As someone who, even from childhood, has despised Halloween for various reasons, I usually treat the evening as a kickoff to listening to Christmas music. I take a seat in the front room, put an old Christmas record on the turntable, and in between the doorbells that get me up to hand out chocolate to neighborhood kids, I indulge some of the candy stash myself. I spend one holiday longing for another.
One Halloween many years ago, our church hosted a Trunk or Treat in the parking lot as an outreach to the community. But while all the other cars and trucks were decked out for fall (with pumpkins, spider webs, and the like), our speakers blared A Charlie Brown Christmas. The trunk looked like we’d opened up the ceiling door to my grandma’s attic and had all her Christmas decorations tumble into it. When people came over with raised eyebrows, I’d say something like, “Christmas is coming, you know.” Or “A month from now, this won’t look so weird.”
This was a bit of inaugurated eschatology—a combination of now and not yet, a recognition in one moment of another moment on the way. It was my way of saying, “There’s another, a better day coming, and here’s the sign.”
Not long ago, I pointed to research showing a generation gap among pastors in how often they address the “end times.” Younger pastors are less likely to preach about the second coming of Christ and the coming Day of the Lord, perhaps as a way to avoid unnecessary and divisive debates about the particular timetable of future events. References to a coming day of judgment, however, span the whole Bible. The prophets warn of it, the righteous long for it, and the psalmists celebrate it. One cannot understand the overarching story of the Bible without giving attention to the coming Day of the Lord.
Times and Seasons
In his letter to the Thessalonian church, the apostle Paul wrote:
About the times and the seasons: Brothers and sisters, you do not need anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. When they say, “Peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, like labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (1 Thess. 5:1-3)
Paul waves off speculation about exactly when Jesus is going to return. He says, “about the times and seasons, you don’t need us to write to you.” That’s not because the Thessalonians were end-times experts, but because they already knew the essentials. We don’t need to obsess over the details of the end times, but we miss a major part of discipleship if we rarely consider the Day of the Lord that is coming.
A congregation that lives with anticipation and awareness of judgment will have a sense of urgency about eternity. Our focus shouldn’t be on all of our unanswered questions, but on the big answers we already know to be true from Scripture. God has given us all the information we need; our response shouldn’t be to ask for more information but to live according to the information we have.
Day of Judgment
Paul says that the “Day of the Lord” will come. That’s a phrase that this church would have known. It’s an expression you find throughout the Scriptures, especially in the Old Testament, usually referring to God’s judgment, the defeat of his enemies, and the salvation of the faithful.
In the Old Testament, mini “days of the Lord” occur, where God executes judgment against a nation in history. That is what Isaiah prophesied regarding Babylon, for example. The judgment that fell on Egypt would be another example. So there are “days of the Lord” that come and go upon nations or peoples.
Day of the Lord
But here, Paul is referring to the “capital D” Day of the Lord, the Day when judgment will come to the whole world. The Apostles’ Creed says, “Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead.” That’s a description of what’s going to happen on the Day of the Lord. Take all of the mini days of the Lord in history and you see how they foreshadow the great and majestic event at the end of time.
Paul expected the Thessalonian Christians to be aware of that coming Day, and he turns to two metaphors to describe it.
First, the coming of Christ will be like a “thief in the night.” If you’ve ever been the subject of a burglary, you know how sudden and unexpected it is. It’s terrifying. It’s fast. It’s surprising. Paul is saying, “When Jesus comes back, it’s going to be sudden. You’re not going to expect it.”
Then he turns to another metaphor: labor at the end of a pregnancy. But how do those two things go together? A thief is totally unexpected, but labor is expected! Paul’s point is that when labor starts, the end result is unavoidable. All the signs start pointing to the new birth. When the labor pains start, there’s no going back. That baby is coming.
Paul is saying, “The Day of the Lord will be sudden and unexpected like a thief” while at the same time “it’s going to be unavoidable and unstoppable like a woman’s labor once it’s started.” There’s no turning back the clock.
Inevitability of the Day of the Lord
Even though we are aware that judgment is coming, the world will tell us otherwise. Paul says there will be talks of “peace and security.” In his day, that was the slogan of the Roman Empire, just like the false prophets in the Old Testament were saying “peace, peace” when there was no peace.
Countering imperial propaganda, Paul reminded the church that Caesar isn’t their Lord. Jesus is. Trust the word of Christ, not the propaganda from Rome.
All around us, even in some theological institutions, people want to downplay or deny the reality of coming judgment, that God would hold us accountable for our actions, that sin could be punished, that evil would be dealt with, that hell exists, or that anyone might wind up there.
The denial of judgment was the first trick of the serpent in the Garden of Eden at the beginning of the Bible: Did God really say you’re going to die if you eat the fruit, Eve? No. You’re not going to die. How easily people fall even today for the Devil’s propaganda.
Developing the Right Longings
Let’s say that on paper everyone in your church affirms the truth of the coming of Christ. Are we, then, living in light of this future reality? Does our church have an urgency for evangelism and mission? Are we confident and assured that injustices will be rectified and the world will made right? Are we hopeful and longing for the Day of the Lord to come?
We believe in the Day of the Lord, yes. Now, the greater task before us is to live with that awareness, worship with the end in mind, and share the good news of Jesus with compassion and enthusiasm, knowing that any day now, Jesus will return and judge the world for his glory.
The Day of the Lord is coming, and even if it sometimes looks like an out-of-place Christmas-decorated car on Halloween, the future is assured. The flurries portend the blizzard. The times and seasons are set. Live this day in light of his Day.
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