There is an old English riddle: What is harmless but can kill you and can fly without wings. The answer is of course time.
We all have the same time, the same 24 hours a day and yet it captivates and bewilders us in equal measure. Time is precious.
Once it’s gone, we cannot earn it back and yet for many of us we wish we had so much more. Putting a roof above our heads, food on the table, spending time with those we love, planning for our futures, dealing with our past – time is our greatest commodity.
Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians is writing to a young Christian community in Thessalonica, the bustling capital city of the Roman Province of Macedonia located at the intersection of two trading routes. It was a vibrant, busy, complex city with many different cultures, many different religions and worldviews. Not unlike this one we are in today.
With it’s busyness and complex differences the Christian community in Thessalonica was called to live out their faith as well as facing ongoing persecution for their faith.
So, how do we live in such times? One word stands out from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians – hope.
1) FIRSTLY WE SHOULD LOOK TO A FUTURE HOPE
For some the future is exciting, for others it is to be feared either by what is known or unknown.
Benjamin Franklin famously said “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
Someone humorously responded: “The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets.”
Stephen Covey, the author, speaker and educator says you should begin with the end in mind.
In this age of social media, it seems we’re a culture happy to talk about almost everything. Except death. Death seems like the final taboo. Our culture drives us to live longer, look younger, delay and if possible, control death itself. And in those things there is no hope only fear. But Paul says there can be hope.
But this is not false future hope, which is at best optimism (I hope my children sleep beyond 5.30am tomorrow morning) or at worst, fantasy (I hope I win the lottery).
Paul is reminding us that there is a future where Jesus will return where God’s rule and reign is established in full. There will no longer be any suffering, tears will be wiped from our eyes, pain will make way for joy, hurt will be healed, that which is broken made whole. But this is a future hope grounded in a past reality.
In verse 10 Jesus Christ, died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.
All over Kentish Town, in the parish where I am priest, the word HOPE is graffitied in capital letters. On railway bridges and the sides of buildings. Paul seems to graffiti HOPE throughout many of his letters.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, he quotes the prophet Hosea: ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’
Paul knows that death is not the end – it has no hold. And that HOPE is not in delaying or denying death – it is redefining death. Death is like being asleep.
I have young children – it can take a long time to get them to sleep and even when the peace settles into the evening. They are finally asleep, there is still that lingering knowledge. That tomorrow morning. Very early. They will arise eventually we will too.
That for those of us in Jesus, we will wake. That the final death was in Jesus Christ on that first Good Friday and in him rising again, we too are raised. We share in that resurrection.
In a world that sometimes finds hope hard to find we can look to the future with hope and not fear.
2) LIVE IN THE PRESENT HOPE
To look to a future hope shapes our life in the present. The end will come when we least expect it but Paul urges us, in the meantime to live in the hope they have.
To be people with our eyes fixed on that future hope but grounded in our everyday present reality. Live as though that future hope matters now as much as it will do then.
In the Roman Empire – there was a common phrase – “peace and security”. It was propaganda – as if to say “everything is going to be ok. The Romans have it all sorted”.
We do the same thing. Place trust in other things. If we can just have the right solution we’ll be better. If the economy goes in our favour, we’ll save for the future. If if if…
Paul writes: When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!
Paul is saying - placing our hope in anything else is meaningless because this life is fragile and will crumble away just when we least expect it. But it is meaningless to those of us facing significant challenges with our health or brokenness in our relationships
Earliest ever belief statement for the early church was Jesus died and rose again. Death defeated. One moment of the past changed the future and enabled our presents to be different.
We no longer have to be overshadowed by the darkness of those things around us, instead that hope pierces our darkness because Jesus Christ died and rose again. The light pierced the darkness.
The HOPE we have in Jesus Christ is not limited to our future. Our present reality becomes a hope filled reality. Jesus changes our hearts and as He does so we begin to see the world differently. As we begin to see the world differently, Paul urges us to be present and clothed with Faith Hope and Love. Living a life shaped by those things those distinctives of our future hope begin to find their way into our present.
Taking hold of that which we’ve been given, as Jesus reminds us in the parable of the talents we read today, and using it in the time that we have to introduce our future HOPE into the lives of others. Where maybe we will then see less suffering, fewer tears, and more wholeness and healing. A life the kind of which Jesus offers each one of us – life in abundance.