2 Thessalonians 1-5, 13-17
May 8, 2011
I realized something as I was preparing this sermon this past week. In nearly fourteen years of ministry, and in hundreds of sermons, not once have I preached on the book of 2 Thessalonians. I’m not terribly surprised by this, to be honest. Full disclosure here: I’m not much of a fan of preaching on the letters of the New Testament. As a pastor and person of faith, I’m much more drawn to the stories, the parables – things that actually happened, things I can sink my teeth into and look at from different angles and viewpoints. The letters are different: monologue communication, lots of heady material, pretty one-dimensional stuff. Most of the time sermons here do nothing more than just restate what’s already being said – not all that exciting.
But in those instances when I put on my big-boy pants and dive into the letters, I inevitably find that there are, in fact, stories there: rich stories of real depth and meaning, as much as you’ll find in the parables or something out of the Old Testament. Paul’s second letter to the church in Thessalonica tells a story of the struggles faced by a brand new church community in the mid-to-late first century. A particular problem in the church – which in and of itself is not a unique thing, of course! But that’s the way that most good stories start.
The problem this church had involved a few vocal and persuasive individuals – perhaps members of the church, perhaps someone from the outside – who managed to convince most everyone there that Jesus Christ had already returned. We aren’t really told how they missed this. Maybe they were napping when Jesus came back. Maybe they were distracted by the beauty of life in their port city on the Mediterranean Sea and didn’t see it. Either way, these folks got a hold of the congregation’s collective spiritual psyche, and it changed not only their theology but their very way of life.
And in some ways it’s not hard to understand the logic behind this. It had been 20, 30, maybe 40 years since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension – a whole generation had come and gone. So it’s understandable that folks probably figured it was time for Jesus to come back around again. I mean, let’s face it: if you and I had been in their shoes in their time, I doubt we would’ve imagined that thousands of years later, people would still be waiting for Jesus to come again. I bet we would’ve felt the same way they did.
Especially when those people started describing the ramifications of Jesus’ second coming. See, since Jesus had already come back and completed God’s kingdom on earth, the mission was over. God’s holy work was finished. Which meant it pretty much gave everyone a free pass on everything. They could do whatever they wanted. Or they could do nothing at all. It didn’t matter anymore, because Jesus had come back. Life was one big party for those Thessalonians!
So here, I'm thinking, is where the story is! Here’s where the simple monologue of a New Testament letter turns all three-dimensional. Because this is the kind of stuff we can wrap our heads around, isn’t it? These are the kinds of things we’re used to hearing about today – Jesus’ second coming, and signs of the end of the world in current events, and a sense of entitlement and privilege as one of the “chosen few.”
This is where the ink on the papyrus becomes, for us, the rubber meeting the road. For over the years, our society has developed this morbid fascination with Jesus’ second coming and the “end times.” Books and other resources on this topic permeate every aspect of not just church life, but our culture. Movies about the end of the world – be it an asteroid hitting the planet or 2012 Mayan prophecies – these movies are a multi-million dollar industry. And, sad to say, if the Christian faith has excelled in anything over its 2000-year history, it’s been in fostering an air of entitlement and an “I’m-in-and-you’re-out” mentality, as depicted by our Thessalonian brothers and sisters.
Into this whole scene arrives Paul, the voice of reason, the calm amidst the storm. He arrives by courier, in letter-form; with a short but stern message for the wayward Thessalonians. And in his letter to the church there he seeks to do two things. The first was simple but important: he seeks to correct the misinformation that had spread so feverishly in that congregation. The great apostle Paul had to deal with rumor and innuendo in the church – can you imagine?!
This, of course, is certainly nothing new for the church! Not too long ago, there was a journalist who was doing a history on some of the churches in his small rural community. He met with half a dozen members of a very old Protestant congregation, nearly 300 years old – all who had been lifetime members, all who knew the church’s history in and out. At one point in the interview he asked them what, in their estimation, had been the church’s most difficult period. He anticipated that they might mention the Depression era and how church life had nearly come to a standstill. Or maybe they would go back further to the church’s earliest years where, during the Revolutionary War, the British burned the church down and shot the minster’s wife. Cause, you know, that’ll stick with you.
But instead the group, to a person, recounted what happened in the year 1834. That was the year that a particularly charismatic preacher at the church convinced members that the end of the world was imminent. He worked them all up into a frenzy, to the point that there wasn’t a skeptic in the bunch. And he persuaded them all to give away their homes and their farms and all their material possessions. At his bidding they donned white robes and congregated on a hilltop just outside of town to wait for Jesus. But Jesus – in case you hadn’t heard – never came. They waited some more. No sign of him. And so weeks later, the churchgoers, red-faced and humiliated, were forced to return to their town and ask for all their stuff back, trying as best they could to resume a normal life. Can you imagine how hard that must’ve been?
Now it’d be funny if this sort of thing was the exception rather than the rule. And yet throughout the church’s history, we find this sort of thing happening over and over again – instances where we’re willing to believe just about anything, especially the more outlandish it is. And it’s not just in the church, either: remember the madness that ensued during the 1938 radio broadcast of H. G. Wells' War Of The Worlds? As that story was read over the airwaves, tens of thousands reacted as if the Martian invasion was actually happening! And even in our own time, it took the release of a long-form birth certificate – something unheard of in public service circles – to finally put to rest the notion that the leader of the most powerful nation in the world was not even born in the country he was elected to serve.
We love our conspiracy theories, our rumor and innuendo, don’t we? We hold that stuff close to us. Like the beautiful siren in Greek mythology attempting to lure passing boats onto the rocky shore, we are hopelessly drawn to the notion that we are privy to some privileged knowledge that the general population is unaware of. And when it comes to the issues facing those first-century Thessalonians about the end-times and Jesus’ return and how it impacted their lives, it becomes even more seducing. Because honestly, we kind of like the idea of being the ones on the hilltop in white robes, watching in security as the world below us caves into chaos.
Of course, there’s more going on here than simply being part of the “in-crowd,” isn’t there? That’s not the only thing that causes us to climb up the hilltop. No, there’s something else at work too. We know it very well. We call it fear. Fear is an amazing motivator of human behavior – has been; always will be. In fact, when you get right down to it, that’s probably what the apostle Paul was really dealing in the Thessalonian church. Fear of the unknown; fear of missing out. Fear of not being faithful enough. Fear of doubt. Fear and doubt often go hand-in-hand.
That’s why Paul goes to great lengths in his letter to assure the people in that church that Jesus had not, in fact, come back yet. He corrected the misinformation, he dealt with the rumor and innuendo head-on. He helped them not only understand that Jesus had not come back, but what things would be like when he did.
But there was something else Paul did in his letter besides simply correcting misinformation – something just as important, if not moreso. See, Paul not only corrected them, he challenged them. He not only told them the way things were, he told them the way things needed to be.
And I love the way he does it – at least the way The Message translation that Heather read puts it! He’s telling them about when and how Jesus will come again, he’s correcting their theology and putting an end to the nonsense. And then he transitions with this wonderful: Meanwhile…. I love it! In our day and time we might say: “Anywayyyyyyy……..” You can almost see him rolling his eyes as he’s writing this, as if to say, “Now that we’ve got that silliness behind us, let’s talk about what we really need to be focusing on as the people of God.” And you remember what it is he tells them?
Take a firm stand, feet on the ground and head high.
Keep a tight grip on what you were taught,
May Jesus Christ himself….put a fresh heart in you,
invigorate your work, enliven your speech.
Because see, faith for those Thessalonians – faith for us – is as much about how one lives as it is what one believes. Faith is about cutting through the rumor mill that we’re hopelessly drawn to and seeing instead what’s really there. Faith is not about living as if Jesus has already come and gone, but living as if Jesus is still with us. Faith is rooted not in fear – something we know all too well in our world today – but rooted in something else entirely – love.
And it’s amazing, isn’t it, the difference it makes when we live out of our love instead of our fears? There’s an old story about a major eclipse that took place years ago in early Puritan New England. The sun was blotted out, the day turned dark, and people were terrified. They didn’t know what it meant. So they came to the only conclusion they could: “The world is ending!” they shouted. “What should we do??” In the midst of their chaos and confusion and fear, one wise man simply said: “Let us be found doing our duty.”
Our duty, by the way, is the same now as it was for the Thessalonians. It is to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord – not just in our words, but in our actions. It is working to help bring about God’s kingdom on earth, as the scriptures tell us. It’s resisting the urge to succumb to our basest elements and instead allow falsehoods to be replaced with the truth.
Borrowing the familiar scene from Good Friday, American playwright Fulton Oursler once said: We crucify ourselves between two thieves: regret for yesterday and fear for tomorrow. May we not let either of those thieves rob us of what the gospel grants each of us – the cross in the middle. The cross of Jesus, the cross for today, the cross of love. Thanks be to God. AMEN.