Sermon for the 27th Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 28)

Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:2b,3b,6,8b,9
The Day of the Lord will come as a thief comes at night. … It will come as suddenly as the pains that come upon a woman in labour, and people will not escape… So then, we should not be sleeping like the others; we should be awake and sober. … We must wear faith and love as a breastplate, and our hope of salvation as a helmet. God did not choose us to suffer his anger, but to possess salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Waiting for Christ’s return

Edgar Whisenant, a NASA engineer, used his mathematical skills to set a date for the return of Jesus. He wrote a book called ‘88 reasons why Jesus will return in 1988’. The book caused a real buzz amongst some Christians, especially in the US. He was so certain that Jesus would return on Sept 10 1988 that he said, "If I’m wrong then the scripture is mistaken". And since the Bible is never wrong he said that he knew for certain that Jesus would be here on that day.
It is amazing that someone could be so confident in knowing when Jesus will return. Jesus himself said, "No one knows, however, when that day and hour will come—neither the angels in
heaven nor the Son; the Father alone knows." (Matt 24:36).

The angels didn’t know, and Jesus didn’t know, but amazingly enough, Edgar did. Well, you can guess what happened. The day came and passed and Edgar didn’t know half as much as he thought he did. The old saying held true, "If at first you don’t succeed, fail and fail again." Edgar wrote a second book the next year claiming that he forgot that the calendar didn’t start with 1 but year 0, so he said he was a year off. Failed again.

The apostle Paul was confident that Jesus would return and he wrote to the Thessalonians, "You yourselves know very well that the Day of the Lord will come as a thief comes at night. When people say, ‘Everything is quiet and safe,’ then suddenly destruction will hit them! It will come as suddenly as the pains that come upon a woman in labour" (1 Thess 5:2,3).

To describe Jesus as a thief seems just a bit strange. But Paul isn’t the only person to describe Jesus’ return in this way. Jesus himself uses the picture of a thief coming at night and catching many people off guard. (Luke 12:39,40).

Twice in the Book of Revelation we read, "I will come like a thief" (Rev. 3:3; 16:15).

Some of you may have experienced what it’s like to come home to find that someone has broken into your home and rifled through your belongings, looking for something valuable to steal. A word that is often used to describe how people feel after such an event is ‘violated’. That safe, secure, sanctuary called home, never feels quite so safe again. Your special and sacred place has been invaded by an unwelcome visitor. An intruder has had the gall to finger your most intimate possessions. There are some people who never feel comfortable in their own homes again after a thief has violated their private space.

Now to speak of Jesus as a thief seems so contrary to what we believe about him. There are much more flattering images of Jesus.
A shepherd who lovingly cares for his sheep.
A loving parent who is always ready to welcome back his straying child.
A compassionate healer;
someone who is always ready to forgive;
one who is able to calm storms and bring peace to troubled lives;
the one who stands at the door and knocks.
But a thief! That’s not the usual way we portray Jesus. How many stained glass windows or painting have you seen with Jesus climbing through an open window on a dark night looking over his shoulder to make sure no one notices what he’s up to? A thief is a criminal – hardly the right way to think of Jesus.

And that’s exactly why Jesus himself and the apostles use this picture.
To catch our attention. This is so important!
Jesus is coming back; there can be no doubt about that.
Be ready for his return. Don’t be caught out. If we know that our property is in danger from a thief, we do something to be ready for the time this happens. Put on security screens, closed circuit TV, alarms, maybe even stand guard and wait for the thief to arrive. Not to do anything would be crazy and would be an open invitation for the thief to do his worst.

The message that the New Testament gives is quite consistent. Jesus said, "Watch out, then, because you do not know what day your Lord will come" (Matt 24:42). It’s like a thief – you never know when he will strike so be ready for when he does.

But why is the Bible so keen for us to be ready for the Last Day when the events of that day hardly seem like something to look forward to. In Zephaniah (today’s Old Testament reading) we read, "The Lord says, "I will bring such disasters on the human race …. (because) they have sinned against me."
"On the day when the Lord shows his fury. The whole earth will be destroyed by the fire of his anger. He will put an end—a sudden end—to everyone who lives on earth" (1:17a,18).

This is rather terrifying. If being ready is so important then what do we need to do in order to be prepared for Jesus’ return? St Paul tells the Thessalonians that God doesn’t want any of us to suffer God’s judgment, but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He is saying first of all that it’s not what we can do to make us ready but what Christ has done for us.

He has made it possible for sinners to survive God's judgement. Jesus himself has made us ready for his return! We could never prepare ourselves, because we could not pay for our own sins, so Jesus paid the price for us dying on the cross for us—in our place. The Bible word for this is grace—it means that Jesus gave us a gift we don’t deserve.

Nelson Mandela taught the world a lesson in grace when, after emerging from prison after twenty-seven years and being elected president of South Africa, he appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to head an official government panel called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The rules were simple: if a white policeman or army officer voluntarily faced his accusers, confessed his crime, and fully acknowledged his guilt, he could not be tried and punished for that crime. Hard-liners grumbled about the obvious injustice of letting criminals go free, but Mandela insisted that the country needed healing even more than it needed justice.

At one hearing, a policeman named van de Broek recounted an incident when he and other officers shot an eighteen-year-old boy and burned the body. Eight years later van de Broek returned to the same house and seized the boy’s father. The wife was forced to watch as the policemen did the same to her husband.

The courtroom grew hushed as the elderly woman who had lost first her son and then her husband was given a chance to respond.
"What do you want from Mr van de Broek?" the judge asked. She said she wanted van de Broek to go to the place where they burned her husband’s body and gather up the dust so she could give him a decent burial. His head down, the policeman nodded in agreement.

And I would like Mr van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real."

Spontaneously, some in the courtroom began singing "Amazing Grace" as the elderly woman made her way to the witness stand, but van de Broek did not hear the hymn. He had fainted, overwhelmed. (From Philip Yancey’s “Rumors of Another World”.)

Justice was not done in South Africa that day. Something beyond justice took place. The name for it is grace—rather than seeking justice for sin, an old woman absorbed the hurt and instead returned forgiveness.

Jesus absorbed the hurt for us. He offers us forgiveness and love. He holds out to us the hope of salvation. He invites us to trust in him and his sacrifice for our sin. The Holy Spirit prods us to respond to the faith that has been given to us and believe that Jesus truly is the Way to eternal life. Without any of this the Day of Judgement would be a terrifying day. Only because of Jesus and his righteousness the Day of judgement becomes a Day of Salvation.

But the apostle doesn’t stop there when talking about readiness for the day when Christ will come again. When Christ comes again he should find us living as children of the light. This is how Peter talks about being ready for the Day of Judgement.
"The end of all things is near. You must be self-controlled and alert, to be able to pray. Above everything, love one another earnestly, because love covers over many sins.  Open your homes to each other without complaining. Each one, as a good manager of God's different gifts, must use for the good of others the special gift he has received from God. Those who preach must preach God's messages; those who serve must serve with the strength that God gives them, so that in all things praise may be given to God through Jesus Christ, to whom belong glory and power forever and ever. Amen" (1 Peter 4:7-11).

What Peter is saying here is that waiting for the end is not simply a matter of sitting around and waiting for things to happen.
Nor is it a time for self indulgence – filling each day with looking after our wants and desires.
Nor is it a time for greed and being so focussed on ourselves that we fail to see that others need us and our help.
As we wait for Jesus to return, Paul points out that we should be praying, loving, caring without complaining, using our gifts for the good of others, telling others about salvation in Christ, serving and giving to others to the point that we are drained. It follows that faith in Christ leads to an active life of love and serve.

Laziness,
lack of involvement,
a life so crowded that there is no time for growing in our faith and acts of service,
ignoring the Spirit’s call to grow in your Christian life through God's Word, Holy Communion and worship with your fellow Christians
is not the way to wait for Jesus’ return.

In these days before Jesus returns,
every time we speak a word of forgiveness,
every time we show some care,
every time we teach or counsel or comfort someone,
every day we remain loyal and committed to following Christ,
every time we reject sin or bounce back from disappointment,
every time we hang in there with someone struggling or in a situation of pain and loss
—all of these and more give us the opportunity to make Jesus’ presence real and lead them to be better prepared for the Christ returns. What better way to prepare for Jesus to come.

I know in the end that sin will always be a part of our lives. In the end it is only Christ who can truly make us ready through his own death and resurrection. But that doesn’t give us permission to sidestep the question, "What am I doing as I wait for Jesus to return?"

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
16th November 2008
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

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