November 03, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
When I meet with an engaged couple prior to their wedding, and certainly at some point during the wedding rehearsal the evening before the big day, I always make a point to tell people, “Now don’t forget to enjoy yourselves!” Typically I remind them just to relax and to savor the moment. Too often the bride, groom, and others get so uptight about the choreography of the ceremony that they make themselves miserable instead of joyful. There seems to be a kind of nervous belief that if things don’t go perfectly, it will be a disaster. But aside from the rare fainting spell, and despite some of the zanier wedding clips that you can find on YouTube, the average wedding ceremony sails along quite nicely.
The truth is that if there is anything to ponder or fret about at a wedding, it is not that the candles will burn too fast, that the bride will trip on her train, or that the organist will play the wrong song. Instead, a proper thing to ponder is whether the wedding should be taking place at all, whether people are appropriately serious about their vows and sufficiently mindful of what it means to make such weighty promises before the very face of God. But I can’t recall a single instance when I heard anyone at a rehearsal worry that just maybe the ceremony would not be pleasing to God. We may hope that Aunt Mildred will like it and that cousin Floyd will remember to pick up his tuxedo, but we seem to assume that the divine dimension to it all will take care of itself. (And even if it doesn’t . . . oh well, so long as the wedding photos look pretty, we’re good to go! After all, why would even God not be wowed by that stunning arrangement of freesia!)
Sometimes we simply forget to have the right focus. That seems to be the point of the wedding story in Matthew 25, too. This parable is on one level very straightforward. The major elements of the story lend themselves readily to allegory. It is easy to match up each character and event of this story with a real life person or event. This is so easy to do that we assume that the meaning of the whole story is likewise easy to understand. The bridegroom is Jesus, the ten virgins are people in the church, the oil for the lamps is faith, and the bridegroom’s arrival is the second coming of Christ at the end of history when there will be that ultimate sorting out process known as the last judgment.
But it may not finally be quite that simple. There is a reason we caution people against turning parables into straight-up allegories.
First, let’s note a few oddities we might miss if we too quickly try to sew this up in a neat 1:1 allegorical correspondence:
- Where’s the bride? Where there is a bridegroom and bridesmaids, there is usually a bride to go along with them, but in Matthew 25 not one word is devoted to that person who tends to be the central figure at a wedding. So where’s the bride and, presuming there is a bride, whom would she represent if this whole story really is just an allegory?
- Also, why did the five so-called wise virgins bring an extra can of oil along? What made them think to do that? Suppose that next Saturday you attend a wedding in which you see the bridesmaids coming down the aisle, each with a lovely bouquet of flowers in her hands. But suppose that half of that bridal party walked down the aisle using one hand to hold the bouquet and the other hand to lug along one of those old-style tin watering cans with a long spout. Surely you’d conclude that this is a non-standard thing to bring to a wedding. What made half of these bridal attendants conclude that the ceremony could go on so long, or be delayed so long, that they’d need extra oil?
- On top of that, what’s the deal with their refusing to share their oil? That hardly seems a gospel-like way of treating other people. Can it really be the same Jesus telling this story who also said on another occasion, “If someone asks you for your coat, give him your shirt, too”? Wouldn’t a generous person say, “Let’s divide this oil among us: after all, it’s better to have ten half-full lamps that can then all burn than to have five completely dead ones.” But that doesn’t happen here, instead half of the girls hoard their extra supply, sending the other five on the unlikely errand of finding an oil shop still open at midnight (a fool’s errand that ultimately will leave those hapless five bridesmaids out on their ear–eternally so if we connect the allegorical dots here).
It would be good to wrestle with these questions.
But more substantively, really to get at the core issue of this parable we need to back up a bit to consider first the context of this parable and then to re-consider the parable itself. The immediate context in Matthew is Jesus’ long speech on the Mount of Olives about the end of the world. All of Matthew 24 was consumed by apocalyptic rhetoric about the signs of the end of the age. Throughout that chapter Jesus makes it clear that there will be, one day, an end to things as we now know them. But Jesus is equally clear that no one, including apparently even he himself (for the time being anyway), knows when that will be precisely. There will be no missing it when it happens. Until then, however, Jesus warns the disciples to steer clear of anyone who claims to have it all figured out.
Despite the cottage industry that has arisen around making apocalyptic predictions, Jesus says that all such speculation and calculation is wrong. And since Jesus himself indicates that even he doesn’t know the date or time, it’s a cinch that no one will calculate that date based on Jesus’ words.
In Matthew 24 Jesus is not trying to create starry-eyed disciples who do nothing but scan the horizon for clues as to history’s end, he’s trying to create focused disciples who keep their eyes on the chief things of the gospel. He’s not training short-distance sprinters who will perpetually dash for history’s finish line but long-distance marathon runners who are poised to stay faithful over the long haul.
In context, then, the reason to plan ahead on the likely need for extra oil becomes clear. Wise believers will not necessarily think that the end is near. The wise won’t bother with predictions that might prod one into thinking that the end of everything is so imminent, we don’t need to bother with things like taking care of the environment, developing long-term strategies for peace among the nations, or nurturing a faith strong enough to deal with issues that may crop up many years from now. The wise, in other words, take the long look.
But in so doing, such wise believers display not an uncaring attitude as to when the end may come but a very caring one. Living with the end in sight need not mean being some starry-eyed person who does nothing but scan the horizon. In fact, what it should mean is living into the kingdom at every, every moment, doing the work that each day presents and doing it precisely because you know the Bridegroom is always close at hand, whether the end happens anytime soon or not.
There are no particularly difficult or striking features to the Greek original or English translation of Matthew 25:1-13. The story is pretty straightforward. The Greek words used for “wise” and “foolish” are phronimoi and morai. The word for “wise” could also be translated as “prudent” or “thoughtful.” The word for “foolish” is the same one used earlier in Matthew when Jesus (in the Sermon on the Mount) talks about salt losing its saltiness and so becoming “foolish.” In Matthew 5:13 this is usually translated as “becoming useless” but the root word there is the same one used for “foolish” here in Matthew 25. In the context of Matthew 5, the warning about the salt is designed to urge the disciples to stay vibrant in their faith, even through persecutions, and this is followed immediately by the admonition to let your light shine and not hide it under a bowl. Maybe there is some connection between that light and the lamps of the ten virgins in Matthew 25. In any event, the foolish are those who are not able to stick with Jesus’ program over the long haul. In the context of Matthew 5, maybe this includes those who decide not to view the world through the upside-down vision of the Beatitudes as Jesus laid out in his great sermon. Maybe what makes the foolish virgins so foolish (so “useless” for the kingdom) is that they adopted the prudent ways of this world, living for the moment, going for the gusto, and allowing this world’s standards to define “the good life.” But what is prudent to this world is foolish in the world of Jesus’ kingdom where the meek, the lowly, the merciful come out on top.
William Willimon has written that when he was a young pastor in rural Georgia, a dear uncle of one of his congregation’s members died suddenly, and though this uncle was not a member of Willimon’s church, he and his wife decided to attend the funeral. So Willimon and his wife drove to a back-woods, off-brand Baptist church for the funeral one sunny afternoon. It was, Willimon said, unlike anything he had ever seen. They wheeled the casket in and soon thereafter the pastor began to preach. With great fire and flaying his arms all over the place, this preacher thundered, “It’s too late for Joe! He might have wanted to do this or that in his life, but it’s too late for him now! He’s dead. It’s all over. He might have wanted to straighten out his life, but he can’t now. It’s finished!”
As Willimon sat there, he thought to himself, “Well, this is certainly a great comfort for this grieving family!” The minister continued: “But it ain’t too late for you! People drop dead every day, so why wait?! Make your life count, wake up and come to Jesus now!”
“Well,” Willimon concluded, “it was the worst thing I ever heard. ‘Can you imagine a preacher doing that to a bereft family?'” he asked his wife in the car on the way home. “I’ve never heard anything so manipulative, cheap, and inappropriate! I would never preach a sermon like that.” His wife agreed: it was tacky, calloused, manipulative.
“And of course,” his wife added, “the worst part is that what he said was true.”
Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Professors of preaching often try to prepare seminarians not just for the preaching task in general but also for what could be called “special occasion” sermons. Funeral sermons, wedding homilies, baccalaureate meditations, and the like represent specialized sub-sets of homiletics, each requiring slightly different techniques and sensitivities. Another special occasion sermon type is the farewell sermon. The general wisdom is that a farewell sermon should preach the gospel. Such a sermon is not the place to settle old scores by chiding the congregation for its failures nor is it a time for the pastor to apologize for his own shortcomings. It’s not a time, in other words, to deal with unfinished business of the past.
Instead it is an opportunity for the pastor and the congregation to remember that the gospel call to fulfill the Great Commission is bigger than any one congregation or preacher. It is a task that is always fresh and always there. Thus, a good farewell sermon will point ahead to the work that must continue during the upcoming period of vacancy and when one day a new shepherd arrives to tend the flock.
Joshua, of course, lived long before any such homiletical advice was available. So he appears to have done the smart thing and that was to imitate the one farewell sermon he could remember: Moses’ sermon as it is recorded in Deuteronomy. As such, Joshua delivers a bracing swan song to the Israelites, full of warnings and threats.
I doubt any preacher today would dare to end his or her ministry in a congregation with a sermon that repeatedly says things like, “Now, my dear people, remember to keep serving God faithfully because if you don’t, God will squash you!” Such a hellfire-and-brimstone message would probably leave an acrid taste in most people’s mouths. Folks would be glad to see such a preacher leave town!
But Joshua knew that despite all the good that had been accomplished in his tenure as Israel’s leader, the people were nevertheless strangers in a strange land. There were apparently just enough remnants of foreign people and false religions around to make Joshua nervous. Some of the Canaanite girls were very pretty and there were rumors that some of the Israelite boys were proposing to these maidens, even agreeing to adopt a few of the family gods if that’s what it would take to seal the marriage. And every once in a while, when taking an inspection tour of the various Israelite settlements, Joshua was certain he caught glimpses of people quickly sticking little golden idols in various closets.
All in all it made Joshua nervous. Because if there was one thing Yahweh had communicated consistently to Joshua it was that the people had to keep up their end of the covenant bargain if they expected to remain in the Promised Land. In the midst of war the people had done pretty well. Sure, there had been that ugly incident with Achan, but for the most part the pressures of wartime had kept a lid on the people’s tendencies to wander.
But now things were settling down and the people were nestling into comfortable homes. There was a chicken in every pot and an ox-cart in every garage and, as Moses had feared a generation earlier, so now Joshua worried that this prosperity would soften them. It was natural to depend on God for everything when fierce Amorite warriors with fire in their eyes were bearing down on you. But now there were many days when the biggest worry was whether to have red wine or white with dinner. How easy to forget Yahweh in good times!
Thus, the urgency of Joshua’s farewell sermon. Joshua even seems a little sarcastic in chapter 24. When he asks them if they will follow Yahweh only, the people reply with a thunderous, “Yes!” But then Joshua comes back at them, “You’re not even serious, are you? You don’t mean what you say and you know it! I’ve seen you men dating Canaanite women, I’ve caught glimpses of those little Baal totems. You folks are going to rebel and so undo everything I’ve worked to help you achieve, aren’t you!?” But the people are adamant that they will follow Yahweh, and so the Book of Joshua concludes with a renewal of the covenant and with what looks for all the world to be a happy ending.
Of course, all you need to do is turn the page to see what’s next: The Book of Judges. Joshua and then his lieutenants die, the people get fat and happy from all that rich milk and high-calorie Land-O’-Promise honey and they forget all about God’s covenant, his laws, and even his abiding presence in the land. Soon chaos reigns supreme in the very place that should have been an island of God’s cosmos.
This is an unhappy but all-too-familiar story. But perhaps for us Christians the real difficulty of Joshua 23 and 24 is how conditional it makes God’s love seem. The gospel according to Joshua is a tit-for-tat scheme: if the people do this, God will do that; if the people fail here, God will smite them with every plague in the book. Apparently, the Israelites had to walk a fine straight line over very thin theological ice.
It could be pointed out that most of Joshua’s warnings are not about minor infractions of the rules but about a wholesale dismissal of Yahweh in favor of a new religious cult. Still, the sheer number of conditional sentences here may unsettle those of us who believe God’s love comes as an unconditional gift of grace. The people’s faithfulness has a pretty high profile in passages like this one, making it seem that their actions could either merit or forfeit God’s love. It looks like it’s all up to them.
And yet, even though the people do prove to be repeatedly faithless in the Old Testament, God’s faithfulness keeps coming up again and again. After a while it looks like despite temporary setbacks here and there, the one constant in Israel’s history is that God is going to keep returning with a love more fierce than even the worst of sins. Joshua, and Moses before him, told the Israelites that if they were not careful, God would scrape them off forever like mud from a shoe. Curses without end would come their way if they messed up.
Yet in truth, God is never done with his people. He keeps getting hurt by them, keeps fulminating in anger at them, keeps weeping bitter tears of hurt over them but he never stops coming back with open arms, essentially saying, “Come on, let’s try it again, OK? You messed up during the Judges, but look: here’s Samuel to bring a better day. Saul was not the greatest choice for king, but now I’ll bring you David and then Solomon. You ended up in exile in Babylon, but look: now I’m going to work through even the king of Persia to bring you out of the concentration camps and back home.” On and on it goes in a rhythm of failure and restoration so regular as to become scandalously predictable.
Finally the day comes when God no longer proffers the likes of Samuel, David, Elijah, or Isaiah to bring a better day but instead he comes in person, in the flesh, through Jesus the Son. And in the wildness of grace Jesus somehow brings together the abiding faithfulness of God and the fickle faithlessness of us human beings. Jesus brings them together and resolves all the inherent tensions once and for all.
In the Old Testament, much of the Promised Land’s goodness had to do with meat and figs and butter and wine. All such gifts were, in their own way, a sacrament of God’s abiding love then, though the people eventually missed it. These days in the church the Savior who is Alpha and Omega, First and Last, the faithful witness raised from the dead, regularly calls us for dinner along with the rest of this world’s greasy failures. And if we pull up a chair and take bread and wine from his hand, then what we are finally celebrating is that long history of God’s faithfulness that we see recorded again and again in Scripture.
Because the wonder of God’s greater faithfulness is that God knows all of that about us–knows it better than we do, in fact. Still he hands us the bread of life and the wine of heaven, bringing God’s enduring love into direct contact with our wobbly spirits in a way that will insure that grace will win and that we will finally push back from the table stuffed–filled to the top with a faithful and forgiving grace that will not let go.
Along with his buddy Caleb, Joshua had been one of the “good spies” back in the day when Israel first scouted out the Promised Land for Moses. The other spies surveyed the land from the bottom up and saw only giants who would surely squash the puny Israelites. Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, surveyed the land from the top down from the perspective of the God Yahweh whom they served and from that angle of vision, even the giants in the land did not look so big after all. It was all a matter of scale in the end such that if you took as your point of comparison first of all the mighty God of Israel, things looked far more manageable.
The spies also brought back fruit from the Promised Land, and it was mighty impressive fruit at that—bunches of grapes so large and so heavy they had to be carried on poles between two strapping men. N.T. Wright and others have noted that in a way that fruit from the Promised Land was the food of the future, the food of the promise. And in this way it bears some resemblance to the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper—it, too, is finally the food of our future in the kingdom that is to come.
But unlike that future kingdom of God, the first Promised Land for God’s people was not quite so safe and secure from dangers. Joshua assured the Israelites they could take this good land back when Moses had been in charge. But by the time the people really do take the land and it’s time for Joshua himself to exit history’s stage, Joshua found that being in the land made him as nervous as cat in terms of the people’s future.
This may be a reminder that for all the goodness that just was the Promised Land for Israel, it was even so nothing but a staging area for God’s grander plans for this creation and for his covenant people. No one would truly be home—much less home free—until that day when the Promised Land was ruled by no less than the Son of God.
And for that day we rightly still long and pine.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Scholars sometimes call the book of Psalms Israel’s songbook. After all, its calls to praise and worship suggest Israel often used the psalms as a means to worship the Lord. Yet as Phillip McMillon notes, the psalms are much more than just a songbook. They’re also prayers of misery and grief. Psalms also call on God for help in times of trouble and persecution.
Psalm 78 us one of the psalms that refer to Israel’s history. It’s a psalm that uses that history to make a particular point. Its history, says Karl N. Jacobson, “might be characterized as a vehicle for theological education.” Yet while we sometimes think of theological education as the chief subject just for those studying to be church leaders, Psalm 78 has quite a different “audience” in view. The psalmist tells these “parables,” these “hidden things, things from of old” (2) so that succeeding generations “would put their trust in God, and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands” (7).
If that goal doesn’t grab worship leaders and teachers’ attention, then perhaps little ever will. There are, after all, few things for which parents and the whole Christian community long more than that children receive God’s grace with their faith. To paraphrase one biblical scholar, we deeply desire that the children whom we carry into church to baptize or dedicate someday walk into church on their own two feet to profess their faith in Jesus Christ.
However, we sense that entire enterprise is under increasing duress. Both anecdotally and statistically we sense that increasing numbers of people who were raised in the church are growing up to abandon it. We no longer assume the children of Christians will somehow “automatically” grow up to make their parents’ faith their own.
Add to that what Walter Brueggemann calls the assault under which families seem to be and we have plenty of reason to pay close attention to Psalm 78. Fewer people are marrying. Those who do marry seem increasingly vulnerable to getting divorced. Increasing numbers of children are being born and raised outside of the context of marriage. Children and adults alike are being constantly exposed to technology and ideology that undermines Christian understandings of reality.
Jacobson points out Psalm 78 is the poet’s effort to obey the statutes God “decreed … for Jacob” and the “law in Israel” God “established” (5). It’s part of a faithful response to God’s call to Israel in Deuteronomy 6:7 to “Impress [the commandments] on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
What, then, does the psalmist call Israel to “talk about” with or “tell the next generation”? (4). What the Israelites “have heard and known, what” their “fathers told” them (3). Quite simply, the psalmist invites God’s Israelite children to tell their children what they heard from their parents.
And what sorts of things did the psalmists’ ancestors tell her contemporaries and her? Two things seem primarily in view, though they might be seen as one entity. First, Israelites told their children “the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done” (4). Then, as if to tell the Israelites exactly which of God’s praiseworthy deeds they are now to tell their children, the psalmist fills verses 12-72 with a stirring history lesson. What must Israelites tell the next generation? Of God’s praiseworthy deeds in Egypt and the wilderness. What must God’s Israelite sons and daughters talk about with their sons and daughters? The power and wonders God showed Israel in the land of promise.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 78 will want to explore ways to invite worshipers and students to remember God’s praiseworthy and powerful wonders in their own lives. They’ll want to invite them to remember so that God’s people may pass the stories of God’s acts not just as described in the Scriptures but also as they experienced them themselves to the next generations.
However, the psalmist also recognizes God called Israelites to “teach their children” the statutes God decreed for Jacob and the law God established in Israel (4). While 21st century worshipers sometimes assume this merely refers to what we think of as the Ten Commandments, Psalm 78 actually refers to the whole Torah God gives to Israel, particularly in the first five books of the Bible.
Here, too, are lessons for 21st century worshipers. God calls us to communicate to the next generations God’s will for our lives. So we teach our children not just the Ten Commandments, or the Bible’s first five books, but also the “whole counsel of God,” all the ways God invites us to respond to God’s grace by faithfully obeying the Lord. So those who preach and teach Psalm 78 will want to help worshipers and students identify God’s will as it’s expressed across and throughout the Scriptures.
Yet as I noted above, we might think of God’s “praiseworthy deeds” as including both the “wonders” God has done and the “law” God established in Israel. Such an approach would unify the message God’s Israelite sons and daughters have for their own children. Isn’t, after all, the gift of God’s law no less “active” or “wondrous” than God opening a path through the Red Sea and into the land of promise?
Why does the psalmist call worshipers to teach their children both God’s praiseworthy acts and God’s statutes? First, so that the next generation may not forget God’s works. Those “praiseworthy deeds” remind Israel that she’s neither self-made nor self-sufficient. They serve to remind even 21st century Christians that life is a gift rather than an achievement or invention of our own.
However, the poet, secondly, also calls Israel to tell the next generation about God’s wonders and laws so that they may “put their trust in God” (7). “It is odd, but true,” writes Walter Brueggemann, “that our capacity to hope is precisely correlated with our ability to remember.” While that sentence alone has the seeds for a sermon, it’s certainly applicable to any exploration of Psalm 78. The seeds for trust in God lie, by the grace of God at work through the power of the Holy Spirit, in remembering both what God has done and commanded.
Finally, God calls Israel to tell the next generation about God’s works and will so they might keep “his commandments” (7). The psalmist recognizes that true health lies in a faithful relationship with the Lord that includes the doing of God’s will. After all, since God creates life, God best knows how life should be lived.
On the Psychology Today website in an article entitled “Storytelling Connects Us All” posted on March 2, 2010, Pam Allyn writes, “What child doesn’t remember a magical story told to them by a parent or loved one? What adult isn’t captivated by an evocative piece on the radio, or a coworker’s rendition of their weekend adventure?
Storytelling is one of humans’ most basic and effective forms of communication. In fact, researchers at the Yale Child Study center are even finding that storytelling–especially between children and caregivers–is a key component of our neurological development, and a skill that will ultimately help create a well-adjusted and resilient youth.”
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.
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.”