Sermon Given at Madison Mennonite Church, May 18, 2014
Text: I Thessalonians 5
I want to reflect with you this evening on the ways in which the God of Jesus Christ comes to us in our times of helplessness and catastrophe in order to save us, and also to transform the broken world that surrounds us. The scripture text that we have from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians helps us to understand how our God makes peace by confronting the corrupted and destructive forces that still presume to rule the world and that continue to bring about its ruin. To unpack Paul’s view of God-directed social change, I want to follow the main points of I Thessalonians, chapter 5, as they have been given to us. First, the day of the Lord is coming. Second, this knowledge reminds us to live as children of the day. And finally, when we live in the light of the day, we will be at peace among ourselves.
THE DAY OF THE LORD IS COMING
So, let’s begin with the “day of the Lord.” What does Paul mean when he talks about the day of the Lord coming like a thief in the night? What did “the day of the Lord” mean for Paul and his audience at Thessalonica?
We can know this, fortunately, because we have access to the same Hebrew Scriptures that the early church regarded as trustworthy sources of divine knowledge. The prophets of old that they read and discussed made many references to the “day of the Lord,” usually in conjunction with a catastrophe that arises in response to pervasive idolatry, excessive wealth, and overwhelming injustice.
The second chapter of Isaiah, for example, contains a striking reference to the day of the Lord. This chapter begins with the familiar and beloved prophecy about the word of the Lord coming forth from Jerusalem to judge between nations, and to arbitrate between the peoples, who will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. But following this passage, there is a listing of all the ways in which the house of Jacob—God’s people Israel—has forsaken God, piled up an immense amount of silver and gold, horses and chariots, and given themselves over to idolatry and pride. In response to such wealth and military accumulation, and the pride and idolatry that goes with it, the prophet announces that the day of the Lord will come against “all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high…against every high tower and against every fortified wall…” The day of the Lord is described in this chapter as a terrifying event in which people will abandon all of their idolatrous possessions and hide in the caves and rocks from the “terror of the Lord” (Isaiah 2:5-22). We could cite similar passages from the prophets Amos and Zephaniah, with various twists on this same theme of disaster following idolatry, destruction in the wake of military confidence, and dispossession of wealth resulting from injustice. Amos in particular emphasizes the exploitation of the poor by the rich and powerful as a reason for the coming judgment of the day of the Lord.
So, it is this deep and resonant tradition of prophetic judgment that Paul is citing when he speaks of the day of the Lord. We know what it will be like. The prophets have told us. And God’s people experienced it, their homes destroyed, their property confiscated, their bodies violated and dragged off into exile in Babylon. Paul describes the psychological experience of it vividly: “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.”
This past week, the town hall in Bluffton was flooded by 1500 gallons of water that caused extensive damage on all three floors, shut down the Internet and telephone access, and closed down the entire building, along with the police department. The cause of this destruction was not the flooding of Riley Creek or a burst water pipe but rather the activation of the building’s sprinkler system, after a sprinkler head broke. The very system that was designed to protect the building from disaster was the cause of the disaster. When they say “peace and security” there is sudden destruction.
On a larger stage, during the past few weeks the reports have been piling up about various features of our current climate crisis. A substantial section of the large West Antarctica ice sheet continues to crumble as its melting ice appears to have reached a point of no return, leading scientists to predict a likely rise in sea level of ten feet or more in the coming century. Another report, this one called the National Climate Assessment, documented the symptoms of climate change that are already happening in the United States: water scarcity, increasing torrential rains, multiplying heat waves, worsening wildfires, severe and sustained drought. Right on the heels of that report came an assessment by the CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board that the accelerating rate of climate change is an increasing risk to national security as drought and other weather catastrophes lead to armed conflict over dwindling resources in many parts of the world. Most scientists who study climate change agree that its primary cause is the greenhouse gases that result from the carbon emissions of cars and coal plants. The comfort and convenience of our postindustrial way of life is contributing to the greatest threat to that way of life, as it turns out. When they say “peace and security” there is sudden destruction.
These two examples of catastrophe might bring to mind other disasters that have either arrived or seem to be on the way, from the dismantling of our privacy by the National Security Agency to the potential loss of what is called Net neutrality to the possible end of the Mennonite Church USA as we know it. These and other collapses of order and structure remind us that the built world around us is not reliable, that our peace and security is not guaranteed by the systems of power and authority that prop up the predictable routines of our lives. When they say “peace and security” there is sudden destruction.
So what are we to do with this awareness that life as we know it is coming to an end, that the day of the Lord is coming, that the idolatrous schemes we have invented to secure our lives will betray us? There are two responses that are common and that I am tempted by myself. The first response is a kind of frenetic activism, trying to save the world from its stupid march toward the apocalypse. Let’s work on a petition, start a movement, contact our representatives, write letters to the editor, update our Facebook status with a provocative statement, and so on. As citizens of a democratic society, these are reasonable responses to the problems around us. However, when all of this effort seems futile or becomes exhausting, we can be tempted to give up and simply ignore the realities around us. We perhaps join forces with the second kind of response, which assumes a kind of purposeful oblivion about the problems of the world, a refusal to acknowledge anything that appears unpleasant or inconvenient or that demands our attention. Paul urges the Thessalonians to adopt a different posture than either one of these tempting responses to the entropy of the cosmos. Paul invites us to live as children of the day.
LIVE AS CHILDREN OF THE DAY
What does Paul mean by this phrase “children of the day?” Once again, we can examine the scriptures Paul read to see what he is likely to have meant. In the same prophetic tradition that speaks of the “day of the Lord,” there are many references to the light of God that takes on the darkness, in which light is associated with salvation and darkness is a metaphor for adversity. In Jacob Elias’s commentary on this chapter, he points out that one of the Dead Sea Scrolls—the War Scroll—features a battle between the children of light and the children of darkness in which the night of evil is defeated by the children of light, after a battle in which the darkness appears at first to be winning. Perhaps most pertinent here is the claim by John the evangelist, that Jesus Christ the Word of God is the light that overcomes the darkness: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:3-5). Elsewhere in II Corinthians, Paul confirms this association between Jesus Christ and the light of day: “For it is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6).
So Paul is calling on his audience to be identified with the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, who is not overcome by the adversity of our ruined world, but who, in fact has defeated the forces of destruction in his life and resurrection. It appears to me that this messianic understanding of the triumph of the light and of the day refigures the meaning of the day of the Lord.
Philosopher Giorgio Agamben has stressed that when Paul talks about the day of the Lord coming, he is not merely speaking in the future tense. Ever since the arrival of Jesus Christ on the scene of human history, the day of the Lord comes and is coming or as Agamben puts it, in the Messianic age, the Messiah “never ceases to come.” Agamben agrees with Walter Benjamin that now, in the messianic age, “every day, every instant, is the small gate through which the Messiah enters.” What this means, according to Agamben is that we who are Christians should think of ourselves not as living at the end of time, but rather in the time of the end. We live in a time in which the old regime of violence and oppression and corruption is coming to an end, in which at the same time the peaceable messianic age is dawning. This is the day of the Lord, right now, and so we should neither be surprised at nor overtaken by the disasters that surround us.
It turns out that Paul is offering a new Christ-centered understanding of the day of the Lord. “God has destined us for not wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” he proclaims. The God of Jesus Christ is not a God of wrath and violence but of love and salvation. That is why the disintegration happening around us provides occasions not just for lament and sorrow but also for life-giving and love-offering action on behalf of the salvation that God is bringing about for us, as the old world collapses. Because of Jesus Christ, the systems and Powers that have failed us do not define us. So put on the breastplate of faith and love. Put on the helmet of the hope of salvation. Live as the children of the day that God has made you to be.
In a recent opinion piece published in the New York Times, James Barilla writes about how he has been changing his urban gardening strategies in response to climate change. At one point, his gardening philosophy had focused on replacing non-native plants with native ones; however, as new weather patterns create new conditions on the ground, he’s decided that those categories of native and non-native don’t make much sense anymore. Instead, he now seeks to cultivate a resilient and diverse garden that provides hospitality to the changing mix of animal species that have been displaced by climate change. For example, he’s cut back the native Goldenrod and made room for non-native flowers that bloom at different times, providing a more stable environment for bees and other insects that rely on a variety of blooming plants to thrive. Aware that monarch butterflies are in trouble, he’s introduced non-native sandhill milkweed into his garden providing a favorite host for the monarchs as they migrate across his state. He writes, “We need to start thinking not just about what used to be, but what could be. It’s going to take a lot of work. But it sure beats despair.” It is just this kind of attentive, alert, and life-embracing activity that Paul associates with the children of the day. James Barilla is not someone with his head in the sand and he’s also not defeated or afraid. Rather than being bound by the habits and systems of the fading world, he is on the lookout for the small gate through which the Messiah enters—although perhaps he would not describe it that way.
BE AT PEACE AMONG YOURSELVES
As a church we are called to cultivate such practices of attentiveness and openness to the day of the Lord, expecting God’s salvation rather than God’s wrath. We do this, according to Paul, by being at peace among ourselves. But this peace is not simply the absence of conflict. Being at peace instead involves certain kinds of activities that are associated with children of the day. Admonish the idlers. Encourage the faint-hearted. Help the weak. Be patient with everyone. Do not repay evil for evil but seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances. Don’t quench the Spirit. Don’t despise the words of prophets. Test everything. Hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.
We are called as God’s people to these practices of being at peace because they are the practices by which we are able to embrace the new heavens and new earth that are being born around us as the creation groans in its delivery. We are called to these practices because when we live together in this way, we witness to the God of peace who sanctifies us and keeps our spirit and soul and body sound. We are called to these practices because we are the church, which is, as Menno Simons taught us, the New Jerusalem that is coming down out of heaven from God, the holy city, a dwelling place for peace and justice.
When John the seer describes this holy city in the book of Revelation, he says that the glory of God is its light and its lamp is the Lamb. He says that the nations will walk by this light and that the kings of the earth will bring their glory to it. The gates will never be shut and there will be no night there.
We do not need to read Revelation very carefully to know that the coming of this holy city is accompanied by much conflict and sorrow and terror as the former things pass away. But for those of us who are already in this city, who are already living as children of the day, the day of the Lord does not come as a thief in the night, does not come as a dreadful surprise, does not come as an outpouring of God’s wrath. Because we know that God has not destined us for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.