1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:26
On January 6, 1941, eleven months and one day before the attack on Pearl Harbor that finally catapulted the United States in to World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stood before a joint session of Congress to deliver his annual State of the Union Address. About 30 minutes into the speech, Roosevelt stunned the nation and the world by announcing a new doctrine for the goal of US foreign policy. Here’s what Roosevelt said to a world on the brink of war:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”
The speech instantly became known as “The Four Freedoms” speech, and ironically became the cornerstone of the defense of why we were involved in World War II. An isolationist Congress was being given a reason for entering into Europe’s conflict. It was the same reason Woodrow Wilson had given when he called for a declaration of war against Germany in 1917: “to keep the world safe for democracy.” We were being told that this war would be the war to end all wars. If only we fought this war, a war so terrible in its atrocities, so broad reaching in its scope, the nations of the earth would finally awake to the horror of war and band together with one voice to abolish war for all time.
The greatest ironic result of Roosevelt’s speech was that in January of 1943, just after the disasterous battle of Kasserine Pass, just outside of Tunis, Tunisia – the Allies first major assault on the German army in which our forces were nearly destroyed -- Life Magazine enlisted their chief illustrator, Norman Rockwell, to do four covers for their magazine based on President Roosevelt’s words. Rockwell’s paintings were sent on a nation-wide tour after their publication in February and March, and ultimately earned $130,000,000 in war bond sales.
Did our going to war end all wars? Does it ever? Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan prove that President Roosevelt, however noble his aspiration, had missed something crucial: that lasting peace and security can never be achieved by going to war. Jesus himself talked about how the ends do not justify the means when he said in Matthew 12, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?” You cannot fight fire with fire and expect to put the fire out.
We’ve been studying the First Letter of Paul to the Church in Thessalonica these past five weeks. In the final segment of the letter Paul talks about another four freedoms. I think President Roosevelt must have known this passage, and somewhere in his Episcopalian faith he knew that the beginning of peace was found here. Given the world situation he saw looming on the horizon, he simply couldn’t bring himself to the conclusion Jesus offers us here. For Jesus’ Four Freedoms go farther than Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. Jesus’ Four Freedoms offer Lasting Peace. They are Freedom from Fear, Freedom from Flight, Freedom from Fight, and Freedom for Faithfulness.
Now, the passage itself is long, so we’re going to have to take an ariel look at it and just touch on each of these. But if you will review them in depth, you will find they are a framework, not for world peace, but for the lasting peace you and every other person in the world is looking for.
Freedom from Fear
Beginning at verse 13, Paul first addresses the key fear all of us face throughout our lives. He says, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.”
What happens when I die? What’s to become of me when my union with this body is finally dissolved? Anyone who has ever attended a wake or a funeral where there was an open casket has experienced the very real feeling that this is final. This is the end for the person in the box and the end of relationship with them for all who are left behind.
But notice that Paul is not telling us not to grieve. He’s simply telling us not to grieve the way the rest of mankind grieves. Those who do not know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord look at a body in a casket and see nothing but an ending. We who know Christ look at a body in a casket and say, “Jesus rose from the dead. There is hope.”
See what he says in verse 14? For 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. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 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. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Have you ever read a really great spy novel; something by Tom Clancy maybe, and the suspense is just so great that you just can’t stand wishing you could read the last few pages to find out how the thing ends? The good news for the Christian is that we’ve read the last chapter, and we know how life really ends for those who believe. We will forever be with the Lord. We do not need to fear death.
The second fear that Jesus addresses is just as real, but much more immediate for most of us. Most of us don’t focus on our fear of death on a regular basis. If we did, it would overwhelm us, because the Fear of Life is with us every day, and every day when we get up in the morning there’s already so much else to be afraid of.
At the beginning of Chapter 5, Paul says, “Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 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.”
Paul doesn’t pull any punches: we’re afraid of the calendar and the march of days. We’re afraid of what is coming next; that the light at the end of the tunnel may just be the headlamp of an oncoming train. We’re afraid that thieves might break into our homes. When we lived in rural New Hampshire we never locked our house, even when we were away for several days. It was so remote. Who was going to break in? And if they did, what would they take? We were more afraid we’d find a moose in our living room than a robber. But the first day we lived in Wethersfield, I immediately noticed that the front door of our 1952 Cape Cod had no less than four locks on it. And sure enough, I’ve been locking the house at night. Once the suggestion was made, I wasn’t going to take any chances.
Paul says we’re afraid of war, and we’re afraid that destruction might come upon us without warning.
In the 1991 film Frankie and Johnny, Michelle Pfeiffer plays a recently divorced high school drop out named Frankie who takes a job in a run-down Greek diner in New York. The film is full of wonderfully rich portrayals of the kind of people you meet in a situation like that. Pfeiffer’s character falls in love with an ex-convict named Johnny, played by Al Pacino. The movie is really about the struggle they face trying to really trust enough to “connect” and not be alone.
In the critical scene near the end of the movie, Frankie finally comes to pieces. She can’t trust Johnny because she was beaten up by a previous lover. Weeping, Frankie says, “I'm afraid. I'm afraid to be alone, I'm afraid not to be alone. I'm afraid of what I am, what I'm not, what I might become, what I might never become. I don't wanna stay at my job for the rest of my life but I…I'm afraid to leave. And I'm just tired, you know, I'm just so tired of being afraid.”
If you’ve ever been afraid like Frankie, and I know you have because I have, then know this: Jesus is with you. He’s not just “for” you. He is with you. Right here. Right now. He is here when you are afraid. He’s here when you’ve been beaten. He is here when you are lonely. He is here when you are in pain. He is here. And he’s not going anywhere. Knowing how life turns out saves us from the fear of death, and it also saves us from the fear of life. Jesus is here, no matter what.
The second freedom Jesus offers us is Freedom from Flight. When life overwhelms you, the nearly automatic reaction most of us have is to run away. Look at chapter 5, verse 4:
4 But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
There are three things we need to notice here. The first is that the best way to be free of the impulse to run away is to know who you are and to know who you belong to. If Jesus offers us Freedom from Fear, the key way in which he does that is to give us such a clear sense of our identity that in any situation we are able to stand our ground because we know what ground we’re standing on. He says, “You are all children of the light and children of the day.”
When I was a small child my two greatest fears were the basement of our house, because it was dark down there, and looking out the window of my bedroom at night, because it was dark out there. Because I didn’t know what might be there, I was afraid of it. We are afraid of the unknown. That’s why knowing Jesus brings freedom. He becomes the known. And we are known by him. And in the light of knowing there is freedom. In knowing Christ there is identity.
We are called Christians: literally Christ Ones. And when you know that about yourself, Paul says it will save you from the two most obvious ways people run away. In verse 7 he says, “For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night.” I don’t know about you, but when I have a problem, the thing I’d most like to do is take a nap so the problem will go away for a while. And if the nap won’t work, or if the problem is too large and sleep eludes, most people will find some other way to make reality disappear. In our modern world we tend to turn to drugs or alcohol. A multi-billion, perhaps trillion dollar a year industry exists to help people deal with very real medical needs. But if the statistics are correct, an awful lot of that money is being spend abusing those very same drugs by people who are so afraid or so bothered by the realities of their life that they use the pain killers to make reality disappear for a time.
Sleep won’t solve your problems. Alcohol and drugs won’t solve your problems. But knowing who you are and to whom you belong will help you face your problems.
In 1 Samuel 17, a young David, before he became king of Israel, suddenly finds himself challenging the 9-foot tall giant, Goliath of Gath. The fate of Israel hangs in the balance, and David has offered to fight the Philistine. Saul, who was king at the time, didn’t want young David going out to battle unarmed. The text says, “Then Saul clothed David with his armor. He put a helmet of bronze on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail, and David strapped his sword over his armor. And he tried in vain to go, for he had not tested them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them.” So David put them off.
You see, David couldn’t be Saul. He knew he wasn’t king and he knew a king’s armor would never fit. But David knew who he was and he knew how to fight using the tools God had given him. “He took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd's pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine.”
He did not run away. He did not go to sleep. He did not self-medicate. He took five smooth stones and with one of them – on the first shot – he downed the giant. I was recently overwhelmed by a looming home improvement project. I had a wall to tear down, and I had never in my life torn down a wall before. I had reached the limits of my DIY skills. The wall got larger and larger in my mind until one afternoon Jama found me sitting in a chair with a hammer and a crowbar in my hand, just looking at the wall. “Do you want me to take the first swing?” She said, thinking it would help motivate me to actually start the project. “No, I replied. I just know that once I take that first swing I’m committed to see the thing through to the end. Getting started is the hardest part.” The job isn’t complete yet, but last night we had dinner with friends and ate off the new island in our expanded kitchen for the first time. There’s a lot of freedom in taking the first swing.
Freedom from Fight
The other side of our impulse to run away happens when our fear takes us in the other direction and instead of fleeing, we fight. Churches are notorious these days for being places where people are always ready to have a fight with each other. So many churches are in conflict today either because no one is there to shepherd them or because they have refused to be shephered.
The reason God supplies shepherds – pastors – for churches is, as Paul says, to help them to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Do you want lasting peace in your church? Let someone shepherd you. In verse 12 he says, “Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work”. And Paul cites five things that cause discord in the Body of Christ: Idleness (warn those who are idle and disruptive), Discouragement (encourage the disheartened), Weakness (help the weak), Impatience (be patient with everyone), and Indebtedness (Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.)
The purpose of a shepherd in a church is not to produce programs, it is to point people toward their ministries by recognizing the five smooth stones that are in their hands. Does someone here have the impulse to feed the poor? I shouldn’t invent a program for feeding the poor – but I should encourage them to feed the poor and to take others with them when they go. Believers who go with them will be encouraged to enter into their own ministries, and non-believers who go with them will find Christ as they work side-by-side with Jesus living out his life in the lives of those who trust him. A church whose program is to send every able-bodied member out on mission is a church that has done away with idleness, done away with discouragement, done away with weakness, done away with impatience, and done away with indebtedness because they always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.
Freedom for Faithfulness
Finally, Jesus frees us FOR Faithfulness. Paul ends the body of the letter this way, “16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil.”
If Jesus has freed you from Fear, if Jesus has freed you from Flight, if Jesus has freed you from Fight, now you are free to be what Jesus is: to be faithful, because you no longer need to cower, you no longer need to run, you no longer need to lash out. You are no longer caged, and so you are really free.
And it is so remarkable what you’re free to do: Here in these last few words of the letter, is what lasting peace feels like. First, you are free to rejoice. You’re no longer in prison. You’re free. And in the wide space of that freedom you can rejoice. And you are free to pray. There is no have to. There is no burden. You’ve been released. You can think of others because you are free. And in the wide space of that freedom you can pray for them. And you are free to give thanks. You aren’t caged in any more. You have no small space you need to defend. You don’t need to lash out. And in the wide space of that freedom you can give thanks. That’s a recipe for faithfulness.
In Christ you are Freed from Fear, Freed from Flight, Freed from Fight, and Free for Faithfulness.
Politics will never bring about lasting peace. But Jesus can. Hiding will never bring about lasting peace. But Jesus can. Fighting will never bring about lasting peace. But Jesus can. And the faithfulness of Jesus applied in your life will bring about a lasting peace you’ve never known before.
23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.
25 Brothers and sisters, pray for us. 26 Greet all God’s people with a holy kiss.