Proper 28 · 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 · November 16, 2008
By Travis J. Scholl
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you” (v. 1). Indeed, we do not need to be told that our world is in crisis. Global and local events cascade into a rapid succession of actions and reactions. Some of these events are intentional; some bring on the inevitable. There is deep fear in these “times and seasons.” They bring us to the verge of an unknown future.
But when we are brought to the point of the unknown, our hope is in the One who meets us there: “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (v. 2). The times and seasons may belong to crisis, but the day belongs to the Lord! However, even that day forces us to confront another unknown. We do not know when Christ Jesus will come to culminate all things under his Lordship. Yet because this unknown is left in the scar-healed hands of the crucified and risen One, it becomes a source not of fear, but of hope.
Here, in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, is eschatology par excellence: the juxtaposition of fear and hope, judgment and salvation, darkness and light, drunkenness and sobriety. All of which signal the labor pains of a new reign of God breaking into this hung-over world. (The new-year season of Advent is just around the corner, after all.)
As an aside, the theme of drunkenness and sobriety could be a fertile one, considering that our current president’s most famous line regarding the economic crisis was “Wall Street got drunk.” In a sense, we all have.
But, for the preacher, the question remains: how do we get from fear to hope? Or, better still, how does this Word of God move us from fear to hope? Perhaps we should first note Paul’s irony: our certainty is in the uncertainty of Christ’s return. Thus, we need not concern ourselves with reading tea leaves for clues to the eschaton. This makes our certainty in uncertainty a liberating knowledge. We do not need someone to tell us “There is peace and security” (v. 3). We already have it by the faith that trusts him of whom we proclaim, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” All of time is taken up within his Lordship—both “night” and “day”—and by that same Lordship Christ makes of us, in water and Word, “children of light and children of the day” (v. 5). Our end, in more ways than one, is in Christ, and that is all we need to know. Our “surprise” then is not because Christ is a thief (v. 4). We are surprised by the joy (to paraphrase C.S. Lewis’ title) of what we already know, of which Paul does not have to tell us. There is a paradox here. We are surprised by the fact that all this time we already knew the end of this story.
This is why when we are surprised by joy, we are surprised by hope (to paraphrase N.T. Wright’s title, paraphrasing Lewis). And this hope compels us to “keep awake and be sober” (v. 6). Notice how this hope equips our whole person: “Put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (v. 8). Our Lord Jesus fortifies both heart and mind with faith, hope, and love. To preach this hope means to preach it to the whole person as well.
Finally, how does hope express itself in the “everyday” of those who await the Lord’s coming? It is the same in good times and in bad: “Encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (v. 11). The preacher here has a choice either to exhort his hearers to encourage others, or to encourage them directly. We could do little better in these bewildering times than to preach an encouraging word to discouraged people.