1 THESSALONIANS 4:13 – 5:11
One Of the ways that people try to cope with tragic situations is with humour. Just yesterday I saw two good examples. One based on an advert for a well known chocolate treat just asked has anyone tried giving 2020 a snickers yet? The other simply stated that it was amazing how badly we are screwing up an apocalypse on the easy setting and that we’re clearly not ready for zombies or aliens! This of course is a very modern view on the apocalypse. Apocalyptic literature from the Bible is actually very interesting and very poetic.
Generally speaking, apocalyptic material tends to be written in times of crisis. The exile in Babylon led to the writings of Daniel and Ezekiel for example. The horrendous persecutions of the first century led to John’s writings from Patmos and even here in Thessalonians we get some apocalyptic material as Paul is so very aware of the hardships that the Thessalonian believers were having to put up with at this time. They were being shunned by society, persecuted by the authorities and having to put up with all manner of abuse for their new religion and so Paul looks to reassure them. So he writes to them of the end of time which is not just the summation of Christian theology but also the systematic counterpoint to creation. In more recent times you see the same longing in the spirituals written by the slaves in America and also the Sankey and Moody hymns that became so popular in the 19th century which were predominantly about future hope rather than present reality. Hymns such as “when the roll is called up yonder and the sweet by and by.” For those living in substandard housing provided by the industrial owners, who had to work gruelling 12 hour shifts in horrendous conditions for little pay singing about heaven on a Sunday somehow made the hell on Monday that little bit more bearable. Unfortunately this desire, while providing hope for the distant future does nothing to change the lot of those in the present and immediate future. By eclipsing the question of what will last in favour of looking at what comes last the present is ignored. Yet that is not what good eschatology will do. Good eschatology will emphasize that which is lasting and trust God to reveal in time what comes last.
13 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. 14 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. 15 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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
The Day of the Lord
5 Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 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.
4 But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 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. 9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
As Professor Elizabeth Barnes wrote: – “The same God who creates the world and redeems it from its fallen state is the God who wills its completion and draws it towards its final destiny. In the sense, therefore, that all life is lived towards its end, every moment has eschatological significance. In the homespun words of another, “we write our own epitaph,” by the lives we live moment by moment. Fraught with eschatological meaning, our decisions and actions have eternal significance. They either enact that which is ultimately lasting or do not.”
Paul’s writings to the Thessalonians does that. The work of the Thessalonian community was arduous. Their hope was tentative. Their loved ones were dying. Their decision to become believers resulted in great political costs and hardships. They were trying desperately to hold on to Paul’s teachings, to believe that Jesus would come again as promised. So, Paul set out to comfort them in their intense grief. He encourages them to have faith and hope. This is not the end of the story there is more to come.
I read this week an autobiographical story of a boy brought up in an intensely charismatic church community. Every Easter they would gather in the local cemetery before dawn for a sunrise service where the preacher, this boy’s father, would get the congregation worked up that this was the day, this was the day of the rapture. He describes how every Easter he expected to hear the blast of trumpets, to look up and see Jesus descending while the graves of all his faithful ancestors would burst open as they rose again. They listened, they prayed, they hoped, they cried and they sang. And while there was no rapture in a way Christ did come down. God was present and they were transported to a different dimension, even just for a moment. A moment when with their friends and relatives around them they felt a real presence. They felt the connection between heaven and earth. As the writer describes it he said, while we waited for it to happen we looked around and it was already happening. The cemetery on that Easter dawn became what our spiritual ancestors might refer to as a thin place.
According to the history it is likely that Kinnoull Parish Church started as a Celtic Christian community by the river crossing for those on pilgrimage to St. Andrews. Founded in memory of St. Constantine who was the Scottish King Constantine II who abdicated to become the Abbott of the Celtic monastery in St. Andrews our ancestors here would have understood the idea of a thin place. Iona was considered a thin place where heaven and earth seem to meet, time has no markers and the boundaries of past, present and future melt into one dimension. To describe that cemetery therefore as a thin place is to say that on that morning, just as Paul predicts in his letter, heaven and earth connected. However when Paul directs the Thessalonians to consider such a confluence he does it in such a way as to direct their attention to the present. Don’t spend your time wandering around looking up to the sky. Instead look around you in the here and now, to remember God is here already. Look around and see his presence here and now. Even at this time of crisis, when everything is upside down and topsy turvy, in the midst of the anxiety over covid 19, the frantic worry, the insecurity and loss realise that heaven and earth have already begun to connect. God has already come and will come again soon. By our words, by our actions, by our love we make this a thin place and the thinner this place becomes the more people will be touched by heaven, feel God’s presence and realise the importance of those things which are of eternal significance. Comfort one another with these words.