This sermon was delivered at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on November 15, 2020
5 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters,[a] you do not need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4 But you, beloved,[b] are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
The sun has been doing some incredible things lately. Did anyone see the sunset on Thursday night? It was bright yellow, then bright orange, then red and all the while a purple glow that bounced off every surface. The setting of the sun can be inspiring and beautiful. The colors can sometimes be tranquil and soft, and other times, like Thursday night, they can be raging and vivid. I would be lying, though, if I said sunsets like the one we had Thursday didn’t feel a little ominous to me. There’s something about the passage from the brightness of day into the darkness of night that always carries with it a certain amount of angst, but even more so on nights when there is no fiery red on the horizon.
Shortly after that sunset that I had a deep theological conversation with several folks and the conversation very naturally turned to talking about the end times. Maybe it was a coincidence, or maybe dramatic settings of the sun can have that effect on us. It certainly doesn’t help that current events of this year, and even this week as see mobile morgues arriving to overwhelmed western states and violent clashes between protestors in the streets, the events around us can seem like a raging sunset and that inevitably makes us wonder what comes next. Even if it’s just a passing thought under your breath, we’ve all probably wondered…. What is this all leading to? Some have even asked, is this the beginning of the end?
I think this is a natural question, given the tumultuous year we’ve had and are still having. And think bringing yourself to church where you can be among others with the same doubts and the same fears is the first step. God never leaves us alone and as is so often the case, the very thing we need to hear, is the very thing read. You see, I believe that the same question we ask about the end have been asked before. In fact, I think it was probably this very question that was being asked of a guy named Paul by a church in Thessaloniki, a city in what is now Greece, in the 1st century A.D. in our scripture reading this morning. Wondering when Jesus would return is a question people have been asking for thousands of years. I don’t know what kind of suffering those people in Thessaloniki were going through or what kind of fiery sunsets they were seeing, but Jesus had only been gone a handful of years and they were already wondering, is this the end? Is this the moment Jesus returns?
I don’t know if it is and neither did Paul as he wrote back to the Thessalonians. “Concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters,” he said, “you don’t need to have anything written to you.” We can’t know and when we start to think we know, we start to miss the point. The scriptures tell us it will come as a surprise, like a thief in the night. And the reason why we can’t know, despite all the predictions some people try to make, is because our timing is not God’s timing. We are not God and therefore we can’t predict God’s plans.
What we ought to do instead of worrying about when Jesus might return, Paul says, is each moment as though we belong to the day, not the night. He says stay awake. Don’t fall asleep. “6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.”
As someone who loves to sleep and considers my 7 hours of rest each night sacred work, I have to remind myself that this scripture is not trying to undermine a good night’s sleep. “Sleep” and “night” in this passage aren’t to be taken literally. Sleep is used in the sense of lack of awareness; hibernation from the present moment. A detachment from reality, similar to drunkenness. Night is used as a way of describing a season or time period in which there is an absence of Light; an absence of clarity about the goodness of God; an absence of clarity about God’s commands and path for us.
This understanding of night is more like what we think of as “a dark night of the soul.” A time when you are distant not only from God’s presence, but also from God’s will for your life and for the world.
When a vivid sunset is raging before a dark night in a literal and a figurative sense we worry about the end coming in our understanding of time. But God is worried instead that we have forgotten God’s timing—how to live as those who belong to the day and not the night.
Instead of worrying about the end, we should be fighting the dark night of the soul and the temptation to let ourselves slip into a slumber of apathy and indifference. We must guard ourselves against the night with a breastplate of faith and love and a helmet of the hope of salvation.
The world could be crashing around us in darkness, with fear and hatred raging around us, and the important thing is not that we spend our remaining time speculating about the exact moment of collapse but that we lift our heads high and live our life guided by the true light of Christ; the important thing is that in the face of fear and hatred we practice justice and mercy, humility and kindness. This is the alternative to darkness. This is how we belong to the day, God’s day. Awake to the threat of shadows in this present age and instead of turning the other way, actively striving to shine light into the dark corners of our own selves so that the radiant power of Christ’s brightness can transform us into something better than we were before. We belong to the day. A place where justice is fought and earned for all people. A place where love guards all of the hearts. A place where hope encapsulates all doubt.
As I was thinking about the kind of wakefulness Paul is encouraging us to have in this passage, I couldn’t help but think of another word that’s been on my mind. Woke. It’s a word that comes from the African-American vernacular and has in the last few years come to describe people of color who are aware of and working against racial injustice. This is, I think, a perfect way to understand what it must be like to belong to God’s Day: fully aware of the pain all around you and actively working to make things right again. Armed with the breastplate of faith and love, and a helmet of hope, those who are woke see a world free of systems that discriminate and dehumanize. It’s the opposite of hunkering down and fearing the end. It’s active anticipation. It’s creating the world God desires so that when God returns in the person of Jesus, he comes into his kingdom already at work.
This summer, after the killing of George Floyd, a handful of white people at this church wanted to meet together and talk about how to be actively anti-racist. And so meetings started happening every week. We are far from having the right answers, and we certainly don’t all agree all the time, but every week we show up because we know that racism a dark night of the soul for this country and we as white Christians have a responsibility to wake from our slumber.
It’s really hard and important work, waking from our slumber. Moving from a passive stance to an active stance in the fight for what is right. That’s got to be why Paul ended this passage with a critical “Therefore.” “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” This is so critical. We cannot fight the dark night alone. To be people of the day, activists for God’s righteousness, we need each other. We need an encouraging word, a group that will hold us accountable, a shoulder to cry on when the hurt is too deep. Believe that you belong to the day and that you are a child of the light. And when you forget; when the sunset is burning in a ominous way and you start to see the shadows form, ask for help. It’s together, as a people of faith devoted to our mutual encouragement that we will be people of glorious sunrises, promising the Light of Christ for all.
Let us Pray.
Jesus, Lord of all our days. Lord of all our seasons. Lord of all our times. You are the beginning and the end. The Alpha and the Omega. You were present at Mt. Sinai and you’re present in 2020. Hold us in your care. Cradle us in your compassion. And yet spur us forward with the justice of your commandments. Wake us from a slumber in which we would stand by while others hurt. Help us help each other and be children of the light. Amen.