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1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
November 17, 2002
by Tony Grant
A plane was flying from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Unexpectedly, the plane stopped in Sacramento on the way. The flight attendant explained that there would be a delay, and if we wanted to get off the aircraft, we would reboard in 30 minutes. Everybody got off the plane except one gentleman who was blind. You could tell he had flown before because his seeing eye dog lay quietly underneath the seats in front of him throughout the entire flight. You could also tell he had flown this very flight before because the pilot approached him and calling him by name, said, "Keith, we're in Sacramento for half an hour. Would you like to get off and stretch your legs?" Keith replied, "No thanks, but maybe my dog would like to stretch his legs." Now picture this: All the people in the gate area came to a complete standstill, when they see the pilot walk off the plane with the Seeing Eye dog! The pilot is even wearing sunglasses. People scatter. They not only try to change planes, they try to change airlines.
OK, that is just a joke, but when you have any kind of incident on an airplane, you appreciate how good it is to be on the ground. This is not a joke. Last summer, in early July, two pilots for a major U.S. airline attempted to get through security with two cups of coffee. This was no longer allowed, they were told, because of new security restrictions. The pilots threw a couple hissy fits, and that's when security personnel noticed not only the unprofessional behavior, but also the flushed faces and red eyes. These guys were three sheets to the wind, and were about to step - or stagger - into the cockpit. In fact, they did get their plane away from the gate and were making for the runway when the tower, alerted to their condition, ordered them back to the gate. The inebriated pilots were jailed, posted bond and could face up to five years in prison.
No wonder when the pope gets off a plane, he gets down on his knees and kisses the ground. It is not just a gesture of affection for that country. He probably hates flying and--"Gratia Deo," thanks be to God--he is glad to be earthbound once again.
But if you are in the air, if you are flying, then the ground is not a good thing. Once the airplane is up there, you want to stay up there and you want to stay far away from any object that might interfere with your flight. Perhaps you read about those two planes that collided at 36,000 feet over Germany last July. Or, you have read about planes flying into the sides of mountains. So, when you are flying, you want to know that the pilot is going to keep this plane in the air and not hit the ground before he or she is supposed to.
You could say that in flying, there is peril to proximity. The last thing you want is that aircraft getting too near anything else.
Fortunately, scientists and engineers have developed some great new technology to prevent proximity peril. Pilots will soon be able to peer through clouds and fog, follow moving maps in poor weather, and see where their plane is flying relative to nearby mountains, using such gizmos as the Vertical Situation Display, the Enhanced Ground Proximity System, and the Enhanced Vision System. This technology is so sensitive that it is possible to see other aircraft, except in very thick clouds or fog, and this includes aircraft that might be mistakenly occupying a runway ahead, allowing the pilot to abort a landing long before the stray plane can be seen with the naked eye.
The Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS) can give up to 120 seconds alert that a plane must change course to avoid slamming into terrain. No plane equipped with the newer system has experienced a "controlled flight into terrain," aviation jargon for flying an airplane into the ground, the leading cause of fatal accidents worldwide. [Phillips, Don. "Gee-whiz future of aviation is arriving now," The Washington Post, April 22, 2002, A9. ]
Wouldn't it be great to be able to see through the fog of life and be warned when we are in danger of crashing? Would it not be great to have an Enhanced Vision System (EVS) for daily living to steer us through the clouds of confusion and turmoil that so often surround us? That is exactly what we have, according to the apostle Paul. We have a spiritual EVS that is not hi-tech, but is hi-effect. That is what Paul is talking about in our scripture passage today.
Day of the Lord
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 is a continuation of the teaching on the resurrection begun in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. In this earlier passage, the apostle addresses the emotional issue of what has happened to those who have died (literally fallen asleep) prior to the return of the Lord. The Thessalonians probably believed that Jesus was coming back very soon, within a year or so, so they were understandably troubled concerning the fate of believers who did not live to see that day.
Chapter 4 spells out how those who do not live to see Christ's return in their earthly life will nonetheless be resurrected and reunited with Christ upon his return. We need not lose hope, then, when time passes, believers die, and still Christ has not returned. No one, living or dead, will be left behind at the time of Christ's coming.
Between 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 5:1-11, Paul changes the meaning of his metaphor. English teachers may not like this very much, but Paul is trying to teach a spiritual lesson. He changes the metaphorical image of sleep from one of actual physical death to one of spiritual or intellectual death. In 5:1-11, those who sleep are those who are ignorant of the signs of the times. They are those who do not remain watchful for Christ's return. They may not be physically dead, but they are spiritually dead. Christians, in contrast, remain watchful and awake for signs of the coming the Day of the Lord.
The image of the Day of the Lord is not a new image for the New Testament. The Old Testament prophets used this image to speak of times in which YHWH would enter human history to act directly either to save or to punish humanity. Most hoped for the Day of YHWH as a time of divine intervention on Israel's behalf (Joel 2-3). The prophet Amos, however, warned that if Israel was not faithful, the Day of YHWH would be a day of darkness and not light (Amos 5:18-24).
In the New Testament, the image of the Day of the Lord is inextricably linked with the return of Christ at the end of time. Those who await the Day of the Lord, when that Lord is specifically believed to be the resurrected Christ, also await the resurrection of the dead and the fulfillment of Christian hope.
Thus, Christians are a people who live in hope, but that can sometimes be a tough way to live. Waiting for the resurrection of the faithful dead and the return of Christ, believers might become discouraged with the uncertainty of not knowing when this will occur. However, Paul reminds the recipients of this letter that they have already been taught how to evaluate the specific times and seasons related to Christ's return. They need not be instructed about this again. In other words, they know that the exact time has been hidden intentionally from us. so that we will always have a spirit of watchfulness. Repeatedly the Scripture likens the arrival of this crucial event to the arrival of a thief in a darkened house at night (Matthew 24:43-44; 2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 3:3; 16:15). Just as a homeowner would not like to sleep through a break-in, watchfulness and sobriety are the proper conditions of those who wish to be prepared when Christ returns.
We also find in our passage today the well-known biblical view that the world at large overestimates the level of security in the present. As Jeremiah condemns those who preach '"Peace, peace,' when there is no peace" (Jeremiah 6:14), Paul warns that sudden destruction awaits those who are not prepared for the Day of the Lord.
The image of a woman whose labor pains come on unexpectedly is a symbol of the unexpectedness of the coming of the Day of the Lord. It is used also in Hosea (13:13) and Isaiah (26:17). The point of the symbol, the point of the unexpected labor pains, is that true security and hope come not from the state of our earthly existence, but from the heavenly existence promised upon Christ's return.
The Coming Judgment
Back then to proximity perils. The first proximity peril is the coming judgment.
John Garvey, writing in Commonweal, says,
Once I was talking with a woman in our parish who had come from a Muslim background and had been baptized as an adult in her husband's Orthodox Christian faith. It was important for a couple to share a religion, she said, but what really matters is belief in God. I thought for a minute that she would follow this with the standard "we are all going the same way by different paths," the usual bland American thing (although she is Albanian). What she did say surprised me: "I think that I am able to trust a person more if he knows that some day he will be judged." [John Garvey, "'DIES IRAE': And don't you forget it," Commonweal, May 4, 2001.]
That is what Christians are. We are a people who know that someday we will be judged.
The "day of the Lord" (5:2) will come like a thief in the night, every bit as surprising as an unexpected aircraft on the runway in front of you. This is the day of judgment, according to Paul, that day in which the righteous of the world will be vindicated, and the unrighteous will be judged. Sudden destruction will come upon the unrighteous, he predicts, "and there will be no escape" (v. 3).
But is this the fate of the righteous as well? Not at all. Those who believe in Christ have a spiritual EVS (an Enhanced Vision System). Notice Pauls use of darkness and light imagery. You Thessalonians "are not in darkness," he points out, "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" (vv. 4-5).
To be in darkness is to be focused on the peace and security of the secular world,
To be in the light is to be focused on the peace and security of the heavenly world.
To be in the night is to be unaware of what God is doing.
To be in the day is to be much aware of Gods action around us.
Since believers in Christ are not in a state of darkness, and are not living in the night, they have no reason to fear the Day of the Lord. They have a vision system that enables them to see God's activity through the fog and the darkness of day-to-day difficulties.
On high-tech aircraft, this vision is made possible by infrared sensors. In Christian life, on the other hand, this vision is made possible by faith, by a willingness to trust Jesus to bring us forgiveness, and peace, and security, and everlasting life. When we look at life with the eyes of faith, we see a world in which the Lord is at work to bring healing to the ill, comfort to the grieving, hope to the despondent, and liberation to the oppressed. We see a slice of reality that is completely invisible to those who look only to the world for their security and peace.
Fatigue and Unawareness
The second proximity peril is unawareness. V6 says, "Let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober." Paul wants us to remain vigilant, awake, alert, and free of impairment by drugs and alcohol. God wants us to be flying high on the spirit, not on drugs or booze.
Drunkenness is not conducive to godliness,
Being stoned is not the same as being spiritual.
Paul consistently condemns substance abuse. For example, in Ephesians 5:18, he says, "Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery." So, if you want to avoid spiritual proximity perils, be drug free. The way I look at it is I do not have that much sense to begin with. I cannot afford to do anything that might reduce what I have.
Faith, Hope, Love
The third proximity peril is our vulnerability. "Put on the breastplate of faith and love," advises Paul, "and for a helmet the hope of salvation" (v. 8).
This little story says something about faith and hope. Five-year-old Johnny was in the kitchen as his mother made supper. She asked him to go into the pantry and get her a can of tomato soup, but he didn't want to go in alone. "It's dark in there and I'm scared." She asked again, and he persisted. Finally she said, "It's Okay - Jesus will be in there with you." Johnny walked hesitantly to the door and slowly opened it. He peeked inside, saw it was dark, thought about it awhile, and then he said: "Jesus, if you're in there, would you hand me that can of tomato soup?"
Johnny does not have much faith or hope. Well maybe a little bit. At least he is willing to admit the possiblity that Jesus might be in there
Our faith and our hope is that this world is not all there is, and that our real life is not here at all. Scott Grant (No relation) writes:
A father once told me that when he took his 5-year-old son to Disneyland, the boy was most fascinated by black swans in a pond. In the middle of this artificial world designed to dazzle the mind, it was something from a different world that captivated this boy. It was something from the real world. If the best thing in the artificial world is something from the real world, that says that the real world is better.
Perhaps at times it seems as if we're living in a Disneyland of sorts. We're looking for something of substance, of permanence. We're looking for something real. Then something like a black swan swims across our pond, and we know we want something more. We know we want a different world, and in some sense, we can see it. It's a world to come.
Faith gets glimpses of that world here in this world but longs to be there, and it knows that Jesus Christ has been sent to take us there. Faith in Christ sees that God will take us to heaven and secures our ultimate presence there. It secures salvation.
[Scott Grant, "The black swans," The Eyes of Faith, August 23, 1998, Pbc.org/dp/grant/hebrews/heb20.html.]
Faith, hope and love--these are features that can keep us out of danger as we fly through the many trials and temptations and tribulations of daily life: faith in Christ, love for God and neighbor and hope of everlasting salvation. This trio can keep us sailing smoothly on the course that God desires for us, far from the earthly obstacles that can rise up and threaten to destroy us.
Why are we given this protective system? Because God doesn't want us to crash. "God has destined us not for wrath," writes Paul, "but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ" (v. 9). It is true that we live in the world, and the dangers to our spiritual life are real and near to us. But when we start the day, we can be confident that God has given us all the guidance systems we need to make a safe journey, not only for the day time, but for all time. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 12/10/02