The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
9 November 2014
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
1 Thesselonians 4:13-18
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The Lectionary today appoints four texts for our instruction which, read separately and together, paint a picture of God’s people as a people waiting—waiting for the return of their God, for an event that came to be called “the day of the Lord.” God’s absence is sorely felt; it makes living uncertain; it makes people feel vulnerable and perplexed; it raises questions of faith, identity, morality and mortality. It was in her greatest time of need, as the enemy laid siege to her cities forcing starvation, as the prophets announced God’s impending judgment and expulsion from the land, and the sentencing of her people to serve foreign taskmasters once more, that in her desperation Israel began to speak of “the day of the Lord.”
In the prophecy of Amos, all of Israel, north and south, is warned of exile. The prophet alternates between describing the treachery of God’s people, who “turn justice to wormwood and trample the poor,” and the way of their escape: “for thus says the Lord, ‘Seek me and live.’” Knowing how desperate their danger was, yet missing or ignoring the symptoms of their own disease, the people cried out for the day of the Lord, thinking that his return to the temple would mean their rescue. But the day of the Lord cuts in two directions: a divine intervention to bring salvation and deliverance, and a lightening strike of justice and judgment; and there is no doubt in the prophet’s mind which outcome is in store for his people. There is a brilliant turn of phrase in our text which underscores how badly turned around this people is:
“Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why do you want the day of the LORD?
It is for you darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear.
(or, as might sound more familiar to us, out of the frying pan, into the fire)
No, Amos asks, incredulous at this people’s blindness, “Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom of judgment and exile and gloom with no brightness in it?” The people from the north and the south alike would be expelled from the place on earth God himself had given as gift to Abraham, ordained for his descendants’ peace and joy—where they were to have lived in the light of God’s presence. Yet, following this season of judgment, when the people, who have sat in darkness for decades and contemplated their sin and turned again to their God, they would set their hearts again on another “day of the Lord,” described by Isaiah as the moment when God would vindicate and rescue the faithful and oppressed remnant of his people.
It is this “day of the Lord,” first announced by Isaiah, Zechariah and Malachi, that is the day of God’s return played out in the narrative of Jesus—God present among his people, no longer invisible but fully incarnate, announcing the royal rule of God about to commence in great power on earth. But in Jesus, “the day of the Lord” takes several interesting turns: it has begun with his own earthly appearance; but he then begins to speak of that day as a future coming of the Son of Man in clouds; and the day of the Lord, the coming of God’s kingdom and the return of the Son of Man converge into a single, pregnant concept at whose center is Jesus. Our text in Matthew is situated at the turning-point moment in the story of God’s redemption so as to underscore that this day of the Lord is a critical point of human decision, and depending on the decision made, could bring good news or bad. For God’s faithful, the coming of the kingdom, the final and full delivery of our redemption, is described as the impending peaceful rule of God and the pleasure of living in his presence. But for those who refused obstinately to respond to God’s relentless overture of love, who turned religious observance from authentic worship into mechanical and empty rites, who multiplied sacrifices, emptying them of meaning, while neglecting and exploiting the poor and the widows . . . for those, the day of the Lord would be a day of divine reckoning, of destruction, the destruction of the temple by Rome, and the expulsion of the people one more time. (The tale of the fortunes of Israel that the Hebrew Bible spins, of her attraction to rebellion like a moth to the flame, aches with sorrow, and in Matthew 25 she is walking off the next cliff.)
Our parable is one of several reflections on this day of the Lord, here in its kingdom guise, exploring the surprise and mystery of its arrival: the story seems so innocent and begins so lightly holding the promise of joy; ten virgins anticipating a great wedding feast go out to greet the bridegroom. But almost immediately, this simple story is about to be knocked off its rails; for five of them were wise and so brought along extra oil for their lamps; but five of them were foolish and so made no allowance for delay. Their mistake seems a trivial thing, but it has devastating consequences: as the image of marriage feast slides into kingdom, we hear the ominous “truly I tell you, I do not know you.” (Now, right now, if I were to push the “Gospel button,” we know in the end the door would open to these foolish five as well. But that is not the point of this parable.) This period of time defined by the announcement of promise, our time too, is uncertain in length. But the uncertainty is not such an uncertainty that releases one from obligation; instead the opposite is true. And Jesus defines the life of faithfulness in the uncertain interim as watching, wakefulness, alertness, readiness, and vigilance. And there is something more in this call to stay awake.
Now, from Paul’s perspective on the other side of the cross, himself one who was caught in the interim of waiting, with a scholarly command of the prophetic building blocks, for Paul the day of the Lord which arrived in the person of Jesus and should be understood as the decisive day of the Lord, is an event unfolding in stages. In Jesus, the new age, the promised glorious intervention of God to bring both salvation to his people and justice to the nations, has commenced but has not reached finality. The day of the Lord is split in two, and what began with Jesus’ incarnation will be brought to successful conclusion by a final, ultimate appearance of Jesus, described variously by Paul as epiphany, parousia, and as “the day of the Lord.” Paul’s letters are in a very real way the interpretation of the middle ground between Jesus’ two appearances; our still unfolding chapter in this grand narrative of God’s redemption. And in this chapter, what a role God has given us to play! Christian existence is faithful living in the twilight, where shafts of light and depth of shadow intermingle, shifting, leaving us sometimes wondering at what we see or think we see, sometimes certain and full of clarity, and sometimes at a loss. When Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians, he was aware of the prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction, and almost certainly expected in his own lifetime to see this cataclysmic event to be followed by the final, triumphant return of Christ. The imminence of this event was problematic for that newborn church: if all was to happen so quickly, what would happen to those believers who had died? But in fact as Paul goes on, his understanding of the twilight zone of Christian existence underwent some change, and he began to conceive of it stretching beyond the horizon of his life perhaps for some time to come. What became crucial, given the certainty of his hope in the return of Christ, was the character of Christian living determined by hope—a time of waiting, yes, waiting in faithfulness; but not a time of idleness. Rather, a time in which the church, which Paul described as the body of Christ, with Christ as its head, and the indwelling Holy Spirit as its life-force . . . a time in which the church was called to be the very presence of the absent Jesus in this uncertain world. And so Paul in multiple ways maps out this life in-between. And it becomes clear that what the parable describes as “watching, because you do not know the day or the hour” is a time of vital, dynamic activity; missional activity characterized by a discerning sense of alertness to what God is doing in our midst and what God wishes to do in and through us: namely, in the poetry of Amos:
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
Much more than a time of waiting, as Amos pleads, and Paul instructs, and Jesus signals through parables, this time in-between is a space of possibility and redemption opened up by God. There is no question that we are all capable of abusing this space, or of missing opportunities, which is in fact the plight of the nation in Amos’s time, which Jesus in his own time also addressed. But in the Thessalonians, a small, newborn house church still learning to walk, we glimpse the possibilities open to us. They responded to the gospel, after only three weeks or so of chaotic tutelage under Paul—and so dramatically that Paul writing back to them from Athens could say there was no longer any need for him to preach in Greece, for they had become an example for all the churches in Achaia and Macedonia, and from them the word of faith had resounded. And both halves of this description are important: we live within a narrative of redemption, but it is not a narrative constructed simply of words; it is rather a narrative performed on the human stage through which the life and ministry of Christ can be detected, in small ways and large, as justice, as righteousness, as caring for the poor, as seeking forgiveness and offering it as well.We do not know the time of the day of the Lord or of the final arrival of his glorious kingdom. And we have not written the script for this penultimate act in God’s drama. But now the show is ours; our cue has been clearly given; it is our space and our time, and there remains a complicated plot still needing resolution; and it is through our performance, in a power and wisdom that is not of our making, that the world will know of Christ.
© 2014 Philip H. Towner