For you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.
I Thessalonians 5:5-8
He was probably the first person I ever saw needing to get sober. I saw him as I was waiting in the car for my father to leave a meeting in downtown Phoenix. As I waited I saw a man stagger down the sidewalk, lurching one way and another, then finally clinging to a parking meter. After a few moments of collecting himself, the man reached in his back pocket, fumbling for his wallet. I watched as he took from his wallet some paper money; fold it over again and again, until it was small enough for him to squeeze into the slot of the parking meter. To my young eyes he was a sad picture of a man needing to get sober.
As I watch the troubling news about our nation and world, I think about today’s Scripture in which the apostle Paul tells readers to “be sober.” Just as being intoxicated by alcohol keeps a person from thinking straight, walking straight, and talking straight, so the Thessalonian Christians were in danger of being intoxicated by the ‘spirits’ of their pagan, godless culture. They were liable to come ‘under the influence’ of the cynicism, hopelessness and self-indulgence poisoning their city.
So, Paul writes to the Thessalonian Christians reminding them that they are “children of the light”. They have a responsibility as God’s children not to come under the influence of despair, but to shine as lights. It is significant that Paul even includes himself with the readers in saying, “Let us be sober.”
The Greek word nepho, translated as “sober”, means to be free from any spiritual or mental intoxication that would keep them from thinking straight and living straight. It means to pursue a sober lifestyle associated with sound judgment, clear-headed thinking and self-control. To be sober is “a calm, steady state of mind that evaluates things correctly, so that it is not thrown off balance…Such ‘level headedness’ is a constant Christian need.” (D. Edmond Hiebert, Commentary on First Peter) Or, as Rudyard Kipling might have said, it would mean keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs!
The little bastion of Jesus followers in Thessalonica might have been thrown off balance by all that was going on around them. They were, after all, a church birthed in the throes of suffering and persecution. The first Christian converts in Thessalonica were attacked by mobs, forcing Paul to flee the city in the night (Acts 17:5-9; 1 Thessalonians 1:6).
In the midst of all the bad news, Paul urges himself and his readers to be sober, clear-headed, and not thrown off balance. They must turn away from the intoxicants of fear, hatred, and despair. They need to take up God’s weapons: “the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” The best remedy for being ‘under the influence’ of a godless culture is always: faith, hope, and love!
Let us meet today’s bad news with faith in God; hope for the future; and love, even for those who oppose us. Let us live soberly!
Grace and peace,