Dear “church... in God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace” (1 Thessalonians 1:1).
Two Sundays ago on All Saints Day we meditated upon the glorious welcome that those who depart in the faith receive as their souls enter heaven to join the company in the presence of God. Last Sunday we heard from St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians comforting us who are left to grieve, giving us hope for the day of resurrection and a reunion with those whom we have lost as we all go to meet the coming Lord together. In today’s Epistle Reading, St. Paul continues to comfort us even as we remember that the Day of the Lord’s coming is unknown and will catch many people unawares and unprepared.
Much of the Bible gives solemn warning about the coming Day of the Lord, for it is a day of judgment. It is the day beyond which there are no more chances. As we heard in our Old Testament Reading, “A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Zephaniah 1:15). Likewise the parable that Jesus tells in the Gospel reading, ends with judgment and darkness in the graphic condemnation of the third servant: “Cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30).
In light of these solemn warnings and graphic condemnations given to those who reject the Lord, the day of His coming is fearful and dreadful. But St. Paul, in writing to the Thessalonians and anticipating their dread of the final day, even in light of the coming resurrection and happy reunion that he had just written about, addresses their fear and our foreboding even as Christians not knowing exactly when this will all take place.
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 1:1-2). It will sneak up on you and may catch you unawares, it is true. Some people thinking everything is going just dandy, will have sudden destruction come upon them and they will not escape. He compared it to labour pains coming upon a pregnant women, a risky analogy for a man to make. But his point of comparison is that although a pregnant woman knows that the time of birth labour is coming, she doesn’t know exactly when and it can begin at any moment: in the middle of the night, while out grocery shopping, during a church service. Yet if she is prepared and has her bag packed and her husband on speed dial and knows who to call and where to go, the anxiety is more like anticipation, and the day is not one to be dreaded, but one to look forward to.
Likewise, even in Jesus’ parable, the master entrusted his property to his servants and they fully knew that when he went on his journey, he would be returning. And after a long time he came and settled accounts with them. Two of those servants were looking to the day of his return with anticipation. They expected the return of the Lord to be a good day when they would experience even more of their master’s generosity. And so when the day came, they heard him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21, 23). It is only the third servant who was dreading the day of his master’s return. And he was judged, not on his investment skills, but on his confession of who he believed his master to be: “I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed...” (v. 24). He dreaded the coming of a master whom he did not believe to be gracious and merciful.
It is with this understanding that St. Paul comforted the Thessalonian Christians and us who can get anxious about the day of the Lord because we know that it will be a day of judgment and it will sneak up on us like a thief in the night, and we know that we are not always at our best, and underneath all of that we struggle to trust that our Master is truly gracious and merciful to all who trust in Him.
Listen to the comfort offered by the Lord’s apostle: “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:4-5). We are children of light. At the beginning of John’s Gospel, speaking of Jesus’ first coming which we will be celebrating next month at Christmas, he wrote, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it... The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:5, 9). Later on, he records Jesus saying, “I AM the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12) and “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in Me may not remain in darkness” (John 12:46). The light of Christ is given to us freely by faith.
Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians “for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8). We who have Jesus are in the light of Christ. He has united us to Himself in Holy Baptism. He has fed us with His Word and His true body and blood. His grace and mercy in forgiveness and love shines upon us and illumines us like a bright sunny day. All of this He gives to us freely out of love and it is ours by faith. Like a generous master, He has poured out His gifts upon His servants and all He asks is that we trust Him to be the merciful and gracious master that He is.
For He has brought the light of God to us and has taken our darkness upon Himself. He is the one who battled on our behalf and won the victory over the powers of darkness. He is the One who, not needing to pay any debt, or gain any glory, or have any fulfillment, went where judgment and darkness won the day. On the day we call Good Friday, He took all of God’s wrath and judgment against sin upon Himself. The light of the world, the eternal Son of the living God, gave Himself as the sacrifice for our sins.
He was beaten and stripped and nailed to the cross to suffer and bleed and die. And just in case you might think that it was mere human cruelty of the soldiers, or misunderstanding of his purpose by the people, or political preservation of Pontius Pilate, or a power grab by the Jewish religious leaders, we are told: “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” (Matthew 27:45-46).
“A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Zephaniah 1:15). In our place, it was Jesus who was cast into the outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth. For those who are united to Christ Jesus, the day of judgment against sin has already happened. He took it all upon Himself for us. He bore the wrath of God against our dark sins of doubting the day of His coming, doubting His wrath against all manner of wickedness, even that which we try to hide by doing it only in the dark, and also His wrath against the dark dark sin of doubting His grace and mercy in Christ Jesus.
But on Sunday morning the light shone again. The sunrise revealed an empty tomb and the light of the resurrection of Jesus spilled out over the earth. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). He conquered the darkness of sin, death, and the devil who has been damned to the outer darkness, so that we might live forever in the light of God’s glorious grace. For we are freely forgiven and saved from the wrath of God against our sins by the death and resurrection of Jesus. He is the light of the world who comes so that we may not remain in darkness.
As Paul reminded the Christians in Thessalonica, you yourselves are fully aware of this precious Gospel as you await the unknown day of the Lord’s coming. “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us to 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” (1 Thessalonians 5:8-10).
He has graciously entrusted to us the gift of salvation through our Baptism and in the Word and Sacraments that He has left to us, so that when He returns we might be found to have been living in the faith that trusts in these gifts of His and be welcomed into the joy of our master. Jesus came to bring us salvation through His death and resurrection for our sins. We are not destined to wrath. No matter when He comes, at any hour, whether we are awake or asleep, His coming will mean that we will be with Him, just as with all those who being asleep in the Lord will rise from the dead and go to meet Him.
The day the Lord came to take them home came as a thief in the night, some while they slept and some while awake. Like a woman on whom the pains of birth labour come, the time of death is never fully known, yet those who know the grace of God in Jesus Christ, who live in the light of the Son, have nothing to fear. It is never His purpose to surprise you and catch you unawares and off guard. His loving purpose is solely to preserve them pure and holy in the grace of Jesus. For all those who are in Christ, the day of His coming will be a night that is bathed in light.
“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it... The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, 28).