Pentecost 22A 2011
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When 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! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But 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. For 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.
Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
It didn’t take long for two crises to emerge in the early Christian Church. Whenever you get worried about some misunderstanding or difference of opinion or even some scandal in the Christian Church today, take heart: we’re just like the church of the apostles in the first century. When you read the New Testament, you discover attempted bribery, sexual immorality, arguments between leaders leading to the breakup of mission teams, organizational chaos, a shortage of funds, and jealousies. They were muddling through in 50 AD just like we’re muddling through two millennia later.
But there are two deep spiritual/theological crises in the first century. The first centers around the relationship between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus. For whom had Jesus come, and for whom had he died? He was a Jew, and the whole concept of Messiah was a Jewish idea. More specifically, to follow Jesus, did you first have to become Jewish? The Apostle James, Jesus’ brother, clearly thought so. St. Paul, who was Jewish, thought not. And you and I are disciples of Jesus because Paul won that argument.
The second deep crisis was how believers were to understand the delay in Jesus’ return to defeat evil and establish the Kingdom of God. At Pentecost, Peter explained the descent of the Holy Spirit as the beginning of the end of the world. The church delayed organizing itself and discouraged marriage because they thought the world was going to end at any moment. There’s a new movie that is coming out about how life on Earth is about to end because of its impending collision with another planet called Melancholia, which is also the name of the movie. One character in the movie who is chronically depressed finds herself much better equipped to face the end of the world than her happy go lucky, optimistic friend: the first was right about things getting worse, and the second was wrong about things getting better. For the early church, what did it mean that Jesus had not returned? Did they misunderstand? Was Jesus coming back at all? Or – as thought the church in Thessalonica – maybe it had happened and they had missed it and were left behind. Does that sound familiar, with this year’s proclamation by Harold Camping that the world was ending?
Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians was written around AD 51 – eighteen years or so after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the founding of the church. The people who had actually known Jesus were dying off. What was the fate of believers who died before Jesus’ return? Our belief about what happens when we die – that we go to be with God in eternity – was not universally understood or believed in the first century. So, in chapter 4, Paul assures the Christians in Thessalonica that when Christ returns – Paul still thinks any day now – that there will first be a resurrection of the dead, and then the living will join the resurrected to live with Christ for ever. That passage was the heart of John Nelson Darby’s -- a 19th century English clergyman – invention of the word rapture, to describe his new interpretation of the end of history. Some other time I’ll explain why Darby’s dispensationalism and theories about the rapture -- which have become so hugely popular among conservative Christians that they think this is what the faith has always believed – are bunk. For the moment, what Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4 is to reassure the church that their dead loved ones have not missed eternal life with Christ.
In the meantime, Paul asks, how shall we live as we wait for the end of the world? Do we just go about business as usual? Do we drop everything and go sit on a hill, scanning the skies? Do we, as did Harold Camping’s followers, put our life savings into billboards telling people that the end is near? What do we do while we wait?
We’re all waiting, you know. That’s the theme of Samuel Beckett’s famous play, Waiting for Godot, in which Godot never arrives. And, if the world doesn’t end in our lifetimes either with a bang or with a whimper, our worlds end when we close our eyes in death. The central question of life is how to live while we’re waiting for the end.
Here’s Paul’s answer: But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But 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.
The great temptation, Paul is telling us, is not to pay attention. Few of us die in our sleep at 95: while modern medicine and the food and drug administration and living in a safe country and safe community and airbags and seat belts have extended our lifespan, accident, illness, evil, and genetics still wreak havoc. But even the best and luckiest of us, dying at 95, realize how much they missed along the way, because they didn’t pay attention. They slept through it, or they were just numb.
I hate to ruin the reputation of the University of Virginia, but I actually made it through college without getting high or drunk. That’s not because I was or am some great saint, but because I am the world’s biggest coward. I’ve still never been drunk or high on illegal drugs. But the first time I was prescribed a heavy dose of codeine because I was sick, I had a revelation. Suddenly I completely understood drug addiction: not only did I feel no pain, I didn’t feel anything. I simply didn’t care. The world could have ended in front of me, and it would have made no difference whatsoever. And, as Psychiatrist John Bulette says, many people are in such emotional and spiritual pain in their lives that when they abuse drugs, most of which, like alcohol and cocaine and heroin, are actually depressants, the freedom from pain they experience feels like a high, even though it’s actually a low.
You don’t have to use drugs to be numbed and to lose attention. Last week I talked about how multi-tasking keeps us from paying attention and makes us numb. This morning I want to talk about a different kind of sleepy numbness that prevents us from seeing where God is at work in the world.
It will come for most of us in eleven days. Sometime in the middle of the afternoon or maybe a little later, we will push back from the Thanksgiving table and groan that we can’t possibly eat another bite. In many households, the men folk will stagger off to collapse in front of a television, and pretend to watch a football game. But they won’t. They’ll go to sleep. I realized this week that’s the reason why the Detroit Lions always play on Thanksgiving Day – because nobody cares whether they win or not. Of course this year, they’re doing really well for the first time in thirty years, and this may produce a major crisis in American family life if people miss their naps and actually watch the game. This may finally be the crisis that forces Jesus to return and end the world.
Paul warns believers to be sober. What is drunkenness but overindulgence? We take things that are fine in moderation – not just food and drink, but everything else – and assume if a little bit is good, than a whole lot must be better. A friend of mine who has studied American Indian religion says that Indians only used tobacco for special ceremonial purposes. They never used it the way smokers use it now, and look what happened when people overindulged.
More is not more. More, it turns out, is usually less. And more – more food, more money, more house, more toys, more clothes, more activity, more entertainment, more sex, more whatever – becomes so overwhelming that we become numb. We just want to go lie down and take a nap. And so we miss everything.
The ancients knew better. They created the season of Advent before Christmas. They created a season of penance, fasting, self-denial, prayer, and humiliation before the great festival. That season of denial was to sharpen people’s focus so they could notice what was happening around them. What do we do? We fill the four weeks before Christmas with an orgy of activity, of food, of noise, of shopping – and then can’t figure out on Christmas evening why we feel so numb, and why we feel like we missed something important.
We’re all waiting. So, what do we do while we wait, all our lives long or short? Paul says:
1. pay attention. Don’t get so overwhelmed and overindulged that you sleep through the miracles. Self-denial sharpens all the senses, especially the spiritual ones.
2. put on the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of salvation. In the wonderful baseball film (not Field of Dreams!) Bull Durham, the veteran catcher Crash Davis is challenged to a fight by young pitcher Nuke LaLoosh. Crash tosses him a baseball and tells Nuke to hit him in the chest from ten feet away. Nuke refuses, saying it would kill Crash. Crash tells him he can’t hit the broadside of a barn. Nuke rears back in anger and throws, missing Crash and breaking a window instead. Crash knew that Nuke was out of control and would do him no harm, which was the problem with his pitching, too. When we put on the breastplate of love and faith and the helmet of salvation, we don’t have to put any energy into self-preservation. Our constant and doomed efforts to save ourselves are precisely what exhaust us. But when we trust our lives to God, then we’re free to pay attention to the miracles all around us.
We’re all waiting. That’s what we do. It’s what we do while we’re waiting that makes all the difference. So, keep awake. Don’t overindulge. And don’t keep trying to save yourself. There are miracles leaning on every lamppost, if we’ll just look.