Winter is coming.
That reality is pretty hard to ignore after the arctic blast of this past week. Monday I was enjoying my day off by hiking with the family—we were in short sleeves and enjoying pleasant fall weather. That night, however, the wind picked up as a front moved in. You know: you experienced it too. Over an hour or so, the mercury plummeted nearly 20 degrees.
When I arrived at church this morning it was only 14 degrees, with a “feels like” temperature of -1.
Winter is coming. We feel it in our bones. So even without thinking, we gather and split firewood. We make sure the deep freeze is full. We “winterize” our houses and our cars and our wardrobes.
Winter is coming. There is no denying it. No one can say they are in the dark anymore. No one can say they are surprised. What began in the turning of the grass and the rustle of wind-through-leaves has grown, escalated, and intensified into the cold wind of winter that seems to sap even the heat of the sun.
Winter is coming. No human, animal, insect, or even plant in Atchison is asleep to that fact. We have woken up. We are aware. Winter is coming.
At the time our scripture reading picks up in 1Thessalonians, Paul has already been talking about the coming Day of the Lord for some time. In those previous verses of chapter 4, the apostle sketches out a teaching on the return of Christ in the future. He wants his hearers to know that those who have already died in faith will not be at a disadvantage on the Day of the Lord.
But in contrast to the future-oriented teaching of chapter 4, Paul’s focus in chapter 5 is decidedly on the present. These instructions are not concerned with what Christians should believe about the future, they are about how they should act in the present.
Their actions—to use the expression Paul employs repeatedly here—should be driven by their ongoing awakening to God’s Kingdom. You see, if we truly know Christ’s return is immanent, then we will feel it in our bones the same way we do as winter approaches. That knowledge will drive us—consciously and subconsciously—to action: to work even more diligently—even more urgently—in the cause of Christ.
- What (I wonder) is our equivalent of gathering and splitting firewood?
- What is our equivalent of winterizing our houses, cars, and wardrobes?
- What is our equivalent of gathering the foodstuffs necessary to sustain us through the season?
While they may not line up perfectly with this analogy of winter awareness and preparation, Paul does issue three instructions to the Thessalonians here.
1. “Be sober”
The first instructions are found in v.6, where the apostle urges Christians to “keep awake and be sober”—instructions repeated and expanded upon in vv.7-8 as well.
Now this is a passage of mixed metaphors, but it is still clear that Paul is not urging all of us to be insomniacs and teetotalers. Here and other places we see this direction is a plea to Christians:
to wake up to the truth of God’s kingdom,
to not dull our senses to God’s action,
and to be attentive and ready to respond when God breaks into our lives in small or large ways.
This part of Thessalonians is heavily dependent upon Jesus’ own teaching, especially those teachings recorded in Matthew 24 (42-43), Mark 13 (33-37), and Luke 12 (37-38). Both Matthew and Mark record Jesus teaching that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, and all three Gospels record Jesus using a variety of analogies and parables to help his hearers understand this instruction to stay awake. These analogies include things like:
…trying to catch or ward off a thief at night,
…guarding over someone else’s home or possessions while they are away,
…eagerly waiting for the arrival of one who is delayed,
…and even anticipating a natural disaster.
All involve readiness. All involve gathering knowledge and resources. All involve the ability to immediately accept and adapt to the changing reality of what is coming.
At today’s stage of the history of God and the world, we cannot afford for our senses to be dulled—they must be heightened! We cannot afford to sleepily or wearily procrastinate our response to God’s invitation to mission—it must be immediate, or it may be too late.
You know how in the old movies, someone will get hysterical about something, and their counterpart will slap them in the face. The impact “wakes up” the previously hysterical person, and they can suddenly think clearly and do what needs done.
Of course, it doesn’t work that way in real life. But the twin instructions to “be sober!” and “wake up!” are intended to be that kind of slap in the face, something to break our hysterical focus on this world so we can think and act clearly for the cause of Christ. Jesus, Paul, and the others who use these idioms want to see Christians clear their heads, come out of the fog we are in, and see fully what God is doing around and through us.
2. Gear Up
If the first instruction involves coming to terms with the reality of what is happening around us, the second requires preparing for our involvement in it. Verse 8 of our reading says: “Put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet [put on] the hope of salvation.”
Paul’s language here is very reminiscent of what he writes in Ephesians 6, in that famous passage instructing believers to “take up the whole armor of God” (Eph 6:13). Much as with that text—the emphasis here is on defensive—rather than offensive—weaponry. What are these defensive guards?——They are faith, hope, and love.
Which should immediately bring to mind what Paul famously writes in 1Cor 11 (12-13), other words about life in this world and the coming Day of the Lord:
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
So how do we “gear up” and prepare for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in this world?
Quite simply: we become disciplined practitioners of faith, hope, and love.
We study and reflect to remind ourselves of the hope of salvation, which is secure in Christ Jesus.
We grow our faith as we pray and increase in our trust of the God whose faithfulness endures forever.
And we intentionally choose to follow the path of love, as revealed to us by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.
3. Leave No One Behind
That leads us to the third instruction. After coming to terms with the reality of what is happening around us, and preparing for our involvement in it, Paul’s third instruction is to “Encourage one another and build up each other” (v.11).
You see, our responsibility is not to ourselves. It is to others. I wonder if what Paul is advocating here is something like a “No man left behind” policy. As Christians, our responsibility is to support and encourage one another—it is to see them through. I mean, listen to this rapid sampling of verses.
Mark 12:31, Jesus instructs: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
John 15:13, Jesus declares: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
Luke 17:33, Jesus teaches: “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”
Revelation 12:11, the Voice in John’s vision says: “And they have conquered [the Enemy] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”
I could read a lot more. But I don’t think I have to. You know the Christian life should be focused on others instead of yourself. I know it too. But we all have to struggle daily to purge that selfishness that seeks our own encouragement and growth over that of our neighbor.
I think I mentioned this a couple weeks ago—it’s been on my mind a lot. There’s an old Jewish proverb that says if you save one person, you save the entire world (Talmud Bavli, Art Scroll Series, Tractate Sanhedrin, folio 37a).
It’s a powerful concept. And it’s a notion that has some resonance with teachings in our New Testament as well. In it, I hear echoes of Jude 22-23:
And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear…
And then there’s Matthew 10:42:
And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”
And of course Matthew 25:40:
Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.
Jesus is coming again.
Let us wake up to the reality of God’s Kingdom—living in it now, even though it is not yet fully revealed.
Let us diligently practice faith, hope, and love—training and strengthening ourselves to be ready for God’s call.
Let us genuinely support each other—Let us “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” as we read in Galatians 6:2.
Let us do it today, so that on that day, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11).
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ is coming again.