Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Are you ready for the Lord's return? (1 Thessalonians 5:1-10)

There was an unusual article posted in the London Times of the twenty-first of January nineteen seventy-seven.  It concerned a man called Ernest Digweed, who had died the year before.  Digweed had left a will of over twenty-six thousand sterling and had instructed that the money should be paid out to Jesus on his return, provided that Jesus provided sufficient proof of his identity and returned within eighty years.  I have no idea what Digweed was thinking!

There is a lot in this letter about the second coming of Jesus, but the most important thing is to be sure that we are ready for Jesus to come back. 

1.      Jesus’ return will be unexpected and inevitable (1-3)
Now brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night (1-2).

If only Christians could take these words at face value!  In September, on Facebook, there were people circulating articles that claimed that Jesus was going to return on September twenty-third of this year.  Someone once produced a pamphlet giving eighty-eight reasons why Jesus would return in nineteen eighty-eight, which was reproduced the next year giving eighty-nine reasons why Jesus would return in nineteen eighty-nine.  The Jehovah Witnesses have given similar predictions that they have later had to explain way.

It seems that some of the Thessalonian Christians were guessing dates.  Yet the times and dates were not even known to Jesus during his earthly ministry, so why do we think that they could be known to anyone else?  Paul says that Jesus will return like a thief in the night.

Now think about that for a moment.  The problem with burglars is that they don’t tell you when they are coming.  They don’t send a text to say that they are coming in five minutes.  As a result you always need to be prepared.

Tragically, there are many who will not be ready.  They will be saying, “Peace and safety,” and destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape (3).  

There are many who laugh at the notion that the Jesus who coming back.  But the Jesus who came and died so that we could be rescued from God’s judgement is coming back to judge those who did not take hold of his mercy and grace.  The world will then be divided in two.  Those who have put their trust in Jesus will greet him with unbelievable delight, and those who have rejected his offer of love will see his coming and be filled with inescapable dread.

I think that one of our biggest problems is that all this can seem so unreal.  We find it hard to believe in things that have never happened before.  It stretches our belief.  I have no doubt that Jesus walked this earth two-thousand years ago and I think that the evidence points to the fact that he was raised from the dead.  His teaching makes sense of the world to me and I believe that he is in my heart.  If all these things are true, then it is certain that he will return as he said he would.  Sometimes we pray, ‘I believe, help me in my unbelief.’
2.    We must warn people to be ready (4-8)
Paul reassures the Christians, you are all children of the light and children of the day (5).  But as children of the light, we must live in the light.  Let us not sleep … but be awake and sober (6).

The warning here seems to be very relevant to people who think they are ready for Jesus coming and are not.  Now I need to be careful here.  Some of you are naturally anxious and insecure, and any talk of not being ready makes you feel worried.  If you trust Jesus for his forgiveness and are seeking strength to live for him, even though you live for him very imperfectly, then you have nothing to fear.  The Jesus who is coming at the end of time is the same Jesus who has made you his brother or sister.  He will never forsake you in this life and he does not want you to be afraid of him when he comes back.  He is coming back to bless you!

In Café Church in a couple of weeks we are looking at the question of how we can know that we are Christians.  There is a whole letter in the Bible devoted to that topic, the letter of first John.  John describes the Christian as someone who believes in Jesus Christ—here belief is the opposite of work.  A Christian is not someone who has worked their way to God, but someone who has accepted his free gift of life.  They are someone who has realised that they are dying from thirst and accepted the free gift of living water.  But that water changes us.  It does not mean that we are perfect.  In fact John says that if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  However, the Christian shows the reality of God in their lives by the fact that they are seeking God’s strength in the struggle against temptation.  They do not treat sin as if it does not matter.  They want to become more like Jesus.  We encourage those who come to us and admit that they are struggling with temptation.  But we warn those who have drifted away and seem not to care about how they live for they are not acting like someone who is awake and sober.  We warn people never to rest their assurance on past experiences but to look at their dependence of God in the present.

3.    We are prepared because we trust Jesus (9-10)

I want us to end on a positive note.  Having given his warning, look at Paul’s assurance! ‘For God has not destined you for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died so that whether we are asleep or awake we might live with him’ (10).

Do you see that Paul is using sleep in two different ways in these verses?  There are those who are spiritually asleep, who are not ready for Jesus’ return.  Here, however, sleep is a picture of how have passed on in death.  Some will still be alive when Jesus returns and others will have fallen asleep (died) before he comes.  All his children will live with him for ever.

Notice, too, that our being ready is ultimately about God’s gracious gift to us.  He has chosen us for salvation.  He sent his Son to die for our guilt.  He has washed away all our sin.  He holds us in his right hand.  Nothing can separate us from his love.  He will keep us from falling.  God is more committed to you than you will ever be to him.  He assures those who trust him we have nothing to fear about Jesus’ return because he has determined to keep us to the end.

But what if I am having a bad day when he returns?  What if he returns just as I have given in to some besetting sin?  Remember the gospel of grace!  There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  The blood of Jesus goes on cleansing you from all sin.  I am not saying that sin does not matter. But when the Christian sins they do not go from no condemnation to condemnation.  There is never condemnation for those who trust in Jesus, even when they fail him.

But would Jesus mind waiting until after my summer holidays or after you meet the girl of your dreams and spend some time with her?  Don’t be so foolish!  God has destined you for eternal glory.  If you knew what awaits you, you would think that Jesus cannot come soon enough.  ‘No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor heart imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor. 2:9).

I can think of one legitimate reason why we would want the Lord to delay.  We might want him to delay because we want more time for people to turn to him in repentance.  God shares that concern.  In fact his delay in returning is so that more would be brought into his kingdom.  Listen to the apostle Peter: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise as some count slowness [they were wondering why he had not returned yet], but is patient towards you, not wishing that any perish, but that all come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).  When Jesus returns, all that will come into his kingdom will have come into his kingdom.


Finally, notice that this morning’s reading finishes almost exactly the same way as the last reading we had from this letter (4:18).  Therefore, encourage and build one another up, just as in fact you are doing (11).  We are to take these words and remind each other to have an eternal perspective.  This world as we currently see it is not our final resting place.  Things that seem important now, may have no lasting significance.  Times may be difficult, but an eternal reward awaits God’s people.  Keep going, in the sure hope of what is yet to be revealed. 

In Scotland there are large golf-ball-shaped satellite receivers that date back to the Cold War.  They were there to give warning of nuclear missiles.  Now, who do you think paid for that warning-system?  Did the Soviet Union construct them so that people could be prepared for an invasion?  Of course not!  You don’t warn your enemies of danger.  But God does.  He doesn’t tell us the time or hour, but he is constantly warning people to be ready.  In his kindness he warns a hostile world that he is sending his Son to come back and bring an end to evil and judgement for sin.  He wants you to be ready.  He calls you to come into the safety of his embrace.  And, if you have placed yourself in his loving grace, he tells you that you should not fear what is to come.  Unimaginable, eternal joy awaits you!

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