Not for Wrath

SJF • Proper 28a • Tobias S Haller BSG

God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or sleep we may live with him.
We come now to the last chapter of The First Letter of Saint Paul to the Thessalonians. Over the last few weeks we have heard about how much Saint Paul loved this congregation, and how much they loved him in return. And last week we heard of the comfort he offered them about those who have died, who have fallen asleep in the Lord, and who await his coming with the sound of the trumpet and the call of command.

In this closing chapter, Saint Paul takes up that practical question which many Christians before and since have asked. When will the Lord come? And Paul gives the same answer that Christians first learned from the lips of Jesus Christ himself: the Lord will come at a time when no one expects it, like a thief in the night. When things seem peaceful and secure, then suddenly the judgment will come, and the wrath of God will fall upon all those unprepared for his coming.

This is indeed bad news for those who are unprepared. Our Old Testament reading today paints a picture of the terrible day of wrath that will attend the Lord’s coming. A day of bitterness, a day of warriors crying aloud, a day of distress and anguish, of ruin and devastation, of darkness and gloom. It is a day upon which the people who have done wickedness shall be stricken and walk about as if they were blind. The prophet assures us of a coming day of wrath, a day of mourning, a day of darkness and judgment.

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But Saint Paul reassures us that while the day of the Lord’s coming is bad news for those who sleep the drunken sleep of apathy — who, as the prophet says, say in their hearts, “the Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm” — while this day of wrath is bad news for those who can’t tell good from evil, it is good news for those who are prepared and who have placed themselves in the care of Christ. Those who believe inChristare not in darkness, to be taken by surprise at the Lord’s coming. For them it is not a day of wrath, but a day of redemption and release, a day of judgment, yes: but not a judgment of condemnation, but of acquittal.

For those who believe are not asleep in darkness, but awake in the light, they are observant and watchful, they are ready and prepared for the coming of the Lord. We spoke last week of the form this preparation takes: the oil of hope that is stored up by the wise to light the lamps to welcome the Lord at his coming. And this week Saint Paul again refers to hope, this time as a helmet of salvation, part of the Christian uniform along with the breastplate of faith and love. These three virtues, as Saint Paul would assure the Corinthians, these three Christian characteristics of faith, hope, and love are our shield and protection against the day of wrath, our preparation for the Lord’s coming. The light of faith and hope conquer the darkness of doubt and fear, and love — as the old saying goes — conquers all.

So it is that we are fully equipped — children of day and light, ready for the arrival of our Lord and dressed for the occasion in our fine garments, with our lamps trimmed and ready. He has given us all that we need to be ready for him. And woe to us if we do not make use of all he has given us.

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That is the theme of our gospel parable today: the story of the rich man going on a journey and leaving his property in the care of his servants. Some are given more, and some less — but all are given something. The good and trustworthy servants make something more out of what they’ve been given, so they are able to show their profit to the master when he returns.

But that third servant; what are we to say about him? Even knowing that his master is a shrewd character who tries to maximize his investments, even reaping profit on the side from wherever he can get it, this third servant has nothing to show except what he started with. In spite of knowing how interested his master is in reaping a profit, this servant has done absolutely nothing to advance his master’s interests. No wonder the master is amazed at this fearful servant — a man afraid to put the talent to work, and content to bury it in the ground.

As Saint Paul assures us, that servile fear represents the opposite of hope, the hope that takes a risk and trusts that good will come. Ultimately, Paul is telling us, as Jesus is too, that people get what they expect, they get what they deserve: if they live in fear, their fears will be realized. If they live in hope, their hope will be rewarded. “Perfect love casts out fear” — and the love of God calls us to that perfection of faith, that light of hope and that love for God and neighbor that are nourished and supported by our Lord and his promise. Perfect love, and the faith and hope that go with it, cast out fear as light casts out darkness.

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We have all been given talents, my sisters and brothers. We all have been given the wherewithal to do something for our Lord. Some may have more and some have less, but all of us have something to work with. And most important among the things we have is our participation in the Christian household, the church. We have been adopted by our heavenly father, and made children of light, so that we need not fear the darkness. God has given us the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of salvation. Should we not put them on? Should we not be dressed for the occasion? Should we not live lives of hope and trust, willing to put to work the talents God gives, rather than sitting back simply content that they have been given? Isn’t it clear that God wants to find us busy when he comes, not asleep at the switch? Isn’t it clear that God wants not complacency, but hope? Not satisfaction, but zeal? There is a warning in our Lord’s words, “Not all who call me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 7:21) Doing God’s work, working God’s will: that is the task for which God gives us the talents and skills of faith, hope and love.

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Some years ago, a minister encountered a member of his church who (as they said in those days) was “a backslider.” The minister said to him, “ I haven’t seen you in church for a long time.” The man responded, “Well, the dying thief didn’t go to church and Christ accepted him.” The minister pressed the point, “But you used to help out at the soup kitchen; won’t you come lend a hand again?” But the man said, “The dying thief didn’t help out at any soup kitchen, and the Lord accepted him.” The minister countered, “Well do you at least read your Bible every day?” But the man kept to his principles and said, “The dying thief didn’t read the Bible, but the Lord accepted him.” And so finally the minister said, “My, it looks like the only difference between you and the dying thief is that he was crucified with Jesus!”

My friends, our faith is not meant to lull us into the sleep of complacency; our hope is not meant to be treated like an insurance policy tucked away in a drawer; and our love — if we do not express it to our neighbors as to ourselves — if it bears no fruit, it will convict and condemn us on the last day. God gives us these things to put them to use: our faith, our hope, and above all, our love. He gives us these things on loan to be used for his purposes, not ours. God gives us talents and skills, all of us differently, but each of us valued in the sight of God for what we can do for him and for his kingdom, and for our brothers and sisters. The Lord has given us all of this, and he wants a return on his investment. These talents are ours on loan: like the tools handed out in the morning at a construction site — tools to be used through the course of the day, to do the work God gives us to do. Let us not, like the lazy servant, be found only able to give back what he gave with nothing more to show. Let us rather use what God has given us — our faith, our hope, and our love — to increase his kingdom here on earth, that when he comes again in power and great glory, we may be with him forever in heaven.