Scriptures: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ; Matthew 25:1-13
Being Ready for the Change
Our passage today from 1 Thessalonians is frequently dealt with by pastors talking about one of the more controversial aspects of doctrine in the Christian church, which is the Rapture. That is the time when Christ is going to call up those who are His loved ones, the dead rising again, those who are alive being, as it says in 1 Corinthians, “changed in the twinkling of an eye” as they are caught up.
I'm not going to talk about when this is going to happen. There are doctrines that say that it's going to occur pre-Tribulation, those that say it's going to occur mid-Tribulation, and those that say it's going to occur post-Tribulation.
But we all agree on one thing. It's going to happen. So I'm going to take that as a given, that it's going to happen. What we're going to look at is the implications of that for us now, what it means during our life here, and our faith, what it means to us.
For the Thessalonians, when Paul wrote this letter, as he notes in the very beginning, they had undergone and suffered many tribulations, much persecution. A number of their people had died. When Paul talks about those who have gone to sleep, that is a euphemism, one even used today, for those that have passed on.
He notes that “we don't want you to be ignorant” (that means unknowing, not stupid) “about those who fall asleep, or grieve like the rest of men who have no hope.” Then he goes on to explain why. As he says, “We believe that Jesus died and rose again. And so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”
So what he is offering to the Thessalonians, and what he offers to us, is a message of hope, that has several aspects to it. Death is not the end. It's not annihilation. There is something that is beyond. I just did a funeral this last week, and during the time of the committal, the prayer talks about “life beyond life.” I always like that better than “life beyond death.” Because for us, death isn't final.
We believe that that is true because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If Christ was raised from the dead, and we are to be like him, and if he has truly conquered death in his resurrection, then so shall we. And so shall those who have already passed on.
Now where they are at this moment is a matter for scholarly theological debate, which I'm not going to address in this sermon. It would take a number of weeks, really, to deal with it, and all the various perspectives. What you should know is for those that have died in Christ – and that means believing in Him, acting as his disciples, being faithful to His Word, etc. – they are still with Christ, in some way. And they shall, in the end, on that day, be brought back in resurrection bodies.
That resurrection body is not going to be just their old body brought back, like a zombie or something. It's going to be different. It's going to be changed, as it say in 1 Corinthians. The corruptible will put on the incorruptible. It will be an eternal body.
You know, one of the things that always amazes me about Christ's resurrection is the fact that nobody recognizes him right away. In the garden, Mary has to hear his voice saying her name. And he says it in such a remarkably familiar way that she knows, just like that, who it is. Until then she thought he was the gardener.
The disciples, at various times, think he's a ghost, or someone else. The disciples on the way to Emmaus walked with him all day without figuring out who he was. Often, he showed he wasn't a ghost by eating, and he showed them his hands and his feet and his side as proof of who he was.
And he had abilities. Of course, he had abilities before that, when he walked on water and things like that. But we see things that he did not don until after His resurrection, that I think are really cool. Like teleporting – he just appears in a room, even though it clearly says the doors were locked.
He's able to inspire fear and worship in people. Previously it took acts of power before they reacted that way. Now, once they recognize who he is, their most common response is to fall on their knees. So he was changed by the resurrection. His physical body was, and so shall ours be.
So Paul is referring to this, when he's writing to the Thessalonians, and this is why he's telling them not to grieve as men who have no hope. Because we do have hope, not only of something beyond, but of something better.
It was Paul who said, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Why would dying be gain? Yes, it would get him out of the trouble that he was in, being tied up in prison and things like that, and all of the illnesses that he suffered from would go away.
But for him, what he meant when he said that was that he would get to be with Christ. Face to face. Side by side. That was what the gain was. And it will be so for each of us.
The Rapture, and exactly what's going to happen, is a mystery. And when it's going to occur is a mystery, as the passage in Matthew says. We don't know when it's going to come. And we are therefore reminded, many times, that we need to be alert, we need to be watching. Most of all, we need to be ready for the change.
It's not just us that are going to change at that time. The whole world will change. I'm sorry, but as imaginative as I am, I can't imagine what it's going to be like. But I know it's going to be great. That's what I have to believe. A God who could created this, and our universe, is going to create something that's even better.
It's not exactly fruitless to try and imagine those things – after all, John talks about them in Revelation, in poetic terms. It's not fruitless to think on those things, but it shouldn't be consuming. Instead, we're called to focus very much on the here and now.
Setting the past behind us, keeping our eyes fixed on what is before – that is, the goal that we have, which is to be with Christ – we then look in the present moment, to be ready for the change. So we want to be prepared. We want to be understanding.
The passage in Matthew has ten virgins. Frankly, the fact that they were virgins is not all that important. It was important in the Jewish tradition, that's how they would have done things. But it's not as important as the fact that the bridegroom is coming, which is Christ. The Church is frequently spoken of as the bride of Christ.
Among those virgins, some had brought extra oil. They had gone to extra work. They were prepared. But the others had just lit their lamps, and not done anything extra. They put in the minimum. They thought what they had should last, long enough for the bridegroom to get there.
The problem was, nobody knew, in the Jewish marriage traditions of those days, when the bridegroom was going to come. If the bridegroom was from another town, they would basically have a parade, with the groom's party. It could last however long it took to walk from there to where the bride lived. It could go into the night.
Then he would come and he would take his bride away, in a symbolic way, taking her out of one household, which was that of her father, and then taking her into a new household, that he had actually prepared. He would have built his own addition to the family compound, or sometimes their own new house. He would bring her, and then they would move in.
So the virgins don't know exactly when the bridegroom will come. They were supposed to be ready. Half the virgins were ready. The other half realize that he came a lot later than they thought he would, so they ask for extra oil from those that had already prepared some. And they were told, “No, because we don't know that there's enough for both of us.”
That may sound selfish to those of us who are Christians and have been told to share with others and be kind to others and compassionate to others. But if you look at it in metaphorically, in terms of faith, they can't depend on your faith to get them where they need to be.
You can share your faith by example. You can share your faith by words, in sharing the Gospel and teaching about what Christ says and what the Bible says about how to live. You can share your faith in many ways, but you can't give them your faith. Their faith is their own.
You know, modern Presbyterians are sometimes a little bit leery of evangelism, it seems. The fact of the matter is, we are called to share the Gospel. What we're not called to do is be responsible for their answer.
I think that's what inhibits a lot of us. Not just that we're afraid of being rejected, but what that rejection might mean, not just the loss of someone who we may love or care about, but also how does that reflect on us?
Well, you know what? As they say in New Jersey, fuhgeddaboudit. It's not important. It's important terms of their ultimate place, but it's not important for your faith walk and your relationship with God. Because that is yours.
The question is, are you tending to the flame of faith? Are you tending to the light that is within you? Are you feeding it new oil? Are you trimming the wick? Just this morning, the usher had to pull the wick up on one of the candles there [gestures to candles]. And I'm sure that if someone didn't routinely add more oil in there, eventually it just wouldn't burn anymore. It would go out.
It's the same thing with your active faith. If you don't use it, as they say, you lose it. I'm not going to say you lose your salvation, because I don't believe that. If God has chosen you and you are elect, you are saved, because it depends what Jesus has already done, not what you're going to do. But your sanctification, your witness, your ultimate glorification, that's all going to be dependent on how you tend the flame of your faith.
Are you going to be going about the business of Christ? Are you going to be learning more about Him and trying to get closer to Him, each and every day? Are you going to be sharing that good news? And it is good news for us. Just like the hymn that we sang this morning, that was so much fun. If I could be about 300 pounds lighter and dance, I would. It will be an exciting time for us, as long as you're ready. Ready for the change. Looking forward to it.
One last thing that I want to mention, with regards to this and the Rapture, is the put it in the context of seasons. There are signs that a season is going to change. We see it in the daylight shifting. Even before the leaves turn, frequently the weather starts to cool. (Although not today or yesterday! I almost started the service by saying, “Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ on this bright summer day.”)
There are changes. But we don't know exactly when the season changes. You really can't say. I mean we've chosen a day. We say it's September 21. Boom. Summer's over, Fall's begun, because that's one of the equinoxes. But really, that's an arbitrary thing that man has set. Only God knows when each of the seasons has really shifted.
So what do we have to do? We have to be prepared. We get out our fall clothing. Sometimes we start to wear it, like this morning, then I asked my wife what the temperature was, and when she told me I said, “Well, I guess I'm not wearing my jacket then.” But I had it, just in case.
In the same way, there are seasons and there are signs of when Christ is coming, but we don't know the hour or the day, and the best thing that we can do is to be ready, and to look forward to the change that is to come.
When you do that, if you do that with your life, visibly, audibly, actively, then others will see that, and learn about Jesus. May you be a faithful witness, for when the change comes.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.