Children of the Light
by Jack Wald | February 16th, 2020

1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11

The text from 1 Thessalonians this morning talks about how it will be when Jesus returns and the timing of his return. So I thought I would start out with a card trick.

[a volunteer picks a card from a deck of cards, shows it to everyone but me, puts it back in the deck. I shuffle well, put down twelve cards and ask, when I put down the thirteenth card, “Is this your card?” There is a one in fifty-two chance that it will be the card that was picked. Thus far in my life, it has worked one time – and it was amazing! When asked to do it again, I said, “A good magician never repeats a trick.”]

[Note: the trick did not work when I preached the sermon. I had hoped…]

This is what it is like predicting when Jesus will return, although the odds are much better that my card trick will work. If enough guesses are made, someone will one day be right about the day Jesus returns.

The text this morning also talks about what it will be like when Jesus returns.

When I was a young pastor in the US. I was giving a children’s sermon during the period of Advent and my daughter Caitlin, then four years old, was sitting in the front pew of the church with about four or five other children. I was talking about the return of Jesus and mentioned that the Bible said there would be a loud trumpet blast, Jesus would appear in the sky, and then we would all rise up in the air to meet him.

At this point Caitlin said loudly and clearly so all the congregation could hear, “I think you’re fooling us.” Everyone burst into laughter. When the laughter died down Caitlin continued, “I see that look in your eyes. I think you’re fooling us.”

Why did people laugh? They laughed because she expressed what most of us think. We believe what we read in the Bible, but on another level, the story itself is pretty preposterous. The Creator of the Universe is going to come to be born in the flesh, live among us, die and be raised to life? And then, when he returns, a trumpet will blast and we will rise up in the air to meet him? What strange science fiction movie have you been watching? We take the story so much for granted that we fail to see the mystery and wonder of the story.

Why did Paul write about this in his letter to the Thessalonian church? Paul begins his comments on the return of Jesus with this,
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed

This is a phrase Paul uses in his letters to address something that is not clearly understood. There were some in the Thessalonian church who expected Jesus to return very soon and so were not working. Why work when all the fruit of the work would be left behind when Jesus comes? Others were concerned because some in their church had died and Jesus had not yet returned. What was going to happen to them as their bodies rotted in a grave? Had they lost their chance to be with Jesus when he returned?

So Paul needed to give some additional information to help them understand the teaching he had given them when he was with them in Thessalonica.

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, 

The use of “sleep” as a way of talking about death was common in antiquity. Homer, who wrote the Iliad, talked of death in battle. “He slept the sleep of bronze.”

Our word, cemetery, comes from the Greek word koimeterion, a dormitory, a place to sleep.

The pagan world viewed death as a sleep from which no one would waken. You were placed in a cemetery and that would be your permanent home. A poet wrote:
The sun can set and rise again
But once our brief light sets
There is one unending night to be slept through.

The early church took this word “sleep” and gave it new significance. Because of the hope Jesus has given that we will rise from the dead, death was a sleep, but just a short sleep, a nap from which we would wake up and be taken with Jesus into glory.

Johnny Cash wrote a song with the lyric:
There ain’t no grave that’s gonna hold my body down
When I hear that trumpet sound I’m gonna rise right out of the ground
Ain’t no grave can hold my body down

This is the hope we have as followers of Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.

Who are the “rest of mankind?” The rest of mankind are the Gentiles who do not know God. To be without God is to be without hope. My mother died, convinced there was nothing after death. She said she would be put in the ground, her body would become dust, and that would be all there is.

A contemporary of Paul wrote, “hopes are for the living; the dead are without hope.” A letter of condolence in the 2nd century, written by a woman whose own child had died, was sent to a couple whose son had died. She wrote: “I sorrowed and wept over your dear departed one as I wept over Didyamas, … but really, there is nothing one can do in the face of such things. So, please comfort each other.”

Christians grieved and still grieve with the same emotions as this woman who lost her child, but we grieve with a deep hope that can give us joy in the midst of grief. Because of the resurrection of Jesus that gives hope to all who follow him, death is not the end.

There ain’t no grave that’s gonna hold my body down

The Thessalonian followers of Jesus were embedded in the Greco-Roman culture that viewed the grave as a final resting place. They grieved for their father, mother, or other family member or friend who died and was buried. They worried about what would happen to them. So Paul reassured them.
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.

Death has always been the enemy that could not be defeated. The writer of Ecclesiastes concluded everything in this world is meaningless because death is the end for every person – whether rich or poor, wise or foolish. (Ecclesiastes 2:14–16)
“The fate of the fool will overtake me also.
What then do I gain by being wise?”
I said to myself,
“This too is meaningless.”
For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered;
the days have already come when both have been forgotten.
Like the fool, the wise too must die!

The inevitability of death made all of life meaningless. What good is accomplishment if you have to leave it behind when you die? What good is wealth? What good is wisdom? What good is hard work if you leave all this behind when you die?

Death was the cruel master that no one could escape. No matter how clever, or how powerful, or how intelligent – death won in the end. Everyone in history, the Roman emperor and the beggar on the side of the road, everyone made the same trip to the grave.

So when Jesus died and was buried, the disciples grieved. Their friend was dead. All the hope he had given them was gone. They thought all was lost. All the bright promise of what Jesus had promised had been ground into the dirt. The devil thought he had won. Death had been challenged and death had once again been triumphant. But then came Easter and death was crushed, defeated once for all time. So Paul burst out in praise: (1 Corinthians 15:51–55)
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed… then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

Because of this good news of great joy, the Thessalonians who were grieving the loss of someone they loved could have reason to rejoice, even in the presence of death. As they stood at the side of the grave, they feared they would never see the person they loved again, but now Paul gave them the assurance that they would be reunited in the eternal kingdom of heaven with the person who was temporarily lying in the grave.

Paul encouraged the Thessalonian believers with this good news of great joy. When Jesus returns, those who have been laid in the grave will not be forgotten.

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 

When I was a young Christian I found this postcard of an artist’s visualization of the rapture. You can see the followers of Jesus being raised to be with Jesus while the plane they were flying and the cars they were driving crash. Bodies are coming out of the cemetery graves. I bought twelve of these postcards and mailed them to friends, including one to a magazine, The Wittenberg Door, which published it. On the back of the cards I wrote, “Having a great time. Wish you were here.”

That quip sums up what I think about all the speculation about when and how Jesus will return. I am not at all interested in how and when he will return, and I am convinced everyone who talks so definitively about this is wrong.

When I was young, I used to think that every generation was more intelligent than the previous generation. I thought that the Middle Ages in Europe were called the Dark Ages because people were not very bright. But then I realized this was ridiculous, not at all rational. When I was a young follower of Jesus I read Paul’s Romans letter and realized he had a brilliant mind, on par with the greatest minds of today. We are not any more intelligent than those who lived two thousand years ago. We are more educated, more informed, but not more intelligent.

So think about this. The best minds in the four hundred years before the birth of Jesus studied the scriptures to see when the Messiah would come and they were all wrong. They were convinced that the Messiah would come and set up an earthly kingdom. Even though it seems so plain to us when we read Isaiah, they did not understand that the Messiah would come to suffer and die. So it is arrogance to think that this time around, when we try to understand what the Bible tells us about the promised return of Jesus, that we will get it right.

So I don’t know what it will be like. I don’t know how it will happen. But I do know that it will happen. Jesus promised he would return and he will return. He will keep the promise he made.

The Thessalonian followers of Jesus were anxious about what happens when we die. They were recent converts and still affected by their Greco-Roman culture.

We believe with our minds that we will go to be with Jesus, but we can still be afraid of death. We need a deep, heart-level belief that we will be safe with Jesus when we die.

In my years in Rabat I have spoken at memorial services for four university students who died while they were here in Morocco. These deaths were a shock. We do not expect this to happen to someone so young.

I remember two of my classmates in high school who died. One of the boys who died sat next to me in English class and it was strange to look over and see his empty desk. Now that I am almost seventy years old, my friends are beginning to die. Their deaths are premature. They should live longer than this. In another ten years deaths of friends and family members will be more common. I am more aware of my mortality than I was when I was thirty or forty years old. The older we are, the more death becomes a present reality.

So Paul concludes his comments on what happens when followers of Jesus die with this:
Therefore encourage one another with these words.

It was not enough for Paul to write a short letter. The Thessalonian followers of Jesus needed to reinforce his message in their daily lives. When a brother or sister in the church was ill, they needed to speak the encouragement that death is not the end. When they buried a brother or sister in Christ in a grave, they needed to remember that this would be a short sleep and they would see and speak with this brother or sister again some day.

Paul encouraged them with his reassurance that whether they were alive or in the grave when Jesus returned, they would be taken up to be with him. We all need that continual encouragement.

Paul goes on to talk about the time when Jesus will return.
Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.

Remember that Paul and Luke traveled together so Paul had access to the materials Luke used to write his gospel. Paul took this image of a thief in the night from a parable Jesus told about when he would return. (Matthew 24:43–44)
But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

Our villa has been burgled twice since we came to Morocco. Once the children of the police who live across the street from us were involved in burglaries in the area. Another time some youths living in Takkadoum were involved in burglaries. At least three other times people tried to get into our house but could not.

The first time our villa was burgled, Annie and I were at a Christmas Eve service at RIC. The second time thieves broke into our house, I was on a bus trip to Ain Leuh with people from the church to help with the Village of Hope as new homes were being constructed. That same day Annie drove up to Tangiers to pick up her parents who visited us. If we had known that thieves were coming, we would have made plans and been ready for them. But thieves come when you do not expect them.

What we did do is reinforce the security of wherever the thieves entered the villa, or tried to enter the villa. We worked with our neighbors to form an association that would protect the neighborhood. We added extra doors to get through. We reinforced the bars on the windows. We made sure the villa was locked whenever we left. We worked to be prepared for whenever the thieves would try again to get into our home. We don’t know when thieves will try to break in our villa again, so we have worked to be prepared for anytime they come.

Jesus will return. That is certain. But we do not know when. Jesus said in Revelation 16:15
“Look, I come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake

We need to be prepared when he comes.

Paul continues:
Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

In the time of Noah, in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark. (Matthew 24:36–39) They saw Noah building the ark but they ignored his warnings and kept on with business as usual.

People go about their business, seeking pleasure, working to accumulate more wealth, building their image – without thought about what will happen when Jesus returns. Even if there are indications that the end might be near, there will always be those who play to the optimism of others and say, “Don’t worry, everything is going to be ok.”

In a time when Jerusalem was being threatened, God prophesied through Jeremiah (Jeremiah 6:13–14)
“From the least to the greatest,
all are greedy for gain;
prophets and priests alike,
all practice deceit.
14 They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
when there is no peace.

When Jesus returns, it is not going to be ok for many people. Those who have their hearts set on the world and what the world has to offer are going to have their world turned upside down.

(Isaiah 2:19)
People will flee to caves in the rocks
and to holes in the ground
from the fearful presence of the Lord
and the splendor of his majesty,
when he rises to shake the earth.

(Revelation 6:15–17)
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16 They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17 For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”

The day is coming and when it comes, you want to be ready. For those who are not prepared, it will be a dreadful and terrible day.

This was the message of Jesus’ parable of the virgins with oil for their lamps. The ten virgins who had extra oil for their lamps went with the bridegroom to celebrate the marriage. The ten virgins who had neglected to bring extra oil ran around at the last minute, trying to find oil to buy, and missed the wedding celebration.

Be prepared. Be ready for the return of Jesus.

Paul reassured the Thessalonian followers of Jesus,
But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all children of the light and children of the day.

Followers of Jesus should know that Jesus is coming back and be prepared because we walk in the light. Jesus said, (John 8:12)
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

We walk in the light of truth. We walk in the light that comes from being in an intimate relationship with God through Jesus.

Paul continues,
We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.

Paul encourages us to be sober, to move through life with purpose. We know who we belong to – Jesus. We know where we are heading – heaven. As we make our way on the path to heaven, the world offers side street after side street. There are many roads to choose from and they can look tempting at first glance, but they all end with the bitter realization that they do not give us what we most need and they do not take us where we want to go.

When we come to a decision to be made, we need to be sober minded. We arm ourselves against the temptations and distractions of this world with faith, love, and the hope of salvation.

One of the candidates to be the next pastor of RIC mentioned in his interview with the Pastor Search Committee this past week that he holds on to two verses that speak of how to live in this world as a follower of Jesus.

Habakkuk 3:17–18
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

Luke 10:20
However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Faith, love, and hope of salvation.

We hold on to Jesus in faith, even when there is no evidence for our faith, even when there is no blessing. We hold on in faith, knowing that we are loved by God. And when there is great blessing in our lives, when great things happen in our spiritual life, we are grateful. But we rejoice in the fact that our names are written in heaven. We hold on to Jesus with faith when life is difficult. We rejoice in our hope of salvation when thing are going well. In the good and bad of our lives, we are at peace because we are deeply loved by God.

Paul ends with this encouragement.
For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

God did not call us to himself so we would suffer wrath. He called us to be saved, rescued from eternal death, and taken into his eternal home in heaven. God’s energy is directed to bringing us life, not death.

How much did God desire for us to be rescued? He was born a man and died for us. Paul tells the Thessalonian church that it does not matter if they go to the grave or are alive when Jesus returns. We are going to live with him. That is an encouraging message and he tells them to encourage each other with this truth. The writer of Ecclesiastes lived before Jesus came into the world. For the writer of Ecclesiastes, everything was meaningless. But Jesus burst out from the grave and gave meaning to life.

We need to encourage each other to be purposeful as we move through the decisions of this life. We need to encourage each other to be sober minded as we navigate through the entertainment and recreation of this world. We need to keep in mind who loves us as we walk past the temptations that call us to come and see what they have to offer. We need to keep in mind where our home is as the world tells us how and where to spend our money.

Paul and the Thessalonian church would have been shocked if someone had told them that two thousand years later the church would still be waiting for Jesus to return. When will Jesus return? There will be someone, somewhere, preaching a sermon about his return when he returns. The day will come and we are two thousand years closer to that time than Paul and the Thessalonian church were. Every movement of a clock brings us closer. It could be any time now.

Be prepared for his return. At the last second it will be too late to forgive someone. It will be too late to break off a sexually immoral relationship. It will be too late to share what you have with people in need. It will be too late to set your life in order. Now is the time to be prepared. Live in readiness.

We don’t need to be afraid of death. When someone we love dies, it is good to grieve, but because we know what comes after death, we can carry joy through our grief. If you discover you are going to die, it’s ok. It is not the end. You can be at peace and die with faith, love, and hope of salvation.

What awaits us when we die is better than you can imagine. At the end of his seven-book series, The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis writes:
And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures… had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

I have enjoyed the cover and title page of my earthly life. I have more to enjoy, but I am eager to get to the first chapter and see the delights as I go deeper and deeper into my eternal future.