Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Day of the Lord

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
19 November 2017

1 Thessalonians 5.1-11 
Isaiah 59:14-20   

Do you know what I mean if I ask whether you’re an ‘owl’ or a ‘lark’?
            I’m definitely a lark, and what I mean by this is that I’m a ‘morning person’.
                        I always have been.
            I like to get up early in the morning, and get on with the day.

For several years in my teens I had an early morning job:
            initially just a paper-round,
                        it soon became a job at the newsagents opposite Sevenoaks train station.
            I used to get there every morning at 5am,
                        to set up all the papers for the other boys and girls,
            and then I’d do my own paper-round,
                        plus anyone else’s who was off sick,
            and then I’d serve behind the counter selling cigarettes and newspapers
                        to commuters until it was time to get the 8.05 train to school.

It meant getting up at 3.30 most mornings, but I loved it.
            In fact, sometimes I used to go for a swim on the way into work,
                        and would arrive at 5am having already done a half hour cycle ride
                        plus half an hour in the pool.
            I don’t think I could do this now, but I enjoyed it back then.

And one of my favourite parts about this, and it’s something that’s stayed with me,
            is that I really like being outside as the sun comes up.
The gradual lessening of the darkness as the day dawns
            is a spiritual, numinous time,
when the world seems to hang between dark and light,
            and you’re not quite sure which is winning.
But then the sun floods the earth, and suddenly the day is upon us.

Some of you will know exactly what I’m talking about,
            and others of you will be looking at me like I’m some kind of strange alien
because the last time you saw the dawn
            was when you were forcibly awoken by a small child
            screaming, ‘is it time to get up yet?’.
Actually, that small child was me,
            and it was my owl of a father who would should back at me,
            ‘No Simon, go back to sleep!’.

Well, I think St Paul was a lark.
            Certainly, he was for the purposes of his letter to the Thessalonians.

He was writing to encourage them to persevere in their faith,
            to be steadfast in their hope,
            and to be generous in their love for one another;
and to do this he makes generous use of the metaphors of night and day.

He paints a picture of the world hanging in that moment between darkness and light,
            and he tells his congregation that it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee,
            because everything is set to change.

But before we go any further with Paul’s imagery,
            I’d like to take a moment to dispel a myth that has grown up around this passage,
                        and the others that it parallels elsewhere in the New Testament.
I’ve heard it preached, and maybe you have too,
            that we need to behave ourselves because Jesus is coming ‘like a thief in the night’,
                        and might catch us out in whatever it is we shouldn’t be doing.

This is a spirituality of fear and control,
            and I’m just going to call it for the manipulative theology that it is.
If the only reason we do what God asks us to do,
            is because we’re afraid of what’ll happen if we get caught disobeying,
            then we have a highly deficient view of God, ethics, and the resurrection.
This isn’t what Paul believes, and we should believe it either.

Although I do recognise that for those of us brought up
            with an inherited culture of Catholic or Calvinist guilt,
it can be quite hard to shake off the lurking shame and fear
            that persistently haunt our idle moments.

But for Paul, Jesus doesn’t come ‘like a thief in the night’
            to catch us out in our depravity.
Rather, he comes to bring the dawning light of the new day
            to those whose lives are trapped in the depths of darkness.
The day of the Lord isn’t some spotlight of shame that shines on the sinful;
            it is a liberating light that dispels our deeds of darkness.

And whilst I’m at it,
            those who have sought to tie this passage from 1 Thessalonians
                        to some end-times chronology
            are on a hiding to nothing;
and the irony of this is that Paul knows it too.
            It’s there in the first couple of verses of chapter 5:
                        ‘Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and 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’.

In other words, stop trying to double guess when the Lord will return
            – you can’t, so don’t.

Rather, be prepared because the day of the Lord is at hand.
            It might feel like darkness has won the day,
                        and that the world is on an inexorable path
                        towards yet more pain and violence,
            but if you strain your eyes to the horizon
                        you can see the first glimmers of the great alternative,
            which draws people from darkness to light,
                        transforming lives and enlightening minds and hearts.

Paul sees the death and resurrection of Christ
            as the great turning point of the ages.
His death on the cross marks the moment
            that the old age of darkness, sin, and death loses its power;
and his resurrection is the dawning of the new age
            of light, life, and hope that is coming into being.

And just as Easter Saturday was a time of waiting,
            with the world hanging between darkness and light;
so we too live in the time-between-times,
            as the darkness of the world is gradually challenged
            by dawning of the light of resurrected Christ.

But the temptation, of course, is to not see it.

The temptation is to ignore the glimmer of light on the horizon,
            and to resign ourselves to the way the world is,
                        the way the world has always been,
            and to tell ourselves that it probably will always be the same.

The darkness that surrounds us can seem so utterly overwhelming,
            so seductively soporific in its enfolding embrace,
that it constantly threatens to lull us into silence
            as we sleepwalk our way to the very gates of hell itself.

And let’s make no bones about it;
            if we allow ourselves to slumber while evil has its day,
                        we run the risk of opening the very gates of hell on earth.
As Edmund Burke famously put it,
            ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil, is that good people do nothing.’

And so the world of darkness does all it can
            to silence those voices that would call the dawning of the day.

The powers that be would much rather we mumbled,
            ‘Peace, peace, peace and security’,
            than that we proclaimed the great alternative of the coming day of the Lord.

And just as the ancient prophets Jeremiah (6.14; 8.11) and Ezekiel (13.10)
            criticised those in their time who proclaimed peace when there was no peace,
so Paul criticises those who mumble mantras of stability,
            those who tell everyone that ‘everything’s alright’,
            and that ‘nothing too bad’s going to happen’.
These people, he says, will be the first to face destruction
            when their prophecies of apathy fail to keep the darkness at bay.

And so much of our contemporary political discourse
            is justified by these mantras of stability.
‘Strong and stable’, that’s the way to peace, we’re told.

            Forget principles of mutual accountability, subsidiarity,
                        and communal responsibility:
            what we need is a show of strength to bring peace to our world,
                        and restore the security of our borders.

            Forget costly investment in global education and health,
                        forget international agreements on carbon dioxide reduction:
            it’s walls and borders that win elections.

And, depressingly, this is nothing new:
            the slogan of the Roman Empire was ‘Peace and Security’.

The Pax Romana, the peace of Rome,
            was the way the Empire had dominated the globe.
Peace through military strength was the way of Rome;
            and Paul, citizen of Rome, knew this very well.

Those he mentions as the proclaimers of ‘peace and security’,
            are nothing other than apologists for the darkness of the Empire.
And Paul says that they will ultimately pay the price
            for their wilful justification of the violence of the regime.
Those who dance with the devil end up getting burned,
            and Paul wants his readers to realise that their calling is to wake up,
                        to see the ideology peace through violence for what it is,
            and to start living the great alternative into being.

He says to them,
            ‘But you, beloved, are not in darkness…
                        you are children of light and children of the day;
                        we are not of the night or of the darkness’ (v.4-5).

And so he calls the followers of the resurrected Jesus to live differently.
            ‘Keep awake’, he says;
                        don’t fall back into the land of darkness.
            And ‘be sober’ he implores;
                        there’s not much point being awake if you’re drunk all the time.

Those who belong to the coming day
            are to live as children of Christ, not as children of darkness.
The sleep that Paul wants his readers to avoid
            is the sleep that ultimately leads to death,
            the life-denying slumber of terminal ennui.

Paul knows that life should be so much more than this.
            So, he says, let us ‘put on the breastplate of faith and love,
            and for a helmet the hope of salvation’.

This trilogy of faith, hope, and love, crops up elsewhere in Paul’s writings,
            perhaps most famously at the end of his great hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13;
and here in 1 Thessalonians he combines it with the image of the armour of God,
            something which he expands on further in his letter to the Ephesians (6.10-20).

Paul tells his readers to protect their bodies with faith and love,
            and their heads with the hope of salvation.
It is these three: faith, hope, and love,
            which can provide the only effective defence against the darkness of the world.

Evil will not be defeated by violence,
            and neither can it be ignored into inexistence.
But faith in resurrecting power of Christ,
            hope in the future that God is bringing into being,
            and love for other that mirrors the love of God for all creation
is a three stranded cord that cannot be broken,
            and a protection for those who long to live differently.

So where, in our world, is there darkness.
            Where do we least expect to see the light of day dawning?

Maybe we look to the wars and conflicts that daily fill our media,
            and see nothing but hatred and destruction.
Maybe we fear the terrorist on the street or the tube or the bus,
            and we find our love for the other diminished
            as we extrapolate that fear onto those who do not look or live like we do.

Maybe we know that the real darkness
            is the darkness that lurks in our own souls,
as we consider our capacity for hatred, abuse, and revenge,
            and know ourselves for who we really are beneath the social veneer.

Or maybe we live in the daily darkness of our mundane existence,
            trapped by poisonous cycles of relationships,
            or imprisoned by depression and self harm.

And my question today is this:
            What would lit look like for the day
            to unexpectedly dawn upon our darkness?

What if the coming day is calling us to become more involved
            in making our society a more loving and peaceful place.
What if we determined to reach out across borders
            of ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, or social standing,
            to include the other and befriend the stranger.

Some of us were at the London Citizens Mayoral Assembly on Wednesday night,
            and we heard how churches, mosques, synagogues,
                        schools, and universities across London
            are working together on issues such as asylum and immigration,
                        the living wage, affordable housing, children’s health,
                        and good employment practice.
Bloomsbury is part of this,
            and maybe this is what living as a child of the light might mean for you.
If it does, then come and talk with me.

But what if the coming day means turning the light inwards,
            to address the darkness that hides deep in our souls.
What if we are being called to take the courageous step
            of admitting we cannot fix ourselves,
            and that we need help from another.

As one who has undergone psychotherapy myself,
            I can attest that it is a path of enlightenment and freedom.

And what if the call to turn our faces towards the coming dawn
            means taking the step of seeking baptism in the name of Christ,
to decisively turn to follow him
            and to publicly bear witness to your journey from darkness to light.
Again, if this is you, come and talk to one of the ministers,
            and we’ll stand alongside you as you follow Christ through the waters of baptism.

And if it all just seems too overwhelming,
            then just hear this:

When all hope seems lost, when all faith is spent,
            when all love is diminished;
that is when the day of the Lord is set to break in upon us,
            and that is the time for the great thief Jesus Christ
to steal us back from claws of darkness,
            to restore our faith, hope, and love.

Not even death itself can separate us from the love of God
            in Christ Jesus.

Because this is where the image of the day of the Lord
            coming like a thief in the night takes us.

Jesus has come to steal the world back for good.
            He has broken the bars of hell,
                        and escaped the clutches of evil,
            he has defeated the power of death,
                        and overcome the supremacy of sin,
            and he comes to the darkness of our night,
                        to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Darkness does not win the eternal battle.
            Darkness always gives way to the eternal dawn,
            just as surely as day follows night.

So have hope, my friends, keep the faith,
            and let us live in love.
Let us encourage one another, and build each other up,
            let us keep awake, and let us live as children of light.

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