Theme(s): Justice / True worship / Christ's return / Readiness for Christ
Sentence: Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour (Matthew 25:13)
God of new beginnings,
you hold life and death in your hands;
may our hope in your power and love
strengthen us to live creatively,
not fearing the future,
but knowing that in the end all shall be well;
through the Risen Christ,
who is alive with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
There is a way of talking about meeting God which heightens excitement and anticipation. This passage sobers up any intoxication!
Amos points out that the specific meeting with God, the 'day of the Lord' (18), is a terrifying day. (Presumably some of the hearers Amos addressed looked forward to this day in ignorance of what it would involve).
Verses 21-23 (if we read no other part of Amos) tells us why and thus, by implication, for whom the day is terrifying and to be feared rather than looked forward to.
God hates what he sees and hears in Israel's worship (21-23). No specific reason is stated in these verses as the ordinary practice of Israel's worship is summarised: festivals, grain and meat offerings, songs of praise. But when verse 24 begins 'But let' we look for what Amos says should be happening as a clue to what causes God's great unhappiness. What we read is that God is looking for justice and righteousness. Let them roll rather than chords on stringed instruments. Work for justice not for an even better festival than last year's amazing celebration. Be in right relationship with God and with neighbour before you gather fine grain and fatted calves for offering. That is the implication of verse 24.
Thus Israel, thinking they are in God's favour look forward to a day which will be terrifying because they are not in God's favour.
For ourselves, is it difficult to translate this passage to our day, when we have calendrical church festivals, make sacrificial efforts to ensure the finest of linen and richest of communion vessels, and love festal music? Let justice roll down like waters!
David to a degree shares the concerns of Amos in this psalm. But the victim of injustice and bad treatment is David himself.
The note on which the psalm ends is important: David's trusting plea is to God as 'my help and my deliverer' (5).
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
If we simply read this passage as an anticipation of our future life in Christ, joined with all the saints who have died before us, then Paul sets out a hopeful, triumphant and exciting picture of future reality.
If we ask questions of the passage, as many Christians have done through the centuries, then our excitement is liable to be diverted to debate and discussion!
The great question here concerns the state of 'the dead in Christ' (16) between their death and the return of Christ to earth ('For the Lord himself ... will descend from heaven', 16).
On the face of it, this passage implies that dead Christians are not currently with the Lord in heaven, but in some state of waiting for the return of Christ.
We should not miss the important footnote to the NRSV translation of verses 13 and 15, which notes that the Greek translated as 'those who have died' is literally 'those who have fallen asleep.' (The NIV hedges its exegetical bets in v. 13 with 'those who sleep in death' but offers 'those who have fallen asleep' in v. 15) Paul is saying that the state of the physical body of these Christians is death but the state of their life in Christ is as though asleep relative to waking up to new resurrection life.
To further sharpen our question or questions here, Paul says that what he is claiming here is declared 'by the word of the Lord' (15). (Whether this means Paul is claiming that Jesus himself taught this while on earth or has been received from Jesus by the church subsequently (e.g. through prophetic utterance) is not possible to determine).
Nevertheless, interesting though a discussion about whether Christians who die are immediately taken up into heaven or enter a state of 'sleeping' or waiting until the Lord returns, we should not lose sight of the central theme of Paul's writing here which is the certainty of resurrection for those who are 'in Christ', whether we are 'dead in Christ' or alive at the temporal moment when Christ returns.
'so we will be with the Lord forever' (17) is the most exciting truth in the Bible!
Verse 18 is indeed correct in its urging in the light of verse 17: 'encourage one another with these words'.
This reading is accidentally (or divine coincidentally) related to the epistle reading, since the epistle cycle is not intended to relate to the gospel cycle of readings. Both readings speak of the return of Christ and how we respond to living in a time of 'waiting' for that return.
One of the reasons, perhaps the main reason why I remember this story from my childhood when (in memory) it featured regularly in Sunday School lessons, is its simplicity as a narrative: neat symmetry (five wise bridesmaids, five foolish), simple plot (waiting into the night, lamps burning, running out of fuel, going out to find new fuel) and memorable, challenging conclusion (the wise go in, the foolish are shut out, therefore be like the wise ones and do not be foolish).
What I do not think I would have thought of then is its twisty ending, 11-13, which segues from
(a) shut out bridesmaids at a wedding because they did not have the forethought to bring spare oil to
(b) refusal to open the door on them because 'I do not know you' to the application
(c) 'Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.'
The connection between (a) and (c) is partial. The story is about waiting and being prepared for the waiting extending longer than anticipated, which ties in with the teaching of Jesus through chapter 24 and into these verses about his second coming being at an unexpected hour. But the foolish bridesmaids are not foolish because they have not stayed awake. Indeed, all the bridesmaids, wise and foolish, 'slept' according to verse 5.
There is no direct connection between (a) and (b). We are entitled to think that all the bridesmaids are 'known' to the bridegroom and thus refusal for them to enter on the basis that 'I do not know you' seems strange on the basis of the bare narrative of the story as a contrast between wisdom and foolishness. The reader has to supply the connection along the lines of
- 'the foolish bridesmaids are like foolish people, though for different reasons because the foolish bridesmaids have forgotten to bring spare oil and foolish people have ignored Jesus and been found out not to know him' or
- 'knowing Jesus is like having oil to keep a light going, a light which shows we know Jesus when we keep it going for as long as it takes for him to return' (cue, thinking of some decades ago, the singing of 'Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning').
A possible integration of (a), (b) and (c) together is this: Jesus asks his followers to be ready at all times for his return, those who know him and maintain their relationship with him are ready at all times for that return, but those who are not ready for his return are those who have either never known him or, having once known him, have ceased to be in relationship with Jesus.
The practical effect of this passage, all the way through to verse 13, is this: be faithful to Jesus, to the very end, whether we die or remain alive until his return.