1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
We come this morning
to the last in a series that we have been studying on Paul's first
letter to the Thessalonians. The text this morning, from chapter
5, builds on the text
last Sunday from chapter 4, on the notion of the return of Christ.
What we sometimes call "the second coming".
Reading from versus
one through eleven of chapter 5:
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When 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! 4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But 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. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
Last Sunday I sought to debunk the
popular notion of 'rapture', this "beam me up" theology that says at
some point in the future after a tribulation, Christ will return and
take us all away from this world. I believe that is simply non-sensical,
I mean, where would we go once we leave the atmosphere?
But more importantly, as I tried to
show last Sunday, it's un-Biblical: there's just no basis for it
in scripture. And if you missed last week,
you can read it on the
So we can forget about notions of
Rapture, but what about the Second Coming? That's a different
concept, and don't confuse the two.
We can easily write-off rapture because
it's not based in scripture, but the idea of second coming IS included
in scripture, throughout the New Testament. This whole notion that
there will be a new era of God's reign on earth is a core belief.
We find it throughout the letters of Paul, in all 4 gospels, it is the
major premise behind the book of Revelation (the return of Christ).
The first petition of the Lord's prayer: "Thy kingdom come. . . "
anticipates the return of Christ when God's will "will be done on earth
as it is in heaven". And Paul tells us in his first letter to the
Corinthians that when we eat the bread and drink the cup of the table of
the Lord, we proclaim his death until he comes.
So we simply cannot discard notions of
the second coming as the creation of poor scholarship or popular
The dilemma, then, for us is how to
make it relevant and meaningful given the nearly 2,000 years of history
that have occurred without the return of Christ.
Just as last Sunday I sought to give us
a new way of understanding what Paul meant when he spoke of us rising to
meet the descending Christ, so too this morning I want to provide a new
way of understanding and speaking about the 'second coming' of Christ.
Some of this may be new for some people, for some it may be familiar,
but as always, you know, I trust, that you don't have to agree with me.
In Disciples, we have that freedom -- I've been trying to change that,
but so far I haven't had much luck
My point is, we all think seriously
about how to make sense of texts and ideas that many inside of the faith
and even more outside of the faith find odd, archaic, or worse yet,
irrelevant to their lives and the world today.
There are 4 possible ways that I can
see of reading this text (you may have others):
First, that Paul had everything
right. He was, after-all, writing scripture. Including
the timing of Christ's return, which Paul clearly expected (at least
early in his career as reflected in this text) to occur within his
lifetime. So, if he was right, that would mean that Christ must
have returned during his lifetime, and somehow, we just missed it,
because it's not reflected in the story.
I don't find anyone who holds to that
Second, that Paul was right about
the second coming, but he was just a little off on the timing.
When he writes in chapter 4: "We who are alive, who are left until
the coming of the Lord. . .". What he really should have said was:
"You who are alive, 2,000 years from now, until the coming of the Lord",
right? But of course, the folks in Thessalonica would have said
"Huh?! What's this have to do with us?".
And if Paul was not writing for the
first-century Christians, what makes us think he was writing for 21st
century Christians? Or 31st, or 41st? That doesn't seem to
make much sense either.
So there's a third possibility, and
that is that Paul was not only wrong about the timing, he was wrong
about all of it. And if Paul were wrong about such a central
doctrine of Christian faith, well what about all the rest? Now, I
certainly wouldn't hold this viewpoint, but I have to tell you, that
given the evidence of Paul's expectation and the historical record, the
longer we wait for the return of Christ, the stronger the case for this
possibility, that Paul got it all wrong.
But there's one more possibility.
The way that more and more of us are coming to read texts like
this, that takes Paul seriously, as well as what we can learn from 2,000
years of history. Not only does this way of reading the text make
a whole lot of sense, I think it adds meaning, relevance, and power to
And Paul, whether knowingly or
unknowingly (I'm not sure), gives us a very strong hint of how to
understand this whole idea of the second coming in just the way he
speaks about it. Take note of the images that Paul uses in this
First of all, in verse 1, Paul writes
'take note of the times and seasons'. Now, is Paul talking about
Spring, Summer, Fall? Of course not, we know that, instinctively,
that this is a metaphor. The changing of the seasons is a metaphor
for the changing of the times, for this era that is coming.
Secondly, verse 2, he refers to the
coming day of the Lord as a 'thief in the night'. In English,
that's a simile -- "as like". One cannot possibly know when a
thief will come in the night, and so Paul is saying that we can't know,
we have to be prepared all the time.
In verse 3, another simile, Paul says
the destruction that will come with this time is 'like labor pains that
come upon a pregnant woman'. Now in that case, those of you that
have been through this before, you know what is coming. You know
about when it is coming. And there's nothing you can do to
avoid it -- it's coming! Again, prepare for it.
In verse 4, Paul says that 'you beloved
are not in darkness' (now I don't think Paul is talking about folks in
Northern Alaska here, you know, in the midst of winter). It is
again a metaphor for those who live without the light of God.
Verse 5, building then on that metaphor
of darkness and light, Paul goes on to say 'you are children of the
light, children of the day'. Now, Caesar Augustus claimed to be a
descendent of Apollo, the God of light. So in a very real, literal
sense, one could make that claim that Caesar (by his story) is a son of
the Sun. Is that what Paul means, that we are children of the Sun
God? Of course not, again, it's a metaphor that describes what it
means to be one who follows the way of God, who walks the way of Christ.
In verse 6, Paul says 'so let us not
fall asleep as others do, let us keep awake'. Now, if you take
that literally, you'll be dead in a few days. You can't literally
stay awake all the time. So once again, this whole notion of
staying awake is a metaphor for being on watch, being alert.
And then finally, he speaks of putting
on 'the breastplate of love and faith, the helmet of hope and
salvation'. Paul is using the image of armor as a metaphor to
describe how we are to protect ourselves with our faith instead of
physical armaments. Now, there in itself is a whole sermon, I'll
save that for later.
So there you have it: 7 different
metaphors and similes to describe the second coming of Christ. And
yet, we are supposed to take that second coming literally?
My suggestion to you is that this
4th possibility for reading this text, that I believe adds meaning,
relevance, and power to it, is to understand the whole idea of the
second coming as a metaphor.
Bill Moyers, teamed together with
Joseph Campbell, several years ago to reveal to us the power of myth, in
the PBS series by that name, subsequently published under that title.
I find the ideas that Campbell speaks about immensely useful and
powerful for understanding our own traditions and doctrines.
In that program, he talked about the
story of the Ascension of Christ, as told in the first chapter of Acts.
And he says, if you take that story to be literally true -- Christ
ascended into the heavens -- it would mean believing that Jesus went
somewhere, physically, up beyond our atmosphere. And so, Campbell
says, if that were really the meaning of the message, then we'd have to
throw it away. Because there would have been no such place for
Jesus literally to go. We know that Jesus could not have ascended
to heaven because there is no physical heaven anywhere in the universe.
Even ascending at the speed of light, how far would Jesus go?
After 2,000 years? Jesus would still be inside of our galaxy (tells you
something about how big the galaxy is).
Campbell goes on to say:
"Astronomy and physics have simply eliminated that as a literal,
physical possibility. But if you read 'Jesus ascended to heaven'
in terms of its metaphoric connotation, you see that he has gone inward.
Not into outer space, but into inward-space. To the place from
which all being comes. Into the consciousness that is the source
of all things. That kingdom of heaven within".
And of course we remember that Jesus
said "The kingdom of heaven is within you, is among you". That's
what the ascendency of Christ means.
If you understand, then, the ascension
of Jesus not as historical fact but as metaphorical truth,
that it is not about where the body of Jesus went but where the spirit
of Jesus resides. Not "up there" somewhere, but here, in our
midst, in each of us.
And if that is where the real Jesus is,
the body of Christ, the second coming, suddenly makes perfect sense.
Not as some super-natural intervention in world affairs when Jesus comes
down to take control of the world, but as a most natural and spiritual
intervention, if you will, when Christ comes out of us. To
transform our lives.
I think that is precisely the message
of Paul. To belong to the day, to be children of light, to be
constantly alert, to where the breastplate of faith and hope, to do all
these things is to live in Christ. To live as Christ would have us
live, to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our world today.
Understood as metaphorical truth,
Jesus, you see, returns in and through us.
And thus, the second coming is a very
powerful story. An image that we should not be shy in proclaiming,
for it affirms that no matter how bad things are in this world, God is
still at work, within us, transforming our lives, even working for the
transformation of the world through us.
Because Christ is coming, we do not
fear the night.
Because Christ is coming, we will not
be led by fear, we will not be driven by terror.
Because Christ is coming, we can walk
through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil.
Because Christ is coming, we know evil
will not triumph, and hate will not win.
Because Christ is coming, we know the
power of love, that we can love our enemies and forgive others who have
Because Christ is coming, we can
proclaim the good news to the poor, feed the hungry, we can proclaim
that the blind shall receive sight, the lame shall walk.
Because Christ is coming, we know that
peace and justice is possible, because Christ is coming.
And because the coming of Christ is
present in our world today, it is not something in the far-off distant
future, we sing at Christmas:
"Joy to the World,
the Lord is come, let earth receive her King.
And let every heart prepare a room, and heaven and nature sing".
Because Christ is coming.
When, they ask, will this happen?
When Christ comes, in, through, and out
of us, the second coming is now.