1 Thessalonians 5.1-11
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and the sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
I have a love-hate relationship with church signs and billboards.
Every once in a while I’ll pass by a church with a sign that just knocks me back with laugher. I’ll never forget the time I was driving, soon after receiving my driver’s license, and I passed a local Presbyterian church with a sign that said, “The Church isn’t full of hypocrites… there’s always room for more!”
And then there are the witty signs that are biblically accurate and memorable. For instance: I was lost driving through the middle of nowhere Virginia and I saw a handwritten sign in the front yard of a very small chapel that said, “Quick, look busy, Jesus is coming!”
Or there are those that just hit a little too close to home: “Having trouble sleeping? We have sermons. Come hear one!” or the equally pastoral: “Do you know what hell is? Come hear our pastor.”
And then there’s those signs where you can’t help but wonder what led someone to put that up for everyone in the world to see. Like: “Don’t let worries kill you, let the church help” and “God answers our kneemail” and “Can’t take the heat outside? This church is prayer conditioned.”
But there is one church sign that takes the cake, one sign that was so poignant that it has stuck with me over the years. In big blocky letters it said, “To whomever stole our AC unit. Keep it. You’ll need it where you’re going…”
And for every funny, and witty, and strange church sign, there are an equal number of terrible, shameful, and problematic church signs.
I can remember driving with my family years and years ago when I saw a church with a sign that said, “No gay marriage: it was Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve.”
There was quite a controversy a few years ago in a small southern community where a few teenagers died in a car accident and a local church put up a sign the next day that said: “Honk if you love Jesus! Text while driving if you want to meet him!”
And last weekend, while I was driving down to Durham, NC, we passed a huge billboard in Richmond that said, “The End is near! Accept Jesus or go to Hell.”
These billboards and church signs shout at passing cars and pedestrians about the brokenness of the world and the desperate need to change here and now. They play into our fears and frustrations, they tap into our emotions, and they make it all about us.
Notice, the signs I described, they’re almost all about our experience, and our need to change, and our sin. Very few church signs are actually about God.
And, because we take our lessons from the world around us rather than from God’s Word, we’ve let this slip off the billboards and into the church. So much of what we do on Sunday mornings has become primarily focused on our experience.
We ask questions like, “What did you get out of church today?” when it’s actually about what God gets out of us.
We preach and hear sermons that end with “let us now go and do likewise” instead of reflecting on how God is the one moving in and through us.
We make church all about us, instead of about God.
Our text from Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica is apocalyptic. Apocalyptism is one of the frightening words we tend to avoid at all costs. When we hear the word our minds immediately flock to frightening movie scenes, and fire raining from the sky, death and destruction all around. We think about the people wearing signs on street corners or the not-so-subtle church billboards near the highway.
But apocalyptic writing is nothing more than the revelation of God. It is an experience of the presence of the divine that breaks down every barrier for humans in the universe.
These kind of writings and reflections rise to the surface whenever Christians feel pressured by the world; when oppressive regimes like Rome, or slavery, or the system itself rises to power, they put all of life’s choices into the binary of God or the devil. And hope for God’s in breaking, God’s revelation, may be all that keeps us going when everything feels like it’s falling apart.
It should come as no surprise that considering what has taken place across the American landscape over the last year, many people, Christians in particular, believe we are in the end times.
Evangelicals feel attacked and belittled by the federal government for just about everything under the sun.
Pastors lament from the pulpit about the so-called war on Christianity or the war on Advent and they strive to frighten their people into recognizing the apocalypse at hand.
Even Roy Moore, the current Alabaman Republican candidate for a Senate seat, in light of all the accusations coming in for sexual harassment and misconduct, he has denied them vehemently and labeled them an attack on his Christian identity and virtue.
Fear is a very powerful tool. Manipulation always takes place when individual fears are tapped into.
That’s why political races are won by showing what’s wrong with the other candidate rather than addressing what a particular candidate wants to see happen.
It’s also why children are experiencing the highest levels of anxiety in modern history because they feel pressured to perform well, rather than being celebrated for what they’ve accomplished.
And it’s why churches put up big billboards with slogans like “Accept Jesus or Suffer The Consequences” rather than “Jesus loves you.”
Today, there is so much going on that there is plenty of pressure for us to forget that we are citizens of the age yet to come.
Fear is powerful.
And even here in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonicans, he appeals to their fear:
You all of all people know that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. The world might seem nice and good, but that’s exactly when the sudden destruction will arrive, like labor pains in a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!
But unlike the billboards that speckle our American landscape, unlike the 24-hour news cycle that is almost entirely devoted to political fears, Paul raises the issue of revelation not for fear mongering, but for encouragement.
The world might be falling apart, but we are not in darkness. We are children of the light and children of the day. We cannot become blind to who we are and whose we are, we must remember our truest identities and what has been done for us. So, let us clothe ourselves with the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet we shall wear the hope of salvation. For God has destined us for greater things; not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, do the good and right work of encouraging one another, and build up each other.
Paul, throughout the centuries, fills our ears with the very words we need to hear: Stay the course, remember we belong to the light, trust God and trust God’s promises, build the kingdom, love one another.
All of those things would be far better on a church billboard than most of the stuff we see on a regular basis.
On Sunday afternoon, shortly after most of us left the church, I received a phone call from our Secretary, Louise. Now, to be clear, Sunday afternoons are holy times for clergy people as they struggle to keep awake after struggling to keep people like you awake during church. So when I receive a phone call on a Sunday afternoon, right after being in this space with all of you, I know it’s important.
I answered my phone and Louise quickly filled me in one what had taken place right after I left… A drunk driver had crashed into our church sign.
When he came down the road he was traveling at such a high speed that when he smashed into the brick and mortar sign, it flipped the vehicle and it flew another 30 feet before it finally came to stop.
Police officers were on the scene and the driver had already been rushed in an ambulance to the hospital. He thankfully only suffered a few cuts and bruises, but when I got on the phone with the first officer he kept saying the same thing over and over again, “He’s lucky to be alive.”
Thankfully, our sign that now stands broken and cracked on the corner of our property is not filled with any of the hateful rhetoric found on some other billboards. I say that with gratitude because the guy who crashed last Sunday easily could’ve died. He was going fast enough to end his life. And as I thought about what happened this week, as I read through Paul’s letter, I kept thinking about how terrible it would’ve been if those kinds of words were the last he ever saw.
Friends, life is far too short to be filled with negativity and fear and belittling attacks meant to manipulate. There is enough anxiety already in the world today. And when we think that all of this church stuff is up to us, and to us alone, we only increase the pessimism that so controls the world.
Paul writes to the church, and to us, and boldly declares that we have received a great gift in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have been awakened to God’s movements in the world, we have the privilege of living as God’s people in the light, and we get to experience the profound and wonderful mystery of resurrection here and now in and through one another.
We can, like others, spend our days worried about what will happen to us when we die. We can fall prey to the fearful signs that fill the horizons. But Christ died so that we may live.
Therefore, instead of breaking one another down, we build one another up. Instead of using fear to manipulate others, we give thanks for the love of God that has no end. And instead of cowering in the shadow of the cross, we rejoice in the light of the resurrection. Amen.