November 02, 2020
The Proper 27A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 25:1-13 from the Lectionary Gospel; Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 70 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Belgic Confession Article 37
Author: Scott Hoezee
When I used to 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 made a point to tell people, “Now don’t forget to enjoy yourselves! It goes fast so have fun!” 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.
But then came the day when my own daughter got married. I conducted the ceremony at her request. Suddenly I found myself giving my standard admonition to have fun while staring into the mirror! I spent weeks—months—waking up with a knot in the pit of my stomach. Who knows why. Thankfully, in the end, when the big day came and there was nothing more to do but wait out the clock until the ceremony began, I did by God’s grace relax and both my wife and I had a roaring good time!
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:
First, 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. Do they think this could go on so long they will have to keep their flowers watered lest they wilt before the big event gets underway?
So also in the parable: 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 anyway, 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. I mean, if I tell you I am completely clueless as to the workings of electromagnetism, it makes little sense to scour anything I write for clues as to the inner machinations of electromagnetism. You’re barking up the wrong tree.
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.
What would you do if you knew Jesus was coming again tomorrow, someone once asked Martin Luther. “I think I’d go out and plant an apple tree.”
There are no particularly difficult or striking features to the Greek original or English translations 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 (and is behind the English “moron”). 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?! Too late for Joe but not for you! 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 everything he said was true.”
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Author: Stan Mast
When preaching on this text, there is a huge temptation to focus on verse 15c alone. “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” That bold declaration of commitment and intention has been posted on many a front door, mine included back in the days of my young parenthood. It’s a great text, but taken out of context it loses some of its power. So, let’s be sure to pay attention to the whole of Joshua 24.
When we do that, we see that this is not just a front door statement of faith. This is a once in a generation renewal of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel. Or to put it in more Christian terms, this is a “come to Jesus moment.” As we come to the end of the liturgical year with Christ the King Sunday just two weeks away, the Lectionary calls us to a day of decision. That should resonate with many church folks, especially in the United States, as we have just had a great day of decision in our national elections.
The nation of Israel now occupies the Promised Land, though many of the natives are still very much in the land. The twelve tribes have been assigned their portions in the Land and have taken possession of representative places in those portions. But there is much warfare ahead. Even more seriously, these stubborn natives continue to worship their gods. In Joshua 23 Israel is warned to stay away from those gods, or else Yahweh will drive them back out of the Land!
That’s the setting of this great “come to Jesus” moment in Israel’s life. Not content with simply warning them against idolatry, God calls Israel to reconfirm their covenant loyalty to the God who has led them out of Egypt, through the wilderness, into the Land, up to this very moment. God wants to hear them say it, to boldly and firmly announce their loyalty to Yahweh alone, and to back up their words with strong deeds.
As with so many ancient covenantal ceremonies, this one begins with a recitation of the mighty deeds of the Sovereign for the vassal. Before they pledge their allegiance to Yahweh, Joshua reminds them of all Yahweh has done for them. He goes all the way back to God’s call of Abraham to leave his pagan family and country. And he gives a brief summary of Yahweh’s dealings with the other patriarchs. The Lectionary inexplicably omits the rest of redemptive history, in which Yahweh is again and again the One who has saved them. Note the drum beat of “I” in verses 2-13, concluding with “I gave you the Land on which you did not toil and the cities you did not build….” Israel is completely beholden to Yahweh.
Then comes the great moment of decision with a clear call to commit to Yahweh alone. Three verbs make the call unmistakable: “fear, serve, throw away.” In our age that emphasizes a piety of familiarity and friendship with God, some translations tone down “fear” to “reverence.” That is not wrong, but the sense here is stronger than that because Yahweh is not just our good friend. He is our Lord before whom we must bow. An old hymn (“My God, How Wonderful Thou Art”) may capture the sense here. “O how I fear Thee, living God, with deepest, tenderest fears….” So, while this is not a call to be terrified, it is a reminder that we owe our Lord not just warm feelings, but strong obedience.
That’s the idea in the words, “serve him with all faithfulness.” Allegiance to Yahweh is not measured in feelings, but in faithful service, in actions that demonstrate that he alone is Lord. It is one thing to feel close to God in this great dramatic covenant renewal service and to speak words of faith and commitment when you are moved by this event. It is quite another to be loyal in the way you live day in and day out. Being in covenant with Yahweh means that you serve him with all faithfulness, that is, in all areas of life.
And you must demonstrate your fear and loyalty right now by getting rid of other gods; “throw away the gods your fathers worshipped beyond the River and in Egypt (and, as verse 15 adds, the gods of the Amorites in whose lands you are living).” Clearly, this points to the fact that Israel was currently holding on to other gods, even as they were preparing to pledge allegiance to Yahweh alone.
There were the gods from over the Euphrates (the gods of Terah and Abraham), and the gods of the Egyptians, and the gods of the natives who were still around them. Israel was hedging their bets. Yes, we know and believe in and love Yahweh, but we also know about these other gods. So, we will hang on to them, too. Yahweh says, “No, it doesn’t work like that. Those gods are not partners with me and a little insurance for you. They are mortal enemies and they will ruin your lives.” So, don’t just talk a good line. Literally, “throw them away,” put them in the trash.
There’s your decision, Israel. Yahweh or other gods—not Yahweh and other gods, but Yahweh or other gods. If serving Yahweh alone seems “undesirable to you,” too hard, too narrow, even “evil” (as older translations have it), then pick your gods. There are many to choose from. Go ahead, go god shopping. Forget about Yahweh and “choose for yourselves whom you will serve….”
This is where the famous front door pledge of allegiance to the One True God comes in. Joshua stands against the slide toward idolatry and for loyalty to Yahweh alone. “But as for me and my household, we will serve Yahweh.” Many modern preachers may be tempted to note the patriarchalism in those words, but that would distract from the intent of Joshua’s words. They are a passionate plea to a people in grave danger.
And it worked! When confronted with the horror of what they were doing, Israel reacted with horror. “Far be it from us to forsake Yahweh to serve other gods.” When they stopped to think about it, it was a no brainer and they proceed to run off their own confession of faith in Yahweh. It is a shortened version of Joshua’s sermon about Yahweh’s role in their lives. We know what God has done for us, so “we too will serve Yahweh because he is our God.”
But rather than jumping up and down with joy at their words, Joshua roughly rebuffs them. “You are not able to serve Yahweh.” I know your history and I know your hearts. What you have done speaks louder than what you have said. No matter what you say now, you are not able to follow through. “Your spirit may be willing, but your flesh is weak.” And that bodes ill for you, because of who God is.
Here Joshua speaks words that seem anti-Gospel. Reminding them that God wants nothing to do with sin (“he is a holy God”) and that God will brook no rival lovers (“he is a jealous God’), Joshua announces the opposite of what so much of what the Bible says about God. “He will not forgive your rebellion and your sin.”
Now, given the subsequent history of Israel and the fulfilment of God’s work in Christ, this does not mean that God will never forgive Israel or others who go back on their pledge of singular loyalty. It means that God will not endlessly let Israel get away with their sin. And God will not continue to spare them the consequences of their sin. He forgave again and again and kept them from suffering the results of their repeated rebellion.
But eventually, Yahweh did exactly what verse 20 says he would do. “If you forsake Yahweh and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring destruction on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.” That’s exactly what happened in the Exile. But even then, God relented and returned a chastened people to the Land. God forgives 70 times 7, and renews his covenant in Christ (more about later).
Joshua’s point here is that God is deadly serious about being Lord of his people, not because he has an ego issue, but because he loves them to death and doesn’t want to see them ruin their lives. Which they will surely do if they forsake him and turn to other gods. So, he sternly warns them that Yahweh is not just another god, that Yahweh means business, that he demands complete loyalty. He is the Only God, whose love for them is as fierce as it is tender.
The people get the message and pledge with even greater earnestness that they will serve Yahweh. And Joshua pushes them even harder by saying, “You are witnesses against yourselves….” And they reply, “Yes, we are witnesses.” At the end of this chapter, Joshua sets up a giant stone to serve as a lasting witness of this great covenant renewal. Witnesses testify that the covenant has been made, as witnesses do at a wedding. This adds a legal and binding dimension to this ceremony, lending it even greater weight. This is not a little pinky shake exchange of promises; this is a solemn life altering ceremony. And the people say, “I do, we do! We’re all in!”
But once more, Joshua isn’t done. He straightens his shoulders, clears his throat, and says, ‘Now then, throw away the foreign gods that are among you….” If you mean your promises, then act now. Throw them away. Pull them out of your tents, your backpacks, your hidden places, and most of all your hearts. And “yield your hearts to Yahweh, the God of Israel.” With your hands, throw your idols away and offer your heart to Yahweh alone. (I can’t help but think here of the old logo of my alma mater, Calvin College. It’s a pair of hands holding a heart and offering it up to God. The Latin motto around it says, “My heart I offer to you, promptly and sincerely.”)
So, says verse 24, the people repeated their vows of unalloyed loyalty to God, promising to obey him. Verse 25 concludes, “On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people and there at Shechem drew up for them decrees and laws” detailing their covenant obligations.
How did that work? Well, it lasted through all the days of Joshua says verse 31. Israel meant what they said, but as our reading for next week will sadly show, it didn’t last. Instead of straight-line obedience, Israel fell into a circular pattern of disobedience, distress, repentance, deliverance, good intentions, and then back to disobedience. Joshua was right. They were not able. And God was true to his character and his word.
We can preach this text as exactly what it is—a come to Jesus moment. We can call our people and ourselves to recognize how we serve other gods in addition to the true God. We can call them to a renewed commitment to the Father of Jesus, a fresh confession of faith that “Jesus is Lord,” a stronger reliance on the Holy Spirit to overcome the weakness of our flesh. If you haven’t had a revival tent altar call for a while, this text gives you a perfect opportunity to call them to Jesus.
But ultimately, you must make sure that you land on the grace of God in Christ. As Joshua said to Israel over and over again, it is only God who can save us. The only reason Israel got to the Land and the only reason they got to return was the grace of God. The only reason habitual sinners can live peacefully in the Presence of the Holy and Jealous God is that Jesus has made a “new covenant in my blood (Luke 22:20).”
Until Joshua forcefully called Israel away from their other gods, they may not have even been aware that they were trusting those gods. They looked like faithful covenant keepers to the casual observers, even to themselves. They had a hidden virus in their lives, a virus that could sicken and even kill them. But so many of them were asymptomatic. It took a prophet to diagnose them. Today, you are called to be that prophet for your congregation. What hidden gods have infected the faith of your good people. It will help if you do a self-diagnosis first.
Joshua’s call to “the people of Israel” reminded me of “we the people” from America’s founding documents. And I wonder if “we the people” who are so accustomed to making our own laws as a matter of principle, if we independent individualistic people will be able to hear Joshua’s strong call to fear, serve, and obey the One True God. Many of our contemporaries will hear that as a call to patriarchal subservience that lessens us, rather than a loving call to a service that fulfills our true destiny.
Author: Scott Hoezee
In his at-times searing memoir A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis at one point reflects on Jesus’ invitation “Knock and the door will be opened unto you.” But in his grief and in his seeking of answers as to why his wife had died of cancer, Lewis claimed that he had in fact not just knocked but pounded on the door of heaven until his knuckles were raw. But, Lewis wrote, from the other side of the door “all I could hear was the bolting and double-bolting of the door.”
His writing breaks off at that point and then the next paragraph begins. “I wrote that last night. It was a yell more than a thought.”
A yell more than a thought. That line occurred to me when I read Psalm 70 in preparation for writing this sermon starter. Psalm 70 is one of the shortest of all the 150 psalms and with the exception of one brief line about wanting God’s people be able to rejoice in God’s goodness, the psalm is a yell, a yawp, a no-holds-barred pleading for God to act in the face of whatever grim circumstances were facing this poet at the time.
The psalm is bookended with cries for God to hasten, to come quickly, to not delay. The psalmist is clearly not hoping for God to give him stamina for the long haul! He wants his circumstances to be alleviated yesterday. It reminds me a little of the old joke about praying to God, “O Lord, give me patience. Quickly!”
In between those initial and then final urgings for God to get moving immediately, the psalmist spends a decent percentage of this short prayer asking for God to take care of his enemies. (Surely the most memorable part of this psalm is the part where his enemies are depicted as saying “Aha! Aha!” I guess that doesn’t need much explanation in terms of what this means but it’s a curious turn of phrase!). But unlike some of the harsher imprecatory psalms, Psalm 70 does not ask for the destruction of these people nor for any violence to befall them. Curiously the focus is that they be forced to face up to disgrace, to shame, to confusion.
It may be a little difficult to know what that would entail for these people. After all, the psalmist claims in verse 2 that they are trying to take his very life. The stakes seem pretty high if that is the case. Most of the time people who are that potentially violent or deadly are not much given to being shamed. And anyway, if they really are murderous in their intent, is asking for them to be confused a punishment that fits the crime?
These are not easy questions to answer. It may be that as in certain cultures today, perhaps in the Ancient Near East the idea of having honor was so esteemed that being shamed or disgraced really was more serious a consequence than we might think. In some Asian societies to this day people can be led to attempt or actually to commit suicide if they feel shamed, if they are disgraced in front of peers or family or colleagues. This might be a bigger deal than we realize, in other words. It is even possible that to be shamed, confused, and disgraced was worse to some people than actually enduring a physical punishment. It might have been a fate worse than death.
Whatever the precise ins and outs of all that, however, Christians today—and those of us who preach to Christians in the church today—are still left with the standard issue involving psalms of even mild imprecation. True, Psalm 70 is milder than some psalms that call for wholesale destruction of people, for the breaking of their arms and teeth, for the smashing of baby brains against rocks. But even so this psalm comes to people whose Savior and Lord counseled that we have to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and never repay and eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth.
The One we hail as the Prince of Peace took all the imprecations and curses of Scripture against sin and evil upon himself on the cross once and for all to snap history’s never-ending cycles of violence and revenge. So what do we do with Psalm 70 and other such psalms that traffic in varying levels of imprecation and curses and desires to see foes squashed one way or the other?
When I have wrestled with these questions with students in Psalms classes, many students have pointed out that if nothing else, the existence of imprecatory psalms in the Bible testify to something we all know but may be reluctant to admit: we all feel this way sometimes. We may not like feeling this way, we may feel guilty about feeling vengeful but . . . well, such unsanctified thoughts crop up in us now and then. Prayers like Psalm 70 show us that yes, this is the case.
However, it is by no means clear the ancient Israelites who composed these songs felt many pangs of guilt over them. They do not seem to hesitate to express such vengeful thoughts. But now we as Christians do need to hesitate and even to repent over such longings. Biblically and theologically this can be a knotty matter. People who today want to indulge in vengeful prayers against enemies can, after all, quote chapter and verse. “It’s in the Bible, pastor!” not a few of us have heard from parishioners who are angry over some terrorist attack or some local atrocity committed by one thug or another and who want the pastor to pray in public for their destruction.
If we tell people, “Well, that shouldn’t be in the Bible” or “Some parts of the Bible are less inspired than others,” we likely will land in swift trouble depending on our context. So perhaps a better answer is to say that God knows about these things and always has. God knows what evil people do, the harm it inflicts, and the understandable desires for revenge this stokes in people of goodwill and good moral character. And so as God’s redemption plan slowly played out across history, even God’s people gave voice to this now and again. But those psalms were stops along the way to salvation, not the end of the matter.
The end of the matter is Christ Jesus who took all this history-long pile of garbage and mayhem and suffered the punishment for all of it. The end of the matter is the word of the Living Word made flesh who told us to love and to forgive even the worst people we encounter. Yes, for now and in this world we can still believe in actions having consequences and so we need not think that supporting law enforcement or sending people to jail in the wider societies in which we live violates our commitment to Jesus or to his Gospel. But personally and as a church community, we follow the lead of the Savior and so do not revel in vengeful thoughts much less on a personal or communal level seek to carry out violence even against those who all things being equal we could all agree deserve it.
Probably all of this has some bearing on our opinions regarding other civic topics like the death penalty or sentencing guidelines for criminals or how the prison system gets run in any given country but those are topics best discussed somewhere other than the pulpit. But what the pulpit can suggest is the baseline position from which believers could at least agree to begin such conversations and deliberations, all bathed in prayer to the Prince of Peace who has blazed for us a still better kingdom way to live and to think and to pray.
In his classic Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis—yes, the same Lewis who uttered the “yell” at the head of this sermon starter—mused a bit on the divine command to forgive as we have been forgiven. Lewis wrote this not long after the end of World War II when his home country of England was still recovering from years of trauma caused by German bombers and a significant loss of life in many British cities. In the light of that, Lewis famously said that everybody agrees that forgiveness is a lovely idea . . . right up until you actually have someone to forgive. Like the Nazis. In the abstract we love forgiveness. But it is when we can put a name and a face to a crime or to a tragedy that forgiveness sticks in our craw and instead we start spinning out fantasies of revenge.
Not for nothing did Jesus once say that the path that leads to righteousness is not the wide and easy road but the rather narrow and tricky one.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Author: Scott Hoezee
It started out as words of comfort. Paul’s intention was to soothe anxieties, tamp down sorrows, answer some hard questions that the Thessalonians were asking. That’s how it started. Over time, though, these words in 1 Thessalonians 4—coupled with some further talk on similar themes in the next chapter—have become a source of unending speculation, divisions in the church, and fierce arguments. “The Rapture” as it has become known spins out of these words if you interpret them a certain way. Or it’s not so much that people disagree about the rapture. That we will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air when he returns is clearly taught here and if you want to call that the rapture, that’s fine.
Where the disagreements begin is the larger end-times time line and where this rapture fits. Dispensationalist Christians teach it will be a secret coming of Christ, hidden from the unbelievers in the world. (Believers will just disappear from the earth, thus the bumper stickers on cars saying, “When the Rapture Comes, Take the Wheel!”). What will follow will be a long period of tribulation and war in a battle for world dominance. This will go on for a long time before Christ makes a more decisive, public return after which he will rule the world for 1,000 years (the Millennium) from a throne in Jerusalem. And only THEN will the final judgment take place and God will fully usher in his kingdom on this earth.
Others see it much more simply: when Christ returns and gathers his people as depicted in 1 Thessalonians 4, that will be a public event and it will swiftly set off an immediate string of events that will culminate quite soon in the final sorting out of humanity and its history before the dwelling of God descends from heaven to make its home on earth. No period of tribulation, no millennial reign on earth as it is.
This seems unlikely to be resolved among varying groups of believers anytime soon. But because it is the first thing most people think of when they read Paul’s words, we tend to miss the real pastoral import of them. These were not meant to be fighting words. These sentences were not intended to be parsed and interpreted and hashed over to within an inch of their life over many centuries. These were words of pastoral comfort.
It seems that in Thessalonica—as perhaps in many places in the earliest days in the church—the belief arose that since Christ had won the victory over death by rising again from the dead, believers would now not die themselves. Or they would remain alive until Christ came back, which would entail of course that he would be coming back very soon and within the lifetime of all of the Christians who were alive at the time of having converted to Christ. Probably the Thessalonians did not know Jesus’ words from John 11, but if they could hear Jesus telling Martha that “anyone who believes in me will never die,” they would have heard that as confirming this idea that being a Christian meant not dying. Ever.
And then members of the church started dying. Funerals were being held after all. A cloud of painful questions arose: were these people not Christians after all? Had they had inadequate faith? If so, how can any of us be sure we are good and faithful enough? Paul had said it was all faith, all grace, all Jesus. But is it? Or, far more darkly, was Paul just wrong? Is the Gospel a hoax? Is there no true victory of life over death?
It takes little imagination to envision how terrifying this was, how gut-wrenching and tear-drenched it was. So they sent word to Paul, and he undertakes to close out his letter with as much reassurance as he can muster. No, the dead are not lost. They did not die because they had fallen away from Christ or had not been strong enough. The dead are still in Christ’s hands and when he returns, those dearly departed sisters and brothers will be first in line to be raised back to new life and before you know it, those of us still alive when that happens will be reunited with them, too. Who knows how long it would be before that dramatic reappearance of Jesus would happen (and it was likely that even Paul suspected it would be sooner rather than later—one wonders what he would make of the now 2,000 years that have passed). But it will happen and when it does, we will see that all is well with the souls of our cherished dead.
“Encourage one another with these words” Paul writes in the end. Encouragement in the face of death: has there ever been a moment in human history when we did not need this? Have the ultimate questions about life and its meaning dried up in even the modern era in the face of death? Hardly. There are very few people to whom we preach—the very young probably excepted—who do not come to church every week with some variation of these ultimate questions banging around in their hearts and minds.
We all die twice they say. First there is that moment when our hearts stop and our brains go silent. Then second there is that time somewhere in the not-too-distant future when we die again after the last person who knew us and could recall us or talk about us also dies. And then we are really and truly gone from the earth. Few well-functioning people can escape the force of the question “And then what? Is this all that there is? Did I never matter? Will I never be heard from again?”
Encouragement in the face of that is a primal need. And the Gospel gives it. Once we are in Christ, we will never die. Not finally. Maybe our bodies give out. Eventually those who remember us are also gone. But we will never die finally. We can’t. We are in Christ. He remembers us. And he has a future for us.
Encourage one another with these words. And do it often.
In one of my Pauline Epistles classes, my professor Andrew Bandstra, had just completed a rigorous and thorough defense of the Reformed position of amillenialism, the denial of most of the complex timelines for end-time events associated with Dispensationalist theology. The class finished and as we students were stuffing our books and notes back into our backpacks, Professor Bandstra said, “Then again, if the Lord Jesus returns and you meet him in the air and he starts talking about setting up a 1,000-year kingdom headquartered in Jerusalem, well . . . go along with it!”
In truth we none of us can fully envision what the end will be. But if it’s Jesus and if we are with him, neither do we or will we have a blessed thing to worry about!