Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sermon for the Last Sunday of the Church Year

                                                                                    Last Sunday
                                                                                    1 Thess 5:1-11

            A number of years ago, I walked into the furnace room that is at the east end of the church.  I had something that needed to be locked up in the heavy duty filing cabinet that we used to store important documents and a little money.  As I opened the door and turned on the light, I saw that the cabinet was open and that there were items scattered on the floor.  The metal of the bottom cabinet drawer had been wrenched apart and the drawer had been completely destroyed.  As I gazed at this very unexpected scene, the first thought that went through my head was, “Well that doesn’t look right.”
            After the moment of surprise had passed, I of course realized that the church had been robbed.  You don’t expect to be robbed.  It’s not something that you plan on happening.  And so it was the same sense of surprise that I experienced a number of weeks ago when I talked on the phone with Sue Linenberger and learned that the church had been broken into.  Nothing had apparently been stolen, but a window had been smashed in.
            When I arrived at church and walked into the sanctuary I saw that the window right there had been smashed.  I must say that it had never occurred to me that when a double pane window get broken, there is twice as much glass on the ground.  As I looked at the glass that littered the floor and the jagged remnants still in the window the thought that occurred to me again was, “Well that doesn’t look right.”
            Both of these experiences were unexpected.  And in both cases, the person or people who did it came at night.  Thieves and robbers don’t normally coming during the day.  Instead they come at night when people are gone; when no one will see them; when no one is expecting them.
            In our text this morning Paul is talking about the return of the Lord Jesus on the Last Day – what Paul calls “the day of the Lord.”  He says that it will be “like a thief in the night” in order to emphasize the point that it will be unexpected.  His words here on the Last Sunday of the Church year teachs us that we need to live as people who are ready for our Lord’s return.
            Many times, I have said that I really don’t know how pastors in other Christian traditions do it.  Because Lutherans embrace the catholic – that’s a lower case “c” – the universal practices of the Church we have a church year and a lectionary.  Apart from the range of the Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel lesson assigned for a particular Sunday, I don’t decide on the Scripture that will serve as the text of my sermon.  In essence, it has already been chosen for me.
            I simply can’t imagine what it would be like – how hard it would be – to keep coming up with new texts and topics to preach about every Sunday, year after year.  Instead, the lectionary is keyed to the church year.  And as we move through the church year, it provides the themes and topics for sermons.  Every year we walk through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Every year together we walk through God’s salvation history.  And every year when we arrive at the end of the year, we focus our attention on the end – on the Last Day and the return of Jesus Christ in glory.
            Paul focuses upon this near the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians because of concerns they had about believers who had died before the return of Christ.  The Thessalonian Christians had believed the Gospel.  Earlier in the letter Paul says, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”  He reports that they “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.”
            However, since that time some Thessalonian Christians had died, and the Lord Jesus had not returned yet.  What did this mean for them?  The Thessalonians were concerned, and so just before our text Paul assures them that death can’t rob the Christian of the victory that Christ’s return will bring.  He 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. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”  Paul assures them that the dead in Christ will be raised first so that then, all Christian will always be with the Lord.
            Talk about the return of the Lord leads Paul into the topic of today’s text.   He says, “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.” 
            The apostle says that they know the return of the Lord will be unexpected. We learn from our text that there are two extremes that must be avoided.  On the one hand, anyone who tries to “read the times” and identify when Christ is going to return is just stupid.  Now “stupid” is not really a word that we are supposed to use around the Surburg house.  But in this case I am going to make an exception because it is just an accurate description of anyone who claims to be able to do something that Scripture explicitly says can’t be done.
            Yet there is another, more insidious error that must also be avoided.  Paul goes on to say, “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.”  The apostle warns about being content and at peace with the ways of the world.  And in our world today that is very easy because we are told that nice people are accepting of everyone and everything.  Be tolerant.  Be inclusive.  It’s all good.
            The apostle says otherwise. He says that sin has eternal consequences.  It’s a wrath thing – God’s wrath against sinners.  Like the Thessalonians you were once destined to receive that wrath. But through the Gospel you have been called to faith in Jesus Christ who died for your sin on the cross and then was raised from the dead by God.  He is the One who delivers you from the wrath to come.
            Paul’s frame of reference is the return of Christ.  He began this letter talking about Christ’s return.  He ends this letter talking about Christ’s return.  But the truth is that quite often it doesn’t function in this way for us.  Oh certainly we believe it will happen someday, but it doesn’t really impact our present.  It doesn’t really affect the way we think and live.  And that’s wrong. Paul contends that it needs to do so.
            He goes on to say in our text, “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. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.”
            Since we know that the Lord Jesus will return at a time that is unexpected – like a thief in the night – we need to live in ways that are ready for him.  We want to be found living as what Christ has made us to be.  After all, as Paul says we are children of the light and the day because of Christ, not children of the darkness and night.
            And so Paul says in our text, “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober.”  He says that we need to be self-controlled, living as what Christ made us to be.  The way we do this is by “having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”  Faith in Christ who sacrificed himself for us is the thing that enables us to be self-controlled in living as children of light.  This faith in God’s saving love for us rebounds through the work of the Spirit with love toward others – for that is the love that Paul speaks about repeatedly in this letter.
            As we live life in this fallen world, we are able to do this because we have the hope of salvation.  Paul has just spoken about those in the world who grieve at death because they have no hope.  But that is not the way it is for us.  When Paul speaks about hope he is talking about the timing of things, not whether they are going to happen.  Our hope is anchored in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Because this happened nothing can separate you from salvation and eternal life – not even death itself.  Paul says at the end of our text, “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.”
            No matter whether we are physically alive or dead our life is in Christ – it is with him.  And because Jesus rose from the dead, we know what we will too.  Through baptism you have shared in Jesus’ saving death – Jesus the risen One.  And so Paul told the Romans, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
            There is no doubt about who we are now.  There is no doubt about what will happen.  It’s just a matter of when it happens.  This hope is eager expectation of our Lord’s return and the resurrection he will bring.
            It is this faith and love and hope that we have in the present.  It gives us peace – real peace. Not the fake peace and security of the world that doesn’t even realize it will fall under God’s wrath on the Last Day.  Instead, we have the peace of knowing that we are the children of God; that we are children of light; that we will share in all the fullness of resurrection and eternal life. And because we know that Christ is going to return, this faith and love and hope prompts to live as children of light and children of the day in expectation of the Last Day.

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