God’s grace, peace and mercy be with you. My focus is 1st Thessalonians, chapter 5 where Paul wrote: “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up.”
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, the psalmist wrote, “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”[i] Now that our feet are within your gates, we rejoice to hear your Word. As we listen, may your Spirit enlighten our minds and move our hearts to love deeply as Jesus loved. This we pray to you, Most Holy Trinity. Amen.
I recently saw a commercial for D-Day, an IMAX movie. 70 years, 5 months, 10 days after D-Day, we find few survivors of the real event. Less than 1 million veterans of the Second World War survive. Only 5-10,000 D-Day participants remain. By 2036, there will be no World War II veterans.
Casey Hasey, 94, of Cathedral City, California, was a bombardier who saw D-Day unfold from the nose of a B-26 as he fired on Germans below. He fears that when the last D-Day vet dies, so will the day’s facts and importance. He recalled a dentist mentioning World War II to him and “the lady assisting her said, 'Who was fighting?’”[ii]
As we inch closer to the end of the church year, we focus on another D-Day, the Day of the Lord. As much as America’s D-Day deserves attention, to a greater degree does the Day of the Lord. So, I ask what the Day of the Lord, Destination and Discipleship meant to Paul and the Thessalonians, and what it means to us.
First, the Day of the Lord. Last week, I said that for Israel the Day of the Lord meant the divine warrior would conquer Israel’s enemies. It would bring God's wrath on the wicked, but salvation for believers.[iii] On the Day of the Lord, Yahweh would punish apostates and judge nations, but all who repented and called upon his name in faith would be saved.
That’s Old Testament. What did the Day of the Lord mean for Paul and the Thessalonians? According to Paul, the Day of the Lord included wrath, uprightness and love. [iv] Wrath is not an emotion expressing malicious hatred or jealousy, but is God’s steadfast reaction as judge to evil and sin. In his uprightness, God provided a new mode of salvation for humanity – justification by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. Finally, God pours His love into human hearts.
We see what Paul thought regarding God’s plan of salvation throughout his letters.[v] In Romans 8, we read, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” In Thessalonians, Paul said as much when he wrote, “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
For Paul and the Thessalonians the Day of the Lord would bring wrath, uprightness and love. The Day of the Lord would come assuredly, precariously and inevitably like a woman awaiting childbirth, but also suddenly like a thief in the night. Nothing would prevent the Day of the Lord.
From Day of the Lord to destination, my second point. … We define destination as the place to which one goes or the ultimate purpose for which something is created or intended.[vi] Our honeymoon destination was Alaska. A team’s destination is to win a championship. A Christian’s destination is to be with our Triune God: our Father through Christ directed by the Holy Spirit and aided by grace through Word and Sacrament.
Talk to an unbeliever about your destination. He will think you are strange. Paul faced those who thought his teaching regarding the Resurrection sounded stranger.
Pagan literature bemoaned the fact that crops rise and renew themselves, but humans simply die. Humans simply die, but the Greeks talked to the dead as an accepted practice. In fact, Greeks held birthday parties for the dead, complete with wine poured through a tube into the tomb in hopes that the deceased might participate in the celebration.[vii] To these same people, however, the resurrection was a strange concept.
Paul addressed the topic of Christians rising from the dead not only because the Thessalonians were gravely concerned about the final destination of their deceased loved ones, but also because Thessalonian Christians faced open persecution.
Through Christ, we are destined for salvation, and on the Day of the Lord, we will fully experience it as disciples of Jesus. Hence, my third point, discipleship.
When we talk about discipleship, we mean the process of becoming a disciple. A disciple is one who embraces and spreads the teachings of another.[viii] It comes from the Latin word discipulus, from which we get the English noun pupil, and from discere, the Latin word meaning to learn.
Paul imparted to the Thessalonians the teachings of Jesus, but more importantly, Paul taught them how to live as a community of disciples or church destined for the Day of the Lord, which they thought was right around the corner.
Paul used dualistic language and metaphors the Greeks understood – night and day, darkness and light, drunk and sober, awake or asleep – to discourage or encourage certain behaviors.
Dualistic language and metaphors clearly contrasted Christian disciples destined for salvation as they awaited the Day of the Lord from everyone else. Transformed into new creatures, they were already children of the light awaiting the day.[ix] As such, they were to wear their day clothes even at night. They were to be ready at a moment’s notice, and not people of the night to be caught unprepared.
To illustrate that, let me put it this way. After supper, the kids finish their homework, and we put them to bed. We slip into our pajamas or sweats – our night clothes. We plop into our comfy spot to watch our favorite show and sip a glass of merlot. We become people of the night. We are not prepared to go anywhere.
Ben Witherington describes well people of the day. On August 13, 1979, my wife was in the hospital. The doctor informed us that Ann would have to be induced as her blood pressure became increasingly high. Ann was distraught after all the child-birthing classes about having to have drugs to induce labor, and was worried what it could do to the baby. She was very upset as we sat down to do our nightly reading of a chapter in the Bible, in this case a gloom and doom chapter in Ezekiel. A word suddenly stood out, “… I will keep you safe … and you will come home soon.” I realized this was a promise made to Israel over 2,500 years ago, but it was a word of knowledge that spoke to us.
I returned to the caretakers cottage at the church and kept my dayclothes on, pacing the floor. I had no car and no phone, and did not know when my neighbor, who did have a car and a phone would show up. But I was certain he would come and take me to the hospital. When he showed up, he was surprised to find me fully dressed. Because I was forewarned, I was prepared.
Because I was forewarned, I was prepared. Paul instructed the Thessalonians to stay awake in their dayclothes because Jesus would return. Wearing their dayclothes meant being prepared, and encouraging fellow disciples to be ready.
There we have it – what the Day of the Lord, destination and discipleship meant for Paul and the Thessalonians. Now, what does it mean for us?
First, none of us, not even Jesus, knows when the Day of the Lord will occur. That is why we dismiss millennialists and mistaken fundamentalists who promote the rapture.[x]
We should simply know that the Day of the Lord will come. It may come when we are alive or asleep, but like Ben Witherington, we are forewarned, we are prepared.
Second, we are destined for salvation because we confessed our belief in our Triune God. Martin Luther wrote the Apostles Creed teaches us what we believe. I believe in God the Father, who created me; I believe in God the Son, who redeemed me; I believe in the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies me.
Finally, we should encourage one another as fellow disciples of Jesus. That is where the rubber hits the road. If Thessalonian Christians were to be different from others, are we? Do we encourage one another? Do we build up each other? Do I encourage others to be ready for the Day of the Lord? Do I encourage others to live as Jesus’ disciples? When others see my behavior, do they see me as someone different from unbelievers? If you do not know, ask ten people for an honest answer.
We now know what the Day of the Lord is for us. We now know our destination. We now know we are disciples, but disciples, including me, always need to be challenged.
Hence, I close with some reflections on my recent reading. The first is from Lutheran Witness, where President Harrison points out that membership in the Missouri Synod declined 12% since 2000.[xi] Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who deny the divinity of Christ and the Trinitarian nature of God, increased 218% and 254%, respectively. The answer to our problem, Harrison suggests, is v. 11 – encourage one another. He urges pastors to encourage members to visit those who stopped worshipping with us. … When did you last call a member who has not worshipped with us for a month, six months, six years?
The second is from a book on Christianity in America over the past century.[xii] It challenges us to take our faith as seriously as evangelical Christians. As the Day of the Lord approaches, have I told anyone that God’s love benefits all people?[xiii] Do I believe that God has called me to be a Christlike witness in the power of the Spirit?[xiv]
As the Day of the Lord approaches and fewer people join us for worship, am I comfortable sitting on my hands? If I am afraid to invest the love God has poured into my heart, why should He not treat me like the worthless servant cast into the outer darkness of weeping and gnashing of teeth?[xv]
Do I fear inviting people to worship with us? Do the Holy Spirit’s promptings make me feel uncomfortable? Do I fear people will label us as a church that reaches out to sinners? Am I afraid neighbors will see me at the front door and say, “Here comes a Missouri Synod Lutheran. Don’t answer the door!”
Friends, the Day of the Lord approaches. You are destined for salvation. You are Christ’s disciples. Do not fear sharing the Gospel. … As the hymn says, Be Not Afraid! … Ponder that as I close with a story of 90-year old D-Day survivor, Bob Perry.[xvi]
Bob remembers waking up early on June 6, 1944. He shaved without hot water and ate breakfast before the general briefing. “When they told us that today was the invasion day, we quit grumbling and started paying attention.”
Part of the 8th Air Force, Perry “couldn't imagine [the mission] would fail, because it was just too much planning, too many men, and too much heart."
Now, with white hair and a walker, Bob has many memories of his historic D-Day fight, but says his greatest memory is that he survived. He remembers being a frightened 20-year-old navigator inside a B-17. “Anybody who says he’s not scared when people are shooting at him is either a liar or a fool or both.”
When asked on his thoughts about being called the greatest generation, Bob says, “That’s just a name. We had a job to do. We did it. We came home and we raised our families, got jobs, bought houses and so forth. That’s all. We didn’t do anything spectacular. None of us wanted to be heroes.”[xvii]Friends, as disciples of Jesus, if you encourage one another to worship the God who promises salvation as your final destination before the Day of the Lord arrives, you will receive no medal. No one will remember you as a hero, but as an unworthy servant.[xviii] Yet, know this: from now until the end of your days the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
[i] Psalm 122
[ii] Denise Goolsby and Sherry Barkas, D-Day invasion of Normandy witnesses dwindling. The Desert Sun, June 6, 2014 http://www.desertsun.com/story/news/veterans/2014/06/06/d-day-invasion-normandy-world-war-ii-veterans/10053969/
[iii] Isaiah 13:6-16; Zephaniah 1; 3:9 -20; Joel 2:32; Obadiah 15-21; Malachi 4.
[iv] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., Pauline Theology in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Edited by Raymond E. Brown, SS, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall (1990) 1390. Reference to Ps 78:31 and Isa 30:27-28.
[v] Ibid, 1391.
[vii] Ben Witherington III, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Gran Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (2006), 128
[ix] Witherington, 148.
[x] The "End Times" A Study on Eschatology and Millennialism. A Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, September 1989.
[xi] Matthew Harrison, Unworthy Servants, The Lutheran Witness (November 2014), 1ff.
[xii] Cecil M. Robeck, Jr and Amos Yong, editors. The Cambridge Companion to Pentecostalism. New York: Cambridge University Press (2014).
[xiii] Ibid, 224.
[xiv] Ibid, 295.
[xv] Matthew 25:14-30.
[xviii] Luke 17:10.