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Belong to the Day

Sermon - 11/16/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

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 web site.

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 preachers.

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 J

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 viewpoint today.

 

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 the scripture.

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 text:

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 wronged us.

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.

 


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