“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 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! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 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. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.
Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”
– 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
In the movie “Wide Awake,” there is a 10 year-old boy named Joshua whose beloved grandfather had recently suffered from bone cancer and passed away. Throughout the movie, Joshua has flashbacks of times he spent with his grandfather. One of the most touching flashbacks is when Joshua tells his dying grandfather through tears that he is scared, and when Joshua fearfully asks his grandfather if he, too, is scared, his grandfather replies, “You know I’ll be alright because God will take care of me.”
Yet, after his grandfather passes away, Joshua struggles to find interest in his school and friends, and his parents have to drag him out of bed every morning and encourage him to have some fun. We later find out that Joshua fears that his grandfather is not – indeed – alright. That maybe there is not in fact a God who will take care of him.
Fear had gotten the best of Joshua. And throughout the beginning of the movie, fear consumes him and keeps him from experiencing the joys in the people and the world around him.
I think this is at the heart of the situation that Paul is addressing in his first letter to the Thessalonians. You see, these early Christ-followers in Thessalonica had a lot to fear. They had only recently become converts to this new faith movement. And, yet, it is not too long after Paul begins his ministry with them, that he and other leaders start to face severe persecution for teaching about a Messiah who would save God’s people from the oppressive Empire. And soon Paul and the other leaders are kicked out of the city, leaving these early Christ-followers to fend for themselves.
These new Christ-followers are scared. Scared for the safety of their new friends. Scared for their own lives. Scared for their future.
Scared that maybe Paul had gotten it all wrong.
Because if Paul was right about this Jesus being the Son of God, the Messiah – the one who is supposed to come and bring them salvation – then why on earth were they facing persecution for following him? And if Paul was right about this Jesus who is supposed to return again and deliver them from death, then why hadn’t Jesus returned before some of their friends and relatives had already died? What would happen to those deceased friends and family now? Would they be left behind when Jesus comes again?
I think this is an unwanted feeling that many of us know too well today… Especially in times like these.
And fear is a natural human feeling.
One that even Paul, Silas, and many of the early Christians most likely felt numerous times. One that even Jesus felt and so honestly expressed while hanging from the cross as he cried out to God before taking his final breath.
We are not alone when we experience feelings of fear.
And fear is a normal human feeling that can guide us in making important choices and taking safety measures when needed.
And yet while this is true, I think we also need to be careful about how much power we allow our fears to have. Because in times like these, it can be incredibly easy to allow our fears to consume us and to take over our lives. Our fears can drag us down into the dark – where we become blind to the needs of those around us. These fears can transform us into being people of the night – as Paul explains in Thessalonians – rather than of the day, where we spend most of our time asleep with our eyes shut to the joys and the beauty in our world.
And this is where I think Gandhi is right in saying that “the enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is fear.”
I think fear can become our enemy when – in times like these – we allow our fears to have power over us. When our fears of failure, change, or the unknown future hold us back from taking chances. Or when our fears of loneliness and rejection hold us back from opening ourselves up to new relationships or publicly standing up against injustices. When we allow our fears about our children’s safety to keep us from letting them try new things and grow up as unique individuals. When our fear that we might not have enough keeps us – as individuals or as a church – from giving to those in need around us. Or when our fears of the “other” blind us so that we don’t see and experience the image of God in our siblings who may appear to be different from us.
I think that while fear is incredibly human, it becomes our enemy when we allow our fears to keep us from actually living.
And so Paul compassionately reassures the Thessalonian Christ-followers that they need not be consumed by fear.
And Paul’s pastoral words to the Thessalonians are also words for us today. Just before our passage today, Paul explains that we must not be uninformed about those who have died and we must not grieve the loss of our loved-ones as others do who have no hope. For we can be assured that “through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” When Jesus returns, these beloved ones will not be left behind. For just as Jesus died and resurrected from the dead – so too shall those who have died, be raised from the dead when Jesus comes again. And – as Paul says – for those of us who are alive at Jesus’ return, we – too – will join with those who are already deceased to meet and be with Christ forever.
And this is why we can boldly proclaim with hope the words we confess every week: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
Therefore, Paul urges us: “Encourage one another with these words.”
Paul then provides further encouragement in our passage for today.
“Now regarding the times and the seasons,” Paul says, “we will not know the time Jesus will return again. It will happen quickly – when we least expect it – like when a woman’s labor pains suddenly kick in or when a thief appears in the middle of the night.”
However, we must not live without hope and consumed in fear. For – we are not asleep, we are not dead – Paul reminds us. We are not children of the dark, children of the night, where our eyes remain closed to our neighbors needs, the world’s injustices, or to the joys and beauty that surround us. Rather, we are children of the light, children of the day.
“Therefore, let us not fall asleep, as others do,” Paul urges us. “Keep awake.”
Now, you may be wondering what happened to Joshua in the movie Wide Awake. After a while, he finally announces one day that he is going to go on a mission to look for God to make sure his grandpa is okay. And so throughout the rest of the movie, Joshua goes in search for God. And while on his journey, Joshua begins to find some joy through his friends and a new adolescent crush and relationship, whose name – of course – is none other than Hope.
And he eventually gains empathy for those whom he had least expected, including the not-so-popular annoying kid who longs for attention and the class bully that Joshua later realizes is using his aggression to cover his own insecurities and struggles at home. By the end of the movie, Joshua is able to get out of bed easily, have fun with his friends, and find joys in the world around him. And he finally comes to the conclusion that his grandfather is okay because Joshua had found God. Because God had, indeed, been present in the little things in life, through the people he had encountered, and through the empathy and compassion he had shared with others.
At the end of the movie, Joshua explains this as he reads a poem he wrote in class: “I spent this year looking for something, and ended up seeing everything around me. It’s like I was asleep. I’m wide awake now.”
I think this is sort of what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Thessalonians when he encourages his readers to live as children of the day. For – Paul says – we can hold onto the hope that God has not destined for us wrath, but rather God has destined for us salvation through Jesus Christ. A salvation that comes through and because of our Messiah, our loving Lord and Savior, who died for each one of us, so that we might live with him. That not only will we live with God for eternity after we pass on from this world, but that we might also live with and experience God – in the here and now – as we are awake and alive in this world today.
It is for this reason that Paul urges us to be not afraid. To shield our hearts with faith and love. To protect our minds with the hope of salvation that we have in the promise of Jesus, who died for us so that we might live.
So let us choose to live. To remain wide awake to what’s happening in the world around us.
Let us choose hope over fear.
And therefore, as Paul says, encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are already doing.