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:
[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
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
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
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
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:
[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.