While You Were Sleeping

Micah 5:2-5a

2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,

are only a small village among all the people of Judah.

Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you,

one whose origins are from the distant past.

3 The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies

until the woman in labor gives birth.

Then at last his fellow countrymen

will return from exile to their own land.

4 And he will stand to lead his flock with the Lord’s strength,

in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.

Then his people will live there undisturbed,

for he will be highly honored around the world.

5 And he will be the source of peace.

Bethlehem – Over the last several weeks, Pastor Barry has been doing a series called The Little Town of Bethlehem during Advent. For this morning’s Christmas message I again want to focus on this little town. There really wasn’t much important about Bethlehem — this little Judean village lies 6 miles south of Jerusalem — the big important city. Bethlehem is important in its own right however. The entry at Wikipedia has this to say and reminds us of several of the messages of the past few weeks:

Bethlehem, located in the “hill country” of Judah, may be the same as the Biblical Ephrath,[12] which means “fertile”: There is a possible reference to it as Beth-Lehem Ephratah.[13] It is also known as Beth-Lehem Judah,[14] and “the city of David”.[15] It is first mentioned in the Tanakh and the Bible as the place where the Abrahamic matriarch Rachel died and was buried “by the wayside” (Gen. 48:7). Rachel’s Tomb, the traditional grave site, stands at the entrance to Bethlehem. According to the Book of Ruth, the valley to the east is where Ruth of Moab gleaned the fields and returned to town with Naomi. Bethlehem is the traditional birthplace of David, the second king of Israel, and the place where he was anointed king by Samuel.[16] It was from the well of Bethlehem that three of his warriors brought him water when he was hiding in the cave of Adullam.[17]

It is Bethlehem where Jesus was going to be born — the long awaited promise. If a king was to be born surely he wouldn’t be born in Bethlehem. So, many years ago, a child was born, his name is Jesus and as we are told in Matthew’s gospel, he will save his people his people from their sins. Yesterday, I began working on a sermon for the Sunday following Christmas. I’ve been listening to the song by Casting Crowns, While You Were Sleeping. Mark Hall wrote it while trying to rework the classic Christmas carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem. The people of Israel were sleeping when Jesus came to earth so long ago in Bethlehem. In fact only a few people were even aware that Jesus had arrived on earth. There was Mary and Joseph, those are the obvious ones. Then there are the shepherds who were out in the fields around Bethlehem. I love the way the movie The Nativity Story depicts the shepherds watching their sheep. The angels of heaven came to announce the good news to the shepherds and then there are those curious wise men. Again, I love the different perspective that was presented in the movie. We don’t know when the wise men arrived, but they came to worship this newborn king. The rest of the world, as far as we can tell, was clueless.

For the most part, those in that part of the world were more concerned with the oppression of the Romans and the crazy head of state Herod. Rome was in complete charge of its territories and it was quick to squelch any uprisings. This is in part what made Herod so nervous. According to the biblical narrative, not even Herod was aware of what was going on at least until the arrival of the wise men in Jerusalem. After all, if a king was to be born to Israel, wouldn’t he be born in the capital city — the religious center of Israel? It was only after Herod had his scribes and wise men check the ancient writings did Herod discover what was happening in the shadow of the capital.

Why were so many sleeping? We do know that it had been 400 years since God last spoke to the people of Israel through the prophets. Perhaps the people had been lulled into complacency because of the silence. Hasn’t that ever happened to you? When things become quiet, we get sleepy, perhaps that’s what happened to those who were waiting for the promised one — they became spiritually sleepy. They began to go through the motions. Look at the Pharisees — they had all kinds of activity — the followed all the laws — they made sure everyone else was following the laws — they knew the scriptures and yet, all of this happened right underneath their noses. Yes, as Jesus became known, several Pharisees and others from the spiritual counsels began to discover who this Jesus was and God even opened the eyes of several, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Aramethia. Most, however, remained spiritually blind and spiritually asleep to the fact that Jesus had come to earth.

The question that I have for you is, “Are you awake to the true meaning of Christmas or are you sleeping as well?” As I mentioned several weeks ago during the First Sunday of Advent, not only was Jesus promised to come the first time, but Jesus has promised that he would return for those who believe him and call on his name. This second coming or Second Advent is not something that you will want to sleep through. Just like those at the time of Jesus’ birth who were sleeping to his coming, there will be those who will be sleeping when he comes back. I would hope that you are not among those who are sleeping when he returns.

In Matthew 25, we have a powerful parable about what happens to those who are sleeping when Jesus returns.

1″At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them.4The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

6″At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’

7″Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’

9″ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

10″But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

11″Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’

12″But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’

13″Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

And so it can be for us – we can be too busy for Jesus and we can completely miss him. I have enjoyed this Advent and Christmas more than I have in a long time. Even Pam has really enjoyed this particular Advent and Christmas season. One of the reasons for me is that this is the first time in ten years that I haven’t worked in a retail setting during Advent or Christmas. I feel spiritually alive this Christmas. Retail has a way of taking the fun out of Christmas and our Savior’s birth. It can make you spiritually sleepy. Another thing that I always will guard people against is getting too busy at Christmas. It’s been a unique Christmas for our family — It’s been a simple Christmas for our family — Perhaps that’s why I feel so alive and awake this year. I really want to encourage you not to miss out — not to sleep through Christmas this year. Will you be sleeping our awake this year?

Jesus gives each one of us an opportunity to respond to him. This morning Jesus may be calling you to turn your life over to him – to become spiritually awake. We don’t know when Jesus is coming again. Scripture makes that plain. I want to encourage you to have a relationship with the one person who is more important than any other.

The praise team is coming to sing a wonderful song of the season, “Silent Night, Holy Night.” As we are singing I encourage you to think about where you are spiritually. If Jesus is calling you, the altar is open for you to seek him here. Come now and offer your life to him.

Our Glorious Hope

I’ll never forget my first introduction to Christ’s second coming. It was at a youth rally and I was probably a little older than James at the time. At the youth rally they showed the film “A Thief in the Night.” I remembered seeing clips of it on television. Several years later, probably at youth camp the film was shown again. I know that it frightened me even as a Christian. Last week I said the beauty of preaching a series through a book is that you have to take it as it comes. This morning is no exception. I’ve never considered myself an expert on the second coming. There are those who do consider themselves experts and they have all kinds of charts and can proof-text their way through the Bible to make it all fit together. By the way, I have great difficulty with those who like to take the scriptures like this and try to put them together like it is a great big jigsaw puzzle. It is very dangerous to do that. This morning is not one of those types of messages. We want to take a look at what Paul writes about the second coming of our Lord.
Just a few moments ago we read a good portion of the text responsively. What was the purpose of Paul writing to the church at Thessalonica? It was to encourage the believers there and to fill in the gaps in the teaching that the missionary team did not get to take care of while they were there. The return of Christ is a concern for the church. The Greek word for Christ’s return is parousia. William Barclay explains it as the arrival of an emperor, a king, a governor or famous person into a town or province. There are some practical implications. If you are going to be visited by a VIP, you need to get ready for his visit. The coming of a king demands that all things must be ready — if such is true in the physical world, how much more so in the spiritual world. To participate in the celebration for the parousia of the King of Kings, even as one among multitudes in the welcoming crowd, would be an exhilarating experience, and just the beginning of the eternal celebration of his presence – which the word parousia basically means.
This is the glorious hope that we all have as brothers and sisters in Christ. This becomes the background of our message this morning. The believers at Thessalonica were concerned about those who had died since Paul had visited there. They were concerned that those who have died would not participate in the grand celebration of the return of the King of Kings. Paul tells us in verse 13, “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep (or literally die), or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 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. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.” So Paul is reassuring the Thessalonians not to grieve for those who have already died in Christ. They will not be left out of the celebration. Paul says that they have a hope, unlike the pagan culture around them. Inscriptions on tombs and references in literature show that first-century pagans viewed death with horror, as the end of everything. Paul even reassures us this morning that death is not the end. We could even say that death is only the beginning, because we have a glorious hope of being resurrected with Christ.
Paul goes on the to describe what is going to happen. “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of (an) archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” This particular passage is the only time in the New Testament that the world “rapture” is clearly referenced and it comes from the Latin Vulgate rendering (the first Latin translation.) While I was working on this sermon, I did some research on this. It was interesting to note that many who believe in the “rapture” of the church, believe it will be a silent rapture. Let’s take a look at the scripture. First the Lord will come down. It’s interesting to note that this event is important enough that the Lord himself will come. He will not send a representative from heaven but he himself will descend from heaven. Then there is a loud command. The word used in the Greek is used for a charioteer urging his horses. This is not a silent command. Second, there is a shout of an archangel. Third, there is the trumpet of God. This is not the first time a trumpet is used when God manifests his powerful presence. The text does not indicate whether these are one or three separate “sound effects,” but in any case when the Lord returns it appears the whole world will know. This will not be a silent occasion.
It is also interesting to note that this scripture tells us nothing of the unbelievers or those not in Christ. Paul only addresses the Thessalonians current concerns. So, as least in the words of Paul to the church is what is important. The Lord will come, with a loud shout, the voice of an archangel, and the trumpet of God; the dead in Christ will rise first, and then those of us who are alive in Christ second. We will gather in the clouds (which by the way is symbolic of God’s eternal presence.) At that point we will be with the Lord forever. Paul tells the church to encourage one another with these words.
However, Paul is not finished in his teaching. In a classic example of a bad division of chapters, Paul continues, “Now brothers (and sisters) about the times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.” Allow me a point of personal privilege here. I wholeheartedly agree with Paul’s teaching here, I believe that there are far too many “prophets” out there who spend there time looking for signs of the second coming of Christ. There are far too many Christians trying to figure out when Christ is coming. Paul says don’t worry about it, because it’s coming like a thief in the night. Jesus said, “Keep watch and pray, because if we knew when the thief was coming we would have been ready for him.” Jesus coming will be like labor pains. He will come suddenly and without warning. Those who are not ready will not be able to escape.
Paul is encouraging the brothers and sisters to be ready for the coming of the Lord. How do they do that? He says they are not in darkness. This is a classic metaphor that John uses. Living as children or sons of light vs. living as children of the dark. We do not belong to the darkness, so (echoing last week’s message) we should live as children of light, sanctified (set apart) for God’s use, living the life that he has called us to live. Now in verse 6, Paul uses the word asleep in a different way. Let us not be like other who are asleep (in the dark), but let us be alert and self-controlled. This is really a continuation of the thought started in chapter 4. What happens to those who are asleep? They sleep at night and he takes it one step further. He equates being in the dark to being drunk. (Those who get drunk get drunk at night). He writes that we belong to the day. Think about this. Jesus Christ is coming as a thief in the night and we need to be ready at all times. Depending on the person, it is easy to rouse them from sleep, but a drunk person is even more difficult. Once I had to rouse a drunk person and it took ten to fifteen minutes until he was coherent enough even to have an incoherent conversation. Matter of fact his car that he was in was parked on the shoulder of the wrong side of the road facing oncoming traffic with his lights on but his motor off. I knocked on the window for a good five minutes to wake him. He had fallen asleep drunk in his car in front of our last church. At first I thought he was dead, because his french fries were still in his hand.
Paul tells us to be alert, (not like this guy I just told you about.) You could also add to be alert and sober. There are some Christians who are not ready; they are not alert and sober to the Christ who is coming back again. He also tells us to be self-controlled (where have we heard that lately?)
Besides being alert, sober, and self-controlled, he tells us to put on faith and love as a breastplate and the hope of salvation as a helmet. Warren Woolsey writes, “Faith and love as a breastplate will protect vital organs, heart and lungs. The hope of salvation as a helmet, protecting the head is the climatic position. Hope is especially appropriate in a context of waiting for the Second Coming.
Christ brought us salvation, through his death on the cross, verse 10. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep (dead) we may live together with him. Christ’s atoning death for us and our union with Him by faith. Paul returns to the metaphor of awake and sleep as it refers to life and death and reassures his congregation that whether alive or deceased, that those in Christ will have forever fellowship with him.
So what? So Jesus is coming again. So Jesus is coming again for those who have died in Christ and coming again for those who are alive in Christ. So what? What difference does it make?
It makes a difference in the way we live. We must live to please God in all areas of our life. Now I know some of you are going to think I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but nothing is of more importance in our Christian life. We MUST live to please God at all times, because he is coming back and we don’t know when. I don’t care what’s happening around the world, because if Jesus’ return was imminent in the First Century, how much more closer is his return today. Are you living a life that is pleasing to God? Would he come and return for you today? We never know when he is coming back. Are you ready?
If you are, do as Paul commands us in verse 11. “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up.”

There’s No I In Church

As our family gathered around for lunch after church last Sunday morning, a thought came up. Do you think people know what a podcast is? Let’s start from the beginning. Who knows what an iPod is? How about MP3? What about a CD? Several weeks ago, I wrote in our monthly newsletter about how many of our students wouldn’t know what you would mean by “You sound like a broken record.” That sounds as strange to them as podcast, iPod, and MP3 sounds to you. So what is a podcast? Let’s take it from what we know. Most of us are familiar with CDs. Think of each audio track on a CD as a computer audio file. This can then be made into a MP3 file or a podcast. A podcast is a new way of delivering audio to the masses. An iPod or MP3 player allows a person to select their own listening experience. It is highly individualized. It suits our rugged individualism American culture well. Unfortunately this same rugged individualism shows up in the church. We have become long ranger Christians. This becomes especially true of pastors. It is easy to become a lone ranger pastor. As I have been reading through 1 Thessalonians over the past week, this thought came to mind. So often we treat the epistles or letters as if they were written from one person to another person. We are wrong when we treat the letters this way. We need to remember that they were written to a group of people, in most cases a church and then passed around to other churches. Not only are they letters written to churches, but also the letters many times are written in team style. Remember the intro to this letter several weeks ago? Paul and the others listed are writing to the church, not to individuals. How does this apply today? It’s often been said on the playing field – There is no I in team. We could put it this way – There is no I in church. The church is the body of believers working together under a servant leader shepherd to build the kingdom of God or as Jesus put it the Kingdom of Heaven. Paul is writing to us today as the church. We pick up our reading in 1 Thessalonians chapter 2:17 and we will read through chapter 3.

17But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. 18For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan stopped us. 19For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 20Indeed, you are our glory and joy.

3:1 So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. 2We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, 3so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. 4In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. 5For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent Timothy to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless.

6But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. 7Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. 8For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. 9How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? 10Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.

11Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. 12May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. 13May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

You will notice that we picked up right at the end of chapter two and read until the end of chapter three. As we begin looking at today’s scripture, let me remind you that Paul did not write his letters with chapter and verses. These were added much later. Many times a thought crosses a chapter heading. The chapter headings will sometimes complete a thought, but many times they will not. Chapter 2:17 begins the thought completed in chapter 3.

We will notice that this passage begins and ends with references to the coming of our Lord Jesus. We are beginning to get to the heart of the reason for Paul writing this letter. Paul has been enduring severe persecution. We have gotten a glimpse of it this week as we have been reading through Acts. Through it all, Paul is reminding himself that Jesus Christ is returning for the church. Paul is greatly encouraged by the church at Thessalonica and tells them that they are his glory and joy. He is proud of them that they are following the Way.

Paul is worried about his new congregation. Isn’t amazing what little things we worry about at times? Paul has picked the right things to be concerned about. What are you spending your time thinking about and contemplating about? Is it something important in the scope of eternity or is it really nothing at all? Paul was concerned enough to send Timothy to check up on them. He was very pleased with Timothy’s report. Let’s take a look at that report.

6But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. 7Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. 8For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. 9How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?

Despite all of what Paul is suffering for the cause of the gospel, Timothy’s good report is encouraging to him. I’ll paraphrase Paul here, “Since you are living in the faith of Jesus Christ, we don’t have to worry about being persecuted, because you are standing firm.” I remember several years ago attending FLAME up in Vassar, MI. Vassar was about 30 miles from our first church. It just so happened that the senior pastor had resigned and they hadn’t yet called a new pastor. I called the vice-chair knowing that I would be in the area and would love the chance to preach at my old church. Many had never heard me preach because at the time I felt God was calling me in the area of worship ministry. The vice-chair and his wife even let me stay at there house on Saturday night and we got to talking about old times. In the morning, we got up and went to church. It was a wonderful, healing experience for me. Many of the people were excited to see me and to see pictures of the kids and Pam. As I looked around that morning, many of the things I implemented while I was there were still being used. Then I had a chance to preach to the congregation and encourage them. We enjoyed the morning together. I think that’s how Paul may have felt by Timothy’s report. I could thank God for what He was doing at First Wesleyan and is continuing to do to this day.

This is not to say that Paul wasn’t concerned about some gaps in their teaching. Look what Paul writes in verse 10, “Night and day we pray earnestly for you, asking God to let us see you again to fill up anything that may still be missing in your faith.” Paul would really like to return and finish the work he was called to do in Thessalonica. It’s my prayer as your pastor that even though I see you each week, that I can assist you in filling the holes in your faith. One of the things I believe is that we never stop growing as believers. If we stop growing as believers, we are in danger of sliding back to what we were. It doesn’t matter how old you are, we can never rest on what we have learned, we must always press ahead. The same holds true for the church. So many times we talk about growing in a physical sense, but the church needs to grow most importantly in a spiritual way. I get concerned when I see churches stagnate in their spiritual growth. Do you know what happens when water stagnates; it stinks and is not very nice to be around. The same thing can happen in the church when we stop growing spiritually. Individual growth is good; but growth together is even better.

So what is Paul’s prayer for the church at Thessalonica? Let’s look at 3:11-13.

11Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. 12May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. 13May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

Paul’s prayer for this church is that they would love each other to overflowing and not just love each other but for everyone else. One of the comments I have heard about churches is that they say they are a friendly church. Usually you can translate that to say they are a friendly church to their friends. How do we treat those whom we don’t know when they come to our church? Do we love them with a love that overflows? Our job is to love those who are around us, even those who appear to be unlovable.

Paul finishes with this comment in verse 13 and begins to touch on a subject that we will look at more in depth next week. 13May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.
I want to ask you this morning if you are ready for His coming. Are you ready for the glorious return of Christ Jesus? Are you holy? Are you living a life that is separate from the world? Are you living a pure life? Are you living a blameless life? This is my concern for the church. I mentioned earlier that many times we think of these things as individuals, but God is calling His church to be holy and blameless. Remember the story of Achan and the fall of Ai? Achan decided to not follow God’s command and the whole nation of Israel suffered as a result. Are WE living holy and blameless lives before our Lord? Will we be ready for His glorious return?