November 13, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
“Well done, good and faithful servant.” How often haven’t we heard—or even spoken—these words at the funeral of some beloved member of the church? How often haven’t we seen these words etched onto tombstones in a cemetery or printed on the cover of the memorial folder for a funeral? This is what every believer hopes to hear his or her Lord say when approaching those proverbial “pearly gates” of heaven.
Since no less than Jesus himself speaks these words twice in Matthew 25, there is no denying that they carry biblical clout. But is it really a great idea to latch onto this phrase and use it as the be-all and end-all of how we assess what the Christian life is all about?
I thought we were saved by grace alone!
We do teach that and yet I have long held the suspicion that a lot of people come to church each week with the nagging fear that they are not “good enough” for God. Hence, a lot of even the most virtuous of Christian deeds get fueled by guilt and fear accompanied by an overwhelming desire to hear God say “Well done . . .” when the roll is called up yonder.
So a main job of gospel preachers is again and again to proclaim the real good news that in Christ, we are all saved by grace. If we are in Christ, then what God will say to us at the end of days is not in question and is most certainly not determined by whatever grade we managed to achieve on the Report Card of life.
So what is Christian living? Where does it fit? Maybe the Parable of the Talents gives us a ready-made answer and maybe it is one that ties in with an image Eugene Peterson has used. Peterson says that in most languages (like English, for instance) there are just two verb voices: the Active and the Passive. In the Active Voice, the subject is solely responsible to initiate action: “The boy throws the ball.” “I am painting the wall.” In the Passive Voice something is done TO the subject: “The boy was hit by the ball.” “The tree got struck by lightning.” This linguistic way of talking affects our thinking in other areas: we assume that all of life comes down to a choice between our initiating activity or activity being visited upon us. Either I do it or someone else does it but there is not much in between.
But in the Greek language there is also the Middle Voice. In the Middle Voice the subject enters into an action that was started by someone else and that will ultimately be finished by someone else. It’s sort of like jumping with an inner tube into an already-flowing river. You didn’t create the river nor cause the current to flow. What’s more, it will keep flowing to its destination even if you hop out of the river at some point. But in the meantime you can jump in, float happily on the current, and also do things to steer yourself well, to position yourself well, to avoid rocks and overhanging tree limbs, etc.
And the Christian life, Peterson suggests, is like that. We are saved by God’s grace alone but then are also given the opportunity to jump into that already flowing river of grace. The river and everything we get a chance to do while floating in it are ultimately all the work of God. Our actions in the river would not be possible were it not for God. But what a joy and privilege it is to be in that river at all!
Of course, if like the third servant you are convinced that there is no joy to be had—that the Master is a “hard man” who is more to be feared than loved—then even grace cannot make a dent. But if you catch all the joy of the grace that kicks all this off in the first place, it makes all the difference in the world in what you then do in response.
In the Parable of the Talents, although the third servant missed it, the very giving of the talents was itself a divinely initiated act of grace. Everything else that happened after that was all a direct result of grace, grace, grace. What we do in the midst of this great river of grace is important and every true follower of Jesus who knows and experiences something of his holy joy must want to get in on “the master’s happiness” with every fiber of their being.
Indeed, we demonstrate that we understand this joy when we do throw ourselves into such Christian living wholeheartedly. Hence, the motivation for getting busy with our talents is not fear and not guilt but the very joy with which those talents were handed out in the first place! And it’s not a matter of what we do versus what God does but is a matter of our cooperating with God by participating with God in his great program of cosmic restoration!
Frederick Dale Bruner notes that a talent was a huge denomination of currency in Jesus’ day. One talent would have been the equivalent of a lifetime’s worth of wages! But as Bruner notes, that means that what this master gave away at the outset of this story was a whopping sum of money. And to Bruner’s mind, that is semaphore for grace. Giving that much away indicates the master’s confidence in these people and is indeed a shorthand way of getting at the idea that this story begins with grace. The question for each servant is not firstly what will he do with what he has been given but will he realize what the very reception of this means?
Near the end of C. S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” Aslan the Lion takes Lucy, Edmund, Peter and everyone to the New Narnia–to what we would call “heaven” or the New Creation. It is a place of astonishing light and beauty; a place where every blade of grass seems to mean more and where every creature sings for the sheer joy of the Creator. It is a place where everything is just so real in depth and color that the mere sight of a daisy takes your breath away and makes you weep for the sheer beauty of the thing.
But then, in the midst of all this splendor, the children see a group of dwarves huddled together, convinced that they are sitting in the rank stench of a barn–a place so dark that they cannot see their hands in front of their faces. Lucy is so upset that the dwarves are not enjoying the New Narnia that she begs Aslan to help them to see. Aslan replies, “Dearest Lucy, I will show you what I can do and what I cannot do.” Aslan then shakes his golden mane and a sumptuous banquet instantly appears in front of the dwarves. Each dwarf is given a plate heaped with juicy meats, glistening vegetables, plump grains of rice. Each also receives a goblet brimming with the finest wine anyone could ever imagine.
But when the dwarves dive in and begin eating, they start gagging and complaining.
“Doesn’t this beat all,” they lament. “Not only are we in this stinking stable but now we’ve got to eat hay and dried cow dung as well!” When they sip the wine, they sputter, “And look at this now! Dirty water out of a donkey’s trough!” The dwarves, Aslan goes on to say, had chosen suspicion instead of trust and love. They were prisoners of their own minds. They could not see Aslan’s gift of the New Narnia for they would not see it. Aslan can but leave them alone to the hell of their own devising.
Might something similar be going on with the third servant in this parable? Could it be that he just could not see the goodness of his master, choosing fear and suspicion over hope and joy?
Author: Doug Bratt
You’d probably have to thumb through a lot of children’s Bible story books before you’d find a retelling of Judges 4. It’s, after all, very resistant to the kind of moralizing such books sometimes like to do. In fact, even adult readers may have to dig pretty deeply to find anything edifying in this text.
Chapter 4 continues Judges’ display of God’s gracious response to and work through people. Those servants’ identities, however, are sometimes startling. God, after all, never changes. God, however, is remarkably flexible about whom God uses to accomplish God’s good work and purposes.
Judges 1-6 introduces us to God’s “unlikely” servants such as Othniel (a younger brother), Ehud (a left-hander) and Shamgar (perhaps a gentile). This week chapter 7 introduces us to Deborah (a woman), Barak (an Israelite coward) and Jael (a woman and perhaps a gentile).
Yet Judges doesn’t just trot out a long roster of God’s apparently unlikely servants. Chapters such as 4 also introduce two prominent, and perhaps surprising, themes. First, God’s chosen servant/deliverer longs for some sort of sign or reassurance. In this case, Barak refuses to fight the Canaanites unless Deborah accompanies him.
Secondly, Judges 4 also introduces us to the breakdown of the fragile Israelite military coalition. After all, according to verse 10, only the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali join in the attack on Sisera. What’s more, Deborah’s song later scolds Gilead, Dan and Asher’s tribes for refusing to join the battle.
Yet while some of Judges 4’s characters and themes are new, some common old themes also re-emerge in it. Judges 4, in fact, begins in a grimly familiar way. After her judge Ehud dies, Israel again does what’s evil in God’s sight. God once more responds by handing her over to an oppressor for a full generation. And, again, Israel cries out to God for help.
At that point, however, Judges’ author breaks that pattern. After all, God generally responds to Israel’s plea for help by raising up a “deliverer”/judge. So, for example, Judges 3:9 reports that God “raised up” for Israel “a deliverer, Othniel son of Kenaz.”
But Judges 4 offers no such report. Perhaps that’s because Judges wants spiritually amnesiac Israel to remember that it’s God, not any of God’s creatures that saves God’s people. But maybe Judges doesn’t immediately introduce us to Israel’s newest liberator also because God uses not one but three deliverers.
One of them, Deborah, is a prophetess who speaks God’s Word, as in verse 6 where she tells Barak, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you …” She also fulfills the traditional role of a judge who settles Israelites’ disputes. So God doesn’t have to “raise up” Israel’s newest deliverer. Deborah’s already in place. That first unlikely servant of God introduces us to a second unlikely one. After all, according to verses 6 and 7, Deborah calls on Barak to lead an army in an assault on Sisera.
However, oddly enough the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday comes to a screeching halt right there. It doesn’t tell us what happens to Deborah’s command, Barak’s response or Israel. The text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday effectively leaves Israel “hanging.”
Most scholars urge those who proclaim Judges 4 to press on past the Lectionary’s boundaries. As we do, however, we learn that Barak, whose name means “lightning,” is neither very quick nor bright. He, after all, refuses to confront the Canaanite commander and his formidable army unless Deborah accompanies him.
So why does Barak show little more enthusiasm for embracing God’s call than Moses, Gideon and Jeremiah do? Does he perhaps not trust Deborah to speak for God? Is Barak scared? Or is does he hesitate because he links the judge so closely to God that he assumes God makes himself somehow uniquely present through her?
In any case, Deborah warns Barak that his reluctance to do God’s work will cost him dearly. It will cost him the honor of defeating Sisera. A “woman” will get that honor instead. Yet, in a chapter jammed-packed with surprises, even that female victor’s identity startles us.
When the Israelite commander obeys Israel’s judge’s command to “go up” (14), God uses him, against all military odds, to rout the Canaanites who have left their military citadel to confront them. Even the 900 iron chariots Sisera had used to oppress God’s Israelite people prove to be no match for God’s good plans and purposes.
As a result, in a desperate attempt to save his own skin, Sisera abandons those chariots to flee the onrushing Israelites on foot. That, however, sends Canaan’s commander sprinting right into the “arms” of Heber the Kenite’s family. Heber’s part of a tribe that once had a close relationship with Israel. Moses’ father-in-law Jethro was, in fact, a Kenite. Heber, however, had moved to Canaan “because there were friendly relations between Jabin king of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite” (17). So he, in a sense, abandoned the Israelites in order to ally with the Canaanites.
That makes Heber’s wife Jael a likelier ally of Sisera than of Barak. Since Sisera assumes he has every reason to trust Jael, he accepts her offer of hospitality. She, in turn, at least initially treats Canaan’s powerful and cruel leader like a tired, thirsty little child. Jael gives him something to drink, tucks him into bed and promises to protect him against any threats.
That apparent tenderness is part of the reason why Jael’s next actions shock us. After all, instead of protecting Sisera, she pounds a tent stake through his head. It’s only then that Israel’s commander Barak arrives on the scene – a day late and dollar short. The commander, who has, in a sense, “hid behind” Deborah, finds his enemy, who also “has hid” behind a woman Jael, already dead. As a result, Deborah gives Jael (Judges 5:24ff.) rather than Barak the credit for eliminating one of Israel’s cruelest oppressors.
Yet Judges’ narrator won’t let us forget the identity of the true hero of this story, who the master and who the servant is. The real credit for Israel’s liberation belongs to God: “On that day God (italics added) subdued Jabin, the Canaanite king, before the Israelites” (23). It’s God who prevails, albeit through a rather unlikely trinity of characters. In the face of Israelite unfaithfulness, God remains faithful.
Those who dare to proclaim Judges 4 do well to admit that it’s a story that’s little easier to interpret than it is to fully understand. However, perhaps we can help our hearers think about it in helpful ways. First, we note the context in which Jael acts so violently. Sisera, after all, uses his 900 chariots to cruelly “oppress” God’s Israelite sons and daughters.
So this story reminds us that God hates oppression. God, in fact, often uses people to dismiss unjust systems, sometimes through violence. God is, in fact, an equal opportunity hater of oppression. When, after all, Israel herself becomes an oppressor, God destroys much of her and exiles whoever’s left. If God is, then, partial, it seems that God is partial toward justice, righteousness and peace. God consistently opposes anyone who oppresses weak and vulnerable people.
Yet, of course, Judges 4 is a violent story that challenges anyone who dares to proclaim and hear it in a violent world. While the 21st century has arguably thus far witnessed fewer wars than its predecessors, its more localized violence is no less intense than the last century’s. Violence remains all too common in the streets, schools and homes of both those who proclaim and those who hear this Sunday’s text.
Some who read this Sermon Starter may be, in fact, the victims of such violence and oppression. Others, however, are in some ways perpetrators of violence. And even if we don’t participate in social, economic and racial oppression, some of us at least indirectly benefit from it.
So Judges 4 invites us to ask on which side of its Canaanite-Israelite conflict we fall in our own context. It also challenges us to align (or perhaps re-align) ourselves with God, as well as God’s good plans and purposes.
As we’ve noted in previous sermon starters, few people seem to embody God’s ability to “draw a straight line with a crooked stick” than the American president, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Few modern biographers are more familiar with Johnson’s unique and often maddening combination of compassion and ambition than Robert Caro.
In his Newsweek review of Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, David Frum notes, “For three years under President John F. Kennedy, the cause of civil rights inched forward, if it moved at all. Then, suddenly, Kennedy was dead—and seven months later, so too was legal segregation.
To this day, the mystique of John F. Kennedy lingers. One third of Americans rate Kennedy a great president, and professional historians typically bestow generous accolades on him as well. And yet on the day he was murdered, President Kennedy had accomplished astonishingly little of his domestic program . . .
It was the graceful Kennedy’s ungainly successor who transformed Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric into legal reality. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who pushed through Congress the laws that overthrew legal segregation in the South. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who gained Southern blacks the right to vote. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who created Medicaid and Medicare. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who protected wild rivers . . .
Caro’s Johnson is a bully and braggart, a manipulator, a man of bad personal morals and worse business ethics. And it is this, frankly, monstrous character who realized more of Caro’s liberal ideals than any politician in modern times, Franklin Delano Roosevelt very much included — and the vastly more than the charming, but domestically ineffectual JFK . . .
How did Johnson do it? Here is Caro’s disconcerting message: Johnson didn’t do it by inspiring or exhorting. He did it by mobilizing political power, on a scale and with a ruthlessness that arguably surpassed all other presidents, before or since . . . As Caro tells it, Johnson instantly understood how to put to maximum political use the public grief over the Kennedy assassination. Johnson was not reckless enough to say aloud, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ But he certainly acted on that maxim.”
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 123 is the fourth of the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134) and the first that is a prayer. Most scholars think that Israelite pilgrims from all over the Promised Land (and perhaps beyond, if this is an early post-Exilic Psalm) sang these words as they journeyed up to Jerusalem and maybe even as they climbed the steps of the Temple. Here in Psalm 123, as the pilgrims approach the earthly throne of Yahweh, they lift their eyes to the Lord’s heavenly throne and pray for mercy, grace, favor so that they can continue their journey into God’s presence.
This Psalm is a perfect prelude to our celebration of Christ the King next Sunday, when we will lift our eyes to the throne of Christ who rules all things from the throne at the center of the universe (Ephesians 1:20-23). But Psalm 123 is not a song of celebration. It is a song of humiliation or, more accurately, a plea to be delivered from the humiliation we have experienced along the way on our pilgrimage. It harks back to those times when other thrones have dominated the vision of God’s people.
The Psalmist opens his prayer by deliberately lifting his eyes above the earthly scene, above the quagmire of history, above those other thrones that have shown such contempt for God and his people. This ancient prayer will preach in today’s world. For one thing, it gives us a marvelous image to work with, namely, “eyes.” Four times in the first two verses, the Psalmist uses that word. There are lots of ways to play with that image. “The eyes have it.” “Their eyes were watching God.” “Oh, be careful little eyes what you see,” which is an old children’s tune.
And, for another, this is a terribly relevant issue. Where do we look for help in this dark and troubling world—to diplomacy, to military might, to politics, to the President, the Congress, the Courts, to our allies, to the United Nations? Our news media keep our eyes focused obsessively on the earthly scene, so we desperately need the corrective of this prayer. “I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven.” Sounds a lot like a familiar prayer. “Our Father, who art in heaven….”
But how shall we look up? With fear, with faith, with anger, with sorrow, with despair, with hope? Verse 2 answers that question with a couple of fascinating similes. But this is where the prayer gets more than a bit difficult. “As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord, our God….” Older commentators say that these similes refer to the way servants look to their masters/mistresses to care for them. Such a reading of verse 2 is based on a romanticized past when superiors felt a responsibility to take care of their subordinates, a kinder, gentler era than many of our listeners will remember.
In the last year, I’ve read several powerfully painful accounts of slavery, The Invention of Wings and The Underground Railroad (last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner). Both pierced my soul and helped me understand the residual anger felt by many descendants of former slaves. The eyes of those slaves living in the brutal realities of Southern slavery did not look to their masters/mistresses with anything like trust. They may have bowed their heads and obeyed, but behind their submissive eyes were immense pain and sorrow. Another of my recent reads was Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a book filled with righteous rage about the slavery of the past and its ongoing effects in the lives of black Americans.
So, as we exegete these striking similes in verse 2, we must take into account the limits of analogy. Analogies help us understand, but only up to a point. We’ll need to take pains to distinguish between how some might read these words and how the Psalmist meant them. His meaning in conveyed in the heart of his prayer. Our eyes look to you, not to avoid punishment, not to gain approval, not to get instruction, not to be cared for, but to get one thing: “till he shows me mercy.”
Scholars point out that the Hebrew word there, hanan, can mean mercy or grace or favor. The problem with “mercy” is that it suggests unworthiness or guilt. Then the prayer of Psalm 123 is like the prayer of the tax collector in Jesus’ famous parable in Luke 18. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But that is surely not the sense of Psalm 123. Here the problem is not the guilt or shame of the people of God, but the shameful way they have been treated by their enemies.
So, a better translation is “grace,” though that, again, suggests salvation from sin (at least to those with Christians ears). Perhaps the best way to read this is as a plea that the sovereign Lord, the covenant Lord, will bestow his “favor” upon his loyal and beloved subjects. Thus, we should not picture the realm of the slave market or the legal system. Instead, we must imagine the realm of the royal throne room where God’s beloved children lift their eyes to their King and beg him for help in the face of their persecution. The tone of the prayer, then, is humility, dependence, trust, and love.
This is the prayer of a people who have had it up to here, who have had their fill, whose souls are full of it. That’s the sense of “we have endured much.” These pilgrims have endured contempt, ridicule, scorn from those who look down on them, and they have simply had enough. But rather than fight back, which they clearly cannot do because of the power of the proud and arrogant, they look to their King to straighten things out.
Who are these “proud and arrogant,” or as one translation puts it, “those who are at ease (echoing Amos 6:1).” Well, if this is an early post-Exilic Psalm, this might be a reference to the barbarians in Babylon, who mocked the exiles with taunts like we hear in Psalm 137. “Sing for us the songs of Zion.” Or these mockers might be those local officials who opposed the resettlement of the Promised Land in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Where do we experience ridicule and contempt in the contemporary scene? Who are the arrogant mockers today? The usual suspects are the militant atheists who have made a name for themselves by mocking the Christian faith, or the cultural elites who snort derisively at simpleminded Christians who resist the tsunami of cultural change, or the radical Islamic terrorists who kill their Christian neighbors and threaten the same to all who follow Jesus. More difficult to spot and more personally painful are the unbelieving friends and family who respond to tragedies in our lives with that age-old taunt, “Where is your God?”
This is a Psalm for those who have had it with this onslaught of contempt and ridicule. “Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us.” Note the double plea. This is not a polite, formal little prayer in church, a lovely “Kyrie Eleison.” This is a passionate, desperate cry from people who “can’t take it anymore.” Psalm 123 encourages us to take our anger and sorrow and pain and frustration to the throne room of our loving Lord and ask him to do something.
What do we ask him to do? The frustrated Exiles in Psalm 137 were so hurt and angry that they prayed mayhem on their tormentors, ending their lament with those awful words about dashing babies against the rocks. That is not the tone here in Psalm 123. It surely cannot be the tone of the prayers of those who follow the One who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” This Psalm, in fact, does not specify what form God’s favor should take. That’s entirely appropriate, because the Psalm looks to the hand of the King, trusting him to do the right thing. If the order of these Psalms is intentional, Psalm 124 may be the answer to Psalm 123.
The most important take away from this Psalm lies in that image of the eyes. Where do we look in this dark and troubled world? Where do we look for mercy, grace, favor when we’ve had it with the world? As is so often the case, James Luther Mays summarizes it well. “When pilgrims from the world’s contempt lift their eyes to behold the one who rules the world, they find the grace that overcomes the world.”
The Apostle Paul transforms this ancient Jewish prayer into a contemporary Gospel proclamation in Colossians 3:1-4. “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things. For you have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” What good news for those who have suffered so much contempt and ridicule here below!
Even congregational members much younger than I might recall the famous words of Howard Beale, the longtime news anchor in the classic film, “Network.” Faced with the maddening complexity of modern life, Beale comes unhinged on air and screams, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” His cry strikes a nerve in the general populace, and people fling open their windows and race into the streets in a frenzy of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” In the end, nothing much changes as a result of their passionate cries. The movie is a parable about how all of our screaming changes very little and in the act of screaming we often lose our voice. The cry of Psalm 123 has a very different tone and, if Psalm 124 is in fact the answer to the prayer of Psalm 123, this prayer changed a lot.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Author: Scott Hoezee
“Nothing good happens after midnight,” many a parent has said to their teenaged child when setting the 11:30pm curfew. And indeed, a majority of auto thefts, drunk driving incidents, domestic violence events, and a pretty thick majority percentage of rapes happen after the sun goes down and under the cover of darkness. We are, a lot of us as children, often rather afraid of the dark. In the United States alone 90 million nightlights get sold each year in part due to that fear of the dark.
Among his closing words to the Thessalonians, Paul uses the light/dark metaphor to describe the difference between living in Christ as people of hope and joy and living in the dark as people of wanton desires and unbridled appetites. But the main point of these words is that Christ is coming again and a primary feature that distinguishes children of the light from the people in darkness is that the former group knows about the nearness of Christ’s arrival and so live upright lives so that whenever Christ returns, he will find us living to his glory already.
It’s not clear whether the implication is that if Christ arrives at the very moment a given Christian is committing a sin, then that means it’s curtains for that hapless person. Back in the days when movie attendance was still largely frowned upon in my denomination, a frequent line of reasoning by some parents in warning their children away from the movies was to say “Do you want to be in a movie theater when Jesus comes again?” I suppose that depends on the movie. Then again, the idea was to not let Jesus catch you sinning.
But let’s surmise that whenever the Lord returns, the odds are pretty good that an awful lot of Christians in the world will—at that very moment—be cursing under their breath because their car broke down or perhaps will be thinking lustful thoughts about someone not their spouse or perhaps will be starting that one-too-many tumblers of scotch somewhere. The grace of the Gospel tells us those people will by no means be lost on that account.
So it seems obvious that Paul’s larger point is that the overall trajectory of our lives needs to demonstrate that we are in Christ, that we are changed people on account of our baptisms. We are none of us perfect but in general and most of the time we do not carry on our lives as though no one in heaven or on earth cares or is watching. We know how to live to glorify God—the Holy Spirit guides us into such Christ-saturated living all the time.
Let’s not use 1 Thessalonians 5, therefore, as a way to frighten people into moral living. But by all means it should inspire us to serious, thoughtful, intentional living for Christ.
But now let’s look at a different angle on this passage. When it comes to the parousia and all things eschatological, the Bible sometimes seems to say two apparently contradictory things. On the one hand there are those passages that seem to say that the world will be full of horrible portents that the end is near: wars, earthquakes, bloody moons, rebellious children. It reminds me of the scene from the original Ghostbusters when Bill Murray and company are trying to convince the New York City mayor to let them go back to work in battling a spiritual outbreak in Manhattan. They say this is of “biblical proportions” including “earthquakes, volcanoes, oceans and rivers boiling, the dead rising . . . dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!” And sometimes Jesus in the Olivet Discourses and the Bible generally talk that way. The end will be heralded by can’t-miss cataclysms.
On the other hand and here in 1 Thessalonians 5 you get a different picture. Here Paul says the times will be ordinary, people will be comforting each other that all is well and wishing one another “Peace.” Or in another image Jesus once used, it will be like “the days of Noah” before the Flood when no one saw so much as a wispy cloud of trouble on life’s horizons. And then suddenly, BOOM, and from out of a clear blue sky, the end comes.
So which will it be? Chaos and cacophony or serenity and silence before the end comes?
If history is any guide, it may be both. At any given season all through history and right now in this present day, many of us are leading relatively calm lives. We can pass many of our days saying “There is peace and security” and perhaps for the most part where we live, there is. But in other parts of the world events of “biblical proportions” happen all the time. There are terrible wars and genocides, there are apocalyptic-like disasters of various kinds, there is a palpable sense of evil so great that people wish the end would come, and soon.
But if the Bible has one message that it conveys very consistently it is that we are not supposed to pass our time in endless speculations as to when the end will come. Despite the fact that many have made a cottage industry out of it anyway, Jesus himself said not to scrutinize his words for clues as to the divine time table for it all. We are not supposed to be starry-eyed purveyors of the distant horizon to look for clues but faithful workers who pass our days with an awareness that history will have a point to it and an end to it but in the meantime, we are here to work for and witness to the Gospel and to Christ Jesus the Lord.
When the end comes, we may be as startled as our non-believing neighbors but we won’t be surprised. We won’t be surprised because the arc of our entire lives displayed a sense that we have known all along Who is in charge and Who is coming again. And so, as Paul wrote, we comfort and encourage one another with the knowledge that he really does have the whole world in his hands and will bring it to its proper conclusion when the time is full.
Imagine you are sitting in your den some quiet evening, reading a book perhaps, sipping a glass of wine as the day winds down. Suddenly someone walks into the den and you are startled and then utterly surprised and shocked to see some armed stranger who is clearly there to rob your house. You had no idea such a person was in the house or had been there at all at that moment and so you are at once frightened and surprised and troubled to see him.
But then imagine the same scenario only that it is your 8-year-old daughter who tumbles into the den full of energy. You are so startled you almost spill wine onto your shirt. But you are not surprised—she lives in that house after all and you had known all evening she was around. You just had not expected her to bound in at that precise moment but you are glad to see her anyhow.
Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5 says that for unbelievers the return of Christ will not just startle because it came at an unexpected moment but will surprise and shock because they never had really believed there was such a divine Christ superintending and inhabiting this world in the first place. For them, it will be like the thief who suddenly appears from out of nowhere. For believers, though, it will be more like the daughter appearing at an unexpected moment. You may jump at first but then you instantly relax and feel glad: you knew all along this one had been near and if you had not expected Christ just then, you had expected him all along and so are only too glad to welcome him.