Proper 27A

November 03, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 25:1-13

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 78:1-7

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    In a few weeks we’ll turn to Advent, that time of preparation for his Christ’s first coming.  But now the lectionary ends the year by drawing our attention to his second coming with five straight lessons from I Thessalonians.  While the Parousia is scarcely spoken of in many Christian circles today (except among pre-millenials of various stripes for whom it is almost the central doctrine in the faith), it is the dominant theme of Paul’s first letter.  Every chapter ends with a reference to that second coming.  Here in chapter four it takes center stage as one of the key dimensions of what Paul called “the gospel of God” in 2:2.

    Paul has used his familiar triad of faith, hope and love earlier in this letter, and now he focuses on the hope the gospel gives.  In other words, he writes about the Parousia not to answer speculative questions about dates and the sequence of events, but to give hope to people who desperately need it.  Apparently Paul had preached about the imminent return of Christ in such a powerful way that these Christians expected to see the living Christ within their lifetimes.  But now some of them have died and their loved ones were concerned that the departed would not get to meet Jesus on the great day of his return.  They were grieving and confused, because their highest hope seemed to have burst like a soap bubble.  So Paul writes to clarify that hope and to encourage them as they grieve.

    Many of our congregants won’t have the specific concern of the Thessalonians.  Since Christ’s return has been “delayed” for nearly 2,000 years now, we’re not so disappointed that our loved ones will miss that victory parade.  In fact, we’ve learned to take our comfort not so much from the Parousia as from the intermediate state of our loved ones in heaven right now.  (I’ll say more about that later.)  But if we don’t share the Thessalonians’ specific problem, many of us live with hopes that have disappointed us.

    As I think of the congregations I have served, I can remember children and teenagers who had high hopes of success in school or sports or love, but their hopes withered under the harsh sun of growing up.  I can see young adults with bright hopes for graduate school or career or marriage or a family, but their hopes were dashed on the rocks of a hard world.  I recall parents whose fond hopes of great success for their children died in the face of reality; divorced folks who never dreamed that their hopes for a life-long marriage would be so painfully destroyed; homeowners whose hopes of living in their dream home have disappeared in foreclosure; retirees who couldn’t believe that their hopes for prosperity had been snatched away by a shaky economy.  I can see hundreds of sick people who hoped they would be healed, but who then lived with lingering illness; parents whose hopes for the spiritual return of their adult children are still unrealized; people trapped in financial straits that seem inescapable.  And I see a parade of funerals, in which thousands of prayer soaked hopes for the recovery of loved ones have been buried in the dust of death.

    And so, as Paul says in our text, we have grief.  No one has ever expressed a believer’s grief more powerfully than Jeremiah in Lamentations 3:17-20.  “I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is.  So I say, ‘My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord.’  I well remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.  I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.”  Many of our congregants know those feelings all too well.   They have discovered that grief dims hope.  Indeed, if loss is deep enough, it is nearly impossible to hope.  Terrible loss produces a kind of settled grief, a grief that seizes our souls and holds us in the darkness called depression.  Life is fixated on the past where that loss occurred.

    To people whose tent is solidly pitched in the valley of the shadow of death, a text like I Thess. 4 can produce more anger than hope, because bouncy talk about Christ’s return doesn’t seem to take our loss seriously enough.  So it is important to point out that the apostle anchors the bright hope of Christ’s return in the dark past of Christ’s death and resurrection.  “I do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, about those who have died, about your losses in life, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.”  Yes, I know you have terrible loss and deep grief, but you also have hope, hope that does not disappoint.  “We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”

    In other words, when God wants to lift us out of the valley of the shadow, he begins not by pointing us to the light ahead, but to the darkness behind us.  He does not deny the depth of our loss, the weight of our grief, the darkness of our depression.  Rather he points us back to Jesus death and resurrection, to his loss of life, his grief, his defeat.  Rather than flee the harsh realities of past loss, the Gospel takes us right back to the past with the harsh reality of the death of Jesus and the overwhelming reality of his resurrection.  How do we know Jesus will come back?  He died and rose, didn’t he?  How do we know his coming will meet our needs, solve our problems, answer our questions, comfort our grief, and restore our losses?  He died and rose, didn’t he?  “We believe” that, says Paul in verse 14, referring to the universally accepted creed of the early church.  In other words, Paul anchors the hope of Christ’s return in the past acts of God in Christ, as summarized in the CREED.

    But our hope is not based only on our creed.  It is, even more, based on CHRIST himself—what he said about what he will do.  After those grim words of Lamentations 3, the weeping prophet says, “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope. Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning, great is your faithfulness.  I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’”  That is what I Thess. 4 calls us to do in our losses—wait for him, wait for the crucified and risen Christ, wait for him to come again.  That is the hope that will not disappoint us.

    “According to the Lord’s own word,” says Paul, claiming that what he is about to say comes straight from the mouth of Jesus.  The problem here is that we have no record of Jesus’ saying exactly what verses 15 and 16 say.  So, is Paul giving a specific explanation of more general apocalyptic words of Jesus from the Gospels?  Or is he uttering a prophetic word inspired by the Spirit of Jesus, as Jesus said (in John16) would happen?  Or is Paul quoting an actual word of the historical Jesus that wasn’t previously recorded in Scripture, the kind of thing to which John 21:25 alludes?  We don’t know for sure, but Paul is sure that his specific teachings about the Parousia came directly from Jesus.

    “According to the Lord’s own word” the hope that does not disappoint us has four dimensions—Christ’s return, the resurrection of those who have died in the Lord, the rapture of those still alive at the time of Christ’s return, and the reunion of the resurrected and the living with Christ himself.

    The center of the Christian hope is the return of Jesus; “for the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God….”  The world will not just roll on and on, an endless litany of loss, nothing but a tragedy, just a veil of tears.  It will come to an end, and so will its grief and pain and loss and death, when Jesus returns.

    Here it is important to note that Paul does not anchor the Christian hope in heaven, but in the Christ who will come down from heaven.  This is not to say, as many contemporary scholars do say, that the Christian faith has nothing to say about heaven.  There are plenty of passages which teach the reality of heaven and our place in it immediately after death.  Paul’s own testimony in Phil. 1:23 proves that we can expect to “depart and be with Christ,” a hope undoubtedly based on the words of Jesus to the thief on the cross.  “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  So, we don’t have to rob our people of their traditional hope that their loved ones are in heaven right now.  But we also shouldn’t rob them of the even greater joy that the Parousia will bring to their loved one, to them, and to the waiting world.

    So, here Paul emphasizes not heaven now, but Christ’s return then.  When he comes back, three things will happen.  First, “the dead in Christ will rise first.”  The Thessalonians were grieved that their loved ones would miss the glory and excitement of Christ’s return.  He uses the familiar Greek word “parousia,” a word that suggests the glorious victory parade of a conquering King.  When Jesus returns, says Paul, the departed will lead the parade, not just as a flock of disembodied spirits, a ghostly procession floating down from heaven, but as an army of robust bodies bursting from their graves, a flesh and blood parade of loved ones restored to their whole selves again.  Those who have died in Christ will be raised by Christ and restored completely.

    “Then we who are still alive, who are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”    The word translated “caught up” is a word that describes the way a raptor, an eagle or a hawk, suddenly yanks its prey upwards.  It can legitimately be translated “raptured.”  Of course, many Christians shy away from that word because of the way some pre-millenial and particularly dispensational Christians make it a central feature of a complicated eschatological scheme that requires elaborate charts and vivid pictures to explain.

    The Left Behind series of books powerfully taught a secret rapture in which millions suddenly disappear, followed by a terrible time of tribulation.  It is hard to find a secret rapture in these verses, what with all the shouting and the trumpet blasts and the resurrection of millions of bodies which will precede the rapture.  But the idea of a rapture is definitely taught here.  Paul uses that vivid word to teach us that the sufferings and sorrows of this life will be suddenly ended as we are snatched up by the returning Christ, swept into the clean clear air out of the dank dark valley of the shadow of death. And then the whole parade, the resurrected dead and the raptured living, will come down to a new earth upon which we shall live forever and ever.

    Many pre-millenial Christians will question that last sentence, because in their theology the raptured go to heaven immediately, leaving the earth to those who are left behind.  But scholars point out that the word “meet” in verse 18 had become a technical term in the ancient Hellenistic world.  It referred to the well known custom of a formal reception, which involved sending a delegation of leading citizens outside the city to welcome a visiting dignitary and escort him on the final leg of the journey into the community.  It is no wonder that Paul uses two words in verses in 17 to convey the idea that the raptured living will be caught up “together with” the resurrected dead.  And then the whole crowd will accompany King Jesus back to the earth where all things are renewed.

    That will be the beginning of the glorious, endless reunion.  “So we will be with the Lord forever.”  That is the conclusion of the hope that does not disappoint.  Jesus will come and “we will meet the Lord and we will be with the Lord,” we will, all of us together, forever.  Being with Jesus forever is the very heart of the new heaven and the new earth (Rev. 21:3).  That is what will make it paradise regained (cf. Genesis 2 and 3).  But we will also be with each other.  Our hope for the future is not an individualistic hope, a “just you and me Jesus” hope.  No, we will be with the Lord, all together, in resurrected bodies that, like Jesus resurrected body, will be different and yet the same.  We will see and know our departed loved ones, even as we will see and know the risen Christ.  All the loss will be forgotten, all the tears will be wiped away, death will be no more, and we’ll never be disappointed again.

    Illustration Idea

    Hope in the face of death was not part of most paganism in the Roman Empire.  Here’s the inscription on an ancient Roman grave: “I was not, I became.  I am not, I care not.”  The bestselling novel, The Fault in Our Stars, expresses that same kind of resigned nihilism.  Two young cancer patients, Gus and Hazel Grace, meet at a cancer support group that gathers in the basement of a church in a room the leader calls “The Literal Heart of Jesus.”  Against all expectations, Gus and Hazel fall deeply in love.  Their conversations about cancer are brutally honest and often very funny, and the depth of their love is heartbreaking.  Gus thinks there might be “Something” after death, but Hazel is convinced there is absolutely no hope or meaning to human life.

    When they first meet at the support group, here’s how Hazel expresses her “faith.”  “There will come a time when all of us are dead.  All of us.  There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything.  There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you.  Everything we did or built or wrote or thought or discovered will be forgotten, and all of this will be for naught…. And if the thought of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it.  God knows that’s what everyone else does.”