ENCOURAGING WORDS: (5) YOU BELONG TO THE DAY
I think if you were to look at it in an entirely objective and fair way, you could probably say that I am not a morning person. They say there are a few tell tale signs you are not morning person. For example, you are probably not a morning person if, when your alarm goes off, you think you are still dreaming. You are probably not a morning person if you routinely convince yourself that hitting the snooze button for an extra five minutes of sleep will somehow make you less tired. You are probably not a morning person if you repeatedly hit the snooze button, and each time you do you cross off in your mind one thing you were supposed to do to get ready, but no longer have time for.
For someone who is not normally a morning person, I had an unusual experience a few years ago when our family came back from a trip to Wales. The whole family got up, wide awake, in the middle of the night. We still hadn’t adjusted to the five hour time difference, and even though we ought to have been exhausted from our trip, we were as wide awake as if it were lunchtime. The girls said, “Hey, why don’t we go get that new Harry Potter book that’s just come out.” So at six o’clock in the morning we got in the car and starting driving around Richmond Hill looking for an all-night drugstore that might just happen to have the new Harry Potter. We couldn’t understand why the streets were so deserted.
When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica, he encouraged them to be morning persons. He said, “Let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober.” In other words, Paul was saying, “Wake up!” Of course he wasn’t telling them to get out of bed. He was telling them to be awake spiritually, so they would be prepared for Jesus’ return.
This was a topic Paul had raised in the previous part of his letter. He’d told the Thessalonians to be encouraged by the fact that when Jesus returns he will gather to himself all those who belong to him. This gathering will even include those of his followers who have died. On the day of Jesus’ return, the resurrection power that was first displayed in him will be extended to all of God’s people, and God’s kingdom will be brought to glorious fulfilment.
Paul anticipates that the Thessalonians are probably thinking, “When is this going to happen? Today? Tomorrow? A thousand years from now? Paul says, “Don’t get all caught up in trying to guess the date and the time. It’s going to come unexpectedly, like a thief sneaking into your house in the middle of the night. So don’t bother trying to make predictions.”
Christians rarely look more foolish than when they say they know the date and time the Lord is going to return. In 1843, a Baptist lay preacher in upstate New York by the name of William Miller announced that he had figured out that the return of Christ would take place some time that year. As many as 100,000 people believed what he said, and as a result they sold their belongings and headed to the mountains to wait for the end to come. When 1843 turned into 1844, a more specific date for Jesus’ return was given: October 22 of that year. When October 23 arrived, Miller’s most loyal followers went back to revise their calculations once more, but many others just shook their heads at the foolishness of it all.
Paul is warning the Thessalonians about making the same mistake. And he’s also telling them something else. He’s telling them they don’t have to worry about figuring out the day of the Lord’s return, because if you’re a believer, that day has already dawned. He tells them, “But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the day.” He’s saying, “You already belong to the kingdom that Christ is going to be bringing in. The light of that kingdom is already shining on you. You belong to the future – the future that is firmly in God’s hands – the future that is on its way, and whose arrival is completely unstoppable.”
The Apostle Paul didn’t know anything about time zones – they hadn’t been invented yet. But what he was describing wasn’t all that different from being in one time zone and having your body feel like it’s five hours ahead. As Christians, that’s pretty much what we experience. We may be surrounded by darkness, but for us it’s already morning. For us tomorrow has already arrived. The day is here – and we belong to the day, not the night.
There’s no doubt that as we look around there is a lot of darkness still covering our world. And it’s easy for us to feel that darkness is closing in on us. It’s easy for us to believe that the values of this world have the upper hand, and we feel the constant pressure to give in to them.
But, Paul reminds us, we belong to the day. We belong to a new reality that is breaking into our world of darkness. We belong to the kingdom of God. The light of that kingdom has already dawned in the resurrection of Jesus. In time that light will be visible for all to see – it will be visible for all to see when Jesus returns. But until that day when Christ comes in glory like the noonday sun, it is up to us to live as people who are already awake. It is up to us to live as people who have already stepped out of the darkness and into the light. We do not belong to the darkness. We belong to the day.
In the 1500’s, when the Protestant church was still in its early stages, a document was prepared to help instruct new believers in the faith. This document came to be called the Heidelberg Catechism, and it consists of a series of questions and answers. The instructor asks the questions, and the new believer recites the answers. The very first question is this: “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” The reply: “That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ...”
Paul was reminding the Thessalonians of who they belonged to. He was reminding them of their true identity. He was reminding them of who they were, and where their true values lay. He told them, “Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” He was telling them how to live as people who were wide awake, who knew the true reality of what God was doing, and who understood that they did not belong to themselves but to Christ.
It may well be that the most prominent characteristic of those who are spiritually asleep is that they believe they belong to themselves. This is a belief that is a root cause of human sin. It’s well-entrenched in our sinful nature. But it’s also a belief that’s magnified by the culture in which we live – a culture that makes individualism the highest value, and tells us that the ultimate goal in life is to achieve self-fulfilment.
Craig Barnes, who is the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, describes being at his daughter’s college graduation. Craig Barnes says that the speaker at the graduation ceremony was spouting the same nonsense that he had heard at his own college graduation. The speaker looked out over the graduates and said, “The world stands before you as opportunity; dream your own dreams; chase your own star; you can be whatever you want to be.” Barnes says, “That’s not true! What makes us think we can be whatever we want to be? What makes us we think we can construct our own lives the way we want?”
It’s one of our culture’s greatest myths that we can design our lives according to what we prefer – according to what we think will bring us fulfilment. It’s an entirely self-absorbed approach to life, and it often leads people into disappointment, disillusionment, and despair. It also gets in the way of seeing how life in its fullness comes from a very different understanding of who we belong to.
As followers of Jesus, we don’t construct our own lives the way we want. We don’t construct our own identity. Our identity comes from who we belong to. We don’t belong to ourselves. We belong to Christ. We belong to the kingdom Christ is bringing in. We belong to the day. That is where our identity comes from. That is where our values come from.
Paul tells the Thessalonians that as children of the day, it’s important they show that they do in fact belong to the day. They don’t reveal their identity simply by declaring who they are. They reveal their identity by how they live – by what they do.
There’s a story about the famous violinist Fritz Kreisler, who was waiting in Hamburg to catch a boat to London, where he was going to give a concert. With some time to spare, he went into a music shop, where the owner noticed he was carrying a violin. The owner said, “May I have a look at your violin?” The shop owner took the violin and disappeared, only to return a little while later with two police officers in tow. One of the police officers said to Kreisler, “You’re under arrest.” Shocked, Kreisler said, “What for?” The police officer said, “You have Fritz Kreisler’s violin.” “But I am Fritz Kreisler!” he said. The police officer said, “We’ll see about that. Come with us to the station.” Kreisler said, “If you give me the violin, I’ll show you.” He took the violin and played a piece he was well known for. And by doing this he confirmed his identity. He showed that he really was Fritz Kreisler.
As people who belong to the day, it’s through our actions that we confirm our identity. That’s why Paul gives a whole series of instructions to the Thessalonians about how they should live. If they follow these instructions, they will show the world who they really are.
It’s significant that a lot of Paul’s instructions have to do with the life of the church. Paul could have told them how to be Christians when they’re off on their own. But instead he puts more of his emphasis on how to be Christians when they’re together, sharing in the fellowship of believers. He talks about things that have a direct impact on their life together. He talks about respecting the leaders among them. He talks about living in peace with one another. He talks about warning those who are idle and disruptive, encouraging those who are disheartened, helping the weak, and being patient with everyone. And he says, “Make sure nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.”
What Paul seems to want is for the church in Thessalonica to set its clocks by a different time zone. He wants them to live by tomorrow’s values today. He wants them to live by the light of God’s kingdom, and not by the darkness of this world. He wants them wake up to the fact that they are to look and act differently than the people of this world.
It’s sad to say, but this isn’t always how it works. In Stirling, Scotland, there’s a famous and very old church called the Church of the Holy Rude. “Rude” in this case is a medieval word that means “cross”. It’s the church of the holy cross. But rude is also a word that might apply to some of the behaviour that took place in that church over the centuries. A divisive leader split the church – and the animosity was so great that they actually built a wall down the middle of the church, dividing it into two separate churches. This dividing wall was built in 1656. It stayed in place until 1936. For almost 300 years, these two separate churches worshipped back to back, having nothing to do with each other.
This is not how Christians can show they belong to the day. It’s not how they can give witness to the new reality that is breaking into the world with Christ. In fact, it does the very opposite. Jesus calls us to something different – something better – something that reflects the light of his glory. We can live up to that calling if we wake up and strive to live by the values of God’s coming kingdom.
As Paul ends his letter, he tells the Thessalonians to rejoice always, pray continually and give thanks in all circumstances. He wants them to remember the joy with which they received the gospel message in the first place. And he wants them to live out that joy in their life as Christians, both individually and together. Perhaps in the end this is what means to live as those who belong to the day. It is to recognize that the kingdom of God is close at hand – so close that we can already experience the joy it brings. It’s with hearts filled with that joy that we can give the most compelling testimony about what the kingdom of God is truly like. This is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus.
Paul has written encouraging words to the Christians of Thessalonica. May these words encourage us also, as the Holy Spirit speaks through them to the present reality of our lives. And by God’s grace may we be made fully awake, so that we too will rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances.