In the movie School Daze, at the end of it the cast looks out at the audience and says, "Wake up!" I remember when watching that movie a gentleman behind me said, "I'm tellin' ya, 'cause I slept through the whole movie!" That remark caused me to think of what that moviegoer missed while asleep during the movie and the message. That movie dealt with the divisive issue of light and dark skin among African-American Greek organizations on a college campus.
In our text today the apostle Paul also deals with the differing hues of Christians being children of the day as opposed to skeptics of darkness. And not unlike that movie-goer who missed not only the movie and the message, we miss the message when we don't stay awake as Christians, when we don't wake up and keep the faith. One of the most powerful and amazing things about the Word of God is its power to renew and encourage us to witness--to wake up! Our witness then can become a candle on a dark and windy hill. It becomes light in the midst of darkness!
The late Rev. W. Herbert Brewster penned these words: "If you walk by faith and not by sight, though dark and starless be your night. Christ the bright and morning star will lead you on. And you'll never be left to walk alone."
The words dark and starless and night are quite a contrast from the bright and morning star of Christ! Dr. Brewster believed that there are some things that are better sung about than talked about. Such is the power of the gospel music--it sings about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And such is the tenor of Paul's message to the converts in Thessalonica! They had become Christians because of Paul's bold and light-bearing witness. He introduced them to Jesus Christ and he stayed at it! They, as Zora Neal Hurston once said, had been touched by the kind of love that makes your soul come out of hiding--the love of Jesus Christ! Yet, their virgin faith was always subject to the dark counsel of resident skeptics preoccupied with Christ's second coming and other things that could not be known. Paul's preaching is a reminder to remember the gospel in the midst of prevailing gossip! His presence, his kind of zeal could hardly be ignored--he kept at it refusing to be dimmed or discouraged by darkness or even death threats.
Why is that, I wondered. Nothing perhaps captured the zeal and power as a piece of iconography shown to me while in seminary. It was a stained glass rendering of Paul preaching in a church. In that rendering he stood at a lectern bent over an open Bible. Perched on each of his shoulders were angels whispering in his ears. From the ceiling of that sanctuary, a light as from heaven beamed down on his head while water flowed from his mouth. Yet, the most moving part of the rendering was the people listening and leaning forward to drink that water flowing from his mouth! That scene fleshes out the truth that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God!
Such must have been the impact Paul had on the people of Thessalonica! Faith flowed from his mouth and they drank deeply. They were, after all, some of his most prized converts. Notice the phrase he uses with them, "As indeed you are doing!" He uses this phrase earlier in chapter 4 as well. Although they were already doing these things, he encouraged them to keep doing these things the more! Wake up and believe!
"Why is this important?" you may ask. What keeps your faith fires burning these days? In the words of James Ingram, how do you keep the music of faith playing, lasting, and from fading much too fast?
Our times are filled with swift transitions. There seems to be an obsession in these times with the end times. Books and prognosticators are legion on exactly when that time will be--only to discover that they were mistaken. Things were no different in Thessalonica--the need had come to know when Jesus was coming--not to be content with knowing that Jesus was coming. However, Paul keeps the Thessalonians converts focused on what they can know rather than what they cannot know. They can know that Jesus is coming, but they cannot know the Day of The Lord! They can know that knowing Jesus beats having all the answers. Many have followed leaders claiming to know about the Day of The Lord. Yet, like a thief in the night of their dark counsel, the answer escapes capture. Jesus told the disciples that such knowledge was unknown even to him. Thus, Paul reminds them of who they are and should continue to be, children of the day rather than sleepers in the night. Not falling to the hype of peace-claimers or readers of the times. Wake up and keep the faith!
What then shall we do in times like these? What do you make of this text and times? One songwriter writes: "In times like these, we need a savior. In times like these, we need an anchor. Be very sure, be very sure, your anchor holds and grips the solid rock. That rock is Jesus, he's the one. That rock is Jesus, the only one." Wake up and keep the faith! God is not dead!
Well, what does this text teach us today? Firstly, it says: Stay the Course!
I highly recommend that you see the movie of that same title, God is Not Dead! The main character and freshman who happens to be Christian begins his undergraduate journey. He is warned by a registrar not to take philosophy from a certain atheist professor who would make him feel like a Christian about to be fed to the lions in Rome. Yet, he enrolls in the class and the journey ensues. This movie did not do well at the box office, by the way, but it is now offered on premium cable channels. This young man proves that the ways of the world are no match for the joy of the Lord! I believe that Paul would also say to this witness, "As indeed you are doing!" I won't give away the ending of the movie, but suffice it to know that he stayed the course. Like the Civil Rights marchers in the '60's, he let nobody turn him around. Like Mother Teresa on the streets of Calcutta, he not only took the course, he stayed the course!
Secondly, this text encourages us to: Stay with Christ.
Some would call this the practice of not straying from the path of the truth you know to be true--always the road less travelled is the road of Christ. Yet, Paul's truth is not person-driven; it is Christ-driven. It is why he said, "No it's not I, but the Christ who lives in me." It is why he calls from antiquity to say that we not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by a renewing of our minds.
A few years ago I attended a banquet in honor of the ministry of a pastor emeritus of a church in Chicago. Many that night spoke of how this pastor had touched their lives. They seemed all to say we are Christians because of his witness. And in his closing remarks, he said 61 years ago while in the Army and after having read the Bible three times, a habit given to him by his grandmother, he told God, "If you save me, I will serve you." Then he said something that blew my mind. He said, "The Lord did his part enabling me to do my part." For the past 24 years in Chicago I have watched this pastor do his part carrying Christ to the sick and shut-in even after retiring from a 35-year pastorate. He did his part caring for his mate of over 64 years until she went on to be with the Lord. In the minor key of his life, he kept the major message of staying with Christ. He stayed the course and he stayed with Christ.
What does that mean to you and to us today? I believe it suggests that it does not matter what happens, Stay with Christ! Why? Because Christ stays with us! He wept for Jerusalem, but he stayed in and with Jerusalem. He watched his own betray and deny him, but he stayed with them. Likewise, Paul's words remind the converts again and again that they had indeed been converted in Christ--that they were no longer people of the night, but people of the light! This seems to call for a final point.
Not only must we Stay the Course and Stay with Christ, but finally we should: Stay in the Light.
For certain, as I recall that iconography of Paul, I remember the light beaming down on his head as from heaven. The light was on him, in him, and he was in it. He stayed in the light. Not unlike a spotlight shines on an artist, staying in the light breaks the darkness in the theaters of our lives.
John's gospel reminds us that there was a man named John who came as a witness to testify to the light so they all might believe him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. He stayed in the light.
Being raised in South Memphis and the high school band, many Friday nights in the fall found me walking home through the neighborhood. I learned to walk with purpose, direction, and at some times, speed. I also learned to stay in the light as I walked those dark streets. You see, staying in the light allowed me to see where I was going. Always in the darkness there lurked the possibility of being waylaid by certain others with dark ideas. Admittedly, I was fearful at times. I had reason to be on the dark streets of South Memphis, but staying in the light gave me the ability to see where I was going. I can't say that at that age I was as much in Christ as Paul, but I was in church every Sunday. I believe my relatives prayed for me, and those prayers got me through many dark streets then and now. Although I took the same route home, I stayed in the light. The street lights were never overcome by the darkness of the times or that area. Because I stayed in the light, I eventually made it home safely. A few times I was chased having to run in the light; but because I stayed in the light, I made it home. Sometimes out of breath, sometimes shaking a bit, but I made it. It is no wonder the psalmist says:
The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid? When evil doers assail me to devour my flesh, my adversaries and foes, they shall stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear. Though wars rise up against me, yet I will be confident. All because the Lord is our light!
"If you walk by faith and not by sight. Though dark and starless be your night. Christ the bright and morning star will lead you on. And you'll never be left to walk alone."
Stay the Course, Stay in Christ, Stay in the Light!
Let us pray. Loving God of light and salvation. We give you thanks for who you are and how you are. We give you thanks for your Son Jesus who is the light of the world. May we stay in your Word, your way, and your light in all things through Christ our Lord. Amen!
Brewster, William, Herbert "You'll Never Be Left to Walk Alone," Words remembered from childhood by sermon author.
Hurston, Zora, Neal. www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/15151
Lee, SL (Producer), & Lee, SL (Director), (1988), School Daze [Motion Picture] United States: Forty Acres and A Mule.
Legrand, Michel, music, with lyrics by Alan & Marilyn Bergman, "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" 1982, film, Best Friends introduced, by Patti Austin & James Ingram.