When I went off to the seminary to begin my formal training to be a pastor I went out of a deepening love for the Word of God and the theology of the Church. The confession that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone was not just a slogan I bought into, it was something that redefined who I am. It gave me hope and assurance in the promises of God. Throughout my time there I went from loving the theology for myself to wanting to proclaim it to others. To be a pastor of a congregation was to be the one tasked with this job. A preacher of the Word, a shepherd of the sheep, this is what I wanted to do and was being prepared to do. While I certainly thought I understood the gravity of the vocation, I do not think I understood how hard it would be at times. It is not hard the way a construction workers job is difficult or surgeon or a police officer or something like that. No, I do not think I was ready for the surprising pain and worry that comes when one of the sheep you are called to shepherd wanders away from the flock. It is in those times when it seems as if your miscalculation, your failure to act, your errant word, has driven someone from the promises you yourself love that can haunt you. It gets hard when you lose a sheep.
Perhaps it is okay, or so we tell ourselves, thinking there is plenty of time to make it right, plenty of time to turn things around. But part of the hope we preach, part of the great faith we all hold onto is that this age is not going to last forever. The faith which is such a treasure to us all is not that we will simply endure this age or even thrive in it, but we will surpass it. We will move beyond this age into the age to come. The great hope of the Christian faith is we will enter the new heavens and the new earth. We will be delivered from tears and heartache, from death and destruction. This moment will come like a thief in the night. It will come when we least expect it. It will come at a time that will shock us all. So, what keeps me up at night is the fear that it will come just as I have lost one the sheep, just as they turn and go away from the gifts of Christ, that is when He will show up. For no one knows the day or the hour!
As Saint Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica, he reminds them of this reality. He says to them, “While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3). He speaks of a time of relative comfort and prosperity, a time where no one is expecting to die, no one is worried too much about the future. After all, there is peace and security. The sense of urgency is lost, and everyone relaxes and is lulled into a sense of confidence about the amount of time they have left. It is precisely here when the sudden destruction will come. It is then the stars will fall out of the sky and the earth will be torn in two, when judgment day will be upon us all.
This reality of our faith can easily lead us to a place of frantic behavior, of unreflective work to try and do what we can, when we can to make sure we are good and ready when that moment comes. I mean, it makes sense. We do not want to be found outside of the Kingdom of Heaven. We do not want to miss the arrival of the bridegroom. We want to hear those great words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” But what will you do? How far will you go? Is going to church enough? Do you need to pray without ceasing? Do you need to walk the straight and narrow? Do you need to be faithful at every turn, righteous and holy in your comings and goings? Can you ever do enough? Will you ever know for sure if you have done what is necessary to secure for yourself a seat in the eternal wedding banquet?
This sort of frantic effort and tireless work is what I found myself caught up in when I became a pastor. If the time of the return of Christ is uncertain and I can help people be ready for His coming, I had a lot of work to do. Just as you might spend your time checking-off all the right boxes and making sure you are ready when He comes, so I was agonizing over those who had left because of my actions, worried about those who had stopped listening to the message I was called to proclaim. Perhaps I could do more, speak more, reach out more, make myself more available, more approachable. After all, time is short. He could come at any moment. And we get to work, and we work and work some more. It is tiring and it does not seem to get any better. You do not seem to shore-up your salvation. I do not seem to win the souls for Jesus I had planned.
So, it is the sweetest and most comforting word to hear Paul speak the truth into this situation, to bring hope, and restore real, lasting peace to our lives. He says, “You are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:4-5). With a stunning sense of calm and assurance He speaks very matter-of-factly about you being children of light. He does not say this is something we need to work towards and strive for, but it is simply who you are. Well, that seems too good to be true. It does not seem to make much sense. How can this be? How can you or I or any of us already be the children of light? We have not earned that title. We have not achieved such a status. Therefore, if it is not from us it must be from our Lord. His Word, His work, His promises, they have accomplished this reality for you.
But here is what happens. You hear that Word, the promise of Christ for you. He declares to you that you are children of the light. You have, as Paul says, “Put on the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of hope and salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:8). You are well equipped, suited out in your armor as children of the light. But as you look in the mirror and you examine yourself you do not see it. You do not see one wearing the armor of a warrior of the light. So, when the darkness comes calling, and trust me it always comes calling, you find it somewhat comfortable. It is seductive to you. It is a place to hide, a place that understands, that sees you as you see yourself. It feels like you belong there in the darkness. You forget who you really are and if you are going to be ready you are back to square one, to doing a bunch of work to make up for the shameful things you do in the dark.
There is a never-ending cycle of desire to turn inward toward ourselves, to dig deep and find the solution to the problem in our own effort and work. After all, we know the darkness. We know what lurks within. We know our failures. We know our thoughts and desires are soiled with sin and there are those we have hurt and those we have failed to help. But here is the thing, my brothers and sisters, there are certainly those I have failed, those I have lost, just as there are doubts and shameful deeds that cling to your souls. But in this moment, at this time, for us gathered here, there is something more. There is something true and lasting and wonderful to be told. “For God has not destine us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him” (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10). That promise remains. It is sealed in the blood of Christ and it is what makes you the children of light.
So, as Paul says, let us encourage one another. Let us build up one another. Let us proclaim to each other the truth that Christ has worked in our midst. For you are the children of light, the brothers and sisters of Christ, the forgiven and the baptized. You are heirs of eternal life. And together we will rejoice at the arrival of the Son of God. All glory be to God.