactly what he is talking about.
Even beyond this shift in seasons that is so obvious around us, other things are changing, too. The midterm elections of a couple weeks ago are signaling a change in politics in Albany and Washington that will have limited immediate impact but may change things for us over the long term. The circumstances of our lives are shifting and changing in ways that we can’t always see when we’re dealing with the details of them up close but that can’t be missed when you take a step or two back. And even the world of our church is changing in ways that we don’t fully understand or see as leadership and generations shift, the world changes around us, and God keeps calling us to work and act in this day and age.
As constant a reality as change is in our world, Paul’s point may be a bit different than the shifting times and seasons of our world. Rather than focusing on the signs of the times and the marks of the changing seasons, Paul seems to encourage the Thessalonians to be thinking about and looking for “the day of the Lord.” The “day of the Lord” is surely nothing new to the Thessalonians, and it should come as no surprise to us, either. It is a longstanding concept of biblical time that is quite distinct from “the Lord’s Day,” which comes every Sunday. The day of the Lord is a bigger thing that reflects a day of judgment and transformation. It was first mentioned by some of the prophets of the Old Testament, and later John the Baptist and Jesus picked up on it in their own teaching and ministry. In the early church, in the time of Paul, the day of the Lord was assumed to be coming any day, and it is clear from some of the writings of Paul and others that people were starting to get frustrated that it had not yet come.
So here Paul assures the Thessalonians that the day of the Lord is coming, but that seems almost like a secondary point to him. Because they have been waiting longer than they thought they would have to wait for this day, because they are starting to feel the effects of their faith in their daily lives as the people around them respond to them differently, because the urgent sense of expectation that came at the time of their conversion has begun to shift to a more patient and measured—and even difficult—way, Paul here encourages the Thessalonians to be prepared for this day to come by living faithfully every day. He insists that it is on the way and will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, like labor pains coming upon a pregnant woman, with no way to escape the realities of this changing time and season.
But Paul is certain that the Thessalonians are ready for this sudden day that is to come. They are already living in the light, aware of everything that is emerging around them. They are already awake for the coming of this new day, open to the movement of the Holy Spirit as things shift and change in the world. And they are already equipped with everything they need to approach the fullness of this new day, with the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of the hope of salvation. Ultimately, Paul’s hope for himself, the Thessalonians, and all comes from his confidence that “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.”
For us, in our own time and season, separated from Paul’s words by nearly two thousand years and nearly as large a gulf of culture and experience, our preparation and readiness for the day of the Lord is necessarily different from and yet guided by Paul’s encouragement to the Philippians. The day of the Lord seems as distant a possibility as ever, yet Paul’s insistence that it will come as a thief in the night or as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman should still give us pause if we think that it won’t come at all. There is certainly a time ahead when God’s judgment upon individuals, institutions of society and even the church, and our whole world will become clear in that time when God completes the transformation of all things begun in Christ.
But as real as that time promises to be, it isn’t part of our experiences and our lives quite yet. And so we are called to be ready for such a time, to work on getting our house in order, to keep our eyes open for the things ahead, to stay awake and be ready for the things ahead. This preparation is not so much about setting up booby traps or burglar alarms to warn us when the thief approaches in the night but rather more like having the bags packed so we can be ready to head to the hospital when the labor pains begin—and to keep changing the things in that suitcase based on the changing times and seasons of our world. This preparation involves faithful living in our daily lives, the promotion of justice, peace, and righteousness in the broader world, and our attention to the work of salvation being lived out in our lives and our world as we stand with those in need of a new way in their lives. The great St. Augustine, in reflecting on this text, even suggested that our readiness is critical as the day of the Lord comes
So what is this day which the Lord has made? Live good lives, and you will be this day yourselves.
We are not the day of the Lord on our own, but we can be a part of making it real in our world.
As we join in this work of getting ready, we can also be encouraged by the confidence that Paul offers the Thessalonians. We belong to the day, Paul says, and we have everything that we need to keep awake and be ready for the day that is coming. Even more, “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.” When we face the challenges of our lives and our world, when the powers and principalities that obstruct God’s reign seem to have the upper hand with God and with us, when pain and hurt that seem to overtake us so easily, God is still with us, giving us everything that we need to be ready for the day of the Lord as it nears us and our world.
The life of faith that we share does not excuse us from the pain of the world or remove the hurt from our lives, and any attempts to write it off as “part of God’s plan” or something that will “work together for the good of those who love God” denies the real challenges of life for those of us who live awaiting the day of the Lord. This pain and suffering, though very real, will not have the last word. Our destiny will not be decided by these things but rather will emerge as a new and different way of life through Jesus Christ, and we can live in confidence and hope, placing our fears and concerns in their right place, trusting that they will not reign but rather than God’s new life will indeed be ours.
So as the seasons change and new times come, as our world emerges into a new and different day, as we wait and work for the transformation of all things, may God strengthen us in hope for this new day ahead so that we may be a part of the day of the Lord as all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Lord, come quickly! Amen.