Waiting for His Return

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1 Thessalonians 5:16–24 NASB95
Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.
There is a story about the gardener of a large Italian estate, who was giving a visitor a tour of the extensive and well-groomed property.
As they stopped for lunch, the visitor and his wife were complimenting the gardener on how beautiful and perfectly maintained the gardens and grounds appeared.
“By the way,” the visitor asked, “when was the last time the owner was here?”
“About ten years ago,” the gardener replied.
“Then why do you still keep the gardens in such an immaculate and lovely state?” the visitor asked.
“Because I am expecting him to return,” the gardener said.
“Is he coming this week?” the visitor asked.
“Well,” replied the gardener, “I do not know when he is coming, but I am EXPECTING him today.”
The dictionary defines expectation as the act of looking forward to something or anticipating it.
The season of Advent is all about expectation. It is a time of waiting in anticipation. In it, we recall the waiting of the Jewish people for the promised Messiah.
As we sing the songs of Advent, we can imagine the hopeful anticipation of observant and faithful Jews after 400 years of prophetic silence from God.
They were waiting for a Savior, the Savior of God’s promise, the anointed one of God who, according to the prophetic word of Isaiah 700 years earlier, would bring good news to the afflicted, who would bind up the brokenhearted, who would proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners.
"Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art.” Those lyrics come from one of the advent songs we sang a couple of weeks ago. “Dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.”
As we sing the songs of Advent, we can imagine the hopeful anticipation of a young mother-to-be, who, nine months earlier, had sung her own song:
“My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior,” Mary had sung when her cousin, Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, recognized Mary as the one who was carrying Isaiah’s promised servant-Savior.
It’s not easy to find Christmas songs written from the perspective of Mary, but Amy Grant wrote a very good one a few years ago called “Breath of Heaven.”
“I am waiting in a silent prayer/I am frightened by the load I bear,” she sings. “Be with me now/Be with me now/Breath of heaven/Hold me together/Be forever near me.”
The song that Luke records Mary singing is rightfully full of joy and praise to God for His having chosen this lowly Jewish girl to be the mother of His eternal Son.
But I think Amy Grant also strikes an appropriate chord in her lyrics. As the time of Jesus’ birth grew nearer and nearer, it seems likely that Mary would have been a little frightened, that she would have been even overwhelmed by the prospect of birthing and raising the promised Messiah and Son of God.
And so, as we might expect, much of what our season of Advent celebrates and commemorates is this period of waiting for the Christ-child to be born, waiting for the Messiah, waiting for He who would bring salvation to mankind.
But there’s more to the eager anticipation of Advent than simply a looking back to that day nearly 2,000 years ago when God became flesh.
As I was thinking through my plans for sermons during this season, I was struck by how many of the liturgical Advent readings of the church have to do with eschatology.
You might recall that eschatology is a big word for the study of the end times.
And each of the Advent readings that I have chosen from this year’s lectionary speaks of looking ahead in anticipation, not just of Jesus Christ’s incarnation in the person of a child born of the virgin Mary, but also of His promised return during the end times.
And as we have seen during the past couple of weeks, we who have followed Him in faith that He is the Son of God and that His sacrificial death and supernatural resurrection are our only means of reconciliation to the perfect and holy God should live in a state of eager anticipation for His coming.
We have talked about His return at the end of the 7-year tribulation period at the Battle of Armageddon to vanquish those who will have arrayed themselves against Jerusalem, an event that will usher in his thousand-year reign on earth.
And we have talked about how, at the end of those thousand years, after Satan has been loosed from his chains, God will send fire to destroy the heavens and the earth, how He will create new heavens and a new earth, how the New Jerusalem will come down, and how we who have followed Jesus in faith will spend eternity with Him on this new earth.
But we have not yet talked about the place of the church during these events. What place will believers have during these events?
That’s the question the church at Thessalonica had, and it’s the one the Apostle Paul sought to answer in chapters four and five of 1 Thessalonians. Please go ahead and find this little letter now.
Now the Advent reading that I started with today comes from verses 16-24 of chapter five, and the passage speaks of joy, which is this week’s Advent theme.
Those verses are part of a passage devoted to how Christians should conduct themselves, and all of the points Paul makes there are pertinent to the Christian life simply because we are people who have been redeemed at a great price, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb of God.
But Paul’s larger point here is that Christians should rejoice always, and pray without ceasing, and give thanks in everything, BECAUSE of what he had written in the preceeding passage.
So I want you to look back up to verse 13 of chapter four to get the context of Paul’s admonitions in chapter 5.
1 Thessalonians 4:13–14 NASB95
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.
During the short time that Paul had spent with the church at Thessalonica, he apparently had taught them quite a bit about the end times. They were already informed enough about what would happen to ask smart questions.
And one of those questions seems to have been this: What will happen to our brothers and sisters in Christ who have already died when Jesus returns on the clouds at the end of the Tribulation period?
They understood that believers who are still alive at that time will be taken up with Him and given glorified bodies that are no longer subject to decay or death. And they seem to have understood about Christ’s Millennial reign that would follow the Battle of Armageddon.
And they seem to have understood that there will be a resurrection of believers after the Millennial reign.
But would their believing friends and family miss that thousand-year time of God’s righteousness reigning on earth in the person of His Son? Would they have to wait all that time to be reunited with those they loved?
As it turns out, Paul had been given an answer to this question by the Lord Himself, probably during the time when Paul was in the Arabian desert being taught by Jesus.
Verse 15:
1 Thessalonians 4:15–17 NASB95
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.
This passage is where we get the term, “rapture.” The Latin word for “caught up” in verse 17 is rapturo, and the English translation of rapturo is rapture.
One day — and it could be any day and any time — Jesus will descend from heaven with a shout, and with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the church will be raptured — caught up with Him.
And what Paul wants to make sure we understand here is that this rapture will include ALL of those who are “in Christ,” whether living or dead. Indeed, the dead in Christ will rise first.
This is when the glorious reunion will take place. This is when we will first meet Paul, and Peter, and John. This is when we will see our Christian friends and family who have gone on before us.
Right now, their souls are in heaven, where they worship the Father and the Son in spirit.
But when the rapture comes, their souls will be reunited with their bodies, and their bodies, like that of Jesus Himself, will be glorified. They will no longer be subject to decay or death.
And then, we who remain alive at this time will rise to meet them, and our Savior, in the clouds.
Paul was like that gardener in the story I told you at the beginning of this message. He did not know when Jesus would return in the clouds, but he EXPECTED it to happen today.
And so did the Thessalonians, which was why they were having trouble finding all the joy they should have found in the promise of Christ’s return.
But now, with Paul’s teaching here about the dead in Christ being part of this great and wonderful event, they could rejoice completely, and they could, as Paul puts it in verse 18, “comfort one another with these words.”
But, still, everyone wants to know when this will happen.
There was a NASA engineer named Edgar Whisenant who self-published a book in the late 1980s called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. He predicted that the rapture would take place between Sept. 11 and Sept. 13 of that year, and by the end of the year his book had sold 4.5 million copies.
Whisenant was certain he had the date right. He said, “Only if the Bible is in error am I wrong; and I say that to every preacher in town. I would stake my life on Rosh Hashanah 1988.”
Well, you know what happened — or, at least, what didn’t happen.
Whisenant went on to publish three more books predicting the rapture in 1989, 1993, and 1994, respectively, but none of those sold as well as his first. I think it is safe to assume that he did not stake his life on the subsequent predictions.
Everyone wants to know when it will happen. But Paul tells the Thessalonians in this next part of his letter that they don’t need to know.
1 Thessalonians 5:1–3 NASB95
Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape.
The rapture will come when the world does not expect it, like a thief coming in the night. All of the trials of this life are but the labor pains of a woman with child.
Verse 4:
1 Thessalonians 5:4–5 NASB95
But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness;
We who have followed Jesus Christ in faith are sons of light and sons of day. We are not like the world, which is in darkness. We have no reason to fear the suddenness of Christ’s return. Indeed, we are to eagerly anticipate it.
Verse 6:
1 Thessalonians 5:6–8 NASB95
so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation.
Be alert. Be sober. Be of sound mind. Be self-controlled. That’s what Paul is saying here.
Put on the armor of faith and love and the helmet of the hope of salvation to protect yourselves from those who would seek to take from you the joy of your life in Christ.
And do this in the knowledge that Jesus Christ has already suffered the wrath of God that you and I were due because of our sins. We who have followed Jesus in faith will never experience God’s wrath.
This is what Paul says in the next couple of verses.
1 Thessalonians 5:9–10 NASB95
For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him.
Whether we are alive when Christ returns or we have died before that glorious day, we will be together with Him in the clouds, and then we will be taken into heaven with Him, where we will each stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ.
And at that time, each of us will be judged for our deeds as Christians, whether good or bad. But there will be no condemnation from that judgment, only rewards — rewards that, like our very salvation, we do not deserve, because anything good in us is a result of God’s grace.
We who have followed Jesus Christ in faith have not been destined for God’s wrath, but for salvation in Christ.
We will not be exposed to the Tribulation period, because we will be in heaven when it takes place. We will receive our rewards, and Christ’s bride, the Church, will be wed to Him. We will celebrate that marriage with a great feast in heaven.
And then we will return with Jesus to earth at the end of the seven-year Tribulation to watch as He destroys the nations aligned against Israel with the word of His mouth. And then we will rule with Him during His millennial reign on earth.
These are the things we look forward to so eagerly and with such anticipation in this period of waiting before the next advent of Christ, that day when He comes with a shout, and with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God.
And these things, Paul says in verse 11, should be an encouragement to us, even as we see the world suffering the pains of childbirth in its wait for that trumpet’s blast.
This is why we can rejoice always. This is why we should pray without ceasing. This is why we must give thanks in everything. This is why we should hold fast to that which is good and abstain from every evil.
Our Lord is coming. I do not know when, but I expect it to be today, so I want to be doing the work He gave me to do when I hear that trumpet.
Jesus said the fields are ripe for the harvest, and I want to be about the work of harvesting the crop for eternal life when I hear my Savior’s shout from the clouds.
Come along with me. Grab your sickle. There is work to be done while we are waiting. There are people who need the joy that we have in the midst of these birth pangs.
Let us be doing the work of our Lord when He comes with a shout, and with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God.
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