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.
– 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
A week ago Friday night, I took 19 of our youth to the ELCA Chicago Synod Ultimate Lock-In, which meant that I stayed up all night with about 300 12-18 year olds playing arcade games, racing around in go-carts, zapping each other with lasers under a black light in the laser tag room, and watching and discussing a movie. While this is a really fun event that our youth look forward to every year, you can just imagine that it’s quite exhausting for those of us who have long passed our teenage years. So it’s a little ironic that the movie we watched at the event was called “Wide Awake” – something that most of us “older” attendees were struggling to be that night.
Now, if you have not seen this movie, it is about a 10 year-old boy named Joshua whose beloved grandfather had recently suffered from bone cancer and passed away. Throughout the movie, Joshua has flashbacks of times he spent with his grandfather. One of the most touching flashbacks is when Joshua tells his dying grandfather through buckets of tears that he is scared, and when he fearfully asks him if he, too, is scared, his grandfather replies, “You know I’ll be alright because God will take care of me.”
Yet, after his grandfather passes away, we watch as Joshua struggles to find interest in his school and friends, and as his parents have to drag him out of bed every morning and encourage him to have some fun. We later find out that Joshua fears that his grandfather is not – indeed – alright. That maybe there is not in fact a God who will take care of him.
Fear had gotten the best of Joshua. And throughout the beginning of the movie, we see how it consumes him and keeps him from experiencing the joys in the people and the world around him.
As with Joshua, this is something that gets the best of many of us.
And it is at the heart of the situation that Paul is addressing in his first letter to the Thessalonians. You see, these early Jewish and Gentile Christ-followers in Thessalonica had a lot to fear. They had only recently become converts to this new faith movement. And, yet, it is not too long after Paul begins his ministry with them, that he and other leaders start to face severe persecution for teaching about a King who would save God’s people from the oppressive Empire. And soon thereafter, Paul and the other leaders are kicked out of the city, leaving these early Christ-followers to fend for themselves.
These new Christ-followers are scared. Scared for the safety of their new friends. Scared for their own lives. Scared for their future.
Scared that maybe Paul had gotten it all wrong.
Because if Paul was right about this Jesus being the Son of God, the Messiah – the one who is supposed to come and bring them salvation – then why on earth were they facing persecution for following him? And if Paul was right about this Jesus who is supposed to return again and deliver them from death, then why hadn’t Jesus come already before some of their friends and relatives had already died? What will happen to those deceased friends and family now? Will they be left behind when Jesus comes again?
I think this is an unwanted neighbor that many of us here meet too often and know too well. Our news stories are full of reasons for us to fear: the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, the potential spread of Ebola, the ever-growing fear of terrorism and world war. And for some of us here, a new wave of fear may have even swept over us in the last few weeks after we heard the results of the election.
Fear also seems to continuously pound on our front doors and stare us directly in our faces in our daily routines, taking control over our lives and holding us back.
We often tend to allow our fear of failure and the unknown future to hold us back from taking chances; our fear of our children’s safety to keep us from letting them try new things and grow up as unique individuals; and our fear of loneliness and rejection to keep us from opening up in new relationships.
And we tend to allow our overwhelming fear of the wavering economy to keep us from giving to those who are in need around us; we let our fear of change hold us back from experiencing the joys and opportunities in the world that we have never seen or known; and we let our fear of illness and death hold us back from actually living.
Fear is a natural and normal human feeling. One that Paul, Silas, and most likely the rest of the early church missionaries felt at numerous times. One that even Jesus – the Messiah, the Son of the living God – felt and so honestly and passionately expressed while hanging from the cross as he cried out to God before taking his final breathe. And fear is something that we – too – will in fact experience at many times in our lives, and therefore must honestly express it before God and one another.
And yet while this is true, we need to be cautious when we respond to the fears that are urgently knocking on our doors. Because if we open up our doors widely and allow these fears to come rushing into our homes and our lives all at once, they can immediately swoop in and strongly overpower us.
And when we let these fears consume us, they can take over our lives, causing us to be so focused on protecting ourselves that we forget to look at the beauty and blessings in the world that God created.
They can drag us down into a deep darkness – where we become blind to the needs of our neighbors. They can transform us into being people of the night, rather than of the day, where we spend most of our time in bed with our sheets pulled over our heads to block out the light shining in and with our eyes shut to the joys and struggles around us.
I think Gandhi explains this well: “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is fear.”
And once we let this enemy drown us in darkness and we become people of the night, it can be very difficult for us to get out of bed in the morning… and to live.
But Paul compassionately reassures the Thessalonian Christ-followers that they need not be consumed by fear. And Paul’s pastoral words to the Thessalonians are also words for us today. In chapter 4, just before our passage today, Paul explains that we must not be uninformed about those who have died and we must not grieve the loss of our loved-ones as others do who have no hope. For we can be assured that “through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” When Jesus returns, these beloved ones will not be left behind. For just as Jesus has died and resurrected from the dead – so too shall those who have died, be raised from the dead when Jesus comes again. And – as Paul says – for those of us who are alive at Jesus’ return, we – too – will join with those who are already deceased to meet and be with Christ forever.
And this is why we can boldly proclaim with hope the words we confess every week: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
Therefore, Paul urges the Thessalonians: “Encourage one another with these words.”
Paul provides further encouragement in our text for today in chapter 5.
Now regarding the times and the seasons, Paul says, we will not know the time Jesus will return again. It will happen quickly – when we least expect it – like when a woman’s labor pains suddenly kick in or when a thief appears in the middle of the night.
However, we must not live as so many others do – in fear and without hope. For we are children of the light, not of the darkness. We are children of the day, not of the night. Yes, we will experience hardships and suffering, persecution and pain in this lifetime. We will face many great fears while we are on our journey. But we must not let those fears consume us and pull us into the darkness. We must not allow those fears to get ahold of us and keep us from living in the light with our eyes open to the beauty, blessings, and joys of this world. We must not allow these fears to hold us back from seeing the suffering and the needs of our neighbors and doing what we can to address them… Doing what we can to shine the light of God to others around us who are consumed in pain and darkness.
Now, you may be wondering what happened to Joshua in the movie Wide Awake. After a while, he finally announces one day that he is going to go on a mission to look for God to make sure his grandpa is okay. And so throughout the rest of the movie, Joshua goes in search for God. And while on his journey, Joshua begins to find some joy through his friends and a new adolescent crush and relationship with a girl, whose name –of course – is Hope. And he eventually gains empathy for those whom he had least expected, including the not-so-popular annoying kid who longs for attention and the class bully that Joshua later realizes is using his aggression to cover his insecurities and struggles at home. By the end of the movie, Joshua is able to get out of bed easily, have fun with his friends, and find joys in the world around him. And he finally comes to the conclusion that his grandfather is okay because he had found God. Because God had, indeed, been present in the little things in life, through the people he had encountered, and through the empathy and compassion he had shared with others.
At the end of the movie, Joshua explains this as he reads a poem he wrote in class: “I spent this year looking for something, and ended up seeing everything around me. It’s like I was asleep. I’m wide awake now.”
I think this is sort of what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Thessalonians when he encourages his readers to live as children of the day. As children of the light. For – Paul says – we can hold onto the hope that God has not destined for us wrath, but rather God has destined for us salvation through Jesus Christ. A salvation that comes through and because of our Messiah, our loving Lord and Savior, who died for each one of us, so that we might live with him – whether we are awake or asleep. That not only will we live with God for eternity after we pass on from this world, but that we might also live with and experience God – here and now – as we are awake and alive in this world today.
It is for this reason that Paul urges us to be not afraid. To shield our hearts with faith and love. To protect our minds with the hope of salvation that we have in the promise of Jesus, who died for us so that we might live.
So let us now choose to live. Let us now choose to be wide awake.
Let us choose hope over fear.
And therefore, as Paul says, encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are already doing.