Preached by Rev. Will Brown, November 6, 2016
Taken from 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
‘Lord’s Supper’ Ramsey Reformed Church, Titonka, Iowa
We are almost there. After months and months of anticipation, Tuesday is just around the corner, the day after tomorrow. We’ve nearly made it! Tuesday is, as I’m sure you know… Martha’s birthday! Did you know that it’s Martha’s birthday this week? If you see Martha this week, make sure to tell her, “Happy Birthday!”
There’s also some kind of election, I think… But really, what better birthday present could there be, than an end to the 2016 presidential campaign season! Is anyone else ready to have this behind us? This has been such a rough campaign, so full of hatred, distrust, and deception. It has gotten really ugly.
My guess was that when I started to talk about the election, I would see some people squirming in their seats, and I was right! Let me reassure you that I will be endorsing no one today, and this sermon will not morph into a political speech. But this election is happening, and I believe we’ll find that our Scriptural text may have something to say to this climate in which we find ourselves.
This election really is everywhere. Even Facebook is no longer safe. Usually Facebook is a pleasant distraction from the concerns of our lives: pictures of cats and babies, funny little cartoons, and the overly detailed life updates from that one guy you went to school with. But now Facebook has turned into an unending avalanche of self-righteous political rants and polarizing news headline (ugh). Occasionally there’s a glimmer of hope, though, a bright spot in the midst of so much negativity. I particularly liked a church sign that has been going around—maybe you’ve seen it—which says, “Jesus is coming – hopefully before the election.” In other words, maybe the world will just go ahead and end, so we don’t have to deal with this anymore!
Well, today we’re taking a look at 2 Thessalonians chapter 2, part of a short letter written 2000 years ago to a church community very different from ours. And yet… maybe not so different. The thrust of the argument is basically this: don’t worry, this is not the end of the world. Listen to verse 1 and 2 again:
1 Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come.
That was the controversy dominating the life of their community. Evidently, someone had been going around preaching that the Day of the Lord had already come, and they missed it! Understandably, they were alarmed, shaken to the core by the possibility that the world was ending, or that maybe the end had already come! Today we are not going to analyze all of the specifics of these claims and try to explain the symbolism, but instead look at the overall message of this text, which says, essentially: hold on, take a deep breath, this is not the end. But apparently it felt like it.
And they weren’t the only ones. Throughout the history of Christianity, over and over again, there have been predictions of the end of the world. Remember Y2K, the year 2000? The year 1000 was a hot spot as well, and the year 1033, the year 1284, quite a few dates in the 1500s (and 1600s… and 1700s), famously the Millerites in 1843 (and again in 1844), and on and on they go. Basically, there are always people claiming the world is ending.
Now is no exception. There’s always someone with a sign on the street corner, and—to turn back to politics—the tone of this presidential campaign has been nothing short of apocalyptic: speeches saying that the other candidate will destroy our country, that this is our last chance; nuclear war, or a constitutional crisis, or the end of democracy. It’s easy to get sucked into the vortex that tells us the stakes have never been higher, and to feel the sense that everything is coming to a head right now, as it never has before. Well, except in 1843 and 1533 and 1284… and when Thessalonians was written.
Why is it that apocalyptic thinking takes such hold of us? What is it about the end of the world that has captivated us for centuries?
There’s certainly an air of excitement to it, I guess, and a sense of importance, getting to be here when it all happens. But I think there’s something else, too. There’s a sense in which this is the easy way out. End of the world; nothing we can do! Right? We’re off the hook!
It seems that at certain times, we get so caught up in what’s happening in our world—whether its political turmoil, or war in the middle east, or something closer to home—that we are unable to see beyond those immediate circumstances. We lose our perspective, and can’t figure out what to do next. The easiest solution is just to throw our hands up and say, this must be it.
But what if this isn’t the end of the world…
In the Broadway musical Hamilton there is a line that has been running through my mind. In one scene, General George Washington is talking to a young Alexander Hamilton, who is eager to get into battle in the Revolutionary War, even to be a martyr for the cause, and Washington says to him: “Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.”
Living is harder.
Preaching the end of the world is easy. But if we’re still here, then what? How are we to go about the harder work, of living?
This morning I’d like to highlight what I see in these Scriptural texts as three steps for what to do when the world seems like it’s ending.
The first comes in verse 15 of our reading from 2nd Thessalonians. Remember, this was written to a community of people who were shaken and afraid because they thought the Day of the Lord had already come, and they’d missed it. The stakes didn’t get any higher. This letter, calmly and gently, encourages them to stand firm and hold fast.
Stand firm and hold fast: don’t let this knock you over. We’ve already talked about how the current election is presenting itself as if the stakes have never been higher, and it’s easy to get swept up in that. But it’s also true in other parts of our lives: conflict in a relationship, or at work, or even at church can take hold of us and knock us off balance. For students, maybe it’s having to change majors, or withdraw from a class, or not get into the right grad school, or sleeping through an exam (by the way, I definitely did that once: stayed up all night studying, until 6 in the morning, and then fell asleep and slept straight through the final exam). In large ways and small, our lives take us from crisis to crisis, and we can easily get swept up in it. But the way we stand firm, is to “hold fast.” Hold fast to the teachings you’ve received, hold fast to what you know to be true, hold fast to God. Doing that, staying grounded in what really matters, allows us to keep our perspective when we’re gripped by the crisis of the moment—even when the world seems to be ending.
So that’s step one: regain perspective by standing firm and holding fast to the God who is still there.
The second step, then, is to rediscover imagination.
Now I know, when we talk about imagination, we usually think about kids. And, granted, kids can be very imaginative: like the time when Luke, our 3-year-old, was running around the house yelling, brrrrrm. When we asked, “What are you doing?”, he responded matter-of-factly, “I’m a naked cement mixer!”
But imagination is not just for children, and it’s not just make-believe. It’s about seeing. Theological imagination is a way of seeing the world, beyond what’s on the surface—seeing through God’s eyes. Imagination lets us see more than what is; we imagine what could be.
Those doomsday prophets of our world, who see what’s happening and say this must be the end—they can’t imagine any kind of positive future.
But with imagination, we can look beyond the messed-up world as it is now, catching a glimpse of the world as God would have it to be.
It’s kind of funny that when we finally get to the end of this year’s toxic presidential campaign season, we plunge into possibly the only season of the church year that could be worse: stewardship season! For those of you who haven’t been here for this before, our stewardship campaign is the time each year when we think about the financial resources we’ll need for the coming year and commit as individuals to contribute our share to make that possible. It’s when we talk about money. Yikes!
But really it’s more than that. Our stewardship campaign is also about imagination. It’s about beginning to catch the vision that God has for our congregation, about what our future may be.
We are at a transitional time as a congregation. We are between pastors; we have just come through an intense time of conversation and discernment these past few weeks. Compared to the high points some years ago, our Sunday morning attendance is down, our financials are not what they used to be, some of our programs are not working the way they used to, and—like all churches—we are trying to figure out how to minister meaningfully in a culture that is changing rapidly.
We are in many ways at a crossroads, with the looming question: what is the future for this church? Do we have a future?
And then we read Ephesians, the verses that form the theme of our stewardship emphasis this year, and we read about the God “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.”
That’s what it’s about. If you aren’t sure about the future of this church, or about the future of the U.S., or about the future of your career or life or whatever else; if you can’t even imagine that future: then we trust in the one who is able to do more than we can imagine. And in this we find hope: hope that there is a future, even when our imagination fails us. Even when the world seems to be ending, there is a future.
And that’s our step 2 for today: imagining together the future that God has in store.
The final step is to begin living into that reality.
A few minutes ago Larry talked about the ways he and Debby give to this church, both financially and through the many, many hours that they serve this congregation and our community through the ministries of this church. Our stewardship emphasis is about how each of us must discern that for ourselves: what future can we imagine that God has in mind for us? And how can we help make that a reality?
If the world doesn’t end, that’s the question that we face.
Surely, after Election Day, our whole society has work to do, if we are to live together peacefully. And it seems to me that as Christians, we should be leading the way in how to show grace and kindness to one another, to live with humility, generosity, and understanding. Regardless of this election, we follow the Christ who has taught us a different way to live. So as we seek to live in and work for the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven, we have a difficult task before us. But that is the work to which God calls, just as God has called the church in every generation, all the way back to those early Christians we encounter in Thessalonians. So let us receive the same encouragement that this letter provided for them:
16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.
In closing, I do need to offer one final caveat: I do not actually have any unique access to God’s plans about the end of the world, and it is entirely possible that the world will end on Tuesday. If it does… my apologies. Feel free to disregard this entire sermon.
But if it doesn’t, if the world doesn’t end on Tuesday… then we have work to do. So let us stand firm and hold fast to what really matters. Let us imagine together the future that God has in store, and then let us be strengthened and encouraged as God leads us into that future. Amen.