Epiphany 4B 1/29/12
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Ever since the mid-1700’s, just before Methodist elders are ordained their bishop asks them a series of nineteen questions formulated by Methodism’s founder, John Wesley: Have you faith in Christ? Are you resolved to devote yourselves wholly to God and his work? Will you visit from house to house? I was ordained in 1979 by Bishop Kenneth Goodson, who delivered a commentary before each question. Goodson loved to preach, whether he was supposed to or not.
The second and third questions are: Are you going on to perfection; Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Goodson’s commentary on this question was, If you’re not going on to perfection, where are you going? If you’re going on to imperfection, you’ve already arrived.
Where we believe we’re going and what we expect the future to be shape how we live our lives. People selling crack on the street corner don’t expect to live very long, so they’re going to make a lot of money before they go. Children who think they’re going to be famous athletes or entertainers decide they don’t need to do well in school, because they don’t need brains: they’ve got talent. Our lives are shaped by what we expect the future to be.
People like you and I, who live in relative comfort and privilege, hope things don’t change too much from the way they are. Sure, we’d like to have cheaper gas, lower mortgage rates but higher savings interest, cheaper health care, and safer streets – but the world looks pretty good to us. And we hope that we’re going to be here a long time, and that the world will be here for us, too.
That’s not how Jewish captives in Babylon felt in 539 BC. That’s not how Jews in Jerusalem who were being crucified by the Romans felt in 33 AD. That’s not how Christians being set on fire and fed to lions in Rome by Emperor Diocletian in 85 AD felt. For them, the world was a terrible place that needed to be blown up so it could start all over again, but this time without sin and suffering and evil. No change in political party, no adjustment to the economic order, no tweaking of nature would suffice. The world was irreparably broken, and God needed to start over from scratch.
The late chapters of the book of Isaiah, the books of Ezekiel and Daniel, sections of the gospels, and, most famously, the book of Revelation are written to and for those people. This scripture is called apocalypticliterature, from a Greek word meaning to uncover. God is pulling back the sheet covering the future, so the faithful can see that God really is going to punish the wicked, smash the world to smithereens and start over again, and reward the righteous. Now, that reward probably isn’t going to come in this life, but who would want it to? The reward is coming, the prophets cry, in a new life of glory side by side with God.
When Jesus was born two thousand years ago, shepherds and other witnesses expected him to be God’s Anointed One, who would bring the old sick world to an end and bring the new world of glory and righteousness. In his first sermon, (Luke 4:18 ff), Jesus read Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming of the Kingdom of God, then said, Today this scripture has been fulfilled while you listened. When Jesus didn’t begin a war against the hated Roman Empire, everyone was completely confused. When the Evil Empire killed him, all his followers lost their apocalyptic hopes. After all, Jesus had said to them some of you standing here will not taste death until you see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom (Mt. 16.28). When Jesus rose from the dead on Easter and stayed with the disciples for forty more days, they still kept asking him when he will bring the Kingdom of God. When he ascended from them to heaven, they expected him to return and bring that new world any day. Even twenty years later, St. Paul advised young people not to marry if they didn’t have to, because, after all, the world was going to end any moment and there really wasn’t time for that stuff (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).
As time passed in the first century after Jesus, the people who had heard Jesus say they would not taste death until they saw the kingdom come began to die off. This produced an enormous crisis on the early church. Was Jesus coming or not? If you died before Jesus came, would you miss the Kingdom? Would we ever see our loved ones again? And, as Rome began to ratchet up its persecution of Christians, was God going to save the faithful, or was all this just one more religious scam? Or, has in fact the new world come and we missed it?
When St. Paul wrote about the end of the world and the resurrection of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4, he specifically addressed this crisis of faith in the young church. Listen to the language in Thessalonians: We do not want you to be misinformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died . . . For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare . . . that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. The point Paul is making is that when the new world comes, the righteous – whether living or dead -- will be together in Christ. What is important is not who is in and who is out, or the mechanics of resurrection, but that God will forget neither the dead nor the living in glory.
That is exactly the central point of the book of Revelation, which is John’s vision of God’s redemption of the Christians being slaughtered by Diocletian. Revelation is no great mystery to unpack when you understand that Rome is built on the seven hills that the Great Prostitute sits on; that the locusts and demonic cavalry from the East are Parthian invaders, that the combined letter values in Nero Caesar’s name add up to six hundred sixty six. Through John, God is telling the faithful to hold on. Yes, they’re going to be slaughtered, but in death they will sing around God’s throne with saints through the ages. And as for the wicked, oh, they’re going to get theirs in spades.
The current conservative Christian obsession with the rapture – of the righteous dead rising and the righteous quick flying not only out of their cars and beds and airline seats but their clothes as well (which, according toLeft Behind author Tim LaHaye, will be neatly folded with jewelry, wallets, keys, and pocket change arranged on top), stems from an eighteenth century minister named John Nelson Darby. Darby believed in the literal, word for word inspiration of the Bible. He believed history was divided into seven dispensations in which God related to human beings in different ways (the organizational principle of the Scofield Reference Bible – C.L. Scofield was a disciple of Darby). By cutting and pasting completely unrelated passages in Daniel, Ezekiel, Thessalonians, and Revelation, Darby taught that the “Rapture” (which, by the way, is not a Biblical word) of the saints would be followed by seven years of world war followed by the return of Christ and a thousand years of peace. He also believed God’s covenant of grace with the Christian Church (the sixth dispensation) was only temporary until the Jews embraced Jesus as the Messiah after those seven years of world war, which would bring Jesus’ return and the end of the world. Darby’s theology was at the core of the Niagara Bible Conferences in the 1880’s which formulated the five points of fundamentalism. When Israel was restored in 1947 and the six-day war in 1967 reclaimed the Temple Mount, Darbyism kicked into warp drive. Thus the linkage between fundamentalist Christianity and uncritical political support for Israel. Thus the linkage between fundamentalist Christianity and opposition to the environmental movement – after all, if the world is going to end at any moment, why save butterflies, fish, and trees? And, if the world is going to end tomorrow, why worry about leaving debt for our grandchildren, or about the future of social security, or health care, or schools? Do you begin to connect the dots?
But listen to Jesus: They will hand you over to be tortured and put to death . . . you will be hated by all because of my name. That doesn’t sound like Charles Stanley and James Dobson, does it? That doesn’t sound like the beautiful, wealthy, glamorous heroes of the Left Behind series, which has made an already wealthy Reverend Tim LaHaye a multimillionaire. Listen to Jesus: Of that day and hour no one knows . . . only the Father in heaven. If anyone says to you, Look, here is the Messiah! – do not believe it. But Christians have given Hal Lindsey and Jack Van Impe and others fortune and fame for predicting Jesus’ imminent return.
So, where are we going? What did Jesus mean when he said some of his listeners would not die before the Kingdom came? How will the world end, and when?
Literally, God knows. But we know this much for certain: that neither life nor death nor anything else in creation can separate us from the love of God for us in Jesus; that we must live faithfully every day, for life will end when we least expect it; that the Kingdom of God is neither here nor there, but, Jesus said, within us. And if you and I follow Jesus a little more closely tomorrow than we did today; if we love someone tomorrow that we didn’t love today; if someone’s life is better tomorrow because of us than it is today; if the world is a better, cleaner, safer, more loving place tomorrow than it is today because of us, then we won’t have to worry about how the world ends or when. Whenever, however, we will be with God and with each other. In the end, what else matters?