A sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
June 24, 2018
Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
5 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters,you do not need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 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! 4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8 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. 9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
This week’s scripture is written by the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians. Now, if you were here last week, you would have heard me talking about Paul’s great love for the Thessalonians. I believe I told you that it was a toss up whether Paul liked the Thessalonians or the Philippians better. Well, today we are talking about Team Thessalonica – that’s where the Thessalonians live.
And Paul loved these Thessalonians. When you read through this whole letter – and you should because it’s only five chapters – you get a clear sense of Paul’s affection for them. Early in this letter, Paul writes about his time among them: “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.” (1 Thess 2: 7-8) Here Paul is thinking of himself as a nursing mother to this infant church. He is pledging commitment to sharing both the good news of Christ and his very self with them. He loves them.
As Paul begins to write the portion of the letter we heard today, it is grounded in deep love for his people. Now these kinds of passages in scripture sometimes strike us as threatening. Here we see what some scholars call Paul’s “apocalyptic hope.” Throughout Paul’s letters, there is a real sense that the end is coming soon. Paul believes that Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection was, essentially, the beginning-of-the-end. It was the start of this cosmic turn from brokenness toward the endgame of a full restoration of God’s creation.
And Paul believed that Jesus was going to come again – to complete the job he had started. In chapter 4 of this letter, Paul assures the believers that when Christ returns to metaphorically join heaven and earth, those among them who are still alive (as well as those who have died) will be with Christ in that reality. Now remember, Paul is not writing this letter to us. He’s writing it to the Thessalonians in about 51 AD. And he is telling those folks that some of them are going to be alive when Jesus returns.
Well, to state the obvious, Paul was wrong. I know that’s shocking, but he makes clear in 1st Thessalonians and 1st Corinthians that he really does think that Jesus is coming back within his lifetime – or at least the lifetimes of his immediate followers. And before everything can be made whole again, Paul expects there will be judgment. In order for goodness to reign, evil has got to go.
The scholar I have been reading, NT Wright, describes that final judgment like this: He says, on the day of Christ, “God would sort the whole thing out once and for all. On that day when all human corruption and wickedness would face ‘anger and fury’ and ‘trouble and distress,’ those who had turned away from idols would be rescued by Jesus himself” (Wright, Paul: A Biography, p. 216). And he writes in summary, even though we don’t know when it will happen, “The point is that heaven and earth will come together and those who belong to the Messiah will be part of it” (p. 221).
And Paul has a real sense of urgency about this. Because despite him saying himself that no one knows that day or the time that it will happen, he feels like it is just around the corner. He senses and probably hopes that any day now, he and all of his followers are going to be called to account for whether they have actually been living “in Christ” or not.
Now, 2,000 years after Paul, we are still waiting. And we also do not know the day or the time when we might enter fully into the presence of God. Sometimes people read this scripture as having to do with the reality that we never really know when death will come. Occasionally, it’s used to scare a verbal profession of faith into children or the dying.
Don’t get me wrong. Paul definitely is into people professing faith in Christ.
But Paul also makes clear, over and over in his letters, that faith in Christ is not just about saying you believe something: it’s about living a life that has been transformed by your encounter with Christ. And, as Paul says here, on that day when you come face to face with Jesus, it’s not about whether you have professed “I believe.” It’s about whether you have been living in the light of Jesus’ love, rather than in the dark of your self-seeking schemes.
Remember I told you that Paul LOVES the Thessalonians. He loves them enough to tell them the full truth of the gospel. The first truth is this: God loves you incomprehensibly. God loves you and demonstrated that love for you by becoming human, by humbling Godself, by sharing in our death, and by making it possible to share in God’s resurrection. This is good news!
And the other part of that good news is that faith in Christ creates…dare I say demands…a transformed life here and now. Once you truly realize the depth of God’s love for you, once you respond in gratitude to the grace and abundance that God has given to you, life should not and will not be the same.
And when you are truly in Christ, you realize that God’s love is not just for you (singular), it is for you (plural) – all of us. And not even just the people in this church. Not just the people in this country. God’s liberating and saving love, God’s promise of abundance is for every one of God’s children wherever that child has been born on this earth.
Now that we are “in Christ,” we have a responsibility to care for one another.
I have to admit that I was convicted by this scripture when I read it this week. I had picked it weeks ago. So it was there waiting for me this past Monday morning, inviting me to reflect on how I have been doing, on how I would feel if Jesus showed up in my office and assessed how I am doing, specifically, as your pastor.
And I was convicted. I sensed a need for repentance.
See, last Sunday, I should have talked with you about our country’s immigration crisis. On the way home from Annual Conference, I had heard the reports about families being separated at the border. I had heard that an official in the administration had used our Christian faith, a particular passage from Romans 13, to defend the practice. (This passage of course was used to justify returning slaves to their owners before the Civil War as well.) I knew about this last Friday and last Saturday, and I should have said something about it last week in worship. But I didn’t.
So I had to confess. I had to confess my laziness, my complacency. I already had a sermon written. It had been a long week at Annual Conference. I didn’t want to stay up into the wee hours of Sunday morning writing another sermon. And so I chose to look away. When I imagined Jesus showing up in my office, I was smacked in the face with what a sin that is – to sit in my comfortable place and just choose to look away from injustice and suffering.
I also had to confess my fear. See, I love you people. And I know we are not all of one mind politically. I don’t want any one of you to be angry or upset by something I say in worship. So I was afraid, and it kept me from speaking out on behalf of the most vulnerable.
And finally, and this is the hardest one to admit, friends. I had to confess my pride. I had to confess my clinging to the idol of worldly success. Because I had thought: I really should just talk about things that are encouraging. That’s what people really want to hear. Now I’m not judging that. That’s what I really want to hear and talk about, too. So I worried, if I talk about hard things like immigration, and folks are unhappy, these pews might get pretty empty. And I would be seen as a failure. And so my pride, my love of that idol of worldly success, that temptation to be ruled by what other people think of me, kept me from speaking out on behalf of the most vulnerable.
I had to confess, and after confession, life in Christ calls for repentance. Repentance is simply a turn away from sin back toward God. In the language of today’s scripture, it’s the decision to live as a child of the light instead of a child of the dark.
So this week, I am endeavoring to turn and to live in a new way. And it is not always pretty. I did not want to spend the week sorting through news about children being separated from their families. I did not want to hear the audio recordings of their cries or see the pictures of their faces. I really, really did not want to watch the videos I sought out where Honduran refugees told the stories of rape and murder that caused them to leave home and come to our border in desperation.
But I spent the week reading and watching and listening anyway – so that I could see the immigrants and refugees coming to our border as fully human. I sought as much as I could to put myself in their shoes and to be brutally honest about what I would do, and also brutally honest about the difference between my life and theirs. I live a comfortable, safe, middle class existence. My fears for my family are pretty much imaginary. We are extraordinarily safe. And many of these migrant families are literally, literally, and daily at risk of death.
As the poet Warsan (War-Son) Shire puts it, “no one leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark.” So if I was in their shoes, you are darn right I would try to get to safety. I would probably break some laws. I would try to seek asylum however unlikely it was that I’d be approved. I would even send my daughter without me if that’s what it took to save her life. And I would pray. I would pray that someone who is living in the light of Christ would be in this country to receive her.
I am glad that our government has committed to changing its practice of separating families. That’s an excellent decision. And it is not enough. We continue to have a moral crisis in this country around immigration.
Now, I am a realist. I know there are great practical hurdles to address. Laws need to be changed. Administrative practices need to be tightened. But I believe, before we update any laws or change any policies, we need to start by acknowledging the full humanity – the identity of migrants and refugees as children of God. Any dehumanization of them needs to stop. We in this nation can no longer refer to people as “illegals.” We can no longer infer that they are all gang members or criminals. We can no longer use words like “infest” when we talk about human beings.
Because the people arriving at our border are people. They are beloved children of God, and they need our help, not our fear and disdain. And – on top of that – most of them are Christians. These are our siblings-in-Christ. We cannot turn our backs on them. We cannot just look away, as we send them back to abject poverty and war zones.
As your pastor, it is my job to preach the gospel. And the gospel is this: God loves you. God loves each one of you so much you can’t even fully comprehend it. And God loves the people arriving with such great need at our borders – the same. God loves each one of us the same.
Jesus laid down his life for that refugee at the border.
May we live in the light of Christ as we receive them.
May it be so.