Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 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! 4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8 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. 9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11 (NRSV)
(For use with the MORNING Daily Prayer)
When quite young, one of our children would occasionally ask “What is it time?” The child would then quickly add, “It’s not nap-nap time! No! No!” The question, unorthodox syntax included, did not mean what time of day is it according to the hands of the clock. It meant what are we supposed to be doing now, with our hands, so to speak.
The Thessalonians have a similar question about time. They believe Jesus Christ, crucified and raised, will return very soon to bring to fulfillment the universal reign of God that Christ’s ministry, death, and resurrection have inaugurated. They now sense that this wonderful and longed-for “coming of the Lord” is overdue. Pastoral, theological, and ethical concerns arise among them.
Paul cradles his response to the Thessalonians in personal warmth and apostolic concern, urging them to encourage one another in the midst of their uneasiness (4:18; 5:11). This inclusion of encouragement is the literary equivalent of Paul wrapping his arms around the Thessalonians, not just sending them accurate information. What he has to say, although finally based on his apostolic commission to proclaim the Gospel, is equally deeply lodged in his relationship with and affectionate hope for the Thessalonians.
Within this apostolic embrace, Paul sends a calming and hopeful reminder to the Thessalonian congregation, regardless of its uncertain present and future, of God’s care (1: 4; 5: 9). Moreover, God’s care is not some amorphous, general feeling. It is not a generic attribute or static category of the divine nature. It is, rather, a concrete and effective care, not simply an idea or a system, but a living, breathing, cruciform reality in the midst of the congregation’s life. This care has become incarnate in what God has done “for us” (note Paul’s solidarity with his readers in his use of first person, plural pronouns) “through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us . . . so we may live for him” (5:10). In a deft rhetorical move, Paul urges the Thessalonians to reclaim limited knowledge as an original feature of God’s care, which care, he notes, in addition to taking incarnate degree and intensity, has always included for the faithful the limits of what can be known, limits the Thessalonians must not allow to distract them (5:1-2; 6) .
The congregation in commercial and imperial Thessalonica would no doubt have had access to several prevailing Greco-Roman philosophical systems. Each of these systems in its own way removed or at least diluted any sense of divine concern for or divine beneficial engagement with the world, and, in effect, cast communities and individuals unto their own devises, whatever shapes these might take, to navigate the fickle winds and storms of disinterested fate until time itself ran out on them.
For Paul, and for the Thessalonians, a world-altering aspect of the news of God in Christ is that God has not left history adrift on the tides of time. God has reset the age. Time is now characterized by the wonderful reality that the one true God of all creation has, in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, entered completely and passionately all the broken seasons of the world to bring their bruised and bruising drift into life-giving purpose. God has included the Thessalonians, and others near and far (1:7-8) in the great work of salvation accomplished in “our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:9). That is what time it is. That is what time now is for the Thessalonians.
Paul hopefully characterizes this time as “day” as contrasted to “night” (5:5; 8), a time not of sleep and intoxication (despair and self-indulgence?), but of seeing clearly (“light”) and living with purpose (being “sober”) as individuals and as a community (5:10). Furthermore, Paul continues, it is a time not to be defined by fear or anxiety or resignation or striving to wrench security from the fleeting hours of the clock, but rather a time to be filled to its redeemed brim with meaningful labor, esteem for those who serve the congregation, peace, admonishing the idle, encouraging the fainthearted, helping the weak, being patient with all, eschewing vengeance, seeking good for each other and for all, rejoicing, praying, giving thanks, welcoming the Spirit, practicing discernment, and abstaining from every evil (5:12-22).
This quality of time will by no means be an easy season for Paul’s beloved Thessalonians as they wait for “that day” (5:5) when they will “be with the Lord forever” (4:17). Defensive armament –breastplate and helmet– will be needed during this time for the life of faith, love, and “the obtaining of salvation” (5:8-9), a life into which the Thessalonian congregation has been providentially summoned and in which the congregation will be providentially sustained (5:24). Be the need for such armor as it may, the Thessalonians are called to trust that all time is now God’s time, a gift in and from and before the God who is pleased to redeem time itself, and to make effective in Christ through the ministry of the Holy Spirit the very life of Christ in and through the Thessalonian congregation (4: 1; 5:23-24). This, Paul, urges the Thessalonians, is what time it is, both now and even until the Lord, whose Name is above every name, returns.
Bless’ed be the Name of the Lord.
A Prayer for the Eighth Day of Advent
Loving and Holy One, open our eyes to see what time You have made it to be, every moment, so that we and the many may live to glorify and enjoy You forever.
Oh to You alone be all praise and adoration, as in the beginning, so in the end, now and always. Amen.
Associate Professor of Bible and Biblical Languages