Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 30, 2016
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 Commentary
“To that end . . .” begins 2 Thessalonians 1:11. Ah, but inquiring minds want to know to WHICH end and why? What is the antecedent to this? The Revised Common Lectionary would have you remain ignorant of that by suggesting that you politely skip over verses 5-10 so that you are left only with Paul’s typically warm words of thanksgiving in verses 1-4 and then some equally warm words of encouragement in verses 11-12 about God’s making us worthy so God and Christ may be glorified in us.
Yes, yes, but what about that transition phrase in verse 11 that clearly harks back to something prior? Well, that’s a judgment passage that we should delete in order to keep things positive and upbeat and so as to prevent God from looking the least bit wrathful over against sin and sinners. Because that is the theme of verses 5-10: When Christ returns, those who find themselves on the wrong side of history on account of their lifelong efforts to thwart God or ignore his plans for this creation will suddenly discover that there is a cosmic right and wrong, a universal form of justice after all. And the God and the Savior Jesus Christ who embody that righteousness are going to deal with those who fought against it, and it may well not be very pretty.
And indeed the idea of God’s inflicting vengeance on his enemies and sending at least some of them eternally away from his presence in what we have traditionally referred to as Hell—all of that is unsettling. And let’s also admit that no Christian whose heart is saturated with the love of Christ should read such verses in a fist-pumping manner of enthusiasm as we as much as shout to the receivers of that vengeance “See ya later, suckers!!! Boo-Yah! You’re finally getting what you got coming to you!”
No, no, Christians should hope—and should live and witness in such a way to help make it possible—that Hell will be a very under-populated realm. We should have holy sorrow over those who might face a separation from the God who is everyone’s only true source of Life, yes, even those who are for now unaware of that or resistant to the claim. And if now and then in the deep recesses of our hearts we hope that God may yet find a way to apply salvation universally and so bring into the New Creation a whole lot of people who are most certainly not candidates for that in this life, well . . . you can understand why we will hope for that even as we should hope we won’t be disappointed, either, in case our own enemies get into the kingdom after all.
Still . . . even if we hope for God’s saving more people rather than fewer and even if we succeed at resisting the temptation of schadenfreude to finally see old so-and-so finally get his comeuppance by getting lashed with fiery whips, it is even so not right to ignore the parts of the Bible that speak of this. And in the context of 2 Thessalonians 1, I’d like to advance two reasons why we preachers need to engage the Lectionary verses in their proper context here (and also elsewhere in other passages that the Lectionary likewise edits around judgment themes).
First, we are not going to take the reality of sin and evil seriously enough if we cannot allow God to be deadly serious about it. Evil is not something that is just a little messed up. Evil is not just something that’s a tad bit icky now and then. Evil is not the proverbial cosmic glass of spilled milk. It is a very real, very dark power. It is an affront to all that is holy in God and all that was intended to be good in this creation. And it is a force for destruction, for the shredding of human lives and of all life in all its forms. It strips noble creatures made in the image of God and reduces them to garbage, to objects, to disposable means to some grim end. As theologian Neal Plantinga has written, sin is very simply vandalistic of shalom.
Now and then we glimpse this ourselves. Even as finite creatures who cannot come close to having a sense for holiness and righteousness on a par with God, we now and then see things that we know are so wrong, so evil, so raw that we want to scream. We see children in Aleppo, hollow-eyed and dazed, covered with blood and dirt from the evil of mortar fire. We see a little refugee boy from Syria washed up dead on a Turkish beach. We see Christians beheaded by ISIS, crucified for their faith, burned alive and terrorized. We see 6 million Jews annihilated by the Nazis and far more disappeared by Stalin in the following years. We see innocent children shot to death in the crossfire of woeful gun violence on the south side of Chicago. And even we, finite as we are and being such an admixture of good and bad ourselves, even we cannot but recoil and recognize that THIS cannot stand, THIS cannot be the last word, THIS needs to be dealt with be it ever so severely.
We cannot write off evil as something that can be waved away. And we should be glad to serve a God who is rightly offended and angered by it. Who would want a God who met it all with a shrug? We cannot even stand to see another human being take some cold, callous attitude toward dead children in Aleppo. Why would we want a God to be that way?
Second, we cannot properly revel in eternal gratitude over our own salvation by grace alone until and unless we see it against the backdrop of what we otherwise would so richly deserve. “To that end” Paul says at the head of verse 11 and what follows is a desire for the love of God to flare anew in the hearts of the Thessalonians not only so that they can avoid the grim fate of others that Paul sketched out in verses 5-10 but also so that the glory of salvation in Jesus Christ may shine forth the more brightly for all to see. There is so much goodness in Jesus and so much good work we can do on Jesus’ behalf. When we know more keenly how bad the alternatives are for those who wallow in sin and evil, this only increases our gratitude and also our resolve to let more and more people know how great is the love of God in the salvation he so freely offers in Christ.
In my Reformed tradition one of the more grim of our confessions is something called the Canons of Dort. It sketches the Five Points of classic Calvinism, including the depth of human depravity and the complete inability of any human being to contribute to his or her own salvation even the tiniest little bit. But for John Calvin the need to be that unrelenting about our human helplessness as grave sinners served but one glorious purpose: to let the grace of God in Christ Jesus shine and shine and shine ever more brightly. Whittle away at how bad sin is, and grace loses that much more of its luster. This was something Calvin could not countenance because of how precious God’s grace is. Grace is the animating center of our very lives.
We should not want anything to diminish grace’s luminosity. Not even a fraction of a little bit.
Two thoughts: First, historically the people who had the greatest longing for heaven and for the coming of God’s justice were those who were the most oppressed and persecuted. Some while ago a study of hymns was done across the last two centuries. It was unsurprising to find that African Americans—particularly during and after the period of slavery in the U.S.—tended to sing the most songs about “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and other songs about going home to Jesus. Economic hard times for all people also saw increased singing about the coming of justice and the desire for heaven. But by the time you got to the 1950s when prosperity was settling in across the land, songs about and sermons about heaven waned and when even better economic times came in the late 20th century, heaven-talk in song or sermon was almost non-existent. Sometimes our resistance to thinking about God’s judgment, the coming of his justice, and the bringing in of his kingdom stems from our not suffering much ourselves. The Thessalonians no doubt had a different take on it all.
Second, C.S. Lewis once mused that when it came to anyone’s being separated from God, it was rather a matter of giving in to people’s wishes. People who throughout their lives refused to say to God “Your will be done” may have God end up saying, “Fine, you have never wanted to be a part of me or my kingdom, you have distanced yourself from me and so YOUR will be done—you will have no part of me now either.” Lewis may or may not be right about that but it’s a point to ponder.
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