It’s been an interesting time, of late, to observe the goings on in the world. We’re in the throes of a Presidential race that has worn just about everyone with any sense completely out.
We’ve heard about all we care to hear on the subjects of rising healthcare premiums. We’ve plugged our ears at the description of the deplorable treatment of women. We all know more about email, Wikileaks, and Russian hackers than any of us want to know.
And perhaps most importantly, your World Series Champion Chicago Cubs!
A lot of big stuff going on in the world. That, of course, makes things interesting for me. Anytime things start going a little crazy, I can guarantee that someone will pull me aside and remark in earnest that surely all this is a sign of the end times when the anti-Christ will inhabit the earth, and that soon we’ll experience the inexorable return of Jesus and the battle of Armageddon. Will Barack Obama finally lead a satanic band of Islamic terrorists intent on establishing Sharia law in Omaha?
Or will he finally raise his sleeper agents in the war on “traditional family values” who will hold our bathrooms hostage and impose their wicked will on our wedding cakes?
Perhaps I exhale too rapidly. Perhaps I roll my eyes. Perhaps I just look completely uninterested. Whatever the case, the person who makes the remark will zero in on me, asking, “Well, don’t you think we’re in the end times?”
To which, I shrug and say, “Of course, I think we’re in the end times. According to the Christian scriptures, we’ve been in the end times for approximately two thousand years.”
My answer doesn’t slow anyone down—even a bit. Apparently, thinking that I have sufficiently misunderstood the question, the person will rephrase it: “No, I mean, don’t you think we’re in the really, really end times?”
What, I think, is implied by that question is this: “Don’t you think that things are so bad, so unstable and evil, so lined up with the images of destruction and tribulation in Revelation and Daniel, that God must be ready to return? Which is to say, what with the alarming rise of the liberal elites, the overwhelming specter of violence, the rampant plague of drug use, the creepy changes in weather patterns, the number of natural disasters, the unspeakable horrors in world affairs—not to mention—war in the Middle East, how could God not come back?”
People often imply that this is the scariest, if not the most evil, of all times to be alive in human history. How many times have you heard that “this is the most important election in our history?”
That sort of thinking is typified by such statements as “I wouldn’t want to raise a child in today’s world.” The implication, of course, is that today’s world is so much more dangerous than other times in history, that one would have to be extremely brave (or stupid, depending on who you listen to) to bring a child into it.
And while we can all agree that the world today can be an especially unsettling place to raise children, I always wonder how a woman from 14th century Europe might hear that statement as the bodies of all twelve of her children, riddled with the plague, are carried away in carts for mass disposal. Seventy-five million people died in that one.
Or how might a Jewish father of four, living in Hamburg, Germany, in the 1930’s hear that lament? Over six million died in that one.
It is a tough time to be alive, and things are bad all over the world; but sitting in our Barcaloungers, in our thermostatically controlled great rooms, tuned into our 60" 4k TVs, our cries about this being the scariest, most evil time to be alive can, if we’re not careful, sound somewhat hollow and self-absorbed.
And yet, in all the speculation about the rapture, and the anti-Christ, and the end times, in all the hand-wringing over the unsightly mess that our world has become, one theme surfaces. Behind all the questions about one world governments and UPC codes stamped on our foreheads, one common concern emerges: It is a scary time to be alive.
Reality, with the aid of technology, seems to be hurtling us blindly, paralyzingly forward into a new century of uncertainty. We have the technology to replicate certain life forms.
It’s possible, with our existing weapons, to completely devastate all reality, virtual or otherwise, in nanoseconds.
Our own population lives under the threat of more terrorist attacks, an ever widening disparity in wealth between the rich and the poor, or a catastrophe with health insurance.
We live in a world that seems fragmented, unstable, arbitrary. In short, we live in a world that is, at best, uncertain. And no matter who you support in the election, I’m willing to bet that the prospect of the other candidate winning seems apocalyptic in its implications.
We’re not so unlike those people in the middle of the First Century who lived in Thessalonica. If you’ll remember, Paul visited Thessalonica on his first missionary journey. Acts tells us that it took Paul all of three weeks among the Thessalonians to make people so mad that he had to take off for Berea to avoid being arrested.
In that three week period, however, he’d won over enough people to start a church. Not long after he’d last been with them, Paul apparently learned that they were having some troubles. First, they were experiencing the sort of persecution that Paul had just recently so successfully avoided by taking off to Berea. Second, and evidently more importantly to the Thessalonians, were their questions about the Second Coming of Christ.
Word had gotten back to Paul about their confusion—they had questions about believers who might die before Christ came back again. What would happen to them? Would they be left behind?
And where was Jesus anyway? They’d heard about how Jesus was going to return and save them from the coming wrath, but they seemed to be experiencing, through persecution, a lot of the wrath already without any of the deliverance.
They were hurt and confused. Everything was so uncertain.
Thomas Sheehan has suggested that the real problem for early Christians was not that they met resistance and persecution because of their new found beliefs—that was grist for their mill. They were told they’d face persecution. The real problem for early Christians was the lengthening of what they thought would be a short time before Jesus came back again to deliver them (Incarnation, 221).
And so Paul writes to them in 1 Thessalonians, telling them not to worry, that Jesus is indeed coming, and that they’ll be spared the wrath that would come as a result of his judgment of the world.
They get Paul’s first letter telling them that Jesus was coming again, and to hang on in the face of persecution and uncertainty. However, in anticipating Jesus’ return, and in not wanting to miss it, some of the Thessalonian church have quit their jobs and are living off of other people’s generosity as they sit around in their lawn chairs and wait.
In fact, some of them are apparently afraid that if Jesus were going to come like a thief in the night, he might have already come and they might have missed him.
Our text today, is a response to all this. “As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together with him, we beg you brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed … to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.”
“Don’t worry,” Paul says. “You didn’t miss it. As a matter of fact, there are some things that will happen before Jesus comes again. There will be a rebellion, and the lawless one will be revealed, the one destined for destruction. And the Lord Jesus will destroy him with the breath of his mouth. Oh, yeah, all kinds of stuff is gonna happen.”
Do you see?
Modern Christianity has made truckloads of money off “interpreting,” off presumptuously reading ourselves into passages like this one in 2 Thessalonians. Now, we have books and blogs dedicated to arguing whether Barrack Obama is the man of lawlessness, or whether our whole world is on a collision course with Armageddon because we quit worrying about people’s sexual orientation, inflicting on the planet an apocalyptic oblivion.
A whole industry, from publishers to crack-pot religious broadcasters, is devoted to reading the eschatological tea-leaves to see if Jesus’ return is in the offing, going over texts like 2 Thessalonians trying to discern the signs—as though these sorts of passages are like secret decoder rings that can be figured out to position precisely Christ’s return to earth.
But let me tip you off to a little hermeneutical secret. This one’s for free and you didn’t even have to go to seminary to get it.
Paul’s not writing to give 21st century, bored, middle-class, white, suburbanites clues to when Jesus will return. Paul’s writing to convince 1st century, persecuted, poor, scared disciples that Jesus hasn’t already returned and left them behind.
Do you understand? These Thessalonians live in a scary world, threatening, uncertain. They face persecution. They’re worried that the one thing they’re holding out for in the face of that persecution—the second coming—is somehow going to pass them by—maybe even already passed them by.
They’re afraid. And who could blame them? All they could do was wait.
What’s the upshot of all this? What does Paul tell them to do in the jaws of all this uncertainty? “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15).
What kind of advice is that? Hang in there? How do you go on with that as your guiding principle?
In a world where the sands seem always to be shifting beneath our feet, in a world where fear and trembling are a part of getting out of bed in the morning, in a world where danger and unpredictability are the order of the day, in a world where uncertainty holds us captive, the ability to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions” is a way of affirming a different reality—a reality that proclaims that—all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding—God is in control, that God will not allow God’s children to live without meaning in what appears to be a random and arbitrary world, that the fear and trauma we face will be faced by us with God at our side, and that God is already in the process of unveiling a new reign of peace and justice.
And those who remain faithful, those who stand firm and hold fast to the tradition become, themselves, a part of the tradition that allows future generations to stand firm.
In 1956, five Baptist missionaries flew to a remote part of Ecuador. They landed, hoping to make contact with the Auca Indians to whom they had been dropping gifts for 13 weeks. The missionaries knew of the danger in going to the Aucas, who had a violent history. In fact, the name Auca is a Quecha word, meaning savage. But they went anyway.
A group of the Indians were incited against the five foreigners, attacking the missionaries, who were armed, but who’d covenanted not to use the guns they possessed to protect themselves. When attacked, the five Baptist missionaries gave themselves over to be killed with wooden spears, rather than inflict violence.
The five young men were in their twenties, and left behind wives and a total of nine children. The wives decided to stay in Ecuador and continue to try to work with the Aucas. After some time had passed, contact was made and some of the women and children lived among the very people who had killed their fathers. Eventually, those Indians were persuaded that this whole Jesus thing was incredibly compelling.
One of the sons of the slain missionaries, after almost 40 years had passed, finally asked Gikita, the man who had been the leader of the party that had killed his father, what really happened that day. Gikita told him all about that day, how they had killed each of the five young missionaries.
The thing that bothered the Aucas, however, about that day was why the armed men hadn’t defended themselves. In fact, that question was the very reason the Aucas later allowed contact to be made with the missionaries: They had to know why the foreigners let themselves be killed rather than kill, as any normal Auca would have done.
“Forty years ago, Gikita was an unusually old man in a tribe that killed friends and relatives with the same zeal and greater frequency than they did their enemies. Now he is nearing eighty years of age and has seen his grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up without the constant fear of spearings. He has repeatedly asserted that all he wants to do is go to heaven and live peacefully with the five men who came to tell him about Wagongi, creator God.”
Steve Saint, the son of one of the martyred missionaries, who has continued the work of his father with the Aucas, has written:
“My father and his four friends were not given the privilege of watching their children and grandchildren grow up. I’ve often wished I could have known my dad … I have trouble distinguishing what I actually ‘remember’ of him and what I have been told. But I do know that he left me a legacy, and the challenge now is for me to pass it on to my children. Dad strove to find out what life really is. He found identity, purpose, and fulfillment in being obedient to God’s call. He tried it, tested it, and committed himself to it. I know that the risk he took, which resulted in his death and consequently his separation from his family, he took not to satisfy his own need for adventure or fame, but in obedience to what he believed was God’s directive to him. I suppose he is best known because he died for his faith, but the legacy he left his children was his willingness first to live for his faith.”
Stand firm. Hold fast to the traditions. You never know who’s coming behind you. Lord knows what it will cost you.
But you might change the world.
It’s been done before.