I Thessalonians 4:13-18
This would be a great time to be an evangelical preacher. We’ve had hurricanes, earthquakes, and raging fires. I could bend your ear and perhaps your patience delivering a sermon predicting that the end is near. I could even put a bumper sticker on my car that reads, In case of the Rapture, this car will be unmanned. I normally don’t take any of this stuff too seriously but this morning both texts are about the rapture.
My evangelical friends can quote every scripture about the Second Coming. They seem obsessed about when, how, and under what conditions Christ will arrive. To further complicate matters they always promise it will happen soon. I’ve got to confess I don’t wake up every morning wondering if this will be The Day of the Lord. Of course my views are based on a different reading of their favorite scriptures.
Take the text in Matthew 25. Jesus tells a story about the wise and foolish bridesmaids. I can relate to this. More than once I have waited patiently for the bride to make her way down the aisle. I remember a wedding in Texas where we all waited an hour for the mother of the bride to show up. I later learned she was showing her displeasure for the young man her daughter had picked.
In the culture in which Jesus lived, it was a great honor to be chosen as a bridesmaid. Their job was to light the way for the guest and honored couple. At this particular wedding the groom arrived late. Some of the bridegrooms anticipated this and brought extra oil. The others brought only what the lamp would hold. When their oil ran out they went into town to get more. While they were gone, the groom showed up. The wedding party entered and the doors were locked.
The moral of the story is, Keep awake because no one knows when the Son of God will arrive. The problem is we have been waiting 2,000 years and this has caused some folks to get a little anxious. It seems like every few years some fool who can’t wait for God tries to convince the rest of us that the end is near. Remember the 1980’s? Some evangelicals swore the Russians were going to blow up the world. Then to comfort us they promised God would arrive once the world was toast. Remember December of 1999? Some folks knew we would never see January 1, 2000. Then we entered the 21st century. As you might imagine Pat Roberts and Jerry Falwell had a field day after 9/11. And yet somehow, sixteen years later, we are still here. Personally I thought the end was near two years ago when a professional sports team from Cleveland won a championship. Truth is, there will always be people who will predict the end of the world. Many use the book of I Thessalonians as their proof.
I Thessalonians is the earliest letter of Paul. This makes it the oldest book in the New Testament. It was written a generation before any of the Gospels and gives an accurate depiction of one of the critical concerns of the early church. After the ascension, folks were told that Jesus would be back soon. A mantra of the early Church was, Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. We still chant this today but few of us utter those words and then pack our bags.
Imagine living in the years just after the ascension of Jesus. Your belief in Jesus is based primarily on the resurrection. If Jesus could rise from the dead and ascend to heaven, anything was possible. Life was seen through a whole new lens. It was believed any day Jesus would return and the world would radically change. Why worry about tomorrow when today might usher in a whole new heaven and earth? So the people waited, and waited, and waited, and then they began to die.
Huge questions emerged. Will the people who die before Jesus returns be included in this new heaven? What is taking Jesus so long? Do we all have to die before Jesus will return? Paul tried to deal with those questions. Ironically Paul later wrote II Thessalonians to correct what he had suggested in the first letter. 30 years later, responding to the same unanswered questions the writer of Matthew offered only one answer. Wait but be ready.
Today the end time presents a whole different set of questions. Today, we just want to know what heaven might be like. Note the difference, the early church was focused on a new beginning. We are more interested in a continuation of what we already know.
These days I suspect many folks get their afterlife fix from reading material like the Left Behind series. If you are not familiar with the books they tell the story of the world in crisis. An obscure political figure rises to save the planet. This supposed hero is actual the anti-Christ setting in motion the destruction of the world. The real heroes of the story are those who work to bring people to Jesus before God reigns destruction down on the world. Nothing can be done to stop this destruction and only those who have been saved will escape the judgment of God.
The series came from the imagination of Time LaHaye, an evangelical minister who cherry picked scriptures from Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation. He also relied heavily on the writings of John Nelson Darby, the father of Dispensationalism. Amazingly none of the New Testament writers could figure God’s plans concerning the Second Coming, yet LaHaye and Darby claim to have all the answers. Perhaps that is why we are drawn to them. My problem is a careful reading of the New Testament convinces me the second coming is not so much about us as it is about God. Whatever happens, it will be a new experience because God is doing what God has always been doing. Jurgen Moltmann writes, “History cannot produce anything astonishingly new, it can only proceed and imagine from the past. In contrast the coming of Christ will not be based on what we know but what we never imagined possible.” Moltmann is explicit in reminding us we don’t know the time or the hour. We don’t even know what might happen. We are simply called to wait, and believe in the imagination of God.
That can be difficult. Like the Thessalonians, we want to know and we want to know now. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately there are a lot of folks ready with answers. These days a quick way to sell a book is to write about an afterlife experience. It will instantly become a best seller if the first sentences are, “I did not believe in God before I went to the hospital. I was supposed to have a routine operation. But things went bad. For a moment the doctors thought they had lost me. When I woke up in recovery, what a story I had to tell.”
So many people want to be assured when we die everything is going to be all right. They want to spend eternity with their spouse and family. They want everything to be exactly as it is right now without the inclusion of global warming, rising interest rates and a not so affordable health care program. But the Paul only promises one thing, “We will be with the Lord forever.” What does that mean? I have no idea, yet I boldly ask you to believe in something we can’t comprehend yet somehow understand completely.
Let me explain through a very personal story. As many of you know my father has decided to die. Don’t weep, he is 92 and been a diabetic for 50 years. The next step in his treatment would have been dialysis but he has chosen not to participate. I spoke with my father a couple of weeks ago and he shared his view on death. “I have six months to a year. I believe one moment I will be here and the next I will be in heaven. I won’t even realize it happened. And if I am wrong and I just die, I guess I won’t know it.” Those are words coming from a man both inspired and obsessive about his faith. For him, the Second Coming of Christ, the Rapture, or whatever you want to call it has everything to do with the glory of God and very little to do with how it will affect him. If there is a heaven he is certain it will be great. If not, he won’t know what he missed. What matters is that he believes in God, regardless.
This is the man taught me that Jesus comes when people have hope and never give up.
This is the man who preached to me that Jesus comes when faithful disciples work compassionately for justice.
Now we shares with me Jesus comes to people who are dying and tells them God never leaves anyone behind.
Can I prove this? I hardly think so and honestly I don’t even care to try.
Do I believe it? Yes, and for me, that is all that matters.
To God be the glory. Amen.