Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When it comes to being on the alert and ready at any moment, it’s hard to beat the Pony Express. The Pony Express was the mail service between St. Joseph, Missouri, and California. It depended on constant movement and readiness. Relay stations were established every ten to fifteen miles. A rider would shout aloud as he approached a station, giving the station master very short notice that he needed to be outside waiting with a fresh horse. When a rider came to the station where he would spend the night, another rider was already mounted and waiting. He had to be ready to grab the first rider’s bundle of packages and continue the trip.
When the transcontinental telegraph system was finished, the Pony Express became obsolete after just eighteen months. But the Pony Express gives us a great example of what it means to be always on the watch. The First Week in Advent reminds us that Jesus will return suddenly and unexpectedly. The value of watching for our Lord’s return is what our two readings are about this evening. St. Paul says, “You yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Th 5:2). And that is why Christ our Lord says, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt 25:13). The question then is: how can I remain watchful? St. Paul tells us that we need to not be spiritually asleep and keep spiritually awake and sober. Let’s look at each in turn.
Let Us Not Sleep
Watching for Christ’s return does not mean looking out the window at night. It does not mean going up a mountain and waiting. The Apostle encourages, “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… For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night” (1 Th 5:5-7). Scripture often uses sleep as an image of spiritual laziness or a lack of alertness towards God. Spiritual sleep is when the heart grows cold to the things of God. The spiritual senses are dulled. God is no longer relevant to your life and no longer takes the place that He once did. A spiritually asleep person may even carry on with the normal outward religious routine. However, the heart and passion have long gone. We can look like active Christians, but in reality, we may have dozed off spiritually. We struggle to believe the Bible.
Spiritual sleep can take a lot of different forms. Some who are spiritually asleep are too lazy to pray or engage in Bible study. He finds it boring to participate in church activities. Maybe you aren’t praying daily. Maybe what prayers you do offer have lost their meaning and reverence. When was the last time you opened your Bible? Maybe your heart isn’t as into your faith as it was. Maybe you’ve thought that the Divine Service is boring. Maybe you refuse to come to Bible Class because it’s not for you. Maybe you’ve lost the vigour to serve or give to the Church.
This is a struggle that is a part of our own spiritual lives. We often fall into sloth. Our prayer lives lose out to “more” important matters in our daily schedules. This leads us to a sort of spiritual drowsiness. It’s dangerous because it opens us up to greater temptations from the Devil, the flesh, and the world. We may forget in our busyness that we must always be on guard because we do not know when our Lord will come. The Enemy constantly seeks to lull us into a false sense of security. It’s like there’s a satanic lullaby playing here, and many Christians are asleep.
Paul also says one can be spiritually drunk. Like sleepy people, those who are drunk are not alert. To be drunk spiritually is to imbibe too much of the world’s way of looking at things and not enough of the way God views reality. To be intoxicated with the world’s wine is to embrace ideas which will numb us to warning of Christ’s return. The way our culture sees things seeps into our souls. The world’s way of looking at things is presented to us in entertainment, the news, and social media. We need to be alert to the spiritual intoxicants all around us — especially things we may think are harmless but could actually be slowly pulling our loyalty away from Christ.
This spiritual lethargy and indifference are so insidious because it creeps in slowly. We prefer not to fight the temptations we are constantly dealing with. We begin to allow more and more sins to go unnoticed. We are convinced that things cannot be so bad. Yet this spiritual laziness is what gives the Evil One power in the world. What happens if we are found to be spiritually asleep and drunk when our Lord returns? Jesus tells us in his parable, “Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you’” (Mt 25:11–12). This should stop us in our tracks. Do you recognize this as a serious danger? How spiritually sleepy are you?
Let Us Keep Awake and Sober
Watching for Christ’s return means we need to be spiritually awake! So how do we stay awake? Paul says we stay awake and stay sober by remembering our Lord Jesus Christ. He does this by changing metaphors. “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” (1 Th 5:8). Paul suggests that the Christian faith is a battle. That means we need to prepare for this battle. A soldier who recognizes the dangers of the battlefield would never venture into combat without being prepared. In the same way, believers who take their faith seriously understand the importance of spiritual preparation.
Paul says if we keep awake and sober, we will need to protect two things: the heart and the head. Faith and love form the breastplate that protects the heart, and hope is the helmet that protects the head. We trust in God by faith. We believe what God says, which protects us from Satan’s dangerous attacks. Our faith is “through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us” (1 Th 5:9-10). Our text tells us that salvation is already our possession in Christ. We cannot pay for our salvation; we cannot earn it or work for it. Jesus has already accomplished it. The death of the God-man fully ransomed you. Jesus died for you as a willing Substitute.
In response to Christ’s love for us, we respond to God in love. That’s love for God and for one another. And now you wear the “hope” of eternal life like a helmet. Hope is not wishful thinking. It is the sure conviction that God will keep his word. Christ is coming back, as he promised. That’s good news. “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that … we might live with him” (1 Th 5:9-11). You aren’t in the dark about these things. We are watching and waiting for Jesus, our Savior, who died for you so that you might have eternal life. We are watching and waiting for a new creation, the dawn of an endless day at the end of this present darkness. We’re not waiting for a stranger but for this world’s Creator and Redeemer. We’re waiting on the One we already know and who knows us. We’re watching for the coming of the One who already comes to us in the Word and Sacraments. With this hope, we persevere through each challenge and setback, knowing the God who is working out his salvation in our midst.
Do not be lulled to spiritual sleep. It’s time to wake up! To be alert! Watch! Faith, love, and hope are what keep us spiritually awake and sober. The One who died for you is coming soon. You have the sure and certain hope that you will live with him forever. Watch! It’ll be worth the wait.
May, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.