What are your plans for Christmas? Usually, that would be an entirely innocent question in mid-November. By this point in the year most of us would have already made our arrangements for Christmas: the parties and lunches would be booked, and deposits paid. We would have made plans to see friends and relatives, grandchildren who live away. We would know who would be staying with us for the festive period or where we might be travelling too. The Christmas shopping trips would be organised.
This year, it’s different. It’s hard to plan ahead. Will there be another lock down? How far will we be able to travel? How many will be in my bubble? Normally, we feel confident about the immediate future, but Coronavirus has robbed us of that. Planning has become a difficult juggling act.
But what of the more distant future? The hopes of a vaccine and sanity in the American White House have given us some cause for optimism but how do we feel about the long-term prospects for our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren if we have them? Growing populations, concerns over food supplies, climate change, pollution of the oceans, the sensitive nature of much international politics, the pressure on mental health of 24/7 communication. There is much in today’s world that can make us jittery and fearful about the future.
Today’s epistle reading from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is addressed to a young church in a large multi ethic city of the Roman Empire. Thessalonica was a flourishing place at the time. It sat at the intersection of several Roman roads and had a port so there was plenty of trade which brought wealth to its inhabitants. It was the capital of Macedonia and as such enjoyed a degree of political independence. And it was a city with a future. Unlike a number of the places to which Paul addressed his letters, it’s still with us today known as Thessaloniki, it’s the second city in Greece.
Clearly, the citizens had little to worry about; they did not need to fear the future. They lived with a confidence in their own prosperity and well-being. That was a bit of an issue for Paul and the young church he had helped found in the city. Were they too comfortable? Did they think that things could only get better as the signature tune for a former prime minister had it?
So, Paul had spoken with them about ‘The Day of the Lord’. For the Jews amongst them, that would have been a familiar concept. The old testament prophets spoke often of a day of judgment and reckoning when God would act decisively in the world. Jesus had spoken of the same thing and related it to his coming again: ‘You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.’ (Mark 14.62)
But when would this day come? Christians in Thessalonica were already concerned that some of their number had died and the Lord had not yet come. Paul reminds them that we do not know when. He gives two images. It will be like a thief in the night and like labour pains for a pregnant woman. Both are images of pain. The first, the pain of irretrievable loss because precautions were not taken; the premises were not locked and guarded. Will the day of the Lord catch us off guard so that we lose out, loose out on the hope of heaven? The image of the woman giving birth is also one of pain, but with hope at the end of new life. Jesus’ coming again will not be an easy time: ‘When they say ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them.’ (1 Thessalonians 5.3) As Christian people, we should be prepared for difficult times, just like the mum to be is prepared for the pain that will accompany the birth; yet she will look beyond to the new life.
Christian people should be at the forefront of talking about the future of our planet, but instead, we are so often on the back foot and we let the scientists do all the talking.
Paul urges his readers therefore to be awake and not asleep, to be people of the light and the day, not the darkness, people who are sober and not drunk. Security guards don’t have much to do most the time, but they must stay awake and they must stay sober. That goes for Christian people too. This does not mean that we can’t enjoy a drink, but it does mean we are not lulled into a false sense of security it which we go along with a world that thinks it can go on forever, can over come every problem and will always prosper. Instead, we sleep with our boots on. We wear the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of the hope of salvation …along with our face mask and shield.
So, how do we view the future? How do we speak of it to others, especially with those who are younger? Are we tempted to be pessimistic, like Private Frazer in Dad’s Army who’s catch phrase was ‘We’re all doomed’? Or do we buy in to the upbeat message of advertisers and game show hosts that better times are just around the corner? Living as we do in one of the most affluent parts of the world, it is easy to think that we are unsinkable, like the Titanic.
As Christian people, we are called to a distinct view of the future; one that does not place all our confidence in a bounce back recovery nor an unmitigated disaster. We recognise that what we enjoy in this life is a gift from God, but it is not guaranteed, and it will not last forever. The Day of the Lord will come but like a thief or pangs of childbirth at a time we don’t expect. It will be a time turmoil and distress, but it will usher in a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness is at home. At a deep level, Christian believers do not need to fear this day or indeed any of the other issues that confront our world real or imagined. Our belief and trust in Jesus Christ is our passport to the new heaven and earth secured for us by blood and nails on the cross. More than that, it is a diplomatic passport giving us unfettered access in prayer and worship to the sovereign Lord of all.
Paul concludes this passage with a call to encouragement. We should support each other and encourage one another he says. There are plenty of voices out there who want to convince us of different realities. It is part of the deceit of Satan to make us believe something else. Encouragement is a godly thing. As we practice it, so the Holy Spirit lifts our morale, our hope which will not disappoint. In uncertain times, may we hold on to these truths together and encourage one another.
15.11.2020 Kingdom 3