Sermon for Sunday, 16 November 2014
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Pastor Carrie Smith
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Hear again the second reading, from First Thessalonians chapter 5:
5Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.3When 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! 4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
6So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But 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. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.
11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
This is the second week in a row we’ve heard a Scripture reading including the direction to “keep awake” -- last week from Jesus, and this week from Paul. This is most interesting to me, considering I’ve lived in Jerusalem for three months, and it feels like I’ve been awake the whole time. For three months—but especially for the last three weeks—I’ve been running from balcony to balcony, and from window to window, at the sound of every gunshot, firecracker, and siren. For three months, I’ve been hurrying to get a good look, to try and determine if the latest boom is the sound of celebration or liberation.
|West Jerusalem sunset,|
taken from our balcony
Photo by Robert Smith
All of this running amok through my apartment has left me a bit emotionally exhausted, to be honest. The other day as I was walking home through the Christian Quarter, one of the shopkeepers grabbed my arm and asked, “Sister, what’s wrong? You look tired.”
"I haven’t been sleeping well,” I told him.
“Tsk tsk tsk” he shook his head. “You can’t let this disturb your sleep. You’ll get used to it! In this city, we learned that lesson a long time ago.”
“You’ll get used to it.” I had his words ringing in my ears the following night, and this time, after three months, I stayed on my couch and continued knitting, rather than jumping up to engage in my futile assessment of the latest display of firepower. Later that night, I made extra efforts not to run from my bed to the balcony when I heard a boom or a blast.
“Don’t let this disturb your sleep,” my friend wisely said.
|East Jerusalem, with fires of protest|
Taken from the same balcony,
Photo by Robert Smith
But then there are these words from Paul:
“So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.”
To sleep or not to sleep, that is the question! What’s the difference between “getting used to it” and sleeping through the next intifada—or through the second coming of Christ? What’s the difference between “keeping awake” and “worrying yourself sick?”
The Apostle Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians is a bit challenging for us to interpret in our context. In Jerusalem today, the night often brings drama, and danger, and even death. It’s not so easy for us to associate the night with the false sense of peace and security Paul warns against.
On the other hand, I’ve just been here three months, and already I can understand the allure of drawing the curtains, pulling up the covers, and going to sleep. I can only imagine what it’s like for those who have lived here for many years, or for their entire lives.
At the beginning of this passage from 1st Thessalonians, Paul lays out the situation clearly: We don’t know when Jesus is coming.
Here in Jerusalem, we still don’t know when Jesus is coming.
We also don’t know if we will get through the checkpoint today.
We don’t know when peace will reign, in this city, or in the world.
We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
There’s a lot of stuff we don’t know!
And this is difficult to accept. It’s especially difficult to accept the “not knowing”, when the view from the balcony is of a problem so complex it feels like Jesus may be the only one who could fix it.
Our shared faith proclaims that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. The kingdom is coming. Peace and justice will one day reign.
Until then, Paul says “Keep awake.” But this isn’t an invitation to anxiety—for Philippians 4:6 admonishes believers to “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” I think it’s pretty clear that if losing sleep worrying and watching for signs (either from my balcony or in the newspaper headlines) was an effective plan, Jesus would be here many times over. Trust me, I’ve been putting in my best effort!
But neither are we to stick our heads in the sand, hide under the covers, draw the curtains, or build walls to keep out reality and the light of day. Paul says we are to keep awake!
Keep awake, but not because it’s our responsibility to set the schedule for Jesus’ return.
Keep awake, but not because we fear the night. Keep awake, sisters and brothers, because we are children of the day and of the light.
I remember well some very long nights sixteen years ago, walking a newborn Caleb up and down our tiny apartment hallway in St. Paul, Minnesota. In those long dark hours of the night, when I was so weary I could hardly stand up, much less hold the baby up, things started to seem strange. I watched more broadcasts than I care to admit of an end-times preacher from Gravette, Arkansas. I was singing Christmas carols to the baby, and it was the middle of October. And I will never forget how one night, as I walked past our city apartment window for the 3,000th time with the baby in arms, there, under the window, was a huge deer, staring up right at me. And he seemed to be thinking the same thing I was: “You don’t belong here!”
In those long dark nights, things seemed downright hopeless. This kid will NEVER sleep on his own, I thought. He will never grow up, and I will never sleep again!
And then, as the next morning dawned, with a cup of coffee in my hand and a smiling baby in my arms – I thought motherhood was the most wonderful thing in the world and my baby was the most wonderful baby in the world and wasn’t the world just LOVELY?!
We are children of the day, and of the light. We are children of the resurrection and the life.
Still, the night and the darkness can be terribly long and exhausting.
It’s difficult to stay awake when the darkness is so deep and the nights are so long.
It’s difficult to keep hoping when the situation seems hopeless. It difficult to keep working for peace, and justice, and human rights, and housing, and a proper education, and a better future for our children, when every week seems to bring something new: Gaza. Ebola. ISIS. Global warming. Economic disaster. The so-called “auto intifada”. House demolitions.
It’s tough not to be scared of what happens next.
It’s tough not to be scared of each other.
Or of God.
Sometimes, drawing the curtains, covering our heads, and taking a nap seems safer than being in the light.
But Paul says: You don’t belong to that darkness.
I don’t see this text as being anti-sleep or pro-worry, but rather anti-fear. Paul is preaching against the fear that makes us seek solace in the darkness. He is preaching against the fear which makes us shut out the world, hide from the news, and accept things as they are.
He is especially preaching against the fear of God and God’s wrath.
Sisters and brothers, we are not children of darkness. We are children of the light and of the day. We are children of the Morningstar, Jesus, who after his death on the cross was liberated from the dark of the tomb and brought light to the whole world. Because of his resurrection, we know death and darkness do not have the last word. Because of the resurrection, we know God’s wrath has been swallowed up forever, and we have been gifted the righteousness of Christ himself.
Therefore, we anticipate the Lord’s coming, but we do not fear it.
This excerpt from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians ends with this verse:
“Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”
Let me tell you, preachers love “therefores.” We love to see a “therefore”, because it clues us in to the actual point of the text.
And in this case, while Paul has many things to say here, they all point to this critical message for all believers: Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up.
Yes, Jesus is coming soon. The day of the Lord, and the day of judgment, will come. Until then, there will be many dark nights.
But Paul assures us 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.
And therefore—therefore!--encourage one another and build up each other.
Therefore, because you need not fear the dark, or death, or the tomb, or God, you need not fear each other.
Therefore, there’s no need to protect privilege or power or turf.
Therefore, there’s no need to bury your talents because you’re afraid you’ll use them up.
You are children of the day and of the light. Therefore, live boldly. Take risks, in speech and in action, for the sake of Christ, and for the sake of each other.