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|"A Thief in the Night"
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
When I was a college teacher, I frequently found myself asking, with regard to a wide variety of areas of subject matter, “Why do I need to teach this to my students? Shouldn’t they already KNOW this?”
In other words, I was assuming that surely they had been taught something in high school. And surely they REMEMBERED something of what they had been taught in high school.
As time passed, I more and more held to the cynical position that one should never assume that anyone knows anything.
And yet, we DO know things. We DO believe things. What we know and believe is very different from person to person, but it is nevertheless there. Pollsters are in the business of trying to find out what we know and believe. Or at least what we THINK we know and believe. Unfortunately, the pollsters too often confirm my misgivings about the knowledge people have.
Especially when they come up with such findings as a great many folks who supposedly call themselves Christians can’t name the first four books of the New Testament.
Well, the apostle Paul seemed to have the same hope that I had when I first began college teaching. He wanted to assume that folks knew something. In the opening to the fifth chapter of his first letter to the Thessalonians, he writes,
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.”
In other words, he is telling them that there is information he assumes they already have. And in this case, it is about the “times and the seasons.”
Now, he is not talking about two separate things. “Times and seasons” was a phrase that referred to a time of judgment. In that case we might take this further. He is talking about end-times, eschatology, apocalyptic matters, the second coming.
And DO they really know all there is to know about these matters? Is Paul truly safe in saying, “you do not need to have anything written to you?”
I think he is making a rather large claim. But then, maybe he spent a great deal of time teaching folks about such things when he was with them.
And then he modifies that claim, when he adds,
“For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”
Actually, I suspect that thievery at night might be more expected thaN thievery in broad daylight. But to be robbed, burglarized, to have something stolen, is not an event we plan on. In fact, it is disruptive of our lives.
Paul is telling his followers that the day of the Lord is not something that they would put on the calendars, their date books, their day planners. It cannot be scheduled.
Of course, we must remember that this was the first century, which was a few years ago. And, we need also to remember that Paul anticipated Christ’s return to be very soon. Initially, I think Paul expected that return to be in his lifetime.
But so much time has passed since then, that we may rightly have a different view of Christ’s return. Indeed, it may be possible for us to think of Christ’s return as a spiritual event that has already taken place, or that is continually taking place in our lives.
“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!”
I have some real problems with this verse, but there is truth within it. One problem I have is placing labor pains in the same context with sudden destruction. Besides which, are labor pains not to be expected by a pregnant woman?
But let’s take the labor pains out of this, and deal with the peace and security that is disrupted by inescapable sudden destruction. I’m not so sure that is how I understand Christ’s presence in my life, but I am reminded of a parable.
It is the parable in the twelfth chapter of Luke of the rich man who had accumulated enormous wealth, and said to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
And God’s response was, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
But Paul is very positive. He continues,
“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.”
And maybe this gives us some understanding of why Paul might have earlier said, “you do not need to have anything written to you.” Maybe Paul is drawing generalized conclusions about his followers: they are all “children of light”!
In contrasting those who are of the day and those who are of the night, Paul is contrasting believers with unbelievers. Unbelievers are persons capable of being surprised as if by a thief at night.
And when Paul talks about “night,” it represents a condition of unawareness or insensitivity. Believers are not in a state of darkness and do not have darkness as the source of their existence. We might say that believers are “enlightened.”
The concept of spiritual light should not be new to us. In the gospel according to John, in the prologue in the opening chapter, the Messiah is characterized this way: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
In reference to John the Baptist: “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
At this point, we might ask ourselves, Do we consider ourselves children of light, children of the day? Are we “enlightened”? Are we “aware” and “sensitive”? Could we be surprised as if by a thief in the night?
Someone once asked John Wesley how he would live if he had but one day remaining to live. When Wesley finished describing that day, the questioner realized that he had simply described a TYPICAL day in his life. Wesley would not have changed anything. He lived each day as if it were the last.
“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.”
Now, please understand that Paul is not speaking literally. Christians need sleep as much as everyone else. But Paul is extending his contrast of the children of the day and the children of the night, his contrast of the believers with the unbelievers.
He is calling upon the believers to be awake and sober, in contrast to unbelievers who are asleep and drunk. He is contrasting those who are vigilant and in a state of preparedness with those who are not.
I think Paul is asking a great deal of us. Both physically and spiritually, it is difficult for humans to maintain high states of alertness and awareness. We may be physically awake, but it is difficult for us to always be paying attention to everything.
We daydream, our thinking drifts.
We may be teetotalers and sober, but it is easy for us to become numb to many aspects of the world around us. We take much for granted. We establish involuntary habit patterns that reduce our need for intensive thinking about everything we do.
Even in our religious observances, even in our worship, in our recitation of creeds and prayers, in the singing of our hymns, it is difficult to ALWAYS be totally alert and attentive to all the words we say and all their meanings.
But Paul calls upon us to move in the direction of more awareness and attentiveness, and I think that is all that God expects of us. In contrast, for the unbeliever, there is nothing of which to be aware, nothing to which one should attend.
In the early church, a number of disciplines were developed to help believers in their practice of the faith. Among them were silence and solitude. In silence and solitude it was discovered that one could more readily focus on an awareness of God in his or her life.
And even today, busy as we are, we can find small chunks of time to “get away from it all” to enhance our “keeping awake and being sober.”
Paul continues his message to the Thessalonians:
“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.”
And we have battle imagery. Of course, it is quaint. Nowadays We don’t have breastplates and helmets except on football players and maybe athletes in other sports. But notice something special about breastplates and helmets. They are defensive.
They are not bombs and bullets. They are not even swords and spears!
So we might ask ourselves, against what are we defending? We are putting on faith and love and the hope of salvation. You might say that we are CLOTHING ourselves in these. And I would say that our defense is against temptation and evil. But it is as much the temptation and evil that lie within us as it may be the temptation and evil outside ourselves.
“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.”
Now, notice who is in charge: “God has destined us.” God is directing this. This is God’s initiative. And while WE may live our lives in fear, that is not God’s intent. God is not concerned with anger or punishment or wrath. But God has destined us for obtaining salvation.
Now, I don’t know if Paul and the Thessalonians had the gospel of Matthew to work with, but in this context I especially like the story in the opening chapter of the angel’s message to Joseph. Regarding Mary’s baby, the angel said, “you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
From that point on, can there be any doubt that God wants better lives for all of us? How could anyone continue to harbor visions of a God of wrath or indifference?
So, at this point, Paul is on a positive note; but look where he began. I think there was some tension in that thief-in-the-night stuff. But maybe there should be. Personally, I feel a lot of tension in the world right now.
But I think that all of us, everywhere, including me, should frequently think of our lives as if they were up for sudden divine judgment. Because they really are.
And Paul concludes on a truly positive note:
“Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”
We are one week from Christ the King Sunday and two weeks from the First Sunday in Advent. Advent is a season of anticipation, of planning, of expectation. But it is also a good time to reflect on the thief in the night, but from a positive point of view.
The thief in the night is unexpected, and in reality, dreaded. Advent is the opposite of that. We have a precise countdown, and we look forward to Christmas.
But if we are children of the day, of the light, even the unexpected day of the Lord of which Paul speaks should be something that we look forward to.
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