Last Sunday of the Church Year Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11| November 21, 2004
Last week we heard the words that Jesus Christ will speak on Judgment Day when the whole world is gathered before Him and He separates the sheep from the goats. He will speak of how His Christians served Him even though they did not see Him. We serve our Lord Jesus by serving the least of his brothers. We honor Christ by honoring His Christians. These are the good deeds that He will display to heaven and earth on the last day.
Religious people come up with all sorts of religious works that they assume must be of great value because they appear to be so valuable. It’s a common opinion that going into some kind of church work is a better and holier life than to serve God in a secular vocation. But the God who calls us out of darkness into the light of His truth calls us to serve Him in the world and among people who are not Christians. It is also a common opinion that the more material comfort we sacrifice the more spiritual benefit we will gain. Several years ago I became acquainted with a Lutheran seminary student in Ukraine who had been a Russian Orthodox monk. As a monk he was taught that to gain the treasures of heaven he had to give up the treasures of this world. It is true that many people have been blinded by the promise of material wealth. They put their trust in their own possessions and they have no trust in God. But the poor can be as materialistic as the rich are. It isn’t a matter of what you have. It’s what you value. Since it is Christ who has brought us salvation, we value Him. We learn to sing:
On my heart imprint thine image,
Blessed Jesus, King of grace,
That life’s riches, cares, and pleasures
Have no power thee to efface.
This the superscription be:
Jesus crucified for me,
Is my life, my hope’s foundation,
And my glory and salvation. (ELH 593)
But life’s riches, cares, and pleasures do efface Christ in the heart of many Christians. On your bulletin for this morning you see Luther’s seal. At the center of the seal is a cross inside of a heart. In the heart of every Christian is the cross of Jesus Christ. Christ’s death on the cross is at the center of our faith and life. In this way a Christian can live a holy life in this sinful world. When the crucifixion of Jesus for us is at the center of our faith and life we are prepared to live and we are ready for Christ’s imminent return.
The day of the Lord, or Judgment Day, will come without warning. We don’t know when it will come but we do know that it will come. It’s like a woman expecting a baby. When the baby comes, the baby comes. I recall the birth of our first child. My wife decided not to take any medicine for the pain. As the contractions became more and more painful, she said, “I don’t know if I can go through with this,” referring to her decision not to take any anesthetic for the pain. I didn’t understand what she meant. I thought she was saying she wasn’t ready to have the baby. Well, ready or not, here he comes! That’s how it will be when Jesus returns. He will come suddenly. He will come like a thief in the night. He will take this world by surprise.
Our text for today is written so that we may be ready to meet Jesus whenever He returns. Since we don’t know when that will be, we must be ready at all times. There cannot be something that pertains to our salvation that we may set aside for the future. The future is today. The parable of the foolish and wise virgins makes it crystal clear. Jesus will return when people who should have known better were not ready to meet him. The time to prepare for Christ’s return is now.
The apostle describes the readiness of a Christian to meet Jesus by contrasting day with night, light with darkness, being awake with being asleep, and being sober with being drunk. He uses a description of the visible world to illustrate a truth about the spiritual kingdom to which we have been called in Christ. People get drunk at night. They run around and party and hide behind the cloak of darkness to disguise what they do. They live as if there is no tomorrow because they cannot tolerate the idea of facing the final tomorrow of God’s judgment on this world. And so they deaden themselves against the truth.
But we Christians are of the day, not of the night. We are children of the day and of the light. We have seen the light of God shining in the face of Christ. No, we haven’t seen Jesus transfigured on the mountain. We haven’t seen Him risen from the dead. But we have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit Jesus sends. As we confess:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts.
To be enlightened by the Holy Ghost is to be led out of darkness into the light of God’s grace. Here is how St. Peter describes it.
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)
Notice how St. Peter joins together being brought into God’s light with receiving mercy from God. This is how we are enlightened. It is by receiving mercy. In the same way, St. Paul says we are sons of the day and of the light, not of the night or of the darkness. Then he reminds us of why this is so. He writes: “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him.”
The reason we obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ is because He died for us. Had He not died for us, we would remain stumbling around in darkness without any spiritual light at all. There is no spirituality apart from the death and resurrection of Christ because it is only by the death of Christ that sin is forgiven. And it is by the death of Christ that all sin is forgiven. No sin remains unforgiven because Jesus bore all sin. Sin is what blinds us. Sin is what muddles the mind. Sin is what makes us spiritually drunk, unable to make sense out of who we are, who God is, where we stand with Him, and what our future holds.
St. Paul speaks of weapons that we use in our daily spiritual struggle against the forces of darkness. He lists two weapons here, though in his Epistle to the Ephesians he mentions several more. The two weapons are the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of the hope of salvation. These are both defensive weapons. That’s because we are under attack from the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. We must protect both the heart and the head. The protection of our heart comes by both faith and love. Faith receives the forgiveness of sins. Love gives the forgiveness of sins. In this way we are centered in Christ in whom there is pure mercy and grace to meet our every need of life. The life of darkness is lived in and from unrepentant sin. The life lived in the light is lived in repentance and faith. Faith is destroyed by unrepentant sin. It is destroyed when it isn’t fed. When faith is starved, love is lost as well because there is no love without faith.
Christians who are taught the faith and confess the faith often foolishly think they can retain the faith by themselves. So they neglect God’s word. They stay away from the services of God’s house. They go for months, sometimes even years, without the Lord’s Supper. They think that since they were once living in light that they are incapable of going back into darkness. So they throw away the breastplate. When their faith is attacked they are mortally wounded. They fall away from the faith they once confessed. This often happens without their knowing it. They wake up one day and realize they don’t believe anymore.
The protection of the head is by the helmet of the hope of salvation. Without hope we cannot think clearly. Unless we know where we are going, we have no idea of how we should be living along the way. You may remember the saying, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” What else is there when you don’t know where you are going? The hope of salvation keeps our head clear. We are focused. We are alert. Even when we don’t know just what will happen from day to day we do know that when the day of Christ’s return comes it will be a time of tremendous comfort. We can die in peace. We can meet Christ with confidence. The helmet of salvation keeps our head from being beaten into senselessness.
People who don’t know they are going to heaven don’t know they are going to heaven because they think that going to heaven depends on themselves instead of on Christ. They have no helmet to protect their head. They are like a punch-drunk boxer. But when we know that we are justified through faith alone in Christ, then we know that we are going to heaven. We know that we are appointed to everlasting life. We have this confidence because there is nothing lacking in what Jesus did for us. He really did destroy the devil’s power by taking away all our sin. He really did destroy death by dying the death of all people and by rising from the dead. And the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth whom Jesus sends, testifies to us that we are God’s children. So we know we are going to heaven. We know that whether we live or die we remain united with the God in whose name we are baptized. This keeps our head clear. We are ready to meet Jesus.
St. Paul encourages the Christians from Thessalonica to continue to comfort one another. It is not just the called and ordained preachers who have words of comfort to give. Every single Christian can comfort his brothers and sisters in Christ with the same gospel the preachers preach. We have a certainty of salvation that God alone can give us. This is what brings us comfort in every loss and encouragement to get up every morning to live the life God has called us to live in the clear light of day. We don’t need to hide in darkness. We aren’t afraid of being seen by God or by man. God has appointed us to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us. This truth gives us a confidence that nothing can take away.