Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 6, 2016
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 Commentary
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.
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