11/10/13 Sermon (November 10, 2013) “The Good Gift of Hope”

posted Mar 11, 2014, 10:21 AM by David Hawkins

11/10/13 Sermon (November 10, 2013)

“The Good Gift of Hope”

Scripture Reading: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 (Liturgist)

As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not 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. Let 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. He 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. Do 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. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So 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.

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.

Sermon: “The Good Gift of Hope”

There are times in our lives when it seems that the whole world is against us. A failure at work, a failure in character, a loss of a job, or a loved one, or simply living day to day in a fog of tedious, purposeless routine can lead us to think that there is no point in even trying.

I think we’ve all felt, at one time or another, like throwing in the towel. That the cost of continuing is more than we can afford, emotional, physically, or spiritually. That we are lost, forgotten, and beaten down.

The Church in Thessalonica is in that place.

Now, some of the churches that Paul planted where in places that were heavily populated by Jews, and the people in the churches were Jews. But Paul also planted churches in Gentile cities, with Gentile congregations, and he was often heavily criticized for this. You may remember a heated argument in the Book of Acts between Peter and Paul regarding whether or not non-Jewish people could be Christians. This is hard thing for us to conceptualize 2000 years later, but the early Christian church was by and large, a Jewish religion.

But, this church in Thessalonica is one of the churches that Paul planted that is almost entirely Gentile. Thessalonica was a busy seaport city, wealthy, and diverse. There were Jews in the city, and Paul visited and preaching in their synagogue. Some of these Jews, and many of the Greeks in the town became Christians, and started the Thessalonian Church.

The other Jews in the city were outaged at Paul’s preaching and at the establishment of a religion that claimed Jewish roots for its identity, and yet was not Jewish, and they went to the city authorities with complaints about the new church.

Some of their complaints were about the theology of the new church. Rome was polytheistic, and the people worshipped many different Gods and Goddesses. We remember some of them: Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury, and so on. Each of these Gods had their own sort of groups of followers. And Rome believed that their great power and influence in the world was a result of their paying appropriate honor to these Gods. It was strictly a business arrangement. You would belong to one of these gods, offer up the appropriate sacrifices and rituals, and the god would bless you.

And, you could belong to as many of these different gods as you wanted. The more, the better. In fact, the Roman Empire made it a practice to not eradicate the religions of the peoples they conquered. Rather, they absorbed the local deities into their own sort of pantheon of gods and goddesses, thinking that it certainly wouldn’t hurt to include as many different gods as possible.

The problem was, the Jews and the Christians were extremely exclusive. They worshipped only one God. The Romans had real problems with that, and the history of the Roman Empire and the Jewish nation is filled with the tension that resulted from this conflict of religious allegiance. However, for large periods of the time, there existed a shaky peace between the Romans and the Jews, with neither side willing to shake things up too much.

But now, we have this new group, these Christians in town, and they also claim exclusive allegiance to one God. And this is problematic. Because if the good of the country was dependant on everyone do the best that they could to appease all the gods, then this sort of exclusive worship to one God would certainly anger all the others,

Not only that, the Christians only recognized one King, and that king was Jesus. That meant that they didn’t worship the emperor as a god, and this was both politically and religiously an outrage. After all, the emperor was the one from whom all things came, and all due honor and respect was due to him, in the same way that it was due the gods.

And so the Christian church in Thessalonica was being squeezed from two directions: from the Jewish church, who had worked out their own, albeit unstable, agreement with Roman authorities, and the rest of the religious community, who believed that the church was inviting destruction to be rained down on all of them with their exclusive worship of an unknown, and invisible God, and their recognition of this King Jesus, of whom nobody had ever heard.

And so life was tough for Thessalonian Christians. Really very tough. They were hated by pretty much everyone in town. It was like being a Democrat in West Texas. Or a Republican in San Francisco.

And to make matters worse, there were some in the congregation, maybe they were members, maybe they were visitors from out of town, who decided to interpret the difficulties that the church was having as signs that the end times had come, and that the apocalypse was upon them. That the world was going to be destroyed, and that Jesus was literally on his way at any moment to take up his faithful and that the whole universe was on the verge of cosmic destruction.

It sound familiar, doesn’t it? It seems like every time something bad happens, there are fifteen different religious authorities on TV announcing that, yep, this is it, the world is coming to an end, we see all the signs. And yet, the world keeps on on spinning.

I’m especially reminded of the predictions made by Harold Camping, of Family Radio fame, who was absolutely sure that May 21, 2011 was the day in which Jesus would return. When May 21, 2011 came and went without the coming of the Rapture, he amended his prediction to be  October 21, 2011. Which also turned out to be incorrect.

And if it was just the raving predictions of an idiot in California, this would just be a funny story. The problem is, thousands of people believed him, to the point of selling their houses, quitting their jobs, leaving home, abandoning their families, etc.

Rather than giving people the hope they needed in order to persevere in their present circumstances, Harold Camping led them to give up entirely, and sit and wait for the end times to consume the world. And he was wrong. Wrong in a way that ruined the lives of those who believed him.

And he’s not the only one to do this, of course. Millions and millions of dollars have been spent on books about the end times. We are consumed by the idea of the rapture, of a cosmic war, of the destruction of the universe. But we’re not the first generation to be duped by the false prophets of doom. All throughout history, the imminent end of the world was forecast, especially in times of political upheaval. The lawless one is named, the anti-Christ is revealed, the prophecies are coming true, one by one by one, always in a logical, persuasive way, inexorably pointing to the fact that the world is going to end very, very soon.

But they are always, always wrong.

And it makes me think that maybe these frauds who continuously, and lucratively, predict the end of the world don’t really understand what it is that the imagery of the final battle is supposed to represent. That maybe they have mistaken the apocalyptic themes of destruction and judgment to be the main point. That the only conclusion to be drawn from these symbols is that God hates the world, and everyone in it, and can’t wait to destroy it. That the only way to interpret the signs and wonders in this world, is to give up, believe in Jesus, and wait for the world to end.

For them, the idea of a final cataclysmic battle between good and evil means the end of effort on our part, the end of striving, the end of pushing on, the end of the journey. For them, the end of the world is almost a narcotic, a relief from the pain and suffering of this world.

And that is the difference between Paul and those who preach the Apocalypse.

Those who preach the apocalypse aren’t spreading hope. They are spreading a toxic brew of fear and apathy. Instead of inspiring folks to continue the fight, to hold fast to their convictions and their faith in spite of the danger, even when it seems hopeless, they are encouraging them to sit down and wait patiently for the end, when everything will be okay again. Except, of course, if you aren’t saved. In which case you will die forever in a horrible, fiery hell.

But Paul wants no part of the that. He wants no part of a church that sits and waits for the end. He wants no part of a church that gives up. And this is why he writes to the church in Thessalonica. To remind them of the hope they have in Jesus Christ. Not fear. Not apathy. But hope.

Hope that promises that even when all the signs point to failure, to humiliation, we are still loved. Hope that promises that even when we can’t see a way out of the problems we face, God knows very well where we are going, and is waiting for us when we get there. Hope that promises that even in our greatest weakness, we are given the strength we need to get up, dust ourselves off, and keep walking the path that is set before us.

And we need this hope. Because the reality is, we do live in tough times. This town recently received a shock in the closing down of the Cargill plant. And we know, in the back our minds, that we are running out of water. Cattle herds have dwindled. Feedlots have been shut down. Center pivots are running less and less water. The last few years of drought have taken its toll. Our backs are up against a wall.

And it would be easy to see all this as a sign to give up. To see this as the end of Plainview.

And it’s not just around here.

Just a couple of days ago, the Philippines were savaged by the largest storm ever recorded. It is estimated that as many as 10,000 people have been killed. If this storm had hit the eastern coast of the United States, it would have stretched from Florida to New York. For many in the Philippines, this is the end of the world.

And in other countries, economies and political systems are spinning out of control. Upheaval in the mideast fuels the fires of apocalyptic speculation. For many in our own country, our economic malaise and political gridlock is a cosmic sign of imminent doom.

It would be very tempting to think that our world is coming to an end. Almost a relief. That all these problems are going to go away, that all the stress and tension of our everyday lives, all the tragedy and pain from natural disasters would just be taken from us in one huge apocalyptic big bang.

But in reality, the world is not ending. It is going to continue. And so must we. And the idea that the world is on the eve of destruction doesn’t really do anything to help us.

This is where Paul’s words to the church in Thessalonica are just as relevant today as they were two thousand years ago. We are not in this fight alone. We are given hope in the promise that regardless of the storms, regardless of the unrest in the world, regardless of our own uncertain futures, we are not alone in our journey. We are not alone the battle we that is raging all around us.

As I read these words of encouragement from Paul to the Church, I can’t help but remember an iconic scene from the Lord of the Rings, actually, the last movie in that trilogy, the Return of the King.

You may remember that Frodo and Sam are climbing the slopes of Mount Doom, and are just outside the doorway to the heart of the mountain, where Frodo has the chance of destroying the ring of power, and thus bringing an end to the evil of Sauron. Sauron is distracted by what appears to be a foolish, almost suicidal attack on his border by a small band of the surviving men of Gondor. They are led by Aragorn, the heir to the kingdom of men. Sauron’s forces are overwhelming, and they surround Aragorn’s men with a sea of orcs and trolls and goblins and all manner of other monsters.

Now, Aragorn has no idea of where Frodo and Sam are. He is going into this battle armed only with hope. Hope that Frodo and Sam have survived, and hope that they are able to continue their quest. Aragorn and his men mount their attack against the forces of Mordor with absolutely no proof that Frodo is even alive, no evidence that their battle is anything but a last, desperate effort against an unbeatable foe. It would have been understandable in the face of such odds for his men to give up.

As Aragorn circles his men in preparation to defend against the encroaching tide of evil, he delivers a battle speech that echoes the meaning of Paul’s words to the church.

“Sons of Gondor! Of Rohan! My brothers. I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of Men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the Age of Men comes crashing down, but it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!”

We give thanks for this gift of hope: that even in our darkest hour, God has not left us. We may not see it, but the battle is over, the enemy is defeated. He might not know it, but in Jesus Christ, the prince of this world has been rendered ultimately powerless. His only real weapons, fear, rejection, and death, have been taken from him, and are replaced with the promise of forgiveness, welcome, and eternal life. In this promise, we place our hope for the days that lie ahead.

Thanks be to God. Amen.