We’re going to be in 1 Thessalonians today.
We’re spending three weeks reflecting on three verses—
verses 16-18 in chapter five:
(5.16-18) Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
When I begin to take those words seriously,
those words hit me like a shotgun blast.
This is the wonderful, beautiful, magnificent life
that God wants to form within us—
and I’m very far from it.
But this is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus.
God’s desire for us to be the kinds of people
whose lives are becoming increasingly defined by
celebration and prayer and thankfulness.
This is what God wants for us.
Thankfulness is what God wants for us.
God wants us—in our everyday lives—
to be able to recognize and celebrate goodness.
The goodness of creation.
The goodness of tastebuds
and long walks
and simply being alive.
Because behind all of that goodness
there lies an eternal, never-ending Goodness.
Behind and beneath our everyday lives
lies the eternal, never-ending goodness of God.
God is good.
And everything he has created is good.
That’s what the Church has confessed and believed for millennia,
and Paul is inviting all of us to be confess and believe it too.
And to learn to give thanks
wherever and whenever we find ourselves.
Last week we said that maybe we begin practicing being thankful in small things—
maybe that’s the place where we learn to be thankful in all things.
But this is really hard.
Not just because we’re ingrates from birth—
(we have to teach ourselves and our children to say “thank you,”
we don’t have to teach anyone to take things for granted)
but, thankfulness is really hard—well, let’s just say it—
there’s a lot of brokenness in the world.
There’s a lot wrong with the world.
Just look at the attacks in Paris.
There are plenty of things that are NOT good—
like death and disease and war and cancer and reality TV.
When Paul tells us to be thankful in all things—
to gives thanks in all circumstances—
but what does Paul do with these things?
In a world illuminated by the light of eternal goodness,
there are an awful lot of shadows too.
Is Paul wanting us to be thankful for the shadows too?
For brokenness and evil and death?
There’s a way of reading Paul’s words that would be profoundly unhealthy.
Where we might trend towards living in a kind of spiritual denial.
We’re supposed to always be rejoicing and being thankful in all things,
so we can’t really let ourselves think too much about evil and suffering.
We wind up saying, “It’s not that bad.”
That’s a tell-tale symptom
that we’re using spirituality or religion
as some kind of denial mechanism.
“Yeah, I was abused, but you know what? It’s not that bad.
God gave me what I could handle. I’m supposed to be thankful in all things.”
“Yeah, the diagnosis is terminal, but it’s not that bad.
I mean, sure I’ll miss them, but they’re going to be better place, right?
I’m supposed to be rejoicing always.”
It might be tempting for us to isolate verses 16-18
and begin living in a kind of emotional and spiritual denial,
Lives where we close our eyes to darkness around us
and try to muster up celebration and thankfulness
by just telling ourselves, “It’s not that bad.”
That’s why we shouldn’t isolate verses 16-18.
We always read the scriptures in context—
what else do the scriptures say?
So today I want to back up a little.
We’re going to back up to chapter four
and look at what else Paul is saying to the Thessalonians.
So starting in verse 13 of chapter four,
let’s try to get a sense for what this train looks like,
and then we’ll make a couple of reflections
and come to the table.
Sound like a plan?
So chapter four, starting in verse 13.
(4.13 — 5.18) Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.
Our verses from last week are there at the end,
but now we can hear that there’s a whole freight train of stuff before them.
We don’t have time this morning
to exhaustively explore every nook and cranny freight train,
but I don’t think we have to.
I think just a quick overview of the freight train
will help us better understand the shotgun blast at the end.
Maybe we could start this way:
The Thessalonians know dead people.
They’re a lot like us—
they know dead people.
They know and love people who have died (v13-18).
We call it “passing away.”
Paul calls it “falling asleep.”
But whatever you call it,
death is life’s great enemy.
The great shadow in the land of goodness.
The people that Paul is addressing know that the world is broken—
family and friends have died since they last saw Paul.
That’s really bad.
That’s really broken.
That’s really messed up.
That’s not the way things are supposed to be.
And Paul is addressing this brokenness head on.
We don’t find Paul advocating spiritual or emotional denial
to the Thessalonican Jesus community.
We don’t find Paul saying:
“I know they’re dead, but,
you know, it’s not that bad.”
Death is the place where “it’s not that bad”
becomes an absolute absurdity.
The moment that we say “death isn’t bad”
we’re also saying “life isn’t good.”
And that’s something we all know in our bones isn’t true.
Life is a gift.
Life is good.
And of course the Thessalonians are grieving—
they know and love people who have died.
They should be grieving.
Grief is the only appropriate response
to the brokenness of the world.
Grief and outrage and anger and confusion
are normal, appropriate responses to the brokenness of the world—
The Jesus community doesn’t have to deny evil in the world.
But Paul is wanting to make sure that his friends know
that grief doesn’t have the last word.
And because grief doesn’t have the last word
grief and thankfulness aren’t incompatible.
He doesn’t want them to grieve like the rest of the world (v13)—
like they themselves would have grieved
before they heard about Jesus.
Because Jesus has changed everything.
And then Paul starts telling the story of Jesus.
That’s all the church ever does.
We tell the story of Jesus
again and again and again
to ourselves and the world.
Jesus has died and rose again (v14).
We’re mostly familiar with that part.
But, Paul goes on to a part of Jesus’ story
that we’re less familiar with, that we’re less confident about.
Jesus is going to reclaim the world one day.
One day Jesus will descend from heaven (v16, ch4)—
that’s the image that Paul uses here.
When he writes to the Colossians
he says that Jesus will “appear” one day (3.4).
The point is that one day
Jesus is going to make his living presence known
and transform the entire universe.
Paul is using a particular kind of language—
filled with archangels and loud cries and trumpets and clouds—
to describe something way better a rapture.
He’s using Jewish apocalyptic language
to describe the indescribable.
There’s a moment coming in human history
when the curtain of the universe will finally be thrown back,
and those who have died trusting Jesus won’t stay dead (v16),
and those alive are snatched up into the eternal goodness of God (v17).
Lots of people have pointed out
that the word Paul uses here for Christians “meeting” Jesus (v17) in the air
is almost a technical-kind-of-word in the Roman world.
It’s the word used when a king would arrive at a village or a city or a colony,
and the citizens would come and “meet” the king outside their gates
to welcome him into their village or city or colony.
That’s what’s being pictured here.
The picture Paul is painting
isn’t people living in the air with Jesus
(or even living in heaven with Jesus).
It’s a picture of Jesus arriving
and people going to meet him
to welcome him into the city.
Paul is describing the indescribable—
the moment when God’s kingdom and God’s king
finally come on earth as they are in heaven.
That’s the rough sketch of what Paul is drawing.
He’s reminding us that Jesus has changed everything.
He’s reminding us the brokenness of the world is real,
that grief is appropriate, but that grief will not have the last word.
This world matters to God,
and this world will be rescued and recreated by God.
Paul is inviting us all to get caught up in the story of Jesus—in the life of Jesus—
because Jesus has changed everything.
We have a king
who died and rose again.
That’s some hope,
Hope that is meant to encourage us right now (v18).
Hope that is meant to lead us into a different kind of life right now.
That’s what Paul is talking about in chapter five.
We’re invited to live in the light of God’s goodness right now (v5).
Not sad and hopeless lives.
Not lives of sleepwalking (v6).
Not lives of death.
Grief doesn’t have the last word.
We have an unshakeable hope.
A hope deeper than Roman Empire—or the American Empire—
making sure all is well with the economy or national security.
I mean, good grief, the promise of “peace and security” (v3)
whether it’s from a government or a financial consultant or a medical professional
can fall apart in the blink of an eye.
“Wrath” can rear its ugly head in countless ways—
terrorist attacks or an economic collapse or a terminal diagnosis—
and it can often be sudden and quick and inescapable.
But wrath doesn’t have the last word either.
Evil doesn’t have the last word.
But God’s plan isn’t for us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation (v9).
We look to Jesus to remember that wherever we find ourselves—
dead or alive, asleep or awake (v10)—we are safe with him
and we will be forever.
Jesus has changed everything.
Jesus gives us hope.
Jesus gives us hope that our lives matter,
our decisions matter, this world matters.
He gives us hope—a hope that empowers us to live a new kind of life.
A life (v12-15) where we work hard and live at peace with each other,
helping the weak and patiently striving to do good for others.
A life that isn’t afraid of the darkness.
A life that shines light into that darkness.
Paul is telling us the story of Jesus—
Jesus crucified and resurrected and coming again—
and telling us so that we can find hope in him.
The entire story of Jesus is the freight train that comes before
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
giving thanks in all circumstances—
these things are only possible (v18) in Christ Jesus.
Under the reign of King Jesus.
We come together in a King who knows the brokenness of the world.
We worship a king, we pray to a king,
who knows the crushing weight of evil and brokenness and sin and shadow.
He knows grief.
He knows fear.
The life of faith is not a life of denial.
Where we close our eyes to darkness
and say, “it’s not that bad.”
No—attacks in Paris:
Really bad. Really broken.
War and hunger and fear and disease:
Loneliness and despair and broken bodies and dead loved ones
Really bad. Really broken.
Not the way things are supposed to be.
But the life of faith not a life of denial.
Jesus doesn’t want us to deny these things.
Jesus doesn’t want us to deny our fear or outrage or anger or confusion.
We don’t deny grief.
We just don’t grieve as those without hope.
Jesus is inviting us into
lives where grief and thankfulness can coexist.
He’s inviting us into lives of hope.
Because hope is what can hold grief and thankfulness together.
Hope is how we can practice thankfulness in the midst of grief.
Hope is how we can practice thankfulness in the midst of a broken world.
Because despite the evil,
despite the brokenness, despite the shadows,
we still live in the land of goodness.
And the world won’t always be this way.
One day the sun will dawn
and the shadows will be banished.
The life of hope is the one learning to see the world through the lens of Jesus—
Jesus who still bears the scars of the world’s evil,
but who has transfigured them.
Our king doesn’t deny the evil we experience—
he just promises that he will end it.
Our king doesn’t deny the horror we experience—
he just promises that he’s going to transform it.
“I know people you love have died, dear friends,
but our king is going to raise the dead.”
It is in King Jesus—the Crucified One, in Christ Jesus—that we can say,
“It’s really bad, and yet I can rejoice.
It’s really broken, and yet I can be thankful.”
That’s God’s will for us… in King Jesus.
“I’m not thankful for the darkness…
but I am thankful in the midst of the darkness.”
We can be thankful in the midst of the darkness
because in King Jesus we have hope.
This table reminds us that in Christ Jesus
God meets us in the darkness and makes our brokenness his very own.
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
And we do—we come to this table each week in remembrance of our King.
In just a moment you’ll be invited to come down the aisle and receive from this table—
to receive a bit of bread, to dip it in the cup, and then return to your seat.
There are no easy answers at this table.
But there is hope.
As you come, may you be filled with this hope—
hope that God is not distant or deaf to the darkness.
God is present in the midst of it.
And one day the Son will come and bring the dawn.
May we be filled with hope
as look for the coming our king,
may we learn to live as children of light right now
and shine light for those who sleepwalk,
and may we have be filled with deep and lasting thankfulness
that we can share in the land of goodness
both today and forevermore,
world without end,