Ambush and Astonish
This sermon is formatted for presentation, not the prevention of errors.
I had a recurring dream when I was a very little boy. I know no one cares about dreams that aren’t theirs, but this one was pretty traumatic for me. I would have this dream almost every night for years. In the dream, I couldn’t really see, it was very dark, and I would be fumbling around my house, trying to find my bedroom, or my sisters, or my parents, but I couldn’t see well enough to find what I was looking for, and I would inevitably begin falling down the stairs to our basement.
I would wake up sweaty and scared. I was afraid of the dark, anyway, already, but this dream made me fear it more.
Around the same time that I was having this dream, we lived in a rented, Amish farmhouse near Mount Vernon, Ohio. Being in Amish country, there were no streetlights or any other kind of lights, and the night time was extremely dark. Maybe you have been camping, deep in the wilderness, and you know how dark the world can be. Maybe you’ve only camped near cities. Trust me when I say that there are nights in this world that create a deeper darkness than people in cities can know exists.
But, though I was a little boy, and afraid of the dark, my parents loved walking down the deserted road – remember no cars but ours; no danger of getting hit – they loved walking down that deserted road and looking at the stars and talking about their days.
Interesting enough, I wasn’t particularly afraid of the dark on those walks. I would even fall asleep while riding on my dad’s shoulders. People have a complicated relationship with darkness. In the dark, we can’t see what’s happening around us and it can be a bit nerve-racking. But, sometimes, darkness isn’t scary; sometimes it can be beautiful. I’m thinking of my darkened living room that we just decorated for Christmas and the small, twinkling lights of the Christmas tree. Or, another example of beautiful darkness is the candlelit beauty of Christmas Eve here in this sanctuary.
But in the ancient world, darkness mostly meant extreme danger for them. Think about how some feel about being in the jungle at night. Creatures in the jungle can see you and you can’t see them, so that brings with it a fair amount of anxiety, but in ancient cities, like Thessaloniki, theft and murder and assault were rampant at night.
We might not be willing to walk down a dark alley, in downtown San Diego, but, in Greece, you were at serious risk just leaving your home to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.
It is a well-documented fact that Nero, emperor of Rome, during this time, would disguise himself and do horrible things at night, like rob stores, auctioning off its merchandise on the streets. Or he would find men on their way home from having dinner and stab them and drop their bodies into the sewer. That’s their king, a symbol of their highest good, and he was a thief and murderer, and worse.
If their king is willing to exploit the dark of night like this, imagine what run-of-the-mill criminals were able to achieve at night, away from the capitol. No wonder the Thessalonians might have been seriously afraid of the dark.
Paul had to speak to this fear of the dark. He reminded them that they do not know what Christ is doing. He begins by saying that he shouldn’t even have to have this conversation. They know that Jesus’ work is like a “thief in the night;” he’s using a phrase that even Jesus used. In Matthew, Jesus says, “Stay awake; I come like a thief in the night.” I don’t think it’s a mistake that this nighttime imagery keeps coming up. There is fear that needs to be dealt with in them.
Because Jesus Christ is unpredictable, and his ways are unknown, the church might hear Paul’s words as asking them to fear even more than they already do. They are already afraid of the dark; they are already afraid of harm; they are already afraid of persecution. They are afraid of many kinds of night. They don’t need help with that. They need help that leads them away from fear, not toward it.
But we’re afraid too, aren’t we? Things in our community, in our country, in our world, keep making us feel that familiar fear of nighttime and darkness. We have been confronted lately with news headlines that are absolutely gutting: white supremacists marching in Charlottesville; fifty-nine killed in Vegas while trying to enjoy a concert; a shooter entering a church, in Texas, and killing many of our sisters and brothers in faith; and 307 killed in a mosque attack in Egypt. That’s darkness. That’s evil. That’s scary. And we can’t help but be afraid. We can’t help but fear and, on the surface, we can’t help but struggle to see hope.
Then there is all of the dividedness that we see. We all admit to the problems, but there are no solutions to be found that everyone can agree on. We don’t know who to follow and we don’t know if anything would be solved if we did begin to follow a leader. It’s all so dark and hard to understand.
I used to work at a school and it was having serious problems. The learning results were not what they should have been, the staff morale was extremely low, and there were some serious ethical violations by some teachers and administrators. So the higher-ups came in and removed the principal, thinking that it would solve the problem. But, it didn’t. The system was broken. Not one person. Not one position. The whole school was broken because the system was broken. So when they put in a new principal, it was actually worse for a while. No one had recognized that there were bigger problems than one person’s leadership.
We have bigger problems because the system is broken. We’re looking for leadership where none can be found. And I think it speaks to our biggest fear we might have: that no matter what we do, nothing will ever get better. No matter who is in charge, the system is broken, and there is nothing that we can do to solve it. That’s a reasonable fear based on history and what we can see happening in our world.
And Paul speaks to this fear. He recognizes that the Thessalonians are rightly afraid of the dark. But he gives them the hope of day. He teaches them that the darkness that they experience in their daily lives is temporary and permanent hope is here and on his way. Paul gives them the hope of the Lord, the hope of the day of the Lord that is here, on one hand, and, yet, is still on its way, on the other hand. It is a hope that began in Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and continues to grow in its power as creation hears the voice of the one true king, Jesus Christ. That leadership that we are looking for is here. It has been here. That king arrived a long time ago, but we have to start following him.
Today is Christ, the King, Sunday. It is the New Year’s Eve of the Christian world. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. We will begin our new Christian year. So that makes this our New Year’s Eve. Happy New Year.
But, most importantly, for us, today is the day that we celebrate that, though kings and kingdoms may be in place right now, the rightful king is already on the throne. Christ Jesus is on the throne and rules with grace and peace, not using war and death as his tools as other kings do. His rule is marked by being the Lamb on the throne, like Revelation 7, proclaims. He is a king of peace. He is a king of grace. He is a king that will bring righteousness. That’s our hope. The lamb on the throne is our hope.
This is what Paul is talking about when he compares those who are in darkness and those who are illuminated by the light of God. ‘The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, but you are children of the light.’ He’s saying that they are prepared. They know who the rightful king is. Their king, the real king anyway, isn’t the murderous Nero. Their king is not whatever governing official is currently causing problems in Thessaloniki. Their king is Christ Jesus, our Lord, and, therefore, they should remain awake to that reality.
It should give them hope when darkness looks like it is everywhere. It should give them hope when they feel like they can’t stand another day of being under the thumb of another ruler. It should give them hope for eternity, an eternity that began with Christ and continues by living in us today.
And that’s our hope. That lamb on the throne – that’s our help. That’s our truth. Christ is king. Christ is the only true king and every other ruler, or our lives and our world, is a usurper. My friend, Taylor Mertens, preached last year, on Christ the King Sunday,“Thank God Jesus isn’t our president. Jesus is our King. And instead of electing him, he elected us.” That should be our hope. We did nothing to deserve our God and king, Jesus. Christ chooses us to be his people. He chooses us to live more freely than we ever could know without him.
And so, as we live our lives, in faith, in faithfulness, in love, in hope, in peace, may we see our Jesus as the king we always needed and never knew that we wanted. May we live our lives according to his standards and not by the ways of darkness that the kings of this world offer. Don’t fear. Don’t lose heart. Keep the faith. Christ is love. Christ is here. Christ is our one true king.
Christ Jesus, king of all, lead us onward as your people. Amen.