Protected by Faith, Hope, and Love.
A sermon for the Second Sunday before Advent by Roberta Berke
“Put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” [1 Thessalonians 5.8]
“Hello. This is the police, Kentish Town. There’s been an accident….” We all dread unexpected phone calls. Those phone calls that begin, “I’m afraid I have some bad news….” Phone calls in the middle of the night usually bring bad news. These disturbing events force us to change our plans as we try to cope with a crisis. Sudden troubles can disrupt our everyday lives. These abrupt personal upheavals can be as devastating to us as an earthquake, they are personal cataclysms. A cataclysm on a cosmic scale, the Apocalypse, the day of the Lord, is described in our scripture readings. For most people today, the Apocalypse, the Second Coming of Christ, is not an immediate worry. For us, the Second Coming is like a disaster movie: we’ve been told about the plot, but we don’t really want to see this film quite yet because it sounds too scary. In the First Century, the Christians in Thessalonica feared the Apocalypse, they dreaded the Day of the Lord. At the same time they longed for this cataclysm because it would also be the Second Coming of Christ. How can Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians help us to face our own personal cataclysms?
The Thessalonians lived in a large prosperous seaport on an important trade route between the Adriatic Sea and Byzantium. St. Paul stayed in Thessalonica on his second missionary journey. Here he made many converts and he was fond of the Thessalonians. Paul’s mission was so effective that his enemies complained about, “these people who are turning the world upside down.” [Acts 17.6] Paul and Silas had to flee an angry mob. Writing to the Thessalonian Christians, Paul commends them for the good reports he’s heard about their faith. The Thessalonians appear to have been very conscientious, perhaps a bit over-conscientious. They had two pressing worries about their faith. First, what will happen to their loved ones who died before the general resurrection at the Second Coming of Christ? They also worried about when this Second Coming would happen. What would this Day of the Lord be like? How could they prepare?
Many early Christians were worried about the timing of the Second Coming. Would Christ come soon and reign over a new heaven and a new earth? Would this Day of the Lord, this Apocalypse, cause destruction and disaster? Would fire and brimstone punish the wicked? The Jewish scriptures told of the dreadful “Day of the Lord.” They feared this Day of Judgement, yet they also hoped that at this moment God would deliver them from their enemies. In today’s Old Testament reading, Zephaniah prophesies that the earth will be completely destroyed and that sinners will come to a terrible end. [Zeph. 1.7; 12- 18] Repeatedly, the scriptures warn that the Day of the Lord will arrive unexpectedly, “like a thief in the night”. Some early Christians were so excited that Christ was about to come at once that they even stopped working to wait for his immediate arrival. [1 Thessalonians 4.11; 2 Thessalonians 3.6-12] Christians prayed, “Maranatha! Our lord, come!” The Thessalonians asked Paul, when will this Day of the Lord happen? How should they prepare for this Second Coming of Christ?
In response to the Thessalonians’ questions, Paul wrote to them from Corinth in about 50 AD. His First Letter to the Thessalonians is one of the earliest books in the New Testament. As in all of his letters, Paul was replying to specific questions, he was not writing an academic work of systematic theology. He was addressing the special concerns of this particular group. The Thessalonians’ first worry was, what would happen to their loved ones who had died before the Second Coming of Christ, before the general resurrection of the dead? Would they be included in the resurrection? Paul says he does not want them to be uninformed, “so 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 died.” [1 Thess. 4.13-14] Paul emphasises hope based on the resurrection of Christ.
The Thessalonians had more worries. How soon will this Second Coming happen? What will it be like? How can they prepare? Paul told them that the Day of the Lord will indeed come suddenly, “like a thief in the night”. However, they should not be surprised by this Second Coming, for they are “children of light and children of the day”. [1 Thessalonians 5.5] They are beloved of God and adopted as his children though baptism into Christ. They are to be alert, to be clear-headed and to be vigilant. But they must not be paralysed by fear or to indulge in idle speculations. Jesus told his disciples not to speculate about the signs of his coming or to worry about the end of the age. “For about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” [Matthew 24.36] Paul said the Second Coming of Christ was imminent, even if it was not immediate. In the meantime, the Thessalonians were to continue in faith, hope and love. They were to be protected by their faith, by knowing that they were God’s beloved, children of light. Their hope was of eternal life, their salvation came through the Lord Jesus Christ. They should love one another, encourage one another, and build up one another.
Last Sunday we had a Grave Talk café. People were able to talk frankly and openly about death. They shared their thoughts and their fears about that inevitable event which we all must face. When confronted by a terminal illness or by a catastrophic accident, we can easily descend into despair or be paralysed by fear. St. Paul advised the Thessalonians to protect themselves with faith, hope and love. Our faith is not mere whistling in the dark, or a denial of painful realities. Our faith is rooted in the cross. Standing before the cross, Mary and John remained steadfast as they watched Jesus suffer and die. Our faith is rooted in Jesus Christ, who promised his disciples, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” [John 15.11] Our hope is in God’s promise of the resurrection. Most people know the words that are spoken over the open grave while earth is cast upon the dead body in the coffin: “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” But we must also remember the words that follow, “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died, was buried, and rose again for us.” Our Christian watchwords are: faith, hope, and love. St. Paul told the Thessalonians not to worry about the dead or and not to fret about the Second Coming. Instead they are to, “encourage one another and build up each other.” However painful our private griefs and anxieties may be, we must not become obsessed with them or withdraw from other people. With love, we must reach out to others who may also be suffering. “Build up each other” St. Paul urges. We do not build up ourselves, we build up each other and we all grow together.
Like the prophecies of the Apocalypse, the prospect of our deaths and our personal tragedies should not overwhelm us. We are protected by faith, hope, and love. “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” [1 Thessalonians 5.9] AMEN.
Copyright © by Roberta Berke 2017. All rights reserved.