Sermon

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

A Day of Reckoning

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

We touched on this last week: The early Christians understood the Day of the Lord to mean the Second Coming of Christ. It was a natural carry-over from their Jewish upbringing. And, as the gospel spread to the Gentiles, it soon became a part of their dogma.

In the Old Testament, the Day of the Lord was understood to be a cataclysmic event on the horizon, a day when God would intervene in the course of human history and the Promised Messiah would come and reign over all creation until the close of the age. This is what we heard last Sunday afternoon in the Hallelujah Chorus:

“The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord,
and of His Christ;
and He shall reign for ever and ever.
King of kings and Lord of Lords. Hallelujah!”

The problem was, it didn’t happen. The early Christians waited and they watched and they more or less kept the faith, but Jesus didn’t appear in the clouds, as they’d expected. In the meantime, they continued to live under Roman occupation and, what’s worse, they were persecuted by the Jews. On top of all that, the faithful were beginning to die off. This created a crisis of faith: Was he coming or not?

Well, here we are 2,000 years later, and we’re still wondering. Like the early Christians, we live between the no longer and the not yet: Jesus no longer walks on this earth as one of us; but then, he has not yet returned in glory.

So, what are we to do? That’s the question. And it’s often answered in one of two ways. On the one hand are those faithful Christians whose primary mission is to keep the message alive, not lose the Spirit or the enthusiasm or the hope that Jesus will return at any moment, and, as far as they’re concerned, that’s what we live for – his imminent return.

For the past year or so, I’ve been watching a small congregation of Hispanic Christians build a new church on the north side of Bryan. They’re doing the construction themselves and, from the pace of their progress, I’d say it’s a pay-as-you-go project. So far, they’ve got a pretty nice-sized metal building and a gravel parking lot. I’m guessing the inside is finished off well enough to hold services.

Interestingly, one of the first additions to the new building, even before they got a roof over their heads, was a portable outdoor sign with detachable letters. On it they placed a message for all to see: “Jesus Viene,” Jesus is coming.

For many Christians, that’s the primary message of the gospel: Jesus is coming. It’s only a matter of time. Prepare to meet the Lord. The problem is it’s hard to keep the excitement going.

When I was child growing up in Southwest Arkansas, there was a sign by the side of the road – I can’t remember if it was Highway 67 going to Little Rock or Highway 71 going to Fayetteville – but there was this rather large concrete marker perched up on the hillside that announced, “Jesus is Coming!” Even as a child I remember distinctly thinking to myself there’s something wrong here. There’s a double message. If Jesus is really going to appear at any moment, shouldn’t the sign be made out of cardboard or paper? Maybe even be held on a stick by some faithful prophet? But reinforced concrete?

Well, you get the point: There are those Christians today who live for the Second Coming. And their favorite hymn goes like this:

“O the King is coming, the King is coming!
I just heard the trumpets sounding, and now his face I see;
O the King is coming, the King is coming!
Praise God, He’s coming for me!”
(The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration, p. 238)

At the same time, there are equally faithful Christians who believe that the Second Coming has already occurred. They point to Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. For them Jesus’ promise to come again has been fulfilled, only in a different form than was first expected. For them, God is with us here and now, and if God is with us, what more could you ask?

For these Christians, what’s important is not that we watch and wait for Jesus to return in the clouds, but that we work together for peace and justice in the world today. As far as they’re concerned, God has already given us all we need to establish his kingdom on earth; now, it’s up to us to do it.

The promise is we’ll experience the presence of the living Christ along the way. This is what Albert Schweitzer said in his book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus:

“He comes to us as One unknown,
without a name, as of old, by the lake-side,
He came to those men who knew Him not.
He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’
and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time.
He commands.
And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple,
He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings
which they shall pass through in His fellowship,
and, as an ineffable mystery,
they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” (p. 403)

So, let’s see … we’ve got this one group of Christians who say, “Jesus is coming,” and another who say, “He’s already here.” So, what do we say?

Our faith can be summarized in three short phrases: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” That is to say . . .

—We believe in the historical Jesus who lived among us and showed us how to live in community with God and each other, and who died for the forgiveness of our sins.

—We believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and is with us, even now, in the form of the Holy Spirit to lead us and inspire us in our mission to reconcile the world to God.

—And we believe that Christ will come again at the close of the age to reign in glory over all of God’s creation.

We express this faith every time we celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion. We say,

“Every time you eat this bread or drink this cup
you proclaim the saving death of our Lord Jesus Christ
until he comes again.”

And so, this is the essence of our faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

As for when the Second Coming will take place, Jesus told his disciples, “But no one knows of that day and hour, not even the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” (Mt. 24:36)

Recently, I’ve heard people say, and I bet you have too, that the Tsunami in Indonesia, the rash of hurricanes and tornadoes in this country, the tragic earthquake in Pakistan, the continued violence in the Middle East and the ongoing terrorist attacks all over the world are signs that the end is near. Well, maybe … maybe not. No one knows but the Father.

Whether the end comes sooner or later than we might expect, there’s one little tidbit of biblical trivia will need to clear about, and that is the day of the Lord is not something we ought to be looking forward to. The prophet Amos put it this way:

“Woe to you who desire the day of Yahweh…
It is darkness, and not light.
As if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him;
Or he went into the house and leaned his hand on the wall,
And a snake bit him.
Won’t the day of Yahweh be darkness, and not light?
Even very dark, and no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18-20)

I’ve been thinking about what Amos would tell us if he lived today, how he might put this in terms we could relate to. I’m guessing here, but I think Amos might say something like,

“Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord.
It is darkness, not light.
It’s like … well, it’s like an IRS audit … final exams … cholesterol screening …
the Channel 3 van pulling up in the parking lot of your restaurant
to do a ‘restaurant scorecard’ on your kitchen.”

In his book, Jesus Against the Rapture, Robert Jewett says that the height of arrogance and self-righteousness is to think that when the Lord appears you’re going to be one of the good guys, that you’re going to be in the in group.

No, the Lord’s coming exposes the sinfulness of our human nature and reveals our many shortcomings. Amos envisioned the Lord in the midst of his people as a plumb line – a perfectly vertical line exposing the crookedness of human nature. (Amos 7:7-8)

When I was in undergraduate school, I studied trombone with Dr. Irvin Wagner. He was a great teacher – an Eastman graduate – and he demanded perfection from his students – not that he always got it, but at least that was his goal.

At the end of each spring semester, we’d all go our separate ways. Some would get summer jobs. Some would goof off. One of the trombone players in our group spent a whole summer touring with the Si Zenter band. One played in the park band at Astroworld.

No matter how we spent the summer, when we got back to school in the fall, Dr. Wagner would be there waiting. He’d have us go through our warm-up routine and play some etudes, and in no time he’d be all over our case. It’s amazing how many bad habits you can pick up when you’re not paying attention. He’d shake his head and grimace and give us exercises to work on and, slowly, but surely, he’d get us back on track.

Well, somehow, I think the day of the Lord is something like going back to school after a long, leisurely summer. It’s a day of reckoning, a day in which your sloppiness is exposed – not to condemn you, but to shape you up and call you back to the model of perfection found in Jesus Christ.

The truth is nobody knows when the day of the Lord will come. It could come today. It might not come for another thousand years. In a sense, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we live each day in preparation for the moment in which we’ll be called to account for how we’ve spent our time, used our resources and kept the faith.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think this is what life is all about: Living each day as if it were a day of reckoning; so that, whether you think of it like …

• A demanding professor giving a tough final exam;
• An IRS agent auditing your financial records;
• A lab technician checking your cholesterol level,
• Or Crystal Galny on the go, seeing if your refrigerator is cold enough or your dishwasher is doing it’s job … when Christ comes, you won’t have any reason to be afraid. You’ll be able to account for yourself, and, in the final analysis, Christ will look at your record of faithfulness and say,

“Well done, good and faithful servant…
Enter into the joy of your Lord.”
(Mt. 25:23)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Copyright 2005 Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.

Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.