11/09/14 Sermon (November 9, 2014)

posted Dec 17, 2014, 11:20 AM by David Hawkins

11/09/14 Sermon (November 9, 2014)

“Thanksgiving for the Gift of Life”

Scripture Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 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 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. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Sermon: "Thanksgiving for the Gift of Life"        Rev. David Hawkins

This last summer, some of us took some time in a Sunday School class to do some light Bible Study, looking at the Book of Revelation.  We also explored our relationship with Israel and our foreign policy in terms of what some folks in today’s religious culture call the ‘rapture’. We talked about where this term comes from, and we talked about some of the ways the return of Jesus Christ has been understood throughout the history of the church. Our scripture today is one of the sources for a lot of the speculation surrounding what will happen in the end times.

The ‘rapture’ is a big deal. A big, complicated, confusing deal. And talking about the ‘rapture’ is a big deal. Some folks have made this really hard to pin down theological concept a fundamental, doctrinal part of their faith and practice, and expect others to think the same way that they do, even insisting that their particular interpretation is the only way to think about the events surrounding the return of our Lord.  

We’ve all seen the bumper stickers:  “In case of the rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned,” (or ‘un-womanned’, for our gender-inclusive premillennialists). There have been several famous books and movies produced that play out this scenario, this idea of what it might be like if the ‘rapture’ happened say, tomorrow, or maybe in the next hour or so, when you all are driving home from church. Just think, some of you might be at the the Cotton Patch later today, and if you aren’t one of the chosen, you might find yourself stuck with the check when all your friends get caught up in the cloud with Jesus. And that would be disappointing, am I right?

It’s a compelling scenario. Cars without drivers, airplanes without pilots. We’re talking absolute chaos. Fear. Anarchy. Unbelievable suffering. Punishment for all those who didn’t toe the line, theologically speaking. Literally hell on earth for the unsaved. You had better get right with God, we are told, or face the consequences.

It makes for a compelling story. It gets our attention. It fires our imagination. And deep down, since we all know that we will definitely be the ones ‘raptured’, there’s a little tiny bit of pride that we’re not the ones who are going to be left behind. We’re glad that we’re not one of those poor sinners who have to face the millennia fighting off dragons and anti-Christs. That sounds exhausting.

The problem is, I’m not really sure that this is what Paul had in mind as he was writing this particular letter to his little church in Thessalonica. I’m not sure that Paul was writing about airplanes falling from the skies, semi-trailers flipping over on the highways, or US presidents relocating everybody to FEMA camps and forcing them to get the number 666 tattooed on their foreheads.

In fact, I’m absolutely positive that Paul had no idea that we would take this beautiful, pastoral passage, and turn it into a litmus test of faith. That we would use it as a cudgel to try to intimidate people into believing in Jesus.

But when we use the return of Jesus to strike terror into the hearts of people in hopes that they will convert, the Good News of Jesus Christ becomes a weapon, not a Gospel.

We need to, as a Church, remember what Paul was really trying to say to his people 2000 years ago, and reclaim his message of hope and comfort.

Paul is writing in a strange time for him and his people. A strange and dangerous time. There are changes in the air. Jews and Christians are being persecuted and killed for their faith, there is talk of revolution,  nobody knows how this is all going to turn out.

It’s obvious from Paul’s letters to the churches in Corinth and Thessalonica that he thinks the return of Jesus is imminent. Sometimes he even writes as though he expects Jesus to come back in his own lifetime.  And he’s not alone in thinking this. Most Christians during that time thought that Christ was coming back soon. Very soon. Jesus himself seemed to suggest that he would be coming back before members of his own inner circle died.  

It’s clear that Paul’s church in Thessalonica thinks this is what’s going to happen. They have been expecting Jesus to come back any day now, and they are looking forward to that moment when they can see him face to face, and be done with the pain, and grief of this world.

Some folks in Paul’s church are so sure that Jesus is coming back right away, they have stopped living in this world, and already have one foot in the next. And we know all about that. It’s a pattern that has been repeated over and over in the centuries since then. It seems like every couple hundred years, people have become convinced that Jesus was coming, and that it was our religious duty to drop everything, go up to the mountaintop and wait for him.

But in his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul reminds them that there is still work to be done, and that there are still expectations and obligations to be met. He warns those who check out too early and sit around waiting for Jesus that if they don’t work, they shouldn’t expect to be fed.

On the other hand, our scripture today reminds us that there are folks for whom the wait for Christ is causing a different kind of pain. The problem for them is that while they have been waiting for Jesus to return, some in their church have died. And they’re worried about that. What will happen to them? If the plan was that Jesus was going to return and take them bodily up into heaven, what will happen to those who die in the meantime? If the expectation is that Jesus will come to those who are alive, what happens to those who are dead?

Paul can see that this obsession with the return of Jesus had brought on a pastoral crisis. The church believes that Jesus will return to claim his own. But some folks have taken that to mean that this life has no meaning, and they’ve stopped living, and just sitting there, waiting for the rapture.

But others, those who have lost loved ones, are beside themselves with sorrow. And they are grieving, as Paul says, as those with no hope. What about those who have died before Jesus returns? Are they forgotten? Do they have a place in the kingdom?

Both groups of people have checked out of daily life, the normal, day to day work and ministry that is the calling of all Christians. Whether they are sitting on the mountaintop, or bent with inconsolable sorrow, both groups have decided that the life that they are living right now has no meaning.

Paul hears their concern. We all hear their concern. In fact, we share their concern. We have the same questions about the return of Jesus. Sometimes we have the same questions about the meaning of our own lives. We have the same fear and dread of death. We don’t know, we can’t know for sure, what lies on the other side. We don’t have any physical evidence, any sort of proof of what happens to us when we die, or what will happen when Jesus comes back. It is a complete mystery to us. And we fear mystery.

And it is this fear that Paul is writing about. He’s writing about the return of Jesus not in order to make our fear worse, or to inspire terror in the unbeliever, or to convert the heathen to Christianity. He’s writing about the return of Jesus to remind us, those who already believe, of the hope that we have in Christ, hope that gives our lives meaning and purpose, even in the face of death.

For those who have experienced the death of someone we  love, Paul reminds us that death is not last the word, that life is waiting for all of us, the living and the dead, and this gift of eternal life cannot be taken from us, not by circumstances, not be time, or space, or anything else on heaven or earth. In Jesus Christ, we find life.

But it’s not just life in the future.We also find life in our present. In Jesus Christ we find hope and a promise of abundant life, not just in the by and by, but in the here and now. When we’re uncertain, when we’re lonely, when we feel like our lives count for nothing, when we grieve our loved ones, Jesus promises life.

This is what really frustrates me about the whole Left Behind phenomenon of books and movies, about the way that the ‘rapture’ has become a vehicle for financial, emotional, and spiritual manipulation. Because the whole point of Paul’s writing was not to encourage people to obsess about the rapture. And it was certainly not to coerce people into believing in Jesus.

It was to comfort those who were grieving, those for whom life had become too much. To offer some hope to those who were hopeless. To grant some measure of peace to people who have begun to think that their lives have no meaning. Paul is reminding us that in Jesus Christ, God will never leave us behind.

The way our modern fundamentalist-flavoured understanding of the ‘rapture’ is used as a tool to get people to repent of their sins is the very opposite of what Paul was trying to do. Paul is writing to encourage, to exhort, and to offer pastoral care. He’s writing to remind them of what a gift it is to be alive, to have hope, and to work in this world while we wait expectantly, hopefully for the next one.

And there are times in our lives that we desperately need that hope. Because sometimes that hope is all we have.

Today is the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall of Berlin. For more than forty years, the people on the wrong side of the wall had lived under an oppressive regime, constantly looking over their shoulders in case informants were listening, worried that they or their loved ones would be vanished in the middle of the night. They could not travel to the West, and in many cases, they couldn’t even communicate with family members in the West.

For forty years, the only the thing that kept many of the East Germans going was the hope that it would not always be like this, that there would be a day when they could walk free, says the things they wanted to say, and travel where they wished. And on that amazing night, 25 years ago, their hope was realized. Through what I believe with all my heart to be an act of God, the wall came down, and a country was reunited.

Paul reminds us that even in the worst times of our lives, there is still hope. Our lives still have meaning, even when we can’t see it. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has not been in vain, and he will come again.

But in the meantime, we have things to do. We have the hungry to feed, children to teach, the sick to care for, and the lonely to comfort. We don’t have the luxury of checking out. There’s still too much living to do ahead of us. There is still too much of a need for the arms and legs and love of Christ in our world for us to just sit and wait.

Because we don’t know when Jesus will return. Paul doesn’t know. Jesus said himself that he didn’t know. The con artists who are are selling books and the televangelists selling fear about the coming apocalypse don’t know. Nobody knows when Jesus will come back.

But the good news is that he will come back. And he promises life for those who  are waiting, and working, and living the life of hope that has been given them.

Blessing and glory and wisdom

and thanksgiving and honor

and power and might

be to our God forever and ever! Amen.