Grace Presbyterian Church
November 8, 2020, Pentecost 23A
Who Do We Wait For?
After his words to the Thessalonians about those members of their community who had died, Paul picks up in this next portion of his letter by moving from the what of that coming resurrection and reunion to the when. That particular answer is not Paul’s point – he blows by almost dismissively without even a pretense of a specific answer; rather, this becomes a opportunity to talk to the Thessalonian church about just how they should comport themselves in the time of waiting.
More than a few preachers in the church’s history, particularly in this country, have failed to follow Paul’s wise course of non-action. Perhaps the most famous recent example of such rashness remains the multiple predictions of radio evangelist Harold Camping, who predicted first a series of dates in 1994, then dates first in May and finally October 2011 that would bring about the Rapture and destruction of the earth. Camping lived long enough to repent of those predictions and even to call them “sinful,” something which few of his predecessors ever did. Perhaps the largest-scale such event in US church history revolved around the predictions of one William Miller, a Baptist preacher who forecasted the second coming of Jesus in October 1844. Many followers even went so far as to get rid of all their possessions in anticipation, only to be in difficult straits and great disappointment when the day passed without incident.
Paul is having none of that here. He will be drawn into speculation about something Jesus claimed not even to know himself (see Mark 13:32).
His message to the Thessalonians is not complicated; stay alert, don’t get “drunk” on the distractions of the world, wear the faith and hope and love God gives us (echoes of 1 Corinthians 13!), remember who is in charge, and encourage one another (echoes of 4:18 of this book). The way that Paul gets to this message, however, includes some images and metaphors that have, in the years since, been twisted and tortured into positions and theologies quite the opposite of Paul’s intent. For example:
- “like a thief in the night”
Here Paul intends to suggest the suddenness of this event of the Lord’s return. Particularly when combined with the description of “peace and security” in verse 3, giving way to “sudden destruction,” it’s a striking and dynamic image. However, more recent generations of Christians (like, um, ours) tend to be all about peace and security, whether it comes in the form of a politician we trust to give us (the church) what we want, a big bank account and a big building with no debt, or even simply some measure of “status” or “respect” in the world (whatever those words mean). Somehow we manage to forget that Jesus largely rejected such claims for us in this life – recall his proclamation in Matthew 10:34 that he came “not to bring peace, but a sword”. This description of a “thief in the night” turns bleak and threatening in our souls, when Paul makes clear in verses 8-10 that’s exactly how we’re not supposed to react. But we fear losing our “stuff,” and we get scared, and we follow leaders who prey upon those fears.
- light and darkness
In a culture with no artificial lighting or no lighting at all outside of towns or cities, darkness was a fearful and dangerous thing. This metaphor was for Paul’s readers and hearers extremely accessible and vivid. However, when these images of “light” and “dark” get twisted in later centuries to suggest that the qualities of sinfulness and inferiority are found in persons of darker skin color, this is nothing less than a theological crime. Yet such imagery here and elsewhere in scripture became useful to those who wanted to defend, for just one example, the enslavement of Africans and persons of African descent. This is completely alien to Paul’s message.
In this passage Paul is not overly concerned with those outside the church, not yet joined to the body of Christ. Aside from the encouragement not to be like those who sleep or are drunk (images that aren’t developed here at all), Paul has nothing to say about such persons. Again, however, the later church has presumed that Paul’s talk of “us” must be balanced by some kind of “them,” and “them” must be an enemy against which we are called to wage war. That language is easily found in corners of today’s church, and many times over the centuries (like, oh, maybe the Crusades, for example).
All of these represent more than just seeking excuses for hatred or cruelty, which is bad enough to be sure. More damning, though, is that all of these distortions of Paul’s language here are nothing less than a rejection of the provision of God and the redemption that is ours in Jesus. We cling to our earthly “peace and security” and threaten the recalcitrant with the threat of the “thief in the night”; we trust in our own “light”-ness and demonize and oppress the dark; we go to war against “them” (sometimes literally) and trust in our own strength instead of God’s salvation.
Our call to keep awake and to show faith, hope, and love doesn’t leave room for taking matters into our own hands. Waiting faithfully for Jesus isn’t about conquering everybody else or pushing the right buttons to manipulate some Rapture into happening. It involves waiting, living faithfully, doing the stuff Jesus told us to do and showed us how to do, and encouraging one another along the way. Sometimes the job is simply, to borrow from the parable in Matthew 25 and today’s first hymn, to “keep your lamps trimmed and burning.” It’s not easy for impatient people like us, but it is the only faithful way.
And yes, it is our call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #350, Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning; #358, Steal Away