November 07, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Talk about the end of the world and everybody gets interested. The disciples were, too, when Jesus predicted some apocalyptic events. “Well,” they asked with faces a shade paler than they had been moments before, “when will all that bad stuff happen?” In answering them, Jesus gets even more vivid in predicting great and terrible things to come. But in reading this passage, I am struck by one of the quieter things he said: in verse 16 he says that the day would come when Jesus’ followers would be betrayed by even family members and friends.
And friends . . . We have an advantage over the disciples who first heard those words in that we’re able to glance across the page in our Bibles to see the heading for Luke 22: “Judas Agrees to Betray Jesus.” One wonders what thoughts flit through Judas’s mind when Jesus predicted that even friends would one day turn into betrayers. Did those words give Judas the idea? Probably not. He had been slouching in that direction within his heart for a while already. So did those words cause Judas to blush? To avert his eyes? To look down as his feet and shuffle his sandal in the dirt for a few moments?
Yes, we all like to focus on the big things, on the predictions that are apocalyptic in nature. But when you read Jesus’ words correctly in Luke 21 and in similar such passages in the gospels, you realize that it was not the distant horizon of history that was supposed to occupy our minds but times and events much, much closer to hand—in Jesus’ case, the events in question were quite literally within the reach of his arm to the spot where Judas stood. For Jesus, his words would have almost immediate resonance when one of his own friends would betray him to the authorities. But the rest of the disciples would not exactly have to wait until the roll was called up yonder by and by to experience moments of truth and terror when they, too, would have the choice to stand firm for their Lord or not.
Too often we think that passages like this one are meant to make us starry-eyed surveyors of distant horizons. Actually, they were meant to inspire discipleship and faithfulness over the long haul and in all the tough circumstances we’d face long before The End would come. As someone once put it, Jesus was not training short distance sprinters but long-distance marathon runners who could carry his message far and wide for a long while to come. What’s more, in and through it all we are being reassured: God will be faithful. Jesus by his Spirit will give us the words to say.
How ironic that a passage that makes some people unsettled—even as the disciples were initially unsettled to hear Jesus predict the destruction of the Temple—is actually meant to settle us in our faith and re-assure us. It’s also instructive that we may need the power of that reassurance sooner rather than later in our lives. That may not be an easy message to hear but it is one we may need to hear anyway.
I think it was Mark Twain who once observed that the Bible is far too brutal a book to read to children. And in truth, despite the longstanding practice of having devotions at the dinner table and reading the Bible to our children, a good deal of what is actually said by even Jesus can be chilling. Luke 21 is a passage we’d all rather not hear. We want Jesus to say something else. We want a different set of predictions and an alternative set of promises. We want Jesus to say, “Don’t worry about trials and persecutions for I shall deliver you from them before they happen.” We want Jesus to say, “The world will be so impressed by the church’s rhetoric, accomplishments, and proclamations that they won’t dare lay a hand on you to begin with.”
We want the ecclesiastical equivalent of “Homeland Security” that will seal up our borders from evildoers and proffer us protection into the future. Instead of that Jesus assures us that when it comes to the world’s hatred of us on account of his very name, there’s nothing for it. It will happen. But he will remain with us and in us when it does.
For those of us who preach, it’s difficult to imagine a more challenging message to deliver. Deep down, many of us pastors worry that if we preach this bluntly and boldly, some folks will leave our congregations to join up with those sunnyside-up folks up the street who promise 40 Days of Purpose and the theology of “your best life now.” North American Christians in particular like “possibility thinking,” and by “possibility” they most assuredly do not mean the possibility of getting persecuted to death!
True, the probability and/or likelihood of persecution and even martyrdom are not the whole of the gospel picture and many believers all along the ages (and even right up to the present day) have been spared the worst of it all. Still, if we cannot proclaim a gospel that will help people be glad for Jesus’ abiding presence even in the midst of death and trials of all kinds, it’s an open question how well we are really presenting the Christ we follow as latter-day disciples of our Lord.
Or put it this way: can the people to whom we preach (if not we ourselves as preachers) still take joy in Jesus even though we can by no means promise that being a Christian means you will get your best life now, that you will get your wishes granted and see your every dream fulfilled? Or do we “stand firm” (as verse 19 mentions) only when we’re getting the best life possible already in the here and now?
The Greek text of this lection is loaded with interesting words and phrases. Of particular note are verses 14-15 where Jesus says that believers must “resolve in your hearts not to mount an apology in advance” for the faith. Then he goes on to say that he himself will provide the words and wisdom needed at the time—words and wisdom that would be convincing beyond refutation or contradiction even. Curiously, the word translated as “words” here is stoma, which literally refers to the mouth (and only metaphorically, therefore, refers to that which comes out of one’s mouth in the form of words or speech). Perhaps this is a bit of a stretch but it’s almost as though Jesus is saying that what he will provide for his followers when they find themselves “in extremis” goes way beyond just words—he will open their very mouths in ways that will then make possible a kind of proclamation, speech, and witness that goes above and beyond anything we could say with our ordinary mouths in other, less extraordinary times.
Say the word “apocalypse” to the average man or woman on the street, and you will conjure up in his or her imagination pictures of catastrophic happenings. But were you to probe deeper into people’s thoughts regarding such matters, you might find a kind of fatalism that many folks quietly harbor. As writer Daniel Wojcik noted in his book The End of the World As We Know It, you can detect the fatalism people carry around in their hearts just by listening to certain popular catch phrases. People will refer to this or that event in their lives (be it something good or something bad) and they’ll say things like, “It was fated that we meet this way. This was your destiny. It was meant to be. It was in the cards.” Or, when someone dies, people may characterize this by saying, “I guess his number was up. It was just his time. It was his fate.”
When facing the uncertainties of the future, many people will say that since there is nothing we can do about it anyway, the best we can do is grit our teeth, press forward, and hope for the best. And if the worst happens and some apocalypse comes, then that’s just the way it has to be. It’s all rather random anyway and so, in the meanwhile, we’ll live life while we have it and let the chips fall where they may.
Of course, many people are perhaps not aware of the fatalism that colors their perceptions of the present and the future. It reminds me of the man who once declared, “I am not a fatalist! And even if I were, what could I do about it!?” Christians, of course, should not be fatalists, but for some Christians past and present, there has been an attempt to do an end-run on fatalism by claiming that they know already precisely what the future holds. And so they’ve turned passages like Luke 21 (and entire biblical books like Revelation) into a kind of giant secret code that, if we can just crack it, will spell out in neat and precise details the future’s exact timelines.
Probably, though, that’s the wrong approach. Although there is no denying the forward, future bent of passages like Luke 21, in the end Jesus is not interested in telling us precisely what the future holds but rather Who holds the future. And when you know Who holds the future, then you know Who holds your every moment in this present time as well. It is that confidence that allows us to rest easy when Jesus tells us that he will be with us and will even provide us with words to say if and when the world presses in on us and persecutes us for his sake.
Author: Doug Bratt
The “heavens and … earth” that Isaiah 65 describes are clearly “new.” After all, they’re radically unlike the ones we know here and now. In fact, the prophet’s picture of them is so earthly and yet different from what we now experience that it almost makes us weep with longing for what Isaiah’s vision symbolizes.
Our text’s description of the “old” heavens and earth is very narrow. It focuses on the condition of Israel’s holy places. “Your sacred cities have become a desert,” the prophet mourns in chapter 64:10ff. “Even Zion is a desert, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and glorious temple, where our fathers praised you, has been burned with fire, and all that we treasured lies in ruins.”
Since we know more about our own heavens and earth’s condition, those who preach the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday may want to explore just how new the heavens and earth will be by exploring with hearers what the creation is like right now. In some settings they may wish to invite hearers to share some perceptions of and experiences with the creation as we know it now.
If the setting doesn’t allow for such give-and-take, Isaiah 65’s preachers and teachers will want to mine for examples of the heavens and earth’s state as we now know and experience it. As I write this, for example, news is breaking of a treatment center for young people who have problems whose license the state of Pennsylvania is moving to revoke. The reason? A 17-year-old boy died at the center after a violent confrontation with staff members.
There’s also news of Myanmar’s security forces trapping members of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that the country denies citizenship. Government forces have largely blocked aid deliveries to those beleaguered people.
Yet it isn’t just people who suffer right now. Even the earth writhes in misery. China is grappling with drought, poor industrial and water policies as well as other factors that are degrading the northern part of the country. Human activity even impacts the “heavens.” After all, images from a NASA satellite indicate the European Space Agency’s experimental lander created a shallow crater on Mars when it plummeted to its surface.
However, as my colleague Scott Hoezee noted in an earlier posting on this text on this website, there’s another problem with thinking about Isaiah’s vision of “new heavens and a new earth.” When Christians think about the world to come, we often focus on the heavenly part. Ignoring some of the Scripture’s loveliest images, we sometimes think of eternity as one unending worship service “way beyond the blue.”
Yet that’s not the portrait most of the Scriptures paint of the new creation. As Hoezee notes, Isaiah’s “vision of the world that is to come looks a whole lot like the world that is.” God, insists the prophet, is going to create “new heavens and a new earth” (italics added).
Walter Bouzard notes that three themes dominate Isaiah’s description of “new heavens and a new earth.” Among them is that of joy. In verses 18-19 the Lord says, “Be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people” (italics added). This suggests the new creation will be a place where God rejoices in both Jerusalem and her people. This prospect allows Isaiah’s Israelite contemporaries to already “be glad and rejoice forever” (18).
On top of that, the prophet suggests the new creation will be a place of life. While we’re not sure just when things and people began to physically die, most of us can agree death has been part of God’s creation for a very long time. As Bouzard notes, “We all have a biological expiration date.”
In the new heavens and earth, however, death will have no place. “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days or an old man who does not live out his years,” Isaiah rejoices in verse 20. “He who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered cursed.”
Of course, the prophet intends the imagery of verse 20b to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. In the new creation no one will ever die, much less at less than 100. There death will be as dead as everything that leads to it.
Verse 25 suggests even the non-human creation will experience abundant life. In the new creation, says Isaiah, the eaters and the eaten, the predators and the prey will somehow live and even eat together in peace. Not even the fiercest animals, adds the prophet in verse 25, will either “harm or destroy on all” God’s “holy mountain.”
The third lovely feature of the new creation to which Bouzard points is what he calls just rewards for labor. Verses 22 and 23 imply that Isaiah’s Israel experienced the kind of displacement that prevented people from enjoying what they had worked for, built and planted.
In the new heavens and earth, however, the prophet promises in verses 21-23, “They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat… My chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not toil in vain.” Residents of the new creation will, in other words, get to enjoy what they prepared.
Isaiah adds one more lovely promise in verse 24. “Before they call I will answer,” he quotes God as insisting there. “While they are still speaking, I will hear.” The prophet insists that in the new heavens and earth God will be so close to God’s people that God will answer their prayers before they can even offer or end them.
When and perhaps where, however, will all this happen? We know God will only completely fulfill those promises when Jesus Christ returns to usher in the new creation. Yet is God already beginning to fulfill those promises here and now on this heaven and earth?
A textual quirk leaves the door open to that possibility. When Isaiah quotes God as saying, “I will create…” (bara), we hear perhaps haunting echoes of Genesis 1. It links God’s creative work to that done near the beginning of measured time.
However, the prophet uses a participle in verse 17 to describe God’s creative work. It suggests ongoing action. However, as Steven Brock Reid notes, a participle can also indicate imminent action. So Isaiah at least leaves open the possibility that God is already creating new heavens and an earth that God will soon completely create.
Perhaps especially when we read Isaiah 65 in light of the work of Jesus Christ, we can see how God is already transforming this creation. Of course, physical death continues to plague that whole creation. Yet we profess that Jesus’ death and resurrection changes the nature of such death for God’s people. Physical death is for us now just a passage from life to Life.
What’s more, as God’s kingdom comes, God’s people work to restore just rewards for work. Of course, all sorts of sin and evil still displace and deprive people. Yet God uses God’s adopted sons and daughters to help people stay in their homes and enjoy the fruits of their labors. God also uses God’s adopted sons and daughters to ensure that no children are doomed to misfortune.
In that sense, Isaiah 65 is more than just a promise. It also serves as an invitation to God’s people. In giving us a glimpse of what God longs for God’s creation to be, the prophet invites us to partner with God in already working for God’s shalom for the whole creation.
The Adventures of Huck Finn is Mark Twain’s beloved account of the adventures and misadventures of the mischievous and (apparently) orphaned Huck Finn. Huck lives with the widow Miss Douglas and her sister Miss Watson.
Miss Douglas is convinced she needs to teach Huck some religion. So she teaches him about heaven. Huck says: “Now she had got a start, and she went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever.
So I didn’t think much of it. But I never said so. I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.”
Author: Stan Mast
On the church’s liturgical calendar, next Sunday is the last Sunday of the church year, on which we finally get to celebrate Christ the King. So, fittingly, the lectionary has us preaching on Psalm 98 this second to the last Sunday of the church year. We can think of it as a prelude to that great climax we’ll focus on next Sunday.
Psalm 98 is one of several enthronement Psalms in the Psalter (cf. Psalms 29, 93, 96, 97, and 114). It is in a sense the King of the Psalms, summarizing as it does the central message of the entire Psalter, namely, that Yahweh is the great King over all the earth, in spite of appearances. “Despite the disasters of sin and the terrors of history, the Lord alone is king, and he will make things right again.” (Raymond Van Leeuwen)
Understandably, Brueggemann includes Psalm 98 in his category of “Psalms of Re-orientation.” After all the struggles of Israel’s history and the tragedies of their individual lives (as spelled out in the Psalms of Disorientation), God’s grace has come on the scene in new and surprising ways. Life is good again in ways never experienced before. Says Brueggemann, Psalm 98 is one of those “songs of new orientation par excellence. They give public liturgical articulation to the ‘new kingship’ of Yahweh… [it is] one version of the victory psalms that celebrate Yahweh’s victory over Israel’s enemies.” Indeed, says Davidson, there is “no mention of defeated enemies and no mention of the gods of other peoples as in Psalm 96 and 97. They have faded into the background. The Lord alone holds center stage.” Truly, Psalm 98 is the King of the Psalms.
The structure of Psalm 98 is as simple as its contents are profound. In verses 1-3 the Psalmist sings about what Yahweh has done as the great King. In verses 4-6 he commands the human inhabitants of the whole earth to join Israel in praising the King. Verses 7-9 widen the summons to praise by inviting the entire non-human, indeed, inanimate creation to fill out the choir that sings the praises of the King who will come to make all things right. These concentric circles of praise involve the entire creation in the praise of the King of World. “Joy to the World, the Lord has come!”
A careful study of Psalm 98 will help us 21st Century Christians join in this ancient, future and cosmic praise. It begins with a call to sing “a new song” to the Lord. Why a new song? What’s wrong with the old ones? Well, the Lord has done such a stunning new thing that it calls for new song. God has created a new reality that must be celebrated with music suited to that reality.
How did the Lord create that new reality? All other world religions claim that we can experience a new reality by following the teachings of the god(s) or guru or prophet at the center of that religion, whether it’s the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita or the teachings of Confucius. (Of course, Israel and we Christians also have teachings we are supposed to follow.) But the central way Yahweh created a new reality was not by teaching, but by doing “marvelous things.” Indeed, that is the reason for the new song; “for (ki in the Hebrew) he has done marvelous things.”
The focus of our praise is on what God has done in history with his “right hand and holy arm….” Both Old Testament and New emphasize the mighty historical acts of God. For Israel, those marvelous things include the Exodus, the giving of Torah at Sinai, the preservation of Israel in the wilderness, the conquest of the Promised Land, the Exile and the return from Exile. For Christians, God’s marvelous deeds culminate in the birth, teachings, sufferings, death, resurrection, ascension, reign, and return of Christ. By these mighty historical deeds, the King of the World has broken into the disarray of a sinful world and created a whole new reality where all things will be right. This is how God has “worked salvation for him.” That phrase is significant. God works salvation, not us. It is not the product of our effort, of our “right hand and holy arm,” but of God’s.
Not only has Yahweh done these things in history, but he has also made them known. What good would it have done if God had simply acted in a far off corner of the world (as in fact he did), but didn’t tell anyone about it? Who would know? Who could believe? Who would benefit from it in the future? It would have been a once and done event (as opposed to “once for all”), the significance of which would have been lost to world.
But God made sure that there were witnesses, human beings who saw God act in history and then told the story and its meaning not only to their children, but also to strangers who lived at the ends of the earth. What God did in little Israel and in that one man Jesus was a fulfillment of his special relationship (covenant) with Israel. But in those particular events God was acting for all the nations of the earth. So Psalm 98 commands us to praise the Lord not only because he “has remembered his love and faithfulness (uniquely covenantal words) to the house of Israel,” but also because “all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.”
One more little note about the reason we are to praise the King. Actually, this is not a little note at all. It’s a big deal. Did you notice verse 2, where the Psalmist links salvation and righteousness? “The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations.” What is the relationship? The order of that verse suggests that salvation reveals God’s righteousness. But is there more to it than that? Does salvation consist in righteousness? And, for that matter, what is this righteousness that the Psalm ties to salvation in such a provocative way? I’ll say more about this later in my comments on verse 9.
For now let’s focus on verses 4-6 where the Psalmist steps outside the worshiping community of the covenant and addresses the rest of humanity, which, of course, includes Gentiles like us. “Shout for joy to the Lord (Israel’s God, Yahweh, the covenant name of God).” That is a command. Indeed, all the verbs in verses 4-6 are imperatives. The Lord is King and all human beings are commanded to praise him. This is a note that is often heard in the Jewish Psalter. Yahweh may have been the God of the Jewish people in a special way, but as God said to Abraham way back in Gen. 12:3, his intention in choosing Israel had always been to save the whole world. So, of course, in the King of the Psalms, the entire human race is ordered to praise “Yahweh, the King.” (verse 6)
I think it is fascinating that these commands in verses 4-6 all have to do with music. The inhabitants of the world are commanded not to bow down, not to grovel, not to offer sacrifices, not even to obey (though that comes into the picture in other Psalms), but to make music. The Lord is king, so sing, sing, sing, with jubilant song, with shouts of joy (if you can’t sing very well or get so excited that you go out of tune), using all the instruments you have.
The first response, the most appropriate response to what our great King has done for us is singing. What God has done should move us to joy, and joy must sing. Is there a more musical faith in the world than Christianity? Of course, the Jewish faith also sings, as we hear in all these Psalms. But we have seen the mightiest act of God in Christ (cf. Heb. 1:1-4). How can we keep from singing?
Indeed, says verses 7-9 the entire creation joins us in song. These verses have a slightly different tone—not the imperative mood, but the jussive, not command, but encouragement. “Let the sea resound…. Let the rivers clap their hands….” It’s almost as though the Psalmist is saying that humans need to be commanded to do what the rest of nature does by nature. The non-human inhabitants of the sea and the earth (the two great regions of terrestrial life) are simply invited to join the praise. Even the inanimate parts of creation are invited to “clap their hands” and “sing together for joy.” The creation praises its Creator, acknowledging that he is Lord.
Interestingly, the creation sings the praises of Yahweh not only because he is their creator, but even more because “he comes to judge the earth.” The main focus of this praise, then, is not on the past, but in the future. Note that this is non-human part of creation, not the human part, praising Yahweh because he is coming to judge the earth. The earth hears that as good news, but many humans will hear it as very bad news, as a threat to their life and well-being.
This brings us back to that business about salvation and righteousness. Verse 9 says that the reason for and result of Yahweh coming to judge the earth will be righteousness. “He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.” Many Christians might have expected different wording, something like “he will come to save the world by his grace.” But this Psalm and the rest of the Old Testament and, indeed, the New Testament does not see a conflict between grace and judgment, between love and righteousness. In fact, righteousness is what salvation by grace is all about.
What does salvation amount to? We often reduce it to the forgiveness of sins, being made right God, and having a home in heaven. It is that, but it is more. In his saving plan, God intends to make everything right again—not just our relationship with himself (though that is central to the whole enterprise), but also our relationship with each other, with the rest of creation, even with our own selves. The New Testament ends not with the saints in heaven, but with the New Jerusalem coming down to a new heaven and new earth in which all the effects of sin have been eradicated. All that was wrong will be made right again. So, says II Peter 3:13, “in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”
So it’s no wonder that the whole earth joins in praise at the prospect of the King’s return, “for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the people with equity.” If this still sounds threatening, consider these words from Ray Van Leeuwen. “God’s judgments are not opposed to love, but are the very instrument of that love. God’s judgments restore all that is broken to the goodness the Bible calls ‘righteousness.” The only creatures who need to fear the judgment are those who refuse to sing, but instead continue their rebellion against the King. With that in mind, you could end your sermon on this King of the Psalms with an invitation to stop rebelling. Stop murmuring and grumbling and plotting against the King. Lay down arms and lift up hands and sing the praise of the King.
Psalm 98 was the Old Testament text on which Isaac Watts based his famous Christmas carol, “Joy to the World.” Listen for the echoes of this Psalm in that hymn of praise to the Lord who has come.
Joy to the world! The Lord is come: let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing….
Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns; let all their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rock, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy….
No more let sin and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found….
He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness, and wonders of his love….
The relationship between singing and shouts of joy when victory has been won is vividly illustrated on Saturday afternoons in the fall when your favorite college team wins. Any fan of the University of Michigan knows that every touchdown, field goal, and victory is followed instantaneously by the singing/shouting of the famous “Hail to the Victors!”
The joy of judgment can only be understood by someone who understands how terribly wrong things are in this world. As Neal Plantinga put it in the title of his masterpiece breviary on sin, the world is Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be.
For a stunning picture of the way non-human creatures will join in the praise of the King, read C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles again. Not only do the animals speak to humans, but they join them in the battle against evil and in the final victory. The movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has breath-taking scenes of badgers and beavers, rams and leopards, all creatures great and small, racing into battle for and then bowing in worship before Aslan. The only thing lacking is the singing of Psalm 98.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Author: Scott Hoezee
We all struggle with sin and temptation and so we need to heed the challenges of Scripture when it advises us on how to lead God-glorifying lives. It would be merely self-deceptive and tinged with no small amount of hubris for us to dispense with any parts of God’s Word on the premise that we have this or that aspect of Christian living in the bag. I myself would be very slow to ignore parts of the Bible by thinking “Oh, I got this part down.”
But honestly, having grown up steeped in the so-called “Protestant Work Ethic,” when I read this passage from 2 Thessalonians 3, I am tempted to stamp it with “N/A: Not Applicable.”
The last thing my forbearers needed was a warning against idleness. If anything, they needed to be warned to take a Sabbath break once in a while. I’ve known people who have labored for the kingdom without ceasing even into their later years. And when I have suggested to them that it would probably be acceptable in the Lord’s sight if they throttled back a bit, I’ve been told “Well, I don’t think ‘retirement’ is a biblical concept.” When the Lord returns, people want to be found being very busy. True, some of this is borne of an undue burden of guilt that some of us in the Reformed tradition have altogether too good at inculcating into ourselves. If all our works are filthy rags in the Lord’s sight anyway, the least we can do is pile up as many rags as we can in the hope that quantity might garner God’s favor in case quality is found lacking. But for others, incessant kingdom labor is fueled less by guilt and more by genuine fervor for reaching out and helping other people in ministries of various kinds.
Either way or both ways, the point is that I’ve not grown up among an idle folk. Maybe many of you have not either.
Probably we all would love to know exactly what was going on in Thessalonica that garnered these stern words from Paul. Was there something about the Gospel of salvation by grace alone that made people get morally lazy? Was it some version of the same mentality that made people careless about their sinning seeing as God would forgive it all anyway (see Romans 6)? Or did the early church’s newly minted diaconate do such a good job of caring for people that a few came to rely on that ministry at the expense of pitching in themselves? It’s hard to know with great precision what led Paul to order people off their duffs in order to do meaningful work. It appears, though, that the work in question was not holy work or church work per se but just earning one’s keep through vocations and occupations of all kinds.
Paul says that idle busybodies and lazy folks were not living according to “the tradition” they had been given. What is the tradition in question? Again, it’s a bit hard to know precisely. This part of 2 Thessalonians is another reminder that when we read the epistles, we are reading somebody else’s mail and so we are at a bit of a disadvantage in knowing the background and precisely what Paul was reacting against. But it appears that the tradition in question was the whole Gospel package. It was not only the good news that salvation comes to us as a free gift that we cannot earn but also the wider proclamation of Jesus that calls on redeemed people to ACT like they have been transformed by doing good deeds in Jesus’ name.
In the Gospels Jesus made it clear that we are to be salt and light, that we are to be Jesus’ own hands and feet. Jesus warned against salt losing its savor and light being hidden under a bushel basket. He commended ministry to the poor and downtrodden and never saw a marginalized person whom he did not want to raise up in dignity and in love. Jesus told parables about rich people who stored up wealth for only themselves and how that kind of mentality would never do. When he told a story about a Samaritan who helped a crime victim, he ended it with “Go and do likewise.”
None of that undermines grace. None of that should get twisted into a “work your own way to heaven” mentality after all. We don’t want to confuse the roots of our salvation with the fruits that those roots enable us to produce (though keeping that all straight is an abiding battle for most of us). But good roots in a well-planted tree—good branches grafted onto a robust vine—will produce fruit. Something has gone seriously wrong with the whole enterprise if trees and vines that have been given every advantage in the world to produce fruit end up being barren and empty.
Of course, you don’t do this to garner praise and adulation for yourself, either. Paul urges here that people do honest work quietly and steadily as they earn their keep in the community. The work in question does not need to be world-changing or high profile just done faithfully. It reminds me of the old Puritan proverb: “God loveth adverbs: he careth not how good but how well.”
Again, most of those Puritans and a whole lot of others in the Christian tradition have not per se struggled with idleness. If anything, we have struggled to achieve a fitting balance in our lives between work and rest, between reveling in grace and doing kingdom work as a way to say “Thank You” to God. We should not think of what we do too highly but neither should we regard the work God has gifted us to do too meanly. Probably an undue denigrating of our work as “filthy rags” in God’s sight drifts too far in the opposite direction, too. We should delight in the gifts God has given us, in the opportunities we have to work but at the end of the day, we can also rest. The weekly rhythm of Sabbath keeping and in old Israel the tradition of sabbatical years and the year of Jubilee were all instituted to help us remember that although our work is important, it is of only penultimate (and not ultimate) significance in the grand scheme of things. God is still God and we are not. God is still the one who saves and preserves his people and not we ourselves no matter how hard we work.
It may or may not be accurate to look at this passage and say “Well, we’ve got this one covered and then some!” Probably the temptation to misconstrue the meaning and importance of our labors still exist in varying ways. Like so much of the Christian life, striking the right biblical-theological balance can be difficult. It is no better to race through life pursued by an unwarranted guilt than to kick back in life and try to get away with as little effort as possible. Whatever else this passage from 2 Thessalonians 3 means, it is evidence that the Christian God is not the absentee landlord god of Deism or, in its current form, of what Christian Smith calls “moral therapeutic Deism.”
God is interested in our daily lives and activities. He’s interested in the flourishing of this world and in our participation in all that. After all, as we can read elsewhere in the New Testament, God so loved this world—THIS world of daycare centers, factories, schools, and supermarkets—that he sent his only Son here to redeem it. As disciples, our own interest in the activities of this world ought to be no less ardent.
From Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1973, p. 95.
“Vocation comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God . . . By and large a good way for finding out [God’s true calling] is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of our work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b) but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either. Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”