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The Wrath of God??
11-15-20   1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

In an often-futile effort to curb my compulsion to repeatedly check-in with my CNN app throughout the election, I subscribed to the New York Times morning email that gives a good, unemotional overview of the news.

My idea was that I can read that and then be done with the alarmist headline news for the rest of the day.

At the end of the news stories, they have a section called “Lives Lived”.

Normally they choose just one person a day to profile – often someone famous, but frequently someone less well known who had an impact on politics, arts, science or pop culture.

A few days ago, they profiled Marguerite Littman, whom they called a honey-voiced Louisianian and literary muse who taught Hollywood to speak Southern.

I guess I just didn’t travel in her universe because I’d never heard of her, but she knew and charmed everyone from Gore Vidal, to David Hockney to Truman Capote.

Capote reportedly distilled her charm into his most famous character, Holly Golightly of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.

Anyway, these little snippets of life – whether they are of a rock star, athlete or scientist – often get me thinking about what I have or have not achieved and what I may be remembered for.

How we mark time says a lot about how we assign meaning to our one and only human life.

Every minute lived is a minute spent – and at the end of our life some preacher is likely to stand in front of a church and remind our grieving friends of what we bought with that time.

But Paul reminds us that beyond cradle-to-grave moments, our lives are bracketed by a larger timeframe – the incarnation of Jesus and the coming again of Christ in the fullness of time.

We are just two weeks away from Advent, the season of preparation to receive Jesus who will be born on Christmas.

With the birth of God’s Son, we are invited into God’s family – Paul calls it adoption – by receiving Christ and then following Jesus’ teachings.

That move changes everything about our values and God’s presence with us throughout our life.

But that’s not the end of the story because Jesus also promised his return and some kind of reckoning.

1Thessalonians 5:1-2 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.

This concept of the “Day of the Lord” is feared by some, welcomed by others – and has been perverted in all sorts of ways.

Some hellfire and brimstone preachers have used it to enforce strict lifestyles and obedience to themselves.

On the other hand, it is suspected that in Thessalonica some believers had rationalized that if Jesus was to soon appear and set things right, then they may as well find a comfortable hammock, be idle and relax.

If Christ was coming again soon, what need was there to work or even look after the less fortunate?

This prompted Paul’s stern words in 1Thessalonians 5:14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.

I’m pretty sure I’ve already shared this story about Methodist Bishop Will Willimon – but it bears repeating.

When he was a young pastor, he and his wife attended a funeral in a little, out-of-the-way Baptist church.

Standing over the coffin with arms flailing, the little church’s preacher thundered, “It’s too late for Joe! He might have wanted to do this or that in his life, but it’s too late for him now! He’s dead … He might have wanted to straighten out his life, but he can’t now. It’s finished!”

But the minister wasn’t finished: “But it ain’t too late for you! People drop dead every day, so why wait?!

On their drive home, Willimon said to his wife that it was the worst thing he’d ever heard.

He asked, “Can you imagine a preacher doing that to a grieving family?”

“I’ve never heard anything so manipulative, cheap, and inappropriate! I would never preach a sermon like that.”

His wife agreed: it was tacky, calloused, and manipulative.

“And of course,” she added, “the worst part is that everything he said was true.”

Let’s look at 1Thessalonians 5:3 When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman.

The phrase “peace and security” was a slogan on Roman coins to remind people of the source of their peace and security.

The reference would not be missed in Thessalonica, the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia that participated in the cult of the emperor.

The political or armed promises of peace will not change the day of reckoning with Jesus for the kind of life you lived, in whatever world you find yourself.

Paul’s choice of a pregnant woman is a powerful allusion of what is to come for all of us.

While the thief in the night is unexpected, the birth pains experienced by the woman have been anticipated for many months and she knows that there is no way to avoid them.

But while Paul’s focus is on the inevitability of the pain, there is more here: the pain gives way to new life, or “obtaining of salvation” that he says in verse 9.

To be clear, when Paul promised the return of Jesus, he wasn’t minimizing the importance of life now … both for the love and joy we can experience now in this life, and because what we do during this life molds us into the kinds of beings we will take beyond this life.

Our lives are both gifts and schools.

When it comes to love, patience or forgiveness, some of us may get stuck in second grade while others are university students.

Being forgiving, finding peace, practicing love, hanging onto hope … those things don’t just happen.

We learn forgiveness when we are hurt or betrayed.

We learn patience when life’s demands and frustrations unceasingly roll over us.

We learn trust when we risk something to serve Christ.

If we are following Jesus, we learn them, we practice them, we hone them … and our teachers are uncle Jed who’s always pumped up with some right-wing conspiracy theory, or sister Susan who is naively spouting that we should totally defund the police – and so many others.

To encourage the Thessalonian Jesus followers, Paul uses a familiar rhetorical device, setting up a contrast between “them” and “us”.

1Thessalonians 5:5 You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.

He continues, we maintain sobriety; they dull their senses with drunkenness.

We remain alert; they fall asleep.

But Paul is not advocating the polarizing us-against-them message we get so much today that fuels the human impulse to demonize our political opponents.

If continued, that can only lead to violence.

I recently heard a report on Parler, one of the new alternative social networks that some are encouraging because there is no moderator that flags untruth as Twitter has been doing with some of the President’s Tweets, nor does it mute threats of violence as Facebook does.

The man being interviewed said that he went there to read alternative perspectives on the news, but what he found instead were unhinged conspiracy theories and outright threats of violence targeting people they oppose.

You may have heard about the small-town chief of police that last week used Parler to call people to swarm Washington to kill Democrats and “take no prisoners”.

I’m sure there are some progressive sites like that, too.

My point is, that as right as people may feel in their viewpoint, escalating the hate and division will only lead to a boiling point of hate … the opposite of everything Jesus stood for, and so the opposite we are to stand for, and the opposite of what we will be judged for on that day of reckoning that is as unavoidably coming as birth pains for a pregnant woman.

Parler and such sites remove accountability for any posting, but accountability is still coming when we face God and give account of what we did with our life.

Rather than fueling division, Paul is saying, unlike those children of the dark, this is what we aspire to be as children of the light.

I joked at the Council of Team Leaders the other night that the biggest mistake I made this year was purchasing a day planner for 2020.

Who would have guessed that we’d be shut down by a pandemic or that a traditional, peaceful transition of power in the White House would be so difficult?

I think that at some level many of us feel that once we get past 2020 things will suddenly be better.

But the pandemic will still be with us and our social divisions will not have magically healed.

But that’s okay because our savior is not Joe Biden, nor would it have been Donald Trump.

They are important people, of course, but our hope is in Jesus who is with us through all history, all storms, and all circumstances.

Paul instructs the Thessalonians to (5:8) put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.

Equating faith, love, and hope to the protective armor worn by Roman soldiers underscores their power.

Beyond that, like a sports jersey, they tell the world whom the person serves.

In the case of a Roman soldier, it was the emperor.

In the case of a Jesus follower, faith, hope and love identify them as serving the God of Jesus Christ.

That’s why we have the song They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.

To be sure, faith, hope and love do not totally protect us from suffering, but they do protect us from fear of the wrath to come.

1Thessalonians 5:9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Maybe we’re not comfortable with words like “wrath”.

Maybe we’d like to say that we’re not that kind of church, but there it is in black and white.

Rather than ignore it, we could ask, “What would so stir God’s indignation that it would reach the level of wrath?”

It’s a good question to keep in front of ourselves as we endure more of the pandemic, more of people who are fed up with the pandemic, more of people who deny the pandemic, more of political rankling that inches toward violence, more of stressed loved ones who get irritated so easily nowadays.

I just know that if I do my utmost to approach each person with patience and love that God will be pleased.

I won’t get it right every time – but God will be pleased that I tried.

Your life is bracketed between the birth of Jesus and the return of Christ.

Those in-between years may be challenging, but how we live them will mold us into the people who as sure as birth pains come to a pregnant woman will someday stand before God.

You can have full faith that you will not face God’s wrath but rather His blessings if you do your utmost to live with love.

Then our Lord will say to you, Well done, good and faithful servant.