Sunday, November 13, 2016
Sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity - 1 Thess 4:13-18
1 Thess 4:13-18
Well, after eleven days, I think we have to conclude that it is just not going to happen. And that comes as a shock to many. Now I know that Jesus said no one knows the hour of his return. Nonetheless, the history of Christianity has been filled with people who have tried to predict the day Jesus is going to return. They have tried again and again.
So why should we be surprised that some people thought that the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series would signal the return of the ascended Lord? After all, the Cubs had not won the World Series since 1908. My Grandpa Surburg was born in 1909 and died in 2001. He lived ninety-two years and never saw it happen.
And it’s not just the length of time, but the way they did it. After winning back to back titles in 1907 and 1908, the Cubs won the National League and then lost in the World Series seven times. The 1945 World Series loss saw the so called “curse of the goat” invoked upon them, and it seemed to take. Prior to this season they had not made it back to the World Series. Their collapses have been memorable; the divisional lead blown in 1969; the 1984 and 2003 National League Championship series where they had a commanding lead and lost as balls went through the legs of infielders and the fan Steve Bartman interfered with a play. Last year, after beating the St. Louis Cardinals in the Division Series they were the media darling in the League Championship series … and then were swept by the New York Mets.
This year they entered the season as the favorite. They went wire to wire during the regular season as the best team in baseball. And then they actually went on to win the World Series! I mean, it was like it was meant to be. A great ninth inning rally gave them the win over the San Fransisco Giants when it seemed that once again the Cubs were going to choke. Down two games to one, they came back to win three straight to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers and advance to the World Series. Down three games to one, they came back against the Cleveland Indians and forced a game seven.
Up by three runs in the eighth inning, they blew the lead. The game was tied after nine innings and it seemed that yet again the Cubs were going to choke. But then … of all things … rain forced a seventeen minute delay. The Cubs used that time to regroup and won the game in the tenth inning. The rain delay helped the Cubs win the World Series. And you know who controls the rain…. Surely, this was it. The Lord Jesus would return.
But he didn’t. And after eleven days I think it is safe to conclude that there is no link between Chicago Cubs baseball and the Last Day. I wish it were otherwise. I think even St. Louis Cardinal fans would have been willing to trade a Cubs World Championship for the return of Jesus Christ.
After all, we live in very disturbing times. The Sexual Revolution has turned loose a host of forces that destroy marriage and families. Economic issues related to unemployment, underemployment and health care costs create great worry. Meth and other drugs destroy lives around us. Basic beliefs about truth and error are rejected, and we have entered some kind of alternate reality where a man is “really” a woman and you are a bigot if you insist on pointing out the obvious problem with this. And indeed, many of these issues were summarized in the most bizarre presidential election that we have ever experienced. Two of the least desirable candidates we have ever seen ran for the President of the United States. Many people found themselves voting solely against a candidate instead for someone, and no one really knows what we are now going to get.
These circumstances instill fear. They prompt worry and doubt about the present and future. While we aren’t usually inclined to think about it this way, the reality is that such fear and worry is sin. It breaks the First Commandment. It is, after all, a failure to fear, love and trust in God above all things. The Christians in Thessalonica were apparently experiencing fear and worry. They seem to have been concerned about their fellow Christians who had died, and yet Jesus Christ had not returned. What did it mean for these believers if they were not alive on the Last Day? Would they miss out on the salvation Paul had preached to them when he shared the Gospel?
Paul says that the Thessalonians had been an example for others in the way they received the Gospel. He said, “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.” The apostle described how everyone knew that the Thessalonians had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
They were awaiting Jesus’ return. But this raised concerns about those who had already died. And so in our text Paul writes, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” The first thing that should catch our attention is the way Paul describes death – he calls it “sleep.” He does this because sleep is a temporary condition. You go to sleep and then you wake back up. It’s not permanent.
Paul says that the Christian will not think about death in the same way as the unbeliever – as the person who had no hope. Death has been caused by sin. It is not the way God made his creation – it is not very good. And therefore it is a source of grief and sorrow. But the apostle says the Christian has a completely different outlook because we do not grieve as those who have no hope.
The reason is very simple. Paul goes on to explain, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Jesus Christ died on the cross for you to win forgiveness. But then, he rose from the dead. And since Jesus, the first fruits of the resurrection did this, he will do the same for all who believe in him.
In our text, the apostle tells us that those who are alive when Jesus returns in glory on the Last Day will not leave behind those who have died in the faith. In fact they won’t even precede them. Instead, the moment of the resurrection will be announced with complete certainty. Paul tells us, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.”
First Jesus will raise those who died in the Lord. Then, all of the Christians will be meet the Lord in the air. Now this language has helped to give rise to the silly notion of the “rapture” –a teaching unheard of in the church before it was invented in the nineteenth century. What we must understand is that Greek word translated as “to meet” described what happened when the emperor or the governor came to a city. The people went outside the city to greet the dignitary as a sign of honor, and then they escorted him back into their city. This is not a movement away from God’s creation, but instead one of greeting the ascended Lord who is coming to this world.
After providing this description Paul adds the comforting statement, “and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” The apostle declares that end of the story is resurrection life with Jesus. That’s where all of this is going. And because of this fact we have hope. We have comfort.
And we also have expectation. Right after our text Paul goes on to say, “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.”
Paul calls us to live as those who are fully aware that the Lord’s return will be sudden and unexpected – like a thief in the night. But he reminds us that because we have faith in Jesus Christ the risen Lord we are ready. He says, “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness.”
And since this is true, we need to live like we are ready. As the apostles adds, “So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”
We know how it will end. We know that already now through baptism the end belongs to us. We are saints. Our sins have been washed away. We are ready for the Last Day – we are ready for the judgment. And because through baptism we have shared in the death of the risen Lord, we know that we will be raised too.
And so we live as those who are ready. We put on that “equipment” that enables us to live in the present as God’s people who are ready for the return of Jesus Christ. We wear the breastplate of faith and love. We have a constant faith in Jesus Christ as our crucified and risen Lord. And because we have received the saving love of God in Christ, through the work of the Spirit we now we have love for another. In fact in the third verse of this letter Paul referred to the Thessalonians “labor of love.” Love works. It does. It serves because Jesus is the One who rose from the dead – the One who will raise us from the dead.
And we put on for a helmet the hope of salvation. The thing that protects us from fear; the thing that protects us from worry is the hope of salvation that God has provided to us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This hope builds on what has already happened. Jesus died on the cross. He rose on the third day. He ascended into heaven. And therefore we know he will return and raise us up, just as he promised.
That’s the truth. That’s the way it is. And so Paul concludes this section of his letter by saying, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”