October 31, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
“And no one dared to ask him any more questions.”
That must have come as a great relief to Jesus in that he had lately been pummeled with one tricky query after the next. Technically that line in verse 40 falls just outside the lection prescribed here, which ends in verse 38 (why it ends there is anybody’s guess). But you really need to see that last line in verse 40 to appreciate the effect of what Jesus said.
After all, if ever there was a group of people who were invested in the so-called “Gotcha” kind of question, the religious authorities of Jesus’ day were it. Sometimes today certain politicians—usually the ones who don’t do well in interviews—say that the reason they had such a shaky performance in the interview was that they were being set up all along with “Gotcha” questions designed to make them look stupid to begin with. Whether or not that’s always true is something one can determine only based on reviewing the interview—and the questions—but sometimes it does turn out to be true and you can tell just by watching. The reporter didn’t want an answer—she wanted a headline.
There wasn’t much doubt about the “Gotcha” nature of the questions filling up Luke 20. But the one in this particular Year C lection is a real capper! It’s also almost clunky in its obviousness. The point could have been made with just 2 brothers marrying the same woman, but just for effect (and to throw in a biblically loaded numeral while they were at it) the Sadducees crank up the scenario to seven grooms for one woman. It’s almost childish. It’s the kind of thing my kids would have done when they were about 9 years old, exaggerating the point just to get under your skin a little.
The question of the Sadducees was like this. If you think that someone has silly ideas or a stupid stance on a given issue, then one way to reveal your opinion is to construct an absurd scenario and try to force the other person to enter it while trying to answer your question. It’s a sinful thing to do, and it’s unfair. It is not for this reason, however, uncommon, even in the church.
The Sadducees thought the idea of resurrection to be silly. Maybe they had been influenced by Greek thinking, maybe they felt you could not build a good case for it based on the Scriptures. But they thought it silly and had come to the conclusion that Jesus believed in it. Since Jesus was a prominent teacher, they thought it would be fun and instructive to publicly humiliate him and so concocted their over-the-top scenario that exploited the old Israelite practice of levirate marriage to wonder what a woman who on earth had had seven husbands would do in the afterlife.
Jesus, of course, wriggles out of the question by undercutting its entire premise. The Sadducees wanted to make resurrection look silly by showing the impracticality of what to do with people who had been married more than once in this life. Jesus simply challenges their premise that marriage as we now know it would have anything to do with life in the kingdom of God as we will experience it then. Essentially Jesus said, “Who ever told you marriage would be part of the life in a post-resurrection existence?” That left the Sadducees with a mouthful of teeth, of course, in that they had to admit that they had only guessed that marriage as we now know it would be in heaven. But as a matter of fact, no one ever really said that—least of all Jesus—and so far from catching Jesus out with their cynical question, they themselves were shown to be out to lunch!
In preaching on this text, there is a temptation to make it some kind of primer on sexuality and marriage in the kingdom of God. It seems likely, however, that if we make too much of Jesus’ words here on marriage in the kingdom, we will be guilty of the error of the Sadducees all over again. That is, we will infer things that are not explicitly taught and extrapolate from relative silence in the text. We are probably better off saying no more than that what Jesus teaches here is that we should not neatly assume that life in the kingdom of God will be just like the life we know now only more so. Yes, there is good biblical warrant to the idea that the kingdom will include a new earth and so we should not always envision heaven (as we tend to do) as some ethereal, non-physical domain that will be devoid of mountains, rivers, clouds, and songbirds.
But even so, we need to remember that the mysteries yet to be revealed remind us that precisely what our bodies and existences will be like in the life to come is not clear. What we need to be content with is the line in Luke 20:36 where Jesus reminds us that we will be “God’s children” in that life to come. And if that is not enough for us, I don’t know what would be!
“And no one dared ask him any more questions.”
It probably was a relief for Jesus to get to that point. At the same time, there is tragedy here, too. After all, when the Son of God is standing right in front of you, it’s a golden opportunity (to engage in vast understatement!!) to ask really important questions. But those who are not really interested in learning or having a relationship with Jesus get to the point where all questions dry up. And that is a very sad point indeed.
The question of the Sadducees in Luke 20:27ff should indeed be connected to the two previous questions in this chapter. It’s almost as though the religious authorities—despite their own differences of opinion among themselves—are taking a tag-team approach to tripping Jesus up with clever questions. It’s also important to note to other textual features to the wider context of this lection: first, the Parable of the Tenants is plunked right into the middle of it all (and the religious leaders were sharp enough to perceive that that one zinged right into them!); second, once the leaders decide they dared ask no further questions (Luke 20:40) Jesus asks his own question in verse 41ff—a question that, like the previous Parable of the Tenants—is not exactly kindly disposed toward those who were intellectually trying to rough Jesus up in this portion of Luke.
In her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor introduces us to a grandmother and her family who have an accident on an abandoned country road. Shortly after their car runs into a ditch, the family is approached by a band of three armed men, one of whom is The Misfit, a wanted killer whom the grandmother admits to recognizing, thus sealing their fate.
One by one The Misfit’s partners take the family members off into the woods and shoot them dead. Finally just the grandmother remains with The Misfit, pleading for her life and suggesting to him that he pray to Jesus. At one point, the old woman calls into the woods for her now-dead son. This prompts The Misfit to say, “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead, and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance.” The Misfit then goes on to say that if he could really believe Jesus had raised the dead, well then maybe he’d be a follower. But fact is, he wasn’t there to see it and so can’t really know one way or the other. Hence he figures that life is meaningless enough that you may as well do whatever you feel like with what little time you’ve got. When the grandmother tries one last time to reach out to The Misfit, he springs back and shoots her three times in the chest. “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” The Misfit concludes. But the story’s bottom line comes when one of The Misfit’s friends claims that all of this killing and such was “Some fun!” “Shut up,” The Misfit snarls, “It’s no real pleasure in life.”
I’m not really sure just what all that bizarre stuff means but the notion of whether or not Jesus raised the dead–and by extension, whether or not Jesus was himself raised from the dead–appears to be a kind of fulcrum in this story. If the dead are raised, maybe life would have some purpose beyond the moment. Maybe there could yet be pleasure in good things. But some think they can’t know. Yet the very idea that Jesus may have raised the dead is enough to throw everything off balance.
“She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Maybe the meaning of that odd line is that it is only when confronting death and evil that we become sober and serious enough to ponder what we really believe. She had been all prissy piety before, urging The Misfit to pray and all. Yet in the face of this twisted and evil killer, at one point the old woman mutters, “Maybe [Jesus] didn’t raise the dead.” Perhaps that is another way of raising the question: what do we really believe and is that faith able to withstand the harsh realities around us? Does our belief in Easter occupy so central a place in our hearts that it has a shaping effect on everything else we do, say, and think wherever we go in life?
Author: Doug Bratt
How can people build a home for God that fully reflects his glory? That’s the question with which Israel wrestles in the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. However, it’s also an issue with which modern Christians also struggle, though we know that God no longer lives in buildings, but in human hearts. Can we build any kind of home for God that fully reflects his glory?
Solomon built a glorious temple, a house for God that was full of cedar and cypress, gold and carvings. Yet even he had to admit to God, “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!”
There is a genuine faith that grieves our inability to do the things that God deserves. You and I grieve that we can’t live a life of faith that adequately reflects God’s gracious love for us. Christians mourn that we can’t perform service in God’s world that’s a fully appropriate response to what God has done and is doing.
Yet we remember that God doesn’t come to us because we live in ways that deserve God’s presence or because we erect things that are fully appropriate for God’s glory. No, God comes to live among God’s people because God graciously chooses to live among us.
As the Haggai text opens, Judah has faithlessly broken her covenant with the Lord. God, in God’s steadfast love, however, promises to graciously renew God’s covenant with her. To struggling and discouraged Judah God comes and says, “I am with you.”
God had inspired Haggai’s countrymen to rebuild God’s ramshackle house, the temple. Yet some of the elderly Israelites had seen Solomon’s glorious temple. So they weep when they see the paltry beginnings of the reconstructed sanctuary. Here Haggai acknowledges elderly Judeans’ grief. In their eyes the new temple is, the prophet admits, “nothing,” literally “much more than nothing.” It, in fact, can never be the same as before.
After all, the Ark with its mercy seat and cherubim is gone. The tablets of stone and the pot of manna are gone. The Babylonian holocaust has swept away those things, as well as Aaron’s rod, the Urim and Thummim and the eternal fire on the altar.
While Israel has replaced some of those treasures, they don’t have the same spiritual and emotional power. The old treasures that pointedly reminded Israel of the mighty things God had done among her ancestors are gone forever. Failing eyes, as a result, can only fill with tears at the memory of what used to be.
Israel’s grieving people, however, have forgotten just who fills the temple with glory. It’s not Solomon or those hallowed treasures. It’s the living God who is “with” Israel. And as long as that God is with God’s people, we can confidently expect new things no eye has ever seen or ear has ever heard.
So Haggai insists that the Lord who has done mighty things in the past can establish new symbols of the Lord’s presence in the future. The One who rules the past, present and future can reveal himself in ways not yet imagined or anticipated.
The future Haggai holds out before his discouraged countrymen is almost unimaginable. God earlier shook the earth at Israel’s exodus from Egypt and at her reception of the law at Sinai. Now God promises to “once more” shake the whole creation so that all the nations will bring their treasures to once again fill God’s temple with splendor. Someday, Haggai promises, all nations will finally come with their offerings to the Lord of Hosts.
What’s more, the prophet promises, God will soon establish shalom, God’s abundant life, the “peace” for which God created us, God’s people. This will include not only those in Jerusalem, but all who are faithfully flowing toward Jerusalem.
In verse 6 Haggai promises that all this will happen “in a little while.” The prophets used the phrase “in a little while” to describe events that were eminent, distantly future or even in the past. So Haggai may not be referring here so much to the shortness of the interval as to the greatness of the One who will usher in these new things. God, says the prophet, is moving on to the future.
You and I also have seen so much of God’s work in the past. God’s word has transformed millions of lives. God’s power has also crumpled countless empires. In the Scriptures we’ve also seen God shatter the chains of sin and death, first in the exodus from Egypt, then, most importantly in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Those who preach and teach this text may want to ask hearers if feel that any day now they may see new workings of God’s might. Do they wonder what amazing things God may transform? Do they anticipate the breaking in of the new heaven and earth?
Our mighty God, after all, graciously promises to graciously remain with us. Biblical scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier calls this promise of God’s ongoing presence a “silver thread” that runs through the Bible’s whole story.
It was the promise that assured even the scoundrel Jacob that God would never abandon him. God’s presence was the promise that accompanied a shepherd named Moses as he returned to Egypt to try to convince the mighty Pharaoh to free enslaved Israel. God’s presence was also the assuring promise that prepared young Jeremiah to prophecy, even when all of Judah turned against him.
God’s ongoing presence with you and me also gives us the strength to follow Jesus Christ into a future known only to him. Just before Christ ascended to heaven, he left all of his disciples with this promise: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Here is one thing on which you and I can count, even when everything else seems so uncertain: God will never abandon us. God will, by the Holy Spirit, stay with us always, right on into the glory of the new creation.
God remains with you and me, in good times and bad, in sickness and grief, at the moment of our birth and the instant of our death. We can rely as we form friendships, marry and have children. It’s one thing on which we can count as we serve God in our daily work and as we play. God’s presence with us is the sure promise we have even when our hairs gray and fall out and our energy wanes.
And because we know what this God who stays with us has done and may yet do, you and I can be faithful in our work for the Lord. “Be strong . . . be strong . . . be strong . . . and work,” he says in verse 4. God, after all, is “with” us, “his Spirit remains among” us.
Of course, we don’t, like Haggai’s contemporaries, work to build or rebuild a temple. As a result of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, God’s temple is no longer a building. Now God’s temple is wherever God lives, particularly in God’s people and within God’s church.
Yet some parallels exist between Israel’s temple and the worldwide church. So today you and I work to build up the temple that is God’s global church. God himself, after all is with us. God’s Spirit graciously remains among us.
So we can be strong and work in God’s church. For the Lord is with us. We can be strong, too, as we work in God’s kingdom, for the Lord is with us. We can be strong and work honestly in business, carefully in our daily work and faithfully in all of our relationships. For the Lord is with us.
Imagine, after all, the immense power that the Lord’s presence brings to all of our various work. God, after all, is the One who somehow raised up the Rocky Mountains and flung the stars across a billion galaxies.
The Lord who is with us is the God who created a people for God and has overcome every evil attempt to obliterate that people. This God is the God who raises up kingdoms and then knocks them down. God is the God who moves empires and kingdoms and all of history toward the goal God has established for it.
This Lord who is with us, however, is on the move to establish God’s kingdom on earth, toward the time when no tears, pain or grief will scar God’s creation. The Lord who is with us is on the move toward the time when the knowledge of him will cover the earth as waters cover the sea. So we can be strong and work, following Jesus on the way to the new creation. For the Lord is with us.
Illustration Idea (from the November 4, 2013 CEP Old Testament sermon starter)
In a wonderful sermon preached a few years ago at the Festival of Homiletics, Fred Craddock told a story. He said that when he was a little boy, his siblings and he would have to get dressed up in their best clothes — and so their most uncomfortable clothes — every Saturday night. A couple of the neighbors would come over and they’d all sit around the living room to read the Bible and then to sing songs out of an old spiral-bound songbook: “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “Standing on the Promises.” Craddock asked his mother once why they had to do this and she said, “Well, son, we don’t live close enough to a church actually to attend. But some day we might live close enough to a real church and so for now we’re practicing.”
One of the neighbors who came every week was an African-American man named Will. One time young Craddock asked him, “Will, you ever been in a real church?” “Hundreds,” was Will’s reply. “Well, what’s it like?” “Well, I’ll tell you,” Will said. “First off, don’t go by appearances. Cuz’ sometimes you’ll see some little old white clapboard church up on cinderblocks out in the middle of nowhere and maybe the shutters are sagging a bit and all. But don’t go by that. Because sometimes God disguises his goodness—he hides his best stuff in little old no-account places like that. But you just go inside one of those and you’ll see.” “See what?” Fred asked eagerly. “Well, when you look up at the ceiling, you’ll see it’s a deep, deep blue. And the stars shine and the angels sing and . . . well, you’ll just have to see for yourself some day, young man!”
In time dear old Will died, and so young Fred and his family attended the funeral in one of those little no-account churches God had disguised. But when Fred got inside, he was disappointed. It was nothing like what Will had said. The paint was peeling. No stars shined. No angels on display.
But then the service started. The choir got to singing and to swaying. The congregation joined in and all of a sudden, somewhere in the midst of the singing and the swaying and the praising, Fred looked up. “And the ceiling was blue. And the stars were shining. And ministries of angels sang Will to his rest.”
Author: Stan Mast
There are a number of ways to read this Psalm. Clearly, it is a prayer, but what kind of prayer? A cursory reading might dismiss Psalm 17 as the proud prayer of a self-righteous person, an Old Testament version of the Pharisee’s prayer in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:11,12). One wag said that the Pharisee had “I” disease. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of what I get.” Note the number of first person references in the first 5 verses of Psalm 17. David is absolutely sure that he is righteous. He even seems to challenge God to examine him closely to see if there is any sin in his life (verse 3). He is convinced that “I have kept myself” from the ways of the wicked (verse 4) and that his “steps have held to your paths (verse 5).” His prayer, then, is an entirely “righteous plea (verse 1).” Or is it self-righteous?
Followers of the Lectionary will recall that only last week we heard David confess his sins in the eloquent words of Psalm 32. So we know that he was hardly a guiltless person. His personal history with Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah, show that David was capable of a whole catalogue of sins. How in the world can he claim to be so righteous in Psalm 17? Who is he trying to kid? The words of I John 1:8 and 10 sprang immediately to my mind upon a quick first reading of Psalm 17. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him (God) out to be a liar and his word has no place in us.” If we take Psalm 17 to be the self-righteous prayer of a self-deceived Pharisee, then the only way we could preach it would be as a cautionary tale. Don’t pray this way. Pray the way David did in Psalms 32 and 51.
But we could also read this Psalm as the prayer of a man filled with real integrity, the prayer of a genuinely good man. Then it could be preached as a prayer to which we should aspire. Though he was not completely guiltless, as demonstrated in the Psalms mentioned above, David was confident of his standing with God because of his close relationship with God. Though he has sinned, he is sure of God’s covenantal love. Because of that covenant, David sees himself as “the apple of God’s eye (verse 8).”
Thus, we could read Psalm 17 as an Old Testament equivalent of Paul’s continual call to imitate himself. Yes, he called himself “the chief of sinners,” because he had committed terrible sins and still had a tendency to lean in the direction of sin. But his complete justification through Christ’s sacrifice and his ongoing sanctification by God’s Spirit enabled him to say things like this: “Therefore, I urge you to imitate me (I Cor. 4:16).” “Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern I gave you (Phil. 3:17).” “Whatever you learned or received or hears from me, or seen in me—put in into practice (Phil. 4:9).”
If we read Psalm 17 this way, it is the prayer of a sinner declared righteous by God and becoming righteous in his life. As a result, he can characterize himself not first of all or essentially as a sinner, but as a righteous man. In other words, by God’s grace, he has a new identity, and he prays here as that new creation in Christ. (I know, that injects a bit too much New Testament into this Old Testament prayer, but it helps to make the point.) Preaching on this prayer, then, will be a call to become what we are in Christ and to pray accordingly.
Such a sermon would be a helpful corrective to the kind of “worm theology” prayers so common in my staunch Reformed upbringing (and perhaps in other conservative “Bible believing” traditions). Question 8 of the old Heidelberg Catechism asked, “But are we so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil?” And it answered resoundingly, “Yes, indeed….” Many of us got stuck right there, convinced that we could never become as righteous as David says he is in Psalm 17. We forgot that the rest of the answer to Question 8 was, “unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.” A sermon on Psalm 17 could hold up David as a model of what the grace of God intends for all of us. We are called to be righteous people, and to pray accordingly.
Or we could read Psalm 17 as a countercultural prayer. We live in a society that is unbelievably tolerant of all manner sin but remarkably unforgiving of the sins of some people. On the one hand, we never talk about righteousness as a culture, but on the other hand we never get over examples of unrighteousness in public figures. We wink at and accept every sin as long it is done boldly and without apology. So, for example, entertainers can commit serial adultery, and those sins just become part of their fascinating story. But if the sin is committed by a public figure, say a political figure like a Clinton or a Trump, their sin is repeated endlessly on the news cycle. Now, one could argue that the exposure continues because there has been no genuine repentance, and that is probably true. But we have a tendency to be skeptical about public sinners who ask for our trust. One way or another, our society has little interest in genuine righteousness.
Psalm 17, and the Bible as a whole, introduces us to a wholly (holy!) different culture, a brave new world. Here it is possible for sinners to genuinely repent, receive complete forgiveness, and begin new lives in which change is not merely cosmetic, but proceeds from the inside out. David is a case in point. It is surely no accident that Psalm 17 follows Psalm 32 in the Lectionary. It is the message of the Gospel in two successive Psalms. Even someone guilty of the dastardly sins David committed in the Bathsheba and Uriah debacle can start over, if he confesses, is forgiven, and receives a new heart and right spirit from God. Psalm 17 is the prayer of just such a man.
As is so often the case in the Christian life, David now has a new problem—not his own sin, but the sins of those who would ruin his life as a righteous man. This is the prayer of a persecuted man, a prayer that could be prayed by Christians being persecuted to the point of death in Iraq and by Christians be oppressed by the forces of unrighteousness in North American culture. Conversely, as one prophetic scholar put it, it could be the prayer of the poor who are being oppressed by rich Christians, ala James 5.
However we apply Psalm 17, it is, above all, the plea of righteous man to a righteous King begging for justice in a particular case of unrighteous persecution. So, verses 1-2 are David’s initial plea for justice. Verses 3-5 are a claim of innocence in support of the righteousness of his case. Verses 6-9 are David’s petition, what he would like the Lord to do about his case. Verses 10-12 present the accusation lodged against his adversaries. Verses 13-14a are a repetition of his petition, what he would like the King to do with both parties in the case. And verses 14b and 15 are the concluding confession of confidence in the ultimate outcome of the case.
Once we understand what we are looking at in general, we can make more sense of the particulars. For example, when David characterizes his prayer as a “righteous plea,” he is not claiming to be sinless. He is saying that in this case, the case he is presenting to this Judge, he is innocent, vis a vis the accusations of his opponents. In the Old Testament generally, righteousness has to do with being committed to Yahweh in a covenant relationship. That is David’s emphasis in this Psalm, as summarized in verse 15. “And I—in righteousness I will see your face; when I awake I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.”
Similarly, when David invites God to examine his life (verse 3), his claim that God will “find nothing” is not a claim to moral perfection, but a confession of covenant faithfulness. He has continued to walk with God through it all. “My steps have held to your paths; my feet have not slipped.” This emphasis on relationship, rather than performance, is expressed beautifully in the two images of verse 8. David is both “the apple of your eyes” and a little bird hidden “in the shadow of your wings.” David’s confidence lies not in his own perfection (in spite of the way he seems to speak in the opening verses), but in the covenantal righteousness, love and faithfulness of his God.
David, then, is not self-righteous; he is righteous in Christ, declared righteous once and for all and being made righteous day by day. But as he walks with his Lord, he encounters oppression from the surrounding culture. So he appeals to his righteous King and Judge to rule in his favor. He ends with an expression of confidence that he will be not only vindicated by the Judge, but also satisfied with a perfect relationship with that King.
I have mentioned Christ in several places above, thus importing the New Testament into the Old in what may seem an anachronistic way. Patrick Henry Reardon goes far beyond that when he says that Psalm 17 is actually the prayer of Christ facing his death. He protests his innocence, he refers to his unrighteous enemies, and he utters his hope of victory, even resurrection. (Regarding that latter point, Reardon makes a direct connection between the last words of Psalm 16 and the concluding words of Psalm 17.) Indeed, the wider church has often read those last words of Psalm 17 as a reference to the Resurrection, both of Christ and of his followers; “when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.”
Further, Reardon is even more Gospel oriented that I was above, when he claims that the righteousness of which David speaks is the righteousness of Christ of which Paul speaks in Romans 3. If we make that interpretive leap, we can say that such righteousness is the precise remedy for the self-righteousness of the Pharisee. Indeed, the righteousness of Psalm 17/Romans 3 is the divine answer to the plea of the quintessentially unrighteous Publican in Jesus’ parable. “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God (Luke 18:14).”
Given the skepticism of our culture about both righteousness and redemption, it will be helpful to have real life examples of modern-day David’s—real, bigger than life, public sinners who have been not only dusted off and given a new shine, but even more genuinely changed into righteous people. Charles Colson comes most prominently to mind. Even the skeptics were convinced by his many years of kingdom service. Franklin Graham is another example. And I can think of a minister or two in my own church that fell in a heap of disgrace, but by God’s grace again mounted the pulpit and provided a shining example of righteousness. I won’t mention names, but you know some yourself. Maybe you are one.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Author: Scott Hoezee
Among the things Jesus and Paul made eminently clear in the New Testament is the idea that disciples of Christ are not supposed to run around wild-eyed about the return of Jesus and the end of history as we’ve known it. Don’t panic, Jesus said. Don’t be deceived that this thing happened in secret somewhere when you weren’t looking. In the Thessalonians correspondence Paul makes this clear too, reassuring people who had some end-times jitters as to the meaning of believers who had died before Jesus came back and squashing rumors that it was happening in some far off corner in secret.
Both Jesus and Paul made it clear that when this happens, no one will miss it. There will be portents believers can see and discern but there will also be cosmic events as harbingers of all this that will be anything but subtle.
It also seemed that for Jesus and Paul and the New Testament generally there was a concern that undue hang-ups and worries and prognostications about all this would distract the church from far more immediate, practical concerns and ministries. As someone once put it regarding how Jesus comes across in the Olivet Discourses in the Gospels, Jesus was clearly training long distance marathon runners for kingdom service, not sprinters whose Finish Line was always just a few meters off. Jesus (and Paul) wants disciples to be watchful and ready but not obsessed and paralyzed by fear, suspicion, or by spending long hours creating maps and charts with lots of arrows on maps to figure this all out ahead of time. Jesus never said “Blessed is the one who pegs the correct date and time of my return for yours will be the bestsellers of the age.” Quite the contrary, actually.
But back to 2 Thessalonians 2: Paul tells the Thessalonians that the end has clearly not come yet and neither did it seem imminent because a certain “man of lawlessness” had not yet gained world dominance and sat down to declare himself to be the only one true God. “Now you haven’t seen anything like that yet, have you?” Paul as much as writes. “Nope, you haven’t. Neither have I so let’s chill out a bit. Jesus is not back yet. Probably not tomorrow yet either or maybe even next month or year.”
That is all fine and good and even today we can read Paul’s words and understand the basic upshot and apply it to our own situation. But then again . . . after 2,000 more years have passed and after any number of leaders who here and there sort of fit the “man of lawlessness” description Paul indicates here, it’s by no means a snap to know what in the world to make of these verses or what in the 21st century their fulfillment might possibly look like.
Probably, though, even the Thessalonians were not sure. Would this be a Roman leader? A future or soon-to-be new Caesar? There were plenty such leaders who became actively hostile to the church and who declared themselves to be Deus et Dominus, “God and Lord” of the Empire and the world. Soooo?? One of those guys? Maybe? Maybe not? Even as the Thessalonians maybe tried to tie this evil figure to this or that contemporary or near-future figure, so people all through church history have done the same with these words and with also passages from especially Revelation. So many have been certain that this regime or that empire was it, that the Soviet Union was it (but then it went away) or that ________ nation would be it. Others fervently pegged the date and time of the second coming only to have that date and time pass by without fanfare. Some of those movements then died, others re-adjusted and tried again, still others claimed they had been right all along but it was a secret, quiet, private second coming that only those in the know could benefit from.
And that is perhaps just the point: if we get hung up on verses 1-5 (and then 6-12 that the Lectionary leaps over), then we will miss the true beauty that may constitute the real core of these verses in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15. The point is not finally to get nervous about all this. The point is not to turn Paul’s letter into a secret code (Dan Brown style) that requires years of scholarly diligence to decode and crack. And above all the point is not to let any of this instill fear or uncertainty in our hearts.
Quite the opposite: where Paul “lands” in these verses is right in the heart of the Gospel, smack in the middle of reassurance, of hope and of joy. The fact is that the Thessalonian believers were already saved and already secure in Christ. They were not going to fall for the deceptions of the lawless one and they were not going to receive the punishments inflicted on those who long ago decided to make unrighteousness their lifestyle. They have been saved, they have been called, they have been given the Spirit to believe the truth over against the lies of the age. They will obtain glory and they will stand firm if they cleave to what they had already been given in the proclamation of the Gospel in the Word preached and in Paul’s own letters.
This is the real place to end this reading and these are the words that need to frame the whole of it, even the possibly confusing things about that lawless one, whoever he is or may end up being. No, we should not read this as cause to shrug our shoulders or take the attitude Jerry Falwell, Sr., once conveyed when he said that he was not worried about nuclear war on this planet because if it happened, he would have long since been raptured out of it by Jesus anyway so who cares. Let the world burn. No, no, that cavalier attitude won’t do. We must have compassion on the unbelieving and live and witness in ways that will draw them out of the unrighteousness in which they now live to their peril.
But far from being consumed by worries and scenarios of the end times, we need to revel in what the Gospel already tells us is true of our status in Christ and let that hope, that joy, that confidence infuse our lives and fuel our witness. Such stances of confident hope and joy are where Jesus left things when he addressed this, it’s where Paul leaves things here, it’s where John of Patmos ultimately leaves things in Revelation. Believers in Thessalonica way back when and believers in the church today ought not try to be wiser than that.
When I was in high school, I accompanied a friend to a youth group New Year’s Eve party at a local Pentecostal church. Mostly the party was what you would expect: lots of goodies to eat, pop to drink, games to play. But at one point in the evening all of us were gathered in the church’s sanctuary to watch a movie. What we saw, however, was most certainly not a Disney production. The movie was called A Distant Thunder, and not to put too fine a point on it, the film frankly scared me half to death. Basically the movie follows the lives of several college-age kids following the rapture.
In classic dispensationalist, pre-millennial style, the movie suggested that at some point Christians will disappear from this earth and a period of tribulation will follow during which everyone will be required to receive a mark on the hand or forehead. In this movie, those who refused this secular branding were threatened with some ominous, though unspecified, punishment. The heroes of the film did not escape via the rapture the first time because they had been only ho-hum Christians before. But now having seen their true Christian friends disappear, their faith returned in a big way.
The movie ends when a few of these Christian youth who refused the mark are arrested and herded into a kind of prison courtyard somewhere. And try though I may, I will never forget the film’s concluding image: one of the arrested Christian youths looks up just in time to see the steely glint of a guillotine blade whistling downward to decapitate one of her friends!
All in all and ever since then, I much prefer to watch the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve! But many of us know that the kind of scare-tactic scenario shown in that film is pretty common in some parts of the wider church. And although theologically speaking some of this seems to be from way out in left field, we should admit that the Bible here and there does paint some curious end-time scenarios, not unlike Paul’s words in 2 Thessalonians 2. But the bottom line of this in the New Testament is never to instill fear or terror or to scare anyone into conversion even. Comfort, peace, and joy in the Gospel and in the assurance of God’s love to us in Christ is what we are supposed to take away from such end-time ponderings.
Jesus said “My peace I leave with you,” not “My terror I leave with you.” Peace is a good place to begin in preaching on apocalyptic texts and it’s a fine, fitting place also to conclude.