1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
We live in a pretty scary world, don’t we? A world divided, at almost every level - into “us” and “them” - good and bad... black and white...
But I honestly can’t help but wonder if that’s anything new?
Because the Bible itself is filled with such contrasting, opposing motifs... wheat and tares... sheep and goats... day and night... righteous and unrighteous... and our lessons for today are no different.
We have two images: a “thief” and “birth pains” - and I don’t think they could be more dissimilar... or more unrelated. At least on the surface.
But it could be, that Paul was thinking of Jesus’ words from Matthew 24... where Jesus had said his return would be like a thief in the night (24:43), and that the troubles of this age were the birth pains of the Kingdom (24:8). I can’t say for certain that’s what Paul was thinking... but it’s possible.
Of course, Jesus’ return is often referred to as the “Day of the Lord” in the Bible. “The Day of the Lord... the Day of Christ, The Day...” are all ways of referencing the return of Christ... which is a major theological cornerstone of the Christian faith. We mention it often in our liturgy... when we say, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again!”
But even when it comes to the “Day of the Lord” there are two camps... two sides... in the Bible!
The one side says the “Day of the Lord” will be darkness, judgment... wrath! The Prophet Amos (5:18) said, “Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD! Why do you long for the day of the LORD? That day will be darkness, not light.” Joel 2:31 says, “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the LORD.” Sounds fun, doesn’t it!?
While the other side says when the “Day of the Lord” comes, everything will be made new... right... Titus 2:13 calls it the “blessed hope” of the believer. Everything that opposes God’s ways will be cast away... all sin and hatred, all adultery and lust, all prejudice and greed will be no more. No longer will people kill one others or exclude others because of race or color. God will do away with everything that’s not of God.
A day to long for -or- a day to dread... two sides... like a thief... like labor pains...
Of course, most of the time... a thief strikes when least expected. Jesus said, “If the owner of a house had known when the thief was coming he would have been waiting.”(Matthew 24:43) And because the homeowner didn’t know... the thief brought destruction...
The implication, of course, is when the “Day of the Lord” comes, many will not be ready... they’ll be surprised... unprepared. They’ll be asleep. Such imagery makes sense...
And the same can be said about the woman in labor... Because like the thief in the night, no one is quite sure when a baby will be born. Without the intervention of modern medicine, babies come when they are good and ready: no sooner, no later. And once they start coming it is too late to stop them.
But, there’s a significant difference between a “thief” and the birth of a baby (besides the obvious differences, of course)... because with the coming of a baby, the parents have time to prepare. There’s time to decorate the nursery... to buy clothes and make other preparations. And when it arrives there is a time of pain, but in the end, the birth brings joy and happiness, and hope for the future...
Of course, when it comes to “The Day of the Lord” Jesus expects us to be expecting him! There will be hours and days, and months and years of waiting, and there will be pain when he is near, but he will bring joy and peace to us. God is giving birth to a Kingdom of light and peace. And those who are ready, those who’ve prepared for its arrival will share in its joy and light; they will feast at the bridegroom's banquet (as we talked about last Sunday).
These images presented to us in our Lessons are as different as day and night. In fact, one is an image of darkness and the other of light. The thief comes at night in the darkness and brings destruction. In contrast the woman in labor is an image of light. The couple sees that the baby is coming and it brings light and joy... anticipation... hope!
I believe Paul was deliberately contrasting these two images. They are both accurate depictions of “The Day of the Lord” - only from different perspectives.
The thief in the night is the perspective of those who are spiritually asleep and in darkness. The woman in labor is the perspective of those who are eagerly waiting the return of Christ in glory and light.
I wonder about us... as we’re about to enter the Advent Season as a church family. How do we imagine the coming of Christ?
For Paul, and the early church - which was a persecuted church - the idea of the “Day of the Lord” was a tremendous comfort... an anticipated hope and assurance for those who longed for deliverance and peace.
The people of the church in Thessalonica, believed that the day of the Lord was coming “soon!”... but there were some who were falling into doubt and despair because they’d watched others from that small community of faith pass-away before the promised return of the Lord had occurred. So Paul, proclaiming the Gospel of Hope, was trying to encourage the Thessalonians by reminding them that they were “children of light,” and for those who live in the light, even death is not to be feared. It is as if Time does not matter - whether dead or alive, we are in God’s hands, he assures them and us.
What’s our perspective? Are we expecting Christ to come and make all things new? Are we anticipating his return with joy and hope... or does such a though frighten us (if we even consider it at all!)?
Paul wraps-up this part of his letter by saying, "encourage one another and build up one another."(5:11)
Let me give you a word of encouragement.
Since Jesus is our Lord... his return will be a day of light and life and joy for us... so (using Paul’s words) “let’s not be like others... let’s be awake” and let’s reach-out with everything we have... sharing who and Whose we are, with a world that desperately needs us, to be the light of Christ...
If we’ll do that... and if we live our faith from that perspective... the darkness won’t stand a chance!