1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
I am not someone who really needs to be encouraged to stay alert. Those of us raised with trauma in our childhood grew up hypervigilant. I have spent a large part of my life trying to calm my nervous system down, not working to keep myself more alert. I’m already too alert. I already fear the worst.
I don’t need to remind myself that the world could end at any moment. I actually need to work on operating as if I’ll have time and stability to do God’s work, because if it’s all about surprise and terror, I will just freeze.
But that analogy of labor pains strikes me in a new way as I contemplate my hypervigilance. Labor pangs aren’t really all that unpredictable, unless you’re in total denial. I didn’t know specifically what childbirth would feel like to me before I went into labor, but I’d heard enough stories to know it would be a wild ride. I didn’t delude myself by creating a 20-page birth plan and expecting my labor to follow it. In fact, I was lucky, and (unlike breastfeeding, which was really difficult for me) labor was neither extraordinarily painful, nor terribly unpredictable, nor all that scary for me. Some of that was luck, and some of that was remembering what I had learned about how long each contraction lasts and the different stages of labor. I didn’t freeze in terror. I welcomed the pain, even, because I knew it would end in something glorious.
Maybe that’s what Paul means when he talks about the breastplate of faith and love, and a helmet of the hope of salvation. Faith and hope sound to me like the opposite of freezing in terror. Encouraging each other and building each other up sounds like the opposite of a surprise audit.
Paul is telling us that we know Jesus is coming, and that we are working steadily to bring his kingdom into this world, by being kind to each other, caring for each other, and encouraging each other. True, we need to be sure not to think that salvation is a kind of “one and done” deal. But if we’re working regularly in anticipation of Jesus’ coming, we don’t need to live in daily terror.
I choose to take Paul metaphorically when he talks about staying awake and never getting drunk. It’s OK to relax after an honest day’s work. It’s OK to rest in the Lord. I think instead he’s telling us not to sleepwalk through life or tell ourselves that we can act Christian later on when we’re not earning money, or changing diapers, or looking after elderly relatives, or flying across times zones in business class.
Honestly, Advent is a funny season, because we’re preparing for the coming of a Messiah who’s already here. The world is already going kind of crazy. In fact, it’s always been going kind of crazy. The best thing to do is to stay present, connect with those around us, and keep doing God’s work as we understand it. We’re not responsible for making labor proceed correctly. That’s God’s job. We just need to show up, breathe, and keep going, and at some point, something beautiful will happen.