The Times and the Seasons
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, November 15, 2020
Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
A woman told the story one time of taking her grandsons, aged 4 and 6, to spend a day at Disney World. They walked around the grounds, taking in all the sights, sounds, smells – the full Disney experience. On several occasions they stopped to watch the marching band of costumed toy soldiers and the boys would be spellbound as the band marched by. During the course of the day she bought each of them a little Mickey Mouse flag as a souvenir.
Suddenly, as they were watching the parade, the grandmother realized that the younger boy was gone. She searched all around, through the crowd, calling his name. Panicked, she sat down to catch her breath and decide what to do. She looked up for a moment looking at the marching band of toy soldiers that her grandson loved so much. There, at the end of the line was the little boy, smiling merrily, marching with his knees high, and waving his flag. He was having the time of his life, totally unaware that he was lost!
How like us, sometimes, going along on our merry way, unaware of the concern of a loving God for his people who have let go of his hand and wandered off. But at some point the band will stop playing and the parade will end; and what happens then?
This morning’s scripture passage is part of a letter from St. Paul the Apostle to the early Christian church in Thessalonica, an ancient port city in Macedonia. Paul had spent several months in Thessalonica with Timothy and Silvanus, establishing a vibrant church and a close relationship with the people there. 1 & 2 Thessalonians are letters that Paul sent to them after he had moved on in his apostolic travels. He wrote to them in this first letter that he wanted to come back to see them, and had in fact tried to do so, but had been prevented. He sent Timothy instead, and Timothy had come back to him with a very positive report about them. So he wrote to encourage them to continue firm in their faith and hope.
He also wrote to reassure them in a specific matter that may have been having an effect on their feelings of hopefulness. From the very beginning, the central reason for the hope of the Christian faith was that Jesus Christ had defeated the power of evil and death and given to all believers the promise of eternal life in the Kingdom of God. They believed Christ’s promise to return to complete the work that he had begun on earth, and this would be the final victory of God and all believers, and all believers would be gathered together to be with God.
The thing is, they were sure that this would happen immanently. They were certain that Christ’s return would happen in their lifetime. But now some members of their community had died, and Christ still hadn’t returned, so that shook them up a bit. In chapter 4 of 1 Thess., Paul addressed the question of what would happen to those people who had died before Christ’s return, to reassure them that those individuals were still within the reach of God's redemptive love. The other issue, though, is that this has shaken their faith and sowed seeds of doubt in their minds about things they thought they knew, and this is starting to show signs of robbing them of their hope. And that’s what Paul addresses in these verses from chapter 5.
He says to them, “let us not fall asleep, as others do.” In other words, let us not take our sights off the final victory that God has promised. Let us not lose hope by getting caught up in the things that are temporary. Let us not – he might say – be like the little boy, going along in life oblivious to where we are and to who we’re with.
Falling asleep is an image of losing our hope in God, of taking our eyes off Christ and what He has done, and what God is doing in the world and what He has promised. The image of sleeping vs. being awake is a recurring image in Paul’s letters (although – as an aside – this is a passage that is full of images and metaphors. There’s probably 5 images we could look at in these 11 verses alone. When I was studying the art of preaching with Dr. Paul Wilson, he always taught us to choose one image and not mix our metaphors; but Paul the Apostle didn’t study with Paul the professor of homiletics, and so his method is: “why use one image when four or five will do?”)
But this idea of staying awake, of being alert to what is going on, of being ready for what God is going to do is one of the more common metaphors in the Apostle Paul’s writing, and it’s very much linked with his understanding of the Christian hope in the promises of God. The Thessalonians should not lose hope, they shouldn’t doubt God, just because things hadn’t happened the way they thought they should.
It’s interesting to reflect on what Paul might have said to us about losing hope and about keeping our focus on God in times of uncertainty, when things aren’t going the way we hoped they would and the things we thought we knew for sure have all be tossed up into the air. He might look at us like the little boy in the parade, who got bored with the boring option of watching the parade, and thought that his life would be better if he left his grandmother’s side and got himself into the parade!
That’s kind of like us right now. We resent having to give up our activities; our well-laid plans have been interrupted and we want to get back into normal life as we know it. I know I do – I miss in-person book studies and group runs; I want to go back to the ballet studio and have the freedom to move across the floor with other students and a live pianist and feel the teacher lift my sagging elbows! It pains me to not be able to hop in my car and go up to my Dad’s whenever I want to. I know that many of you miss family gatherings, vacations, and your various activities… and coming to church. I know some of you even miss going to your offices and seeing your co-workers, as odd as it seems. And there are times when all of this feels like it will never end.
There’s a risk, when faced with challenges like the one we’re facing now, that we stop trusting in God and we begin to seek other sources of supposed hope. Word of a potentially viable vaccine made our hearts skip a beat this week; we tell ourselves that other pandemics didn’t last forever and this one likely won’t either, that life will go back to normal; we look for things we can do in the meantime, like baking bread that give us a momentary feeling of accomplishment; the competitive among us try to outdo each other in finding creative ways to use technology to engage and entertain people.
We begin to seek more flags to wave and other toy soldiers to follow, and we think these will be our sources of joy and happiness, rather than reflecting on what happens when the parade really does come to an end. The little boy at Disneyland was oblivious to his lost state – he was “asleep” in Paul’s words – and totally unaware of the fact that he had wandered away from his true source of security because he was distracted by these temporary diversions. But when the parade ends, he will realize that what he needs is not more flags and more toy soldiers, but the safe and loving arms of his grandmother. Imagine how much more joy he would have had if he had marched and laughed and waved his flag all while keeping his grandmother in his sights. They could have enjoyed the moment together. She would have kept her eye on him to make sure he didn’t take a wrong turn.
If we take our relationship with God – who is like the loving grandmother – for granted, and it is not the centre of our existence, the we risk being taken unawares when difficult times come, and we don’t know what to do. As Christians, we shouldn’t be surprised though. There is nothing in the Bible that tells us that we’ll never have challenges. Many of us have established ways of coping with challenges, but some things – like a global pandemic – are simply bigger than us and beyond our established coping mechanisms. And we know that our hope is not in what we can control, or the information that we’re privy to, or the activities we like to do; our hope is not in our jobs or even our relationships with family and friends. Those are all wonderful gifts that we have been given. Our hope, our true hope, is in the one who is there waiting for us when the band stops playing.
According to Paul in this letter to the Thessalonians there is one thing that is certain, one thing that is true, one thing that is the foundation of our hope and that is in verse 9: “God has destined us, not for wrath but for salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul writes, “You yourselves know that the day of the Lord will come.” They know that the parade really is going to end one day. The term “the Day of the Lord” was used in the early church to refer, not to the “end of the world” in a destructive sense, but to that time of the consummation of all of God’s promises; the term was used by the early Christian community as a summation of the Christian hope, when all those things we have believed in will finally come to be. God will finally reign throughout the earth, and there will be no more suffering, or war, or hatred, or disease, or death.
Now, although they believed this day was immanent, Paul reminds them (as Jesus himself had said) that it will come “like a thief in the night,” in the sense that when it happens it will be unexpected and sudden, but Paul doesn’t think that for Christians there should be anything unexpected about the fact that it will happen. In fact, speculating about when it will happen is not an issue for Paul. The fact that it didn’t happen as soon as they thought it might did not in any way diminish Paul’s hope in God. The fact that things don’t go the way we want them to should not diminish our hope in God.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said it this way, which I love: “It is unwise for any Christian to claim any knowledge of either the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell; or to be too certain about any details of the Kingdom of God in which history is consummated.” Why does he say this? Because nobody knows the answer to these questions. Nobody knows for sure what it will be like or when it will happen. What we do know is the foundation of our hope: as Paul writes, it has been promised by God that, whether currently alive or already gone, all God’s people are destined for salvation.
So, Paul’s purpose in this passage is not speculation about when the Lord might appear. His purpose here is encouragement and comfort in the midst of their time of waiting and of trials. His purpose is that they not lose sight of the true source of their hope. And his main directive to them is not to live perfectly or to change anything in the way they were behaving (as it was when he wrote to some of the other churches). His only words of exhortation to the Thessalonians is that they encourage one another and build each other up in the hope they have in Christ.
Paul’s main message to Christians is to hold fast to the gospel message and you will find in it all the comfort and strength that you need. But holding firm in our hope is not a solitary activity, and it’s not a commandment that we are to try to muster up some hope by ourselves. Hope is a gift from God in the midst of trials, and one of the ways that we receive this gift is through the community of faith.
We are blessed to be part of such a wonderful community of faith at TEMC. The hope and encouragement we find as part of the community is a gift from God. When we feel like we are becoming discouraged or losing hope, we have a community of believers; and even though we can’t gather in person at this time don’t underestimate the power of an email, a card, or a phone call to remind someone that they’re not alone. We are united to others by the Spirit of Christ. As clergy, Andrew and Chris and I have had the blessing of being on both ends of these expressions of hope and encouragement.
One word of exhortation that I want to offer this morning, though, is this: if you know even one other person who attends this church, you give them a call to encourage them. If you feel awkward about calling up someone you haven’t seen since March just tell them Rev. Lori asked you to do it! You can be the word of hope to someone else. Encourage them, build them up in faith.
We don’t know when this pandemic will end or how it will end, but we know that God will bring us through it. And even at the most existential level, we don’t know whether any one of us will live to see tomorrow, but we do know that our eternal life is in the hands of a God who has power over death, and who has promised us good - in life, in death, and in life beyond death.
Going back to the grandmother who lost her grandson, by the time he realized he had wandered away she was there to collect him with a smile and a hug. She was there to lead him on to the next place, safe and secure. The boy never knew he had been lost and never knew a single moment of fear because he knew the face of his grandmother as she rushed in to gather him up.
Unlike a human grandparent, though, God never loses sight of us. In fact, the Lord is present with us always. The Lord’s appearance is not a one-time future event; He appears to us continuously, especially in our moments of greatest need.
I want to encourage you now, as we enter into this new season – as Covid-19 numbers are rising in our city; as restrictions on our activities are becoming more necessary; and as the reality of a very different Christmas season is starting to sink in – I want to encourage you to remember that we are children of the light, that we are children of hope.
No matter how challenging circumstances become, it is not the end. We believe in the power of resurrection; we believe in the promise of the presence of the Holy Spirit who comforts us and who reminds us of the power of God. God alone is our one true hope. Amen.