November 18, 2001
Girdwood Methodist Chapel
The Rev. Dianne O'Connell
II Thessalonians 3:6-13
The End is Near
Good morning. It is good to be with you again today. It was a windy, wet drive down to Girdwood this morning. It's been a busy couple of weeks for me, and I imagine that it has been for each of you, as well.
It is good for me to take a break from the day to day work I do in order to develop a sermon topic once in a while and I thank you for the opportunity. Most of the time, I pile a bunch of books on my bed, grab my Bible, and relax for an afternoon, meditating away. But, there are different ways of working on a sermon, I find. Some ways are relaxing, other ways are downright stressful.
For instance, this week I read the Lectionary offerings relatively early in the week. The Luke passage predicted the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem - followed by a whole litany of disasters, including war, famine, earthquakes, betrayal, hatred of all kinds. The End of the World, plain and simple.
The Thessalonians passage was a stern warning from Paul against idleness. Work night and day, avoid people who don't work, pay for your own food, and "If a man will not work, he shall not eat!," Paul declares. Reeling from my first read-through, I shook my head and wondered out loud, "Not very charitable. What's this about?"
But I pushed on to the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah. Ahhhh, finally something I enjoyed reading, the kind of passage I LIKE to read, curled up on my bed on a quiet afternoon. It was so nice, that I'm going to share it with you:
Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create,
For I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people;
The sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.
Never again will there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or
An old man who does not live out his years…
They will build houses and dwell in them;
They will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
Or plant and others eat….
They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune…
The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox….
They will neither harm nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord.
Ahhh, said I to myself. That's how it ought to be. But what am I going to do with the destruction of the world, and the work, work, work message?? I really was in the mood for jumping right to the New Jerusalem. It had been a long week.
I got about that far - in fact, I got about that far for three days. Destruction, work-work-work, New Jerusalem. Destruction, work-work-work, New Jerusalem.
I was not about to preach a sermon about the End of the World. Too close to home during these very stressful times. I carry picket signs, I told myself, and sometimes they might say "Repent!", but not "The End is Near." Not my theology, I kept telling myself. And I'd grump off and do something else.
Come Thursday evening, I found myself doing something that I had not done before - I simply typed in the Scripture lesson - Luke 21:5-19 - into my computer browser. Much to my surprise, up popped a whole list of resources, sermons, commentaries, word studies, the whole works. All I had to do was click on any of a dozen or more little blue links. I tried another Scripture lesson - II Thessalonians - and again, Voila!
It was like a Genie popping out of a bottle. Scared me, actually. This was too simple. Darned right dangerous.
I e-mailed my computer friend -- my "philosopher in a box" - told him of my computer adventure and expressed my concern. Back came the reassurance:
"It's all right to use the stuff online as long as you don't succumb to the sin of Plagiarism!"
Okay, I shuddered.
"Give credit where credit is due," my electronic ethicist added. So, I took a deep breath, arched my fingertips and gingerly clicked on a blue link.
"Apocalyptic arose as a literature of crisis," said one Brian Stoffregen of Marysville, CA. The article didn't say what Mr. Stoffregen did for a living, but he seemed knowledgeable enough about Luke 21 to be a minister.
"Apocalyptic literature" is about the End of the World, the End Times - the Book of Revelations being the best known example. As I kept reading, I realized that I'd missed the whole point during my original reading of the Luke passage. The passage is written from the point of view of Jesus PREDICTING the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, that is true.
But the people READING the passage had already EXPERIENCED the destruction. It was past tense. The Temple, all its glory, and all that it stood for was already gone. Life was already in a rubble. Jews and Christians alike had been driven from their homeland. They were oppressed, persecuted, and beaten.
People don't turn to apocalyptic literature because they are afraid the end is coming. For them, the end has already arrived. Now what?
Suffering people need hope, a hope that focuses their vision beyond the present misery to a better world, the world as it SHOULD be. A world to continue to strive for. They need encouragement to be faithful to their beliefs, their values, their God throughout the ordeal - be in of national proportions, or very, very personal.
And in case, we had forgotten about the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Stoffregen quotes the Jewish historian Josephus who wrote a history of the whole thing:
The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the falling victims; and, owing to the height of the hill and the mass of the burning pile, one would have thought that the whole city was ablaze. . . . With the cries on the hill were blended those of the multitude in the city below; and now many who were emaciated and tongue-tied from starvation, when they beheld the sanctuary on fire, gathered strength once more for lamentations and wailing. . . . Yet more awful than the uproar were the sufferings.
For Luke's readers, the beauty of the temple at Jerusalem was only a memory. It was probably planned by Luke that discussion of the temple's opulent splendor comes immediately after Jesus praises the extreme poverty of the widow who gives her all into the temple treasury. The temple had been destroyed. Its wealth was no more.
Believing in God comes easy when surrounded by a beautiful temple (or an Alaskan winter sunset). How do we keep believing in God when the beauty of God's own house is destroyed? Or when the powerful forces of nature (or evil terrorists) kill thousands of people and destroy millions of dollars of property? How do we keep on believing in the all-powerful, loving, gracious God in the midst of such evil and suffering in our world, in our communities, in our families?
For the readers of Luke, the days that Jesus said were coming, had arrived. For them the issue wasn't, "When is this going to happen," but, "Now that it has happened, what do we do? What does it mean?"
Stoffregen turns us to Paul's message in second Thessalonians, which I had misread as a rather insensitive demand to never be idle, never rest, just work yourself to the bone in order not to be a burden on anyone else. This might give you some idea of my own personal frame of mind this past week.
But again, it pays to back up and read the whole letter in context. Thankfully in this case, it was only three chapters long. It appears that the Christians in Thessalonica were under great stress and persecution. In his first letter to the community, Paul had counseled them to wait for the coming of Jesus with patience and steadfast faith. No one knew the day of the Lord's return, but Paul had written that we must be ready, for it will come suddenly, when we least expect it.
The Thessalonians interpreted "suddenly" to mean "immediately," and lost interest in their daily work and in other normal responsibilities. Why labor and earn wages when the End is Near and everything will be worthless? Many able-bodied individuals were living off the goodwill of fellow Christians and became, what Paul termed "idlers and busybodies."
That's why he wrote the second letter to the Thessalonians - to clear up the misunderstanding caused by the first letter.
"So, then brothers (and sisters) stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter…May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word."
Then Paul addresses the problem of the idlers and moochers waiting for the End to Come: "Anyone unwilling to work should not eat", he flatly states.
Sometimes during disaster or pending disaster, we are struck dumb. Frozen in uncertainty. These folks had survived the initial disasters befalling their community, and were waiting for the next shoe to fall. Hope came through faith and the letters of Paul, but even this hope for some seemed to keep them frozen in time - waiting for it all to be over.
This is what President George W. Bush has been trying to tell Americans during the past few weeks. Yes, additional misfortunes could be - will be -- around the corner, but what we must do as individuals and as a society is to go about our lives and business as we had before. Americans must not panic, nor even calmly sit by and wait for the next disaster to befall us. Go to work, go to school, take care of our families, mow the lawn or shovel the snow, as the case may be - the point being: Go On. Go on with life. And live it well, according to what our faith has taught us.
We are all living in our own End Times. The time for each of us to be on this earth is finite. The End, for us, could come at any time, through sabotage, natural disaster, human illness, or just plain being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Luke passage for me will always refocus my attention to the fact that, yes, much in my world around me is beautiful - beautiful like the Temple, beautiful like a sunset behind a magnificent skyline, beautiful as a young child. But all this can, and does, change in an instant. From whence comes our faith, when life isn't so beautiful. From whence comes our strength, when the sky is filled with smoke, our financial institutions and the twin buildings housing them fold to the ground, and our children and our loved ones cry out in despair?
How many of you saw Good Morning America this week, when they interviewed the eleven-year-old boy named Mattie? Mattie is confined to a wheelchair, has been hospitalized time after time through his eleven years as doctors fight to control a disease which will not be controlled. Mattie is a total joy.
He's been writing poetry since he was three. Mattie sees his purpose in life as one of a Peacemaker. Mattie says that when he asks himself why he suffers from this terrible disease, he then asks "why not me?" Another child, another baby, might not be able to handle it as well as he. So he is shouldering the challenge for them as well as for himself.
Mattie admits that if he were able, he might have liked to be a policeman or a fireman - like the friends he has met during the past couple of years in New York City. He has photographs of himself and various New York firefighters, for instance - several of whom were killed September 11. He can't be a firefighter, he says, but he CAN be a peacemaker. He can be a peacemaker for them. And to that end, he has written two books so far of peace-making poetry.
The End is coming for Mattie. The destruction of his temple is progressing. But Mattie is not sitting idly just waiting. Or mourning. He is working, just like St. Paul admonishes us all to do. Mattie is rejoicing in the beauty that he makes for himself and for others.
Earlier in Luke, Jesus was asked by a Pharisee when is the kingdom of God coming. Jesus told him, "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There it is!' for, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you."
The kingdom is here among us -- and yet we are waiting for it. An answer to the question of "when?" is "now!" When does Jesus come? Jesus comes today. Whenever two or three are gathered together in his name, Jesus comes. Whenever we break the bread and share the cup, Jesus comes. Whenever we proclaim the Word, Jesus comes. Sometimes in the form of a little boy.
But back to my Internet research. Stoffregen was helpful in getting my back on track with the Gospel lesson and the letter to the Thessalonians. A man named Cornelius Plantinga Jr. helped me place the Isaiah passage in a more modern context.
Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. is Professor of Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Professor Plantinga's interpretation gave me almost as much pleasure as Isaiah's original prophecy.
The prophets knew how many ways human life can go wrong because they knew how many ways it can go right, Plantinga says. These prophets kept dreaming of a time when God would put things right again, making the world what it ought to be. Plantinga is somewhat of a prophet himself:
"They dreamed of a new age in which human crookedness would be straightened out, rough places made plain", he says. "The foolish would be made wise, and the wise, humble. They dreamed of a time when the deserts would flower, the mountains would run with wine, weeping would cease, and people could go to sleep without weapons on their laps.
"People would work in peace, their work having meaning and point. A lion could lie down with a lamb -- the lion cured of all carnivorous appetite. All nature would be fruitful, benign, and filled with wonder arrange its workings differently according to our varying ideas of the good, we would nonetheless agree on many of the broad outlines and main ingredients of a transformed world.
"It would include, for instance, strong marriages and secure children. Nations and races in this brave new world would treasure differences in other nations and races as attractive, important, complementary. In the process of making decisions, men would defer to women and women to men till a crisis arose. Then, with good humor all around, the person more naturally competent in the area of the crisis would resolve it to the satisfaction and pleasure of both.
"Government officials would still take office (somebody has to decide which streets are cleaned on Tuesday and which on Wednesday), but, to nobody's surprise, they would tell the truth and freely praise the virtues of other public officials. Highway overpasses would be graffiti-free. Tow truck drivers and erring motorists would be serene on inner-city streets, secure in the knowledge that, under the provisions of government and private foundation grants, former gang members are now all in law school.
"Business associates would rejoice in each other's promotions. All around the world, people would stimulate and encourage each other's virtues. Newspapers would be filled with well-written accounts of acts of great moral beauty and, at the end of the day, people on their porches would read these and call to each other about them and savor them with their single martini.
"Above all, in the visions of Christians and of other theists, God would preside in the unspeakable beauty for which human beings long and in the mystery of holiness that draws human worship like a magnet. In turn, each human being would reflect and color the light of God's presence out of the inimitable resources of his or her own character and essence. Human communities would present their ethnic and regional specialties to other communities in the name of God, in glad recognition that God too is a radiant and hospitable community of three persons. In their own accents, communities would express praise, courtesies, and deferences that, when massed together, would keep building like waves of a passion that is never spent."
That's Plantinga's vision for the New Jerusalem. Perhaps yours or mine would be a little different. But, our imperfect world will always be imperfect, I'm afraid. What is beautiful and impressive today, will crumble and decay tomorrow. We will find ourselves in crisis. Sometimes the crisis will pass. Sometimes it will remain - a challenge we will have 'til the end of our days.
Regardless, we must keep our eyes on "what can be, and what ought to be" and do our small part to move our world in that direction. With the prophetic vision of human beings like Isaiah, and Mattie, and Professor Plantinga, we can live into the Kingdom of God right now, from right where we are. For us, what ought to be, will be. May the Lord make it so.
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