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Fear No More

Sermon - 11/07/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

The text that I want to share with you this morning comes from the second letter to the Thessalonians, the second chapter. I'm actually going to read verses one through five, and 13 through 17 this morning. I invite you to follow along in your own Bible or to use the Bible in your pews:

As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, 2not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. 3Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. 4He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. 5Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?

But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15So 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.

16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, 17comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

This strikes me as a particularly good text for the Sunday after the election. Thank God it's over, right? Because I think there is a message here for everyone, for all sides. The message for Democrats that I see in this text is: the sky has not fallen, the end is not near. Stop behaving like it's the end of the world and Attila the Hun has taken over the country. They're just Republicans :).

The message to the Tea Party that I would read in this text is that President Obama is not the Antichrist, or the lawless one. He's not the enemy of democracy, liberty, and the Constitution. So for the sake of democracy and decency please find a different means to push your agenda without vilifying the President.

The message to Republicans: the President has two more years, at least, in office, so stop behaving like vultures circling road-kill. He is, like it or not, still your President. And you're going to have to work with him not just against him if we are to have a functioning government. Actually, I cheated, that last part I got out of the Constitution of the United States :). Unlike some today, I do know the difference between this text and that one :)

Maybe I have taken just a little bit of liberty in my interpretation of the text. But Biblical authors didn't have to deal with his peculiar thing called democracy. Elections. Political action committees. So you have to be creative when interpreting the text for our modern times. To bring it up to date, to make it relevant for this time.

It's kind of like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's rally to restore sanity and/or fear. How many saw that a week ago Saturday? I'm checking to see which worship service is more "hip" :). I noticed April made some reference to it in opening the service last Sunday, and there were a lot of these blank faces, you know, what is she talking about? In case you missed it, I'm going to share a clip with you this morning. Stewart and Colbert were poking fun at political rallies of all types with their satire. And they are important voices for us to hear because, if for no other reason, than that they have the attention of the youth of this country. Huge numbers. I think I've shared before that for those under the age of 30, it is their primary source of news--the satire that they do of the news on Comedy Central.

Newsweek, just two weeks ago, listed them as among the top 50 most influential voices in our country today. So, this clip is from that rally, on the Washington Mall, over 200,000 people where there. Our own Anna (who attends the first service) was one of those. This clip, I think, speaks to the theme of this text. So take note not just of the size and the age of the crowd, but also their references to religion and the church, as they debate reason versus fear:

http://www.comedycentral.com/videos/index.jhtml?videoId=363861&title=jon-and-stephen-formidable
[When starting the above clip, advance to the 2:04 mark of the video, and watch to the 5:35 mark]

 

Alright, hold that thought, we'll come back to them.

What I invite you to do is to think about how fear is used for political purposes today as we look at this text, and to make the connection.

Ever since Alexander the Great demolished democracy and Augustus Caesar reduced the Republic of Rome to rubble, ancient societies have been spared the intolerable anguish of political campaigns and all those insufferable ads with their dubious claims of fact and deliberate assassinations of character. But that does not mean that they were spared all the false claims and fear mongering that we have grown so accustomed to in political campaigns. To the contrary, this text from second Thessalonians is Exhibit A to exactly such detrimental rhetoric taking its toll on the early Christian community.

So here's the situation: Paul had likely spoken, and unquestionably had written, to the Christians in Thessalonica about the return of Jesus within their own lifetime. For instance, in the first letter to the Thessalonians, he writes: "For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will be by no means precede those who have died". And then to that community in Corinth, he writes in the first letter of Corinthians in Chapter 15: "Listen, I tell you a mystery, we will not all die but we will all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, for the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable and we will be changed".

And even Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, says this: "Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power".

Now, whatever else we believe about what the second coming is or is not, we need to be perfectly honest and say New Testament authors were wrong about the timing of that coming. We can say that because we have the benefit of their words in reflecting on 2,000 years of waiting. Those who claim that Paul, Mark, or Jesus were in fact referring to our time rather than to their own, are so bold in their dishonest interpretation of scripture that they make the claims of political ads sound like the virtues of Mother Teresa.

Paul's contemporaries did not have the benefit of history. Not only that, but the very idea of a returning Savior or a divine ruler wasn't even unique to Christian faith. After Nero's suicide in the year 68, there was a widespread belief in the eastern provinces (where he was very popular) that he would return, leading an army of the Parthians to restore order and his rule over the Empire.

Now, I also, in the spirit of honesty, have to tell you there's no scholarly consensus on when this particular letter was written, or by whom. Some would say that it's written by Paul in the early years of Nero's reign, before there was any severe persecution of Christians. Others would put it during that period of persecution under Nero, or a few years later during the war on Jerusalem when Jerusalem fell to the Roman armies in the year 70 (and after which Paul had long since died, executed most likely under Nero, and hence the letter probably written by a disciple of his in his name).

Regardless, it is clear whenever it was written, by whomever wrote it, that someone is attempting to mislead the early Christian community with the claim that Jesus has already returned. And that appears not to be good news, but rather cause for alarm. 'Be afraid, the day of the Lord, the day of judgment, the day of calamity and tribulation has come!'. And so Paul, or someone writing in his name, counters by writing 'Do not be shaken in your mind, do not be alarmed, that day has not come and will not come until certain things happen and a certain lawlessness comes upon the land'. Now, again, scholars don't know precisely what Paul is referring to, if this is a reference to a specific historic event, or a specific person, or just a general claim of the impact of evil on the world.

But in any event, that's not terribly relevant for us now, 2,000 years later. I've argued previously, and I'll say again, the return of Christ is best understood, regardless of how it was understood then, but to be understood by us today not as an historical event that can be caught on camera, but as a metaphor for the way the world should be under God. 'Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven', as we pray every Sunday in the Lord's prayer. In other words, it's not about Jesus coming back to us, but about us coming forward to Jesus. It's not a rapture that removes the faithful from the world but rather a renaissance that restores the faithful to the world. It's not the end of the old world but the beginning of a new age.

Or, as John Dominic Crossan puts it, perhaps best: "We view the second coming as us waiting for God to act and wondering why it's taken so long, only to find out that it's God waiting for us to act and wondering the same thing about us".

However we conceive of the second coming, just as there are people today who turn the Gospel message of hope, peace, and goodwill for all into a message of fear, hate, and doom for all but a few, so too in the first century. So much so, that again and again Jesus and Paul tell us we are not to be deceived by such claims, that no one knows the time.

And yet those who know the mind of God better than Jesus himself persist in their doomsday scenarios and the purveyors of fear continue to peddle their Konica pseudo-salvation.

And so this letter, second Thessalonians, was written precisely to counter such a message of fear with God's word of hope. "Stand firm and hold fast to the tradition you were taught", and then the author reminds us of what that tradition is about, saying "Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our father who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word".

Colbert and Stewart, I think, are trying to do much the same thing with their satire, reminding us of the tradition of liberty and justice on which this nation has been founded. And so I want to play one more clip, and invite you to reflect on how fear mongering is being used for political purposes to the detriment of our nation and our world:

http://www.comedycentral.com/videos/index.jhtml?videoId=363861&title=jon-and-stephen-formidable
[When starting the above clip, continue from the 5:35 mark and watch to the 8:12 mark]

 

You see, it's not a question so much of whom we are afraid of that should concern us, but who do we want to be? A people of fear, or a people of hope?

So here's my question as we reflect on the kinds of voices that we hear in the public square telling us to be afraid of Muslims, warning us of the dangers of undocumented immigrants, calling for bigger fences on our borders or more troops in hostile lands: what is the voice of God saying to us, and whose voice will we heed?

Hear once again those words to that community in a time of calamity and fear: "So then brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our father who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word".

May it be.

 


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