Sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 28)

Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:9-11
God did not choose us to suffer his anger, but to possess salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us in order that we might live together with him, whether we are alive or dead when he comes.  And so encourage one another and help one another, just as you are now doing.

Safe in the end

We like surprises.  The unexpected bouquet of flowers, the special gift, the unexpected visit from friends we haven’t seen in ages, the compliment for something that we had done that touched someone’s life. 

And then there are the surprises that we don’t like.  It’s those moment when a grandchild says, “Close your eyes and hold out your hand and – no peaking now” and you end with something slimy and hairy crawling across your hand.
Or more seriously, the unexpected announcement of a tragic accident or sudden death.

It was late in the afternoon one hot summer’s day at the beach.  Most people had left the beach and those who were still there were enjoying the sunset and strolling along the beach, except for four young adults who were playing in the waves.  Suddenly their loud laughter turned to screams.  It took a while for those on the beach to realise that they weren’t messing around.  A crowd gathered.  One of the young men, not twenty metres into the surf, gestured wildly, diving repeatedly under the water.  Some in the crowd waded out to where they were.  Within minutes they moved back to the shore, following a young man holding the lifeless body of his friend.

How quickly these things happen.  How thin that veneer, that deceptive crust separating death from life; sadness from happiness.  Life appears certain and sure.  But something happens that catches us unprepared. 

Some years ago I conducted the funeral of one of the boys whom I had confirmed.  He had lost his way and his life ended in tragedy.  When I entered the funeral chapel to begin the service, apart from the immediate family, the building was packed with young people dressed in black – many of them in the gothic style with black lips, black eye shadow and black fingernails and hair dyed black.  Here was a group of people whose music and culture sang about death and sadness and darkness amongst a whole lot of other black things.  But in spite of all of this, the unexpected nature of this young man’s death and how real death was for them at that moment, was something that many couldn’t come to terms with.  Being the only one dressed in white, I left my prepared sermon at the lectern and addressed the hopeless about what it means to have hope – hope in Christ.

Death without hope is a scary thing.  Likewise the thought of everything in this world coming to an end is also a very scary thing and can easily leave us feeling, “What’s the use?”. 

So we find Paul today writing to the Thessalonians about the Day of the Lord.  He repeats the warning that Jesus himself often gave.  People will be going about their daily business and everything will seem quiet and safe, it’s then that Jesus will return.

Today's second reading compares the Lord’s coming to a thief. Paul warns the Thessalonians, “Don't let God jump you unawares like a thief in the night.”  Four times in the New Testament, the coming of God is compared to the intrusion of a thief.  Twice in Revelation: “I will come like a thief” (Rev. 3:3; 16:15).

We don’t usually think of God as a thief.  In fact, that’s an image that is very unflattering especially when we compare it to the more positive images we have of God, say of a shepherd, or a loving father waiting for his wayward son to come home, or perhaps a healer or rescuer.

But a thief, a criminal who sneaks around in the dark – that’s not a very nice image to have of God at all but it does get our attention. That’s exactly why Paul uses this picture.  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.  “Don't let God jump you unawares like a thief in the night.” 

Jesus helps us understand what Paul is getting at with this parable.  “Be on the watch, be alert, for you do not know when the time will come.  It will be like a man who goes away on a trip and leaves his servants in charge, after giving to each one his own work to do and after telling the doorkeeper to keep watch.  Watch, then, because you do not know when the master of the house is coming” (Mark 13:33-37).  The message is clear.  Jesus is coming so don’t be caught unprepared. Do the work he has given you to do because he will return at the most unexpected time. 

One of the reasons we are caught unprepared for the end of our earthly life or for Jesus’ return to bring the earth’s history to a conclusion is that we think that things will go on forever. 

“There will always be a tomorrow,” we say.  We build up our financial reserves for the future.  We build and buy to such an extent without thinking that our life could come to an end so quickly.  Life ends, things terminate, the only permanent fact of life is our impermanence.  There is nothing wrong with planning for the future, but our planning always needs to take into consideration that one day all our plans will come to end. 

We hate to think of this and even deny it but every now and then we are stopped short when planning for the future, and I’m finding myself saying to myself more and more as I get older, “Hey, I probably won’t even be here when this happens” or “If I’m still here I’ll probably be too old to enjoy it”. 

Our lives hang by a fragile thread.  And we are reminded of this even more so when people younger than ourselves suddenly die.  The fact is driven home that we’re temporary residents here on this earth.  As Psalm 90 says of us, “We are like grass which flourishes in the morning; by evening, it fades and withers.” 

Well so far this sermon hasn’t been all that joyful.  Talking about the inevitability of death and the end of things isn’t the happiest topic. The apostle wants us to be real about these things but he isn’t finished yet. There is more. 

First, Jesus has made is possible for us to face our last day with confidence and the hope of a life that will go on forever.  To fear the passing away of everything that is familiar is normal but at the same time we know that we have a Saviour who has a powerful love for us.  This was the main reason for Paul writing this part of his letter to the Thessalonians.  He reminds them, “God did not choose us to suffer his anger, but to possess salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us in order that we might live together with him, whether we are alive or dead when he comes” (1 Thess 5:9-10).

Jesus has made it possible for sinners to survive God's judgement on the Last Day.  We could never escape the consequences of our sin and the punishment we deserve but Jesus has absorbed our guilt and pain for us.  He offers us forgiveness and love.  He holds out to us the hope of salvation.  Jesus has done the hard work for us. We are forgiven. 

The Holy Spirit prods us to respond with faith to the grace of God and believe that Jesus truly is the Way to eternal life.  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 the Day of the Lord.  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” (1 Peter 4:7-11).

Live as children of the light.  In other words, be who God called you to be.  Live in hope, faith and love and let these three shine into the lives of the people around you and make a difference.  Don’t follow the dark ways of the world but follow the ways of Christ.  This will not always be easy in this modern world where your trust in God, your hope and service to others will be challenged by selfishness and the values of the world around you.  The pressure to give up will be intense.  The desire to try something easier, more exciting, seemingly more rewarding will draw you away from Christ and the church to something more satisfying. 

We know how frustrated we can get when things aren’t going the way we think they ought to in the church.  We may wonder why God allows his church to be so ineffective.  Why isn’t it a more powerful force in our world in these last days before Jesus comes again?

Paul wrote to the Thessalonians because they were expecting Jesus to come now and make things right now but he hadn’t shown up.  They were becoming frustrated and unsure.

And so Paul says, “Encourage one another and help one another”.  There is strength in facing these last days before Christ’s return together.  It’s much easier doing it together as the body of Christ. 
Encourage one another. 
Support one another. 
Pray for another.
Stand beside one another in trying times.
Walk with one another when the journey is hard.
Forgive on another when you mess up.
Work together and build each other up as you do the work of Christ.
And in our worship as we realise that we mess up often we are encouraged as we come together and receive the body and blood of Jesus in Holy Communion and experience the grace of God once again.   

We can face the Last Day with certainty and the assurance that all will be well for us because of Jesus Christ.


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
16th November 2014

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