The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, 15 November 2020

A Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 by Samuel D. Zumwalt

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Who are God’s people in Christ Jesus? And how shall we live? These are the primary questions Paul addresses in our reading today.


A woman came home to her very nice suburban home to find that she had been robbed. Irreplaceable jewelry from her late grandmother had been taken, carried out in a pillowcase from her bed by the thief or thieves. Even though her home was new, she told her husband she could no longer live there. She had been violated, a kind of emotional assault. She was no longer safe.

Another woman followed an ambulance containing her husband to the emergency room. He was very ill but chatting up the staff. One minute he was talking, and the next he was dead. How do you wrap your head around such a scene? It’s surreal. One life in this world is over, and the other is irrevocably changed in hardly more than the blink of an eye.

Paul says that one minute a woman is very pregnant but unsure of her due date, and the next she is in hard labor. If you have been that woman or her husband, your life together is so upended.

It’s the end of the world as we know it. That’s the common thread in these examples. Do not declare permanent residency where you presently are. You may be mugged by reality suddenly.

So… night is the metaphor for what can best be described as functional atheism. Those who live as if there is no God, or as if God can be compartmentalized and ignored in whole parts of this life, are in the dark. They do not live in the light of Christ. They do not know what they do not know. This does not mean they are not affable, likeable people, what we may call nice or decent. This means that they are either unaware that they are a heartbeat away from seeing God face-to-face, or they pretend that God neither sees nor despises whole portions of their lives. To make this abundantly clear without any ambiguity: Those who are for abortion, or who support those who aid and abet the abortion industry, are complicit in murder. Because tax dollars continue to go to the abortion industry in the name of women’s health, that makes every American a murderer. Some are aware of this, aghast at this, repentant of this, and have voted for people who are working to end abortion in America. We confess that we have been walking in this darkness. Others, who are thought to be so decent and moral, including some politicians, are not that at all.

Paul makes perfectly clear, as does John in Revelation, that night is temporary. It will be no more. Christ will appear suddenly like a thief. Those who love darkness will be exposed. This should trouble those who try to straddle the fence. You cannot live in twilight or false dawn. Nothing is hidden from God. There is no hiding place down here. God’s wrath is no fairy tale.


The day of the Lord, as defined by the Old Testament prophets, is not good news for those who are purposefully dishonest about themselves. The psalmist declares: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me, and the light around me turn to night,’ darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day…” (139:10-11). When the day of the Lord comes, those hiding in the dark, those who are night stalkers, will suddenly experience the brilliance of the Light of Christ. All of us will be exposed in our sins. We will know that we are known. We will know that God knows.

Paul reminds the Church at Thessalonica who they are. They are children of Light, and, as God’s children, they have been called from sleepwalking through this world and from drunkenness.

When I was confirmed, my pastor gave me 1 Peter 5:8-9 as my confirmation verse. It reads in the King James Version: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world.” My pastor knew my father was an upstanding drunk, who never missed a day’s work, and that my older brother was well on his way to becoming a falling down drunk. My pastor wanted to protect his sheep.

As a young man and well into middle age, I had periods of heavier drinking. In seminary, some of us latched on to the phrase, “a therapeutic drunk,” as an excuse. In such times, I did not walk as a child of the Light. Now, having abstained for fourteen years, I confess those were dark days.

Paul’s advice about a little wine being good for the stomach and regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper with wine make clear that Paul was no ascetic. He was disciplined, and, like my pastor, Paul wanted to protect his sheep while advancing the Kingdom of God. Others are watching us.

How, then, can we encourage and build up our neighbors with faith, hope, and love if we do not demonstrate the beauty and joy of walking as children of the Light? We must renounce the night.


Echoing John 3:17, Paul makes clear that the Lord God wants none to be lost. Proclaiming the Blood of Jesus has been shed for absolutely everyone is indeed the content of Paul’s Good News of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. No one is destined for wrath in God’s eyes. He is merciful. He desires that none of us get what we deserve. For Christ has been crucified in our place that we may be His! Our God desires that all be saved.

This is why Paul talks about the night and day difference between the children of Light and the children of darkness. God’s mercy doesn’t blur the difference between the Light of Christ and this present darkness. One cannot serve two masters. There’s a battle going on between the Light and darkness. The children of Light need to be dressed for battle with a breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of the hope of salvation. It’s all about Jesus and what He does. Not about us.

My German immigrant grandmother came to America in 1903 from a farm in the Black Forest as an indentured servant. She lived almost to her 96th birthday and would often become maudlin about having outlived so many of her dear ones: “I don’t know why God lets me live so long.” But, then, she remained engaged in knitting for Lutheran World Relief or her church bazaar and baked four loaves of bread for her family each week. She didn’t sleepwalk. She was an encouragement to others and to me her youngest grandson. She practiced the faith daily. Was she a tough old bird? Yes, that’s why she lived to almost 96. I learned from her about persistence.

Practicing the Christian faith is about living in the Light of Christ. The confession of sins that begins the liturgy is not a pious fiction. Throughout this life, we remain in bondage to sin, and we cannot free ourselves. Growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, being built up in our faith, is about daily confessing our need for a Savior. We admit who and Whose we are even as we wrestle with the reality of sin in and around us. No, we cannot confess other’s sins for them, but we can name the evil at work in and around us. The father of lies also never sleeps.

At the end of each liturgy, we repeat those words that include: “I will strive to… be in relationship to encourage spiritual growth in others…” (Michael Foss, Power Surge). Our believing neighbors, like us, need to grow and be built up as children of the Light. Martin Luther wrote in his Smalcald Articles of the mutual conversation and consolation of the brothers and sisters. As our Lord teaches, we pray together: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

The darkest periods of Christian history have been marked either by deep collaboration with evil by nominal Christians, even bishops and pastors, or by the type of quietism that has turned out to be an abysmal disregard for vulnerable neighbors. Abortion in our day, and the refusal of Christians to work and pray for its end, is the issue of our time for which we will answer to God. Those who embrace abortion, profit from abortion, defend abortion, perform and fund abortion will suddenly be exposed by the blinding Light of Christ in His glory. It will be a dreadful day.

There is forgiveness of sins for repentant murderers. There is forgiveness of sins for repentant thieves, liars, and massive manipulators. Charlotte Elliott famously wrote: “Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.” If we Christians, who know we are in bondage to sin, do not practice confession and forgiveness in the sight of the world, telling of our own rescue by our Savior, how will those who are walking in darkness be called out of darkness into the splendor of Christ’s marvelous Light? It is later than we think. The day of the Lord is coming. Encourage others with your own stories of what Christ has done for you and what He wants to do for every sinner.

In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

©Samuel David Zumwalt, STS

St. Matthew’s Ev. Lutheran Church

Wilmington, North Carolina USA

Bulletin Insert

Saints and Sinners: Encouraging Others


O God, so rule and govern our hearts and minds by your Holy Spirit, that being ever mindful of the end of all things and the day of your just judgment, we may be stirred up to holiness of living here, and dwell with you forever hereafter; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 624).


1 Thessalonians 5:2 “…the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”

St. Augustine [Late 4th – early 5th century Bishop of Hippo Regius, Algeria]: “… Live good lives, and you will be this day yourselves… just as that day is realized in those who live godly, holy and righteous lives, marked by moderation, justice, sobriety. So too on the contrary for those who live in an ungodly, loose-living, proud and irreligious manner – for that sort of night, the night will undoubtedly be a thief” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: 1 Thessalonians, 92). 

1 Thessalonians 5:5 “For you are all children of light, children of the day….”

Origen [Late 2nd – early 3rd century theologian in Alexandria, Egypt]: “But when he is transfigured, his face also shines as the sun, so that he may be manifested to the children of light. These have put off the works of darkness and have put on the armor of light and are no longer the children of darkness or night, but have become sons of the day and walk honestly as in the day…” (93). 

1 Thessalonians 5:6 “…but let us keep awake and be sober.”

St. Clement [Late 2nd – early 3rd century theologian in Alexandria, Egypt]: “…A man who is asleep is not good for anything, any more than a man who is dead. Therefore, even during the night we should rouse ourselves from sleep often and give praise to God. Blessed are they who have kept watch for him, for they make themselves like the angels whom we speak of as ever watchful” (94). 

1 Thessalonians 5:6 “…but let us keep awake and be sober.”

St. Leo the Great [Mid-5th century Bishop of Rome, Italy]: “… Let us honor this sacred day, the day on which the author of our salvation appeared. Whom the wise men revered as an infant in his crib, let us worship as all –powerful in heaven. Just as they offered to the Lord mystical kinds of gifts from their treasures, let us bring forth from our hearts things that are worthy of God. Although he himself bestows all good things, he nevertheless asks for the fruit of our effort” (94).

1 Thessalonians 5:11 “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up…”

St. John Chrysostom [Late 4th – early 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople, Turkey]: “God, you know, does not wish Christians to be concerned only for themselves but also to edify others, not simply through their teaching but also through their behavior and the way they live. After all, nothing is such an attraction to the way of truth as an upright life – in other words, people pay less attention to what we say than to what we do” (94-95).


  1. Does my practice of the Christian faith (“I will strive…”) encourage my neighbors to believe?


 The Ten Commandments (from Luther’s Small Catechism)

 As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.

 The Close of the Commandments

What does God say about all these commandments?

He says: “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commandments.”

What does this mean?

God threatens to punish all who break these commandments. Therefore, we should fear His wrath and not do anything against them. But He promises grace and every blessing to all who keep these commandments. Therefore, we should also love and trust in Him and gladly do what He commands.


  1. Pray for every unbaptized child and adult you know and for the child’s parents, too.
  2. Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.
  3. Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend how the commandments declare God’s good and gracious will for His people and how seriously He regards the breaking of them. Note also that it pleases God when we obey His commandments for our neighbor’s sake.
  4. Consult Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 192, for the daily lessons for the Week of Pentecost 24 (Year Two) and read them daily before offering your prayers on behalf of your family, the world, our nation, our state, and our local communities.
  5. Reflect on the close of the commandments and Luther’s explanation. Ask God to show you which neighbor (near or far) is most in need of your help and how you can help him or her.
  6. Join a Bible study at St. Matthew’s either on Sunday morning or during the week.

For Husbands and Wives

Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”