+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning’s readings may strike us as a bit disconcerting, as well they should. They all deal with last things, the events which precede and surround Christ’s return on the last day. We’re a couple of weeks away from Advent, which is the season typically associated with these last things, and specifically with what have been called the “four last things”: namely death, judgment, heaven, and hell. But, since we also get to talk about Mary and Joseph and John the Baptist and all that in Advent, the lectionary has wisely given us a few extra weeks before to get a good healthy dose of teaching on these often difficult themes. (This may be the first time you have heard me speak of the lectionary positively rather than complaining about its omissions; so, I should take this opportunity to apologize for my perennial grumpiness, and acknowledge that most of the time the lectionary does, indeed, get it right.
Anyway, as I said, we might find the readings a bit disconcerting. The long section of potentially terrifying prophecy we heard in today’s Old Testament reading from Zephaniah concludes with the assertion that “in the fire of [God’s] passion, the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full and terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.” And, in the famous “parable of the talents” from Matthew, we hear the master rendering a very final judgment against the unproductive servant: “throw him into the outer darkness,” he says, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
All of this is enough to send us each into a tizzy. However, this is precisely the wrong approach. We learn in today’s epistle the necessity for approaching the anxiety about last things, and indeed all of life’s troubles, with seriousness and calm clarity rather than panic; or to use Paul’s words, with sobriety rather than drunkenness.
In this morning’s epistle, the apostle writes to the church in Thessalonica commanding such spiritual sobriety. “Therefore let us not sleep,” he wrote, “as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober.” The command was all the more appropriate for that young Christian community considering the occasion for Paul’s letter to them. The year was A.D. 52, not twenty years after Our Lord’s ascension into heaven. Paul had sent his young apprentice, Timothy, from their headquarters in Corinth to check up on the church in Thessalonica.
The news with which Timothy returned to Paul was not encouraging, to put it mildly. Now, the Christians in that little missionary outpost believed that Jesus would return within their own lifetimes, a common expectation among the first generation of Christians. When members of the church had died, they were unsure of the eternal fate of their recently departed loved-ones, and some began to lose their faith entirely. The result was fear and mourning and probably, as we might imagine, in at least a few cases, panic. They suffered from spiritual drunkenness.
It is because of this that Paul wrote the epistle from which we read this morning. He began the letter by reminding the Thessalonians of the good faith with which they received the initial proclamation of the Gospel, and, in the letter’s climax, which we heard last week, he explains the Christian view of Jesus’ return and the general resurrection of the dead. Remember what we read last week:
But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again: even so them also which sleep in Jesus, will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent them that are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the Archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we which are alive, and remain, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
In short, those which are dead by the time of Christ’s return will precede the living to be with him, so there is no theological rationale for the kind of reaction suffered by the Thessalonians. Of course, loss (especially, the death of a loved one) can cause profound grief and even fear, which God, it seems to me, would not hold against us. Even so, the Christian message compels us to remain both faithful and hopeful in the midst of such hardships, knowing that on the last day God will raise his faithful people and make all things to right.
The theological problem addressed, Paul proceeds to the spiritual problem, namely what I termed spiritual drunkenness. Spiritual drunkenness, it seems, is the tendency to take our eyes off of the ways of God in an attempt to run away from painful reality. Its effect may be panic, an utter and irrational loss of hope like that experienced by the Thessalonians. Or its effect may be denial; as Paul said “when they shall say peace and safety: then sudden destruction cometh upon them.” Indeed, our reaction to the apparently nasty bits we read earlier from Zephaniah and Matthew might lead us to either panic or denial. So, too, might be our response to any profound troubles we experience in this life. In all events, the spiritual drunkard is like the literal drunkard, he cannot see things clearly for how they are. His vision is blurred and his reason is compromised. He cannot see God’s Providence at work in the time of trial. He sees only a world of horrific danger, and either he refuses to acknowledge it or he succumbs to sheer terror.
Indeed, in these last days—for just as St. Paul lived in the last days so do we still—there will continue to be trials, but however long they last God will, in the end, make all things new. In this same lesson from Thessalonians, the Apostle likens it to a woman in child-birth. It is a painful process, for sure, yet at the end comes a new and beautiful creation, a child. New life is always born of pain. So it is with the world to come. Its approach is beset by toil and peril, and ultimately death, for each and every one of us lest we’re fortunate enough to see Christ’s return in our own day. Yet the end for all of us, whether we live or die, is finally and unspeakably good.
In the meantime, the time in which we still live between Our Lord’s ascension and his return, we are called to stand firm in our faith and follow the counsel of Paul in his letter to the Ephesians to “be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine by the sleight of men.” This can only be achieved if we grow in our souls a spirit of sobriety. We must remain serious and steadfast and vigilant if we are to respond to the pain and travail of these days faithfully. St. Paul commands it, as does St. Peter in his first epistle general. “Be sober,” he says, “be vigilant: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”
Spiritual sobriety is being able to see things clearly as they are and in the light of God’s plan for us all. It is also a matter of seriousness and intentionality in the spiritual life. This isn’t brain-surgery, as it were. It’s as easy as saying one’s prayers and reading one’s bible and coming to church on Sunday. This isn’t just naïve churchiness; it really works. A simple, serious commitment in these basic disciplines gives us the grounding we need to grow mature in the faith and approach the spiritual life with sobriety because they instill in us both the substance and the spirit of faith. The bible and the prayerbook especially, used together over many years of practice, build in us a firm foundation on which to stand, so that “in all the cares and occupations of this life” we may not stumble about as the drunkard, but remain awake and watchful and sober. And then, when Our Lord does at last return, He may find us to be a people who persevered at the hour of temptation, in the time of trial.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.