1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night…”
For years we have been warned that the day would come—that a category 4 or 5 hurricane would hit New Orleans and that the waters would rise higher that the levees and we would fill up like a bowl with water up to the roof tops in some areas. We didn’t know when this would happen, we only knew that it would happen. And now it has. One of the many lessons we have learned from hurricanes in the past, particularly Hurricane Betsy, was to keep an axe in the attic.
Why? Because when the flood waters began to rise, when it came up over the front porches and into the living rooms, people went up to their second stories. And when the water climbed the stairs and followed them into their second stories, the people would go into their attics. But then, when water flooded the attics, the people would be trapped and could not get out, not without an axe in the attic, a means of chopping a hole in the roof, a passage up, out, through, to oxygen, to higher ground, to rescue, to safety. I have heard stories of people who were trapped for days in their attics in complete and utter darkness with rats and roaches and snakes crawling all around and over them, with no food, no water, who would have given anything to see the sky, to see the light, to breathe the air, to step out of darkness into the day.
I have heard stories of people who used their axe and made it to safety. I find that image to be powerfully compelling. I have tried to picture what that moment must be like when it is clear that there is no other way, when the axe swings and the blade strikes the same roof that only the day before had provided shelter and security to them, the roof they had probably spent a fortune on to make it water tight and leak proof, with a 30 year warranty on it. But in the course of 24 hours that same roof has become a barrier, a prison, a life-threatening hindrance. When crisis comes, that happens, doesn’t it? Crisis has a way of turning our lives and our priorities around and upside down so radically that the same things that one day were sources of security are the very next day burdens and hindrances You never know when the roof over your head will become a barrier to freedom, so keep an axe in the attic.
There is a sense in which that’s what Paul is telling us in these verses of scripture—not literally, but spiritually—to be prepared, to keep an axe in the attic—for we never know when suddenly something will happen and life as we know it will come to an end and will never again be the same as it once was.
It happens on this planet all the time—somewhere, to somebody, in every moment, no doubt in this very moment, when life is suddenly interrupted irreversibly changed: a biopsy comes back, a bomb blows up, a job lost, a loved one dies, a shot fired in the night, the sound of a siren, the phone rings, the police at your door. It happens to us as persons. It happens to us as a planet: It happened on September 11. It happened when the Tsunami hit Indonesia, when the earthquake hit Pakistan, when terrorists hit in Iraq, India, Israel, Afghanistan, Africa. Is there any place on this planet to which I can run and hide? Just ask somebody who took refuge in Houston when they heard Katrina was coming, only to discover they had evacuate again when Rita was coming You can run but you cannot hide!
Again and again scripture tells us that this is life. Life is created in such a way that it changes constantly. It is not a static, plastic thing that you can frame and put on a shelf and say okay, there, I gotcha now. Everything must change. Everything eventually comes to an end. As William Willimon once wrote, “If history teaches us anything it is that all things eventually become history.” The moment will come when suddenly life as we know it, either as persons or as a planet, will come to an end, and will never again be the same.
When will this happen? We don’t know. It comes “like a thief in the night,” says Paul, quoting Jesus, who again and again taught us that no one knows when the end will come, not even he, not even the angels in heaven, only God and God alone. And that’s the whole point: it is not in our hands, it is in God’s hands.
We think we want to know. What if we did know? I invite you to ponder that in your heart for just a moment. I have asked myself what if since Katrina came: what if I had known 2 years and 8 months ago when the Bishop called my office in Baton Rouge asking me if I would come to New Orleans what would happen. What if he had also said, “Oh, by the way, 2 years into your ministry, there will be a category 4 hurricane that will hit New Orleans creating one of the major catastrophes of the century, and your church will suffer millions of dollars worth of damages, and you will lose 1/3 of your congregation, and the city of New Orleans will never be the same again–sign here on the dotted line.” Would I still have said yes that day? I don’t think so. Would you? And yet I would not trade the experiences I have had since Katrina, as hard as they have been, for anything.
What if somehow I was able to know that one day in March of 2025 I will drop dead of a massive stroke. Is that information that I would want to know? Or does that come under the category of too much information? There is such a thing, you know. Like that old story about the little boy who asked his daddy, “Daddy, where did I come from?” And his father gulped, cleared his throat, said a quick prayer, and proceeded as best he could, to gently, gingerly explain the birds and the bees to his bewildered child. After his lengthy and detailed, somewhat scientific explanation, his child said, “That’s good, Daddy. But what I want to know is where did I come from? Bobby says he’s from Cleveland.” Maybe there is such a thing as too much information for the children of God. If I knew when my last day on planet earth would be, how would that change the way I live my life? Would I be overcome with despair? Would I be consumed with anxiety? Would I throw caution to the wind and eat, drink, and be merry, for life is short? Think about that. Do you really want to know? Paul says, “As to the times and season, brothers and sisters, you have no need” to know…
This is what we need to know, Paul says: Be awake. Be alert. Be alive. Be ready. Live every moment as if today could be the day. There are so many of us who are living our whole lives as if this life on earth will never come to an end. There is so much we simply take for granted. Watch out, Paul says, beware, when people say, “There is peace, there is security.” They are in denial, living in the dark, their heads stuck in the stand.
When Billy and I visited the ruins of the Coliseum in Rome, we learned that on the day of the decisive barbarian invasion when so much of the great city was destroyed, the Coliseum was filled with spectators for the gladiator games. They had heard that the barbarians were coming, but they thought, oh well, the government and the army will take care of that.
I think of the officers and the crew of the SS Titanic who foolishly failed to prepare adequately for what might come because they believed that their ship was indestructible, unsinkable. They said that “even God could not sink the Titanic.” And yet, on its maiden voyage, first time out, when it struck that iceberg, within 2 ½ hours it had sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
Are we any different when we build our entire sense of peace and security on anything that is of this earth?—our homes, our possessions, our bricks and mortar, shingles, even steeples, the roof over our head. No, Paul is saying. Wake up. Put an axe in the attic. For at any point, all of this material stuff can turn to mold and mildew, rust and dust. And on that day you will want to know there is a way through the roof to something more.
Paul is telling us this not because he wants to scare us to death, but because he wants to bring us to life! This is what it means to be fully alive. There are those people who live as if they will never die. They are so often the same people who die before they have ever really lived. In his wonderful book, Awareness, the popular Jesuit priest, Anthony De Mello, writes, “Most people are born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, and then they die in their sleep without ever waking up.” DeMello’s definition of spirituality is awareness: waking up, coming into consciousness, coming alive, coming to the realization that we are not going to live forever, that life is precious, the things we do and say and decide matter, they matter eternally. I was in a coffee shop once where I saw a poster on the wall that said, “Life is short. Stay awake.” Like an old friend of mine used to say to me, “Be all alive!” It’s a heightened sense of aliveness and awareness that the Quakers calls “allthereness.”
One of my favorite books in the universe is the American classic by Kate Chopin, The Awakening. The main character, Edna Pontellier, was an ordinary woman at the turn of the century, 100 years ago, 1899. She was spiritually asleep, conformed to her society, obedient to her culture’s expectations, just going through the motions of living, until the day when she was 28 years old and she woke up. The author wrote, “a certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her…she was beginning to realize her position in the universe, her relation as an individual to the world within and all around.”
How many times have I met with someone in my office who felt like their world was turning upside down, like a hurricane was ripping through their lives, like they no longer even recognized themselves, when they sat in my office using one kleenex after another when what was really happening is that they were waking up, coming to life! This is not a bad thing! For the same One who has created life in such a way that everything must end is the One who has promised that there is no ending without a new beginning, a new day, new light, see it shining, just beyond the rooftop, if you have the courage to break through.
It is a choice we must make every day we live: to be children of the light or children of the night. We can choose to live our whole lives like a worm in the apple whose entire universe is the apple, who has no idea that not only are there other apples out there, not only thousands and thousands of other apples, but other apple trees, apple orchards, the great big blue sky, a yellow sun, the moon, the stars, a universe of reality beyond the apple. So many of us live our material, physical, earthly lives as if this is all there is, what you see is what you get, it’s 9 to 5 and then you die, and yet all the while, just beyond the rooftop, there is the great big blue sky of God’s eternal kingdom of light to which we most truly ultimately belong.
That’s why Paul says, “We are children of light. We do not belong to the night. We do not belong to the darkness. Chop a hole in the roof and the let the light shine! For we belong to the day!” What does that mean except that we belong to him: the light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness that the darkness has never been able to overcome. That’s our breastplate of faith and love, that’s our helmet of hope, that’s our axe in the attic.
We do not know what the future holds. We are not even to the end of the hurricane season yet! But we know him– the one who holds the future. We belong to him. We belong to the Day, the New Day, the Bright Morning Star, the Light of the World—Jesus Christ. What then do we have to fear in this life or in the next? Nothing.
“For God has not destined us for wrath, but for salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep, come what may, no matter what, we might live with him.”