Summary: Instead of worrying so much about the future, we should concentrate on living a life in Christ that begins with what we believe.
Theme: Paul reminds the congregation of what God has done for them through Jesus Christ and urges the people to put both their present and future hope, despite death, in an eternal future with Christ. As he exhorts them to comfort one another with this hope using apocalyptic imagery, one is left contemplating why we spend so much time worrying about the future, especially the end-times. Instead, we should be concerned with living in the present; a life in Christ that begins with what we believe. As a message for All-Saints Sunday, we are reminded in this scripture what God has done, is doing, and will do for us through Jesus Christ.
A local priest and a pastor were fishing on the side of the road after a storm. They thoughtfully made a sign saying, “The End is Near! Turn yourself around now before it’s too late!” and showed it to each passing car. One driver who drove by didn’t appreciate the sign and shouted at them, “Leave us alone, you religious nuts!” All of a sudden, they heard a big splash, looked at each other, and the priest said to the pastor, “You think maybe we should have just said, ‘Bridge out’ instead?” This may bring a few laughs but it seems that many in the religious community these days are concerned about the end – the end of time; the apocalypse, as some scholars call it; the end of the world as we know it; the Day of the Lord as it was called in the Jewish tradition. Since the beginning of the early Christian church, believers have been waiting for Jesus to return, overthrow the forces of evil, resurrect the dead, and establish God’s kingdom. American churches, in particular, seem obsessed with the second coming of Jesus. There are books on the subject; books that either predict when the end will be or how it will be played out. Movies have been made for years that speculate about events leading up to the end and even what will happen once the end is here. Much of what the obsession is based on comes from this dramatic end-time scenario that is found in Paul’s earliest writing – the letter he wrote to the church at Thessalonica. But was Paul writing to the believers about an end-times scenario? Let’s read the scripture together (read 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 to the congregation).
A first reading of this passage might lead one to think that Paul was indeed writing to the believers about what was going to happen when Jesus returned. But there was more going on in this letter that we should explore before we become too obsessed with Paul’s ideas about the end-times. Paul was writing this letter to the congregation at Thessalonica in light of two concerns that had been reported to him. The first concern that had been reported was that the believers were suffering afflictions and persecutions because of their faith. Paul praises them for remaining steadfast in the faith; continuing to exhibit the gospel in their lives even in the midst of the afflictions. He reminds them in the letter, that even during persecution, they should continue to live a life pleasing to God, continue to work together while abounding in love for one another, and be blameless before God when Jesus comes again. The second concern that Paul addresses in this letter is a little more specific. Some of the congregation had died since Paul had been there and the people seemed to have been concerned that those who had died would not see or share in the blessings promised in the coming of the Lord. It is this part of the letter that we have before us today.
When I write a letter to someone, I usually write for a specific reason. At Christmas each year I send all of my relatives a letter about the Davis family life during the past year. It is a specific letter to a specific audience. I doubt that someone who didn’t know my family would be the least bit interested in this annual letter. We must remember that Paul too, was writing a specific letter to a specific group addressing specific concerns of that group. Paul was not writing to us in 2005: we have much different concerns now and our situations are different! However, even though our situations may be different than those of the early church in Thessalonica, most all believers wonder about when and how Christ will return.
There is a constant hum in the world today about the signs of the times. Many have speculated that the increase in natural disasters just this year is a sign that the end is near. Others claim that world-wide wars and rumors of wars must mean that Jesus will be returning soon. Several have spent countless hours tying the events of the war in Iraq to the prophecies of the Bible. It seems as if Christians are so caught up in trying to figure out if the war or the bird flu or the next hurricane is going to be the beginning of the end that they have forgotten to be about the business of God. The Thessalonians were also having this same difficulty. They were so concerned about what happened to their loved ones who had died before Jesus returned that they began to worry about the fate of the dead instead of having concern for those in their midst that were living. The result was great anxiety and grieving at the passing of a brother or sister in Christ. For them, death still held an unquestionable power; hope only remained so long as they were alive. So, was Paul writing the Thessalonians to give them a full-blown understanding of the end times? I don’t think so. He really doesn’t say that much about the return of Christ and a believer’s eternal destiny in this letter. So what was Paul’s point? Paul was writing to this church as a pastor; a pastor who wanted to share with them the hope that they have in Christ, both now and in the future. He’s not correcting the theology of the believers, but their behavior. They are grieving – as those who have no hope.