1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11

Don’t Worry. Be Ready.

This afternoon we’re thinking about the different times of life we go through, and the different things that life can throw at us, and how we can be ready for those things. In the part of the Bible that Andrew just read for us, Paul was writing to his Christian friends in a place called Thessalonica in Greece. The folk there had misunderstood something and it was confusing people and worrying them.

They knew that Jesus had died on a cross, had been raised to life and then had returned to heaven. They had also heard that Jesus had promised to return and take his followers to heaven. The thing is, they thought that this was going to happen really soon. Now, Jesus hadn’t said when it would be. When he’d talked to his friends about it, he had said this, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Even so, some of the early Christians had got it into their heads that it was going to be soon.

I wonder how good you are at waiting. Who likes waiting for things? I wonder if you’ve ever been waiting for something and it’s taking a lot longer to happen than you thought it would. How did you feel? Anxious, worried, doubting that it would ever happen?

This is how the Christians in Thessalonica were feeling. These feelings were made worse because some of the Christians had died, and they weren’t sure what had happened to them when they’d died. They believed that Jesus was going to return and take the Christians who were alive to heaven, but what about the ones who died before Jesus came back, what was going to happen to them? They were getting themselves into a right state about it all. So Paul writes to them and addresses the two things that were causing these folk heart ache. Firstly that Jesus had not returned when they expected him to, and so were beginning to doubt that he was really going to come back. Secondly, they were concerned about their friends and loved ones who had died.

Paul says don’t grieve for those who have died as those who have no hope. It is really important to hear that Paul doesn’t say, “don’t grieve, full stop”. He knows that it is right and natural to be sad when people die. We miss them, and it hurts. This is not about pretending that it doesn’t. What he does do is remind us that even in grief, we can have hope.

Hope’s a funny word isn’t it. Sometimes we use it to talk about something we want to happen but think probably won’t. Maybe we’ve had a test at school, and we know we didn’t do much work for it, and we think it went fairly badly, and we get home and mum and dad asks if we did OK and we say, “I hope so”. What we mean is, I don’t think so and hope is the only thing I’ve got left.

This is not the way Paul uses the word hope. It is not what Paul means by hope. In the Bible hope is a much stronger word, and much more positive word. It is linked to faith and means a thing that we can’t always explain the reason for, but are somehow sure inside ourselves that it’s going to happen. It’s more like when we’ve had a test at school, and we’ve worked for it, and we’re fairly sure we’ve got the questions right and we’re confident and someone asks it how it went, and we say, “I’ve got every reason to be hopeful”. We don’t know for certain, but we’re positive and confident that it’s going to be good.

Christian hope is positive and confident.

What does Paul encourage his readers to be positive and confident about? He tells them to be positive and confident that those who have died as Christians will not miss out on heaven, but that Jesus will keep his promise and take all who believe in him to live with him forever.

Paul then goes on to talk about the other thing that his friends were worried about. He tells them not to worry, Jesus will return, and he reminds them of what they have been taught, that it will come like a thief in the night. They will not know when it is going to happen, but they should continue to have faith that it will. Jesus is going to come back. Just because he hasn’t come back yet, doesn’t mean that he isn’t going to. He told us that he will, and warned us that it could be any time.

So that’s sorted. The folk in Thessalonica had two things that were worrying them and Paul reassures them about both. Don’t worry about the people who have died, Jesus will look after them. Don’t worry that Jesus hasn’t returned yet. He will when the time is right.

But, he doesn’t leave it there, he goes on to explore what it means to be ready for when Jesus returns.

It can basically be summed up as, “Be Alert.”

I wonder, if like me, you’ve ever been waiting for someone to come and pick you up. Maybe you’re in the house, looking out of the window or stood by the side of the road seeing if the car coming towards you is your lift. It’s even worse when you’re not sure what kind of car they’re driving and you peer at the driver to see if you recognise them. You’re alert, you’re looking, you’re actively waiting.

This is the kind of thing that Paul is talking about. Jesus talked about it as well. He told a story about it. There was a wedding being planned. It was going to be a fantastic party, and in those days, when the bridegroom arrived at the party he was met at the gate by young women carrying lamps and they lit the way into the wedding for him. This wedding was going to be a really splendid affair. There were going to be twenty lamp bearers to light the way into the party for the bridegroom. The day of the wedding came and the twenty women gathered outside the gate, all prepared with the oil lamps. They waited for the bride groom. And waited. And waited. But something had gone wrong, he was much later than expected. The lamps started to run out of oil and go out. What were they doing to do? Well some of the women, ten in fact, had brought some extra oil with them and topped up their lamps. But the other ten weren’t prepared, they had to go to the market to buy more oil. And whilst they were gone who should arrive but the bridegroom. The ten who were alert and ready picked up their lamps and went in with him. The other ten missed out.

So, the challenge is for us, are we going to be alert, ready, and actively waiting. Two thousand years have passed since Jesus was last on earth. Do we believe that he might return tomorrow? If we do, then what difference does it make to our lives? What difference does it make to the decisions we make and the things that we do?

Paul talks about three things that should be part of our lives, if we are to live ready for Jesus’ return. Faith, hope, and love. We’ve already thought a bit about hope. About being positive and confident. Here Paul talks about being positive and confident about our salvation, about the reality that Jesus has rescued us from darkness and death and promised us light and life. This positive confidence in God’s promises is like a helmet, protecting our head and our thinking.

So what about the other two, what about faith and love. If Paul describes hope as a helmet protecting our heads and thinking, then he talks about faith and love as a breastplate, guarding our hearts and feelings. In the biblical letter to the Hebrews we read that, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” I said earlier that faith and hope are linked and this brings that link out. It is faith that puts the confidence into our hope. And love? Well love is the heart of our faith. Jesus said that the most important things are to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves.

Think with me for a moment about the differences between waiting for someone to come and read the gas meter and waiting for Dad to get home from a long business trip. Which one are you going to count the minutes down for, which one are you going to look forward to most, which one might you prepare a special meal for? Dad. Why? Because he is the one you love. It is love for Jesus that energizes our waiting, empowered by the Holy Spirit, holding on with faith to the positive confidence of hope that we will live with him forever.

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