I Thessalonians 4:13-5:11
David A. Davis
November 12, 2017
Wake up and encourage one another! Here in Paul’s letter, after the salutations, and the greetings, and the expressions of thanks, and after tending to the pastoral relationship, and offering exhortations, and pretty much constantly giving thanks to God for how much they love each other, and after the description of what it means to be holy, now Paul seems to get to what is on the congregation’s heart. The question that is tugging at their faith. The worry that is not being helped by all that love for another. Well into the letter, well into the body of the letter, Paul brings up the nagging questions that won’t seem to go away. Paul finally comes to what it is in the day-to-day in all that is going on around them. He gets to what is weighing them down. They are worried about those who have died. It’s their grief. What’s getting to them is all the death and destruction. And Paul writes to them and pleads with them to wake up and encourage one another with the promise of life forever in the presence of God.
Some of the language, the images, the expressions leap off the page. They grab the readers’ ears and sort demand their own attention: a cry of command, the archangels call, the sound of the trumpet, a thief in the night, a pregnant woman, children of light, the breastplate of faith and love, a helmet of faith and faith. And this word picture of Jesus swooping out of heaven and scooping up the living, “we will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air.” What is so easily missed, taken for granted, overshadowed by flashy language that catches is the part that Paul repeats. Did you hear it? What he writes to the Thessalonians who are crumbling under the burden and reality of death, what he writes to them, and then writes again. What he repeats: wake up and encourage one another with the promise of life forever in the presence of God.
There must be those times in most congregations when the relentlessness of death starts to tear away at the heart and soul of life together. I certainly know that our congregation has experienced such seasons of despair. Amid the suffering and persecution of the early church, however, Paul’s pastoral response goes beyond offering comfort in response to one death or another. What he offers is a faith-filled perspective when not much in the world around you makes sense. What he acknowledges is that humanity’s illusions of peace and security can be shattered in a heartbeat. What he lifts up is that even the best intended assumptions and conclusions when it comes to faith and God, even the most ardent attempts to put all things divine and holy together, to have them all worked out in both your heart and mind, yeah, that can all be torn down, as Paul might say, in the twinkling of an eye.
A hurricane absolutely devastates the island where you live and weeks, months later there’s still no power. Really, God? Someone intentionally drives a rented truck down a sidewalk to kill and hurt as many people as he can. Really, God? You watch as folks in the public square use scripture and the language of faith to espouse beliefs so far from your experience of God and defend opinions so hateful and justify behavior that is horrific. Really, God? You watch as a family you love and care for faces the sudden onset of inexplicable loss, pain, and grief. Really, God? A man walks into a church with an assault rifle, and… really, God? When your community of faith is looking to the darkness where answers never come and chilling reminders of our mortality never cease, then, even then, Paul writes, wake up and encourage one another.
The theologian Karl Barth suggested that believers are not just those who woke up, they are those who keep waking up. The difference between the children of light and the children of darkness is not simply a difference between those who are awake and those who are asleep. Rather, for Barth, the followers of Christ are those who, in fact, are consistently in need of being jolted awake. They are those who keep waking up, those who over and over again find themselves awakening to the call to discipleship and a fresh taste of the grace of Christ and a renewed commitment to a life that yearns for reconciliation and righteousness and kingdom life. Watch. Keep awake. Pay attention. Keep waking up. Not to the world crumbling all around you but to the Christ who calls you and bids you to come, follow me. The one who promises to be with you forever. The one who promises that you will be him… forever.
Just a few nights ago Cathy and I were with some friends at a violin concert at McCarter Theater. The violinist finished performing the pieces published in the program and announced he was going to play a few more selections. I think it was three. The soloist announced each one before he played it. Now, I listen to a lot of classical music and I enjoy violin solos. But I am not very good at remembering titles or particular composers’ works or really even being able to tell a really, really fine violin player from a really, really, really fine one. Clearly, most in the theater that night were much better at all of the above. Because when he announced each piece before he played it, this audible gasp-like sigh rose from the crowd, like everyone had just taken their first bite of grandma’s best pie ever! And I had no idea what was coming. But in listening, in taking it in, in letting the music wash over me, I bet it was as beautiful to me as the person in front of me who knew, understood, savored, interpreted, explained, defined every note.
The power and assurance and encouragement of God’s promise is not limited to those who can understand it. It is not any better for those who think they can explain it. It is not more real for those who have never questioned it or those who want to dissect it and diagram it and detail it, down to every last note. The beauty comes when you let it wash over you. “We will be with the Lord forever…” Forever. “Remember, I am with you always…” Forever. “Where I am, you will be also…” Forever. “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord, so then, whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord’s…” Forever. “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Together with the Lord. In God’s presence, forever. Forever.
I made the serious error in judgment a while back when I decided that I could install the new under-the-cabinet microwave in our kitchen all by myself. Now, in my defense, it didn’t go all that badly. It only took two days, two friends, and my wife. It works fine and looks great, thank you very much. But also in my defense, the written material made it all sound so easy. So easy, in fact, that they even provided a paper template to show where the holes should be drilled for the screws to hold the blasted thing up under the cabinet. Now, when I say paper template, I mean the actual life-sized facsimile of the top of the microwave. The instructions were to tape that paper up under the counter to show exact size, edges, and, of course, the placement of the holes. All one had to do to get it right was to drill the hole right into the paper where it said, “hole, drill here.” And I still got it wrong.
When the Apostle Paul finally writes about the concern of the Thessalonian believers, when he addresses their worry about all those who have died, he doesn’t give them a template, a cut-out, a diagram. Writing to the church now grown weary because of death and suffering, Paul tries to write them a picture of “forever.” Professor Eric Baretto puts it so when he concludes, “The point is not how. The point is the promise.” Between you and me, if you will excuse the possible heresy here, when comes to exactly what happens when we die, I don’t think Paul knew any more than we do. He does now! And he was a few years off on his expectation that Jesus would return pretty much in his lifetime. It’s not a template. It’s a promise. “The point is not how. The point is the promise.” Wake up and encourage one another with the promise of life forever in the presence of God.
A few weeks ago I came over to Mark Edwards here in the chancel during the hymn we were singing and told him I had an out-of-body experience while I was preaching. I was counting the number of people who were falling asleep during that particular sermon. I stopped when I got to six. Yes, I see it! No, I will never say anything. Maybe a vocal “elbow nudge” by raising the volume every now and them. Keep awake!
Paul’s exhortation. It’s not a mad vision for the church, for a congregation. Nudging each other to stay awake and encouraging each other along the Way. Pointing one another back to the life of discipleship and speaking hopeful words of God’s promise. Calling one another back to the pathway of faith and patting each other on the back with whispers and shouts about “forever,” our life forever in God. Helping each other to keep waking up to the gift of God’s grace and helping each other never lose sight of the visions of God’s future. Not letting each other forget Christ’s call to servanthood, and loving neighbor, and putting God first. And lifting each other up with the assurance of the light that never dims, and the love that never fades, and the life that ever ends. Keep awake and encourage one another. It’s what it means to be the church.
And these days, when it comes to life and death and faith and heart and mind and the world and figuring it all out, and wrapping it all together, holding it all together, you just can’t do that alone. God doesn’t expect you to do that alone.
So, to the body of Christ that is Nassau Presbyterian Church, keep awake and encourage one another with promise of life forever in the presence of God. In the presence of God. Forever.
© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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