Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 10, 2019

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 Commentary

Both First and Second Thessalonians spend a lot of their ink on the second coming of Christ, the Parousia. In the verses for today, Paul takes on some fake news spreading about Christ’s return head on.

The first five verses of chapter two, in a nutshell, are meant to bring comfort to the church. To paraphrase: “No, Jesus hasn’t come back. No, you didn’t miss it. No, your suffering isn’t a sign that you’ve been left behind. Remember what we talked about?” Like a parent who reminds their children at bedtime that they already checked for monsters under the bed and there are none, Paul is writing to comfort a very anxious people.

I find it interesting that in the first letter, they expressed concern for their friends and loved ones who had died. Now a little more time has passed and they are worried that the living are the ones who have missed out! Their anxiety shifted from the dead to themselves because someone, somehow, has claimed to have received an authoritative word that they’ve all missed the Parousia and that “teacher” is claiming that the message is connected to Paul.

Paul has proclaimed no such thing, however, and he’s having none of it. In fact, he’s a bit perturbed by the whole situation. He lists three different ways he can think of as to how this idea that Jesus had already returned took hold within the community and was allowed to stir up such fear. Paul wonders whether it was someone’s prophetic utterance, a teaching, or a forged letter supposedly from him and his fellow missionaries that is causing such a ruckus. Even though he can’t figure out the source of the story, what Paul knows for sure is that it is not true. Fake news!

The community should have done a better job of testing and discerning the spirits. Key components of what Paul explained to them while he was with them had not happened yet, namely the appearance and work of the “man of lawlessness.” We would do well to not spend too much of our time trying to decipher what (or who) Paul is referring to here. First of all, this particular letter wasn’t written to teach a doctrine. It was written to bring comfort to an anxious people. Second, none of the letters in the New Testament shed light on what Paul means. Third, our lectionary selection skips over most of the verses that discuss the man of lawlessness, keeping our focus on the positive work of Jesus Christ.

But if you do want to spend time exploring the contents of verses 6-12, I suggest that you take Ben Witherington III’s lead and explore how the “man of lawlessness” stands in contrast to Jesus Christ. It is also worth emphasizing the matter of fact pronouncement Paul makes about the man of lawlessness: he is destined for destruction. Even in his frustrated reminders, Paul seeks to comfort the church with the truth of Jesus’ victory over all attempts of the evil one.

Besides, where should a sermon focus? It should focus on Jesus Christ. Paul writes that he doesn’t want the Thessalonian church to get matters related to Jesus’ return confused. Even before he lays out why the Parousia hasn’t happened (all of the man of lawlessness stuff), Paul makes a big and important theological statement in a very understated way by pairing “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him” in verse 1. God’s people, the church in Thessalonica as well as the church in our cities and time, are gathered passively. In other words, God gathers us at his return—we don’t have to go looking for it! Paul doesn’t even bother to say it, but I will: if God gathers us when Jesus returns, and we haven’t been gathered, then doesn’t that mean that Jesus hasn’t returned??? That, if nothing else, should ease most of their (and our) fears of being left behind! You can’t miss it because God is doing ALL of it.

In verse 13, Paul’s comfort tactic is to focus the Thessalonians’ attention on God’s activity. They are the beloved of Jesus, they have received salvation from God, they are continuously receiving the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work. It was God himself who called (or should we say gathered…) them to himself through the preaching and teaching they received from Paul, and all of this will result in being part of the glory of Jesus. And we know that glory will be fully known at Christ’s return. For “when Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” (Colossians 3.4) And if God has done all of this, would he leave you behind? Would he leave behind those he loves? Would he leave behind those he has saved? Would he leave behind those whom he is presently transforming more and more into the likeness of Christ? Would he leave behind people who are growing in knowledge of the truth? Would he leave behind his firstfruits? Not a chance!

After such rousing comfort, Paul gently guides them as to what to do to avoid being confused and thrown off track again. Stick to the teachings that they have heard and read from Paul and Silas and Timothy. It’s these traditions and teachings that will help the community to stand firm when rumours and false narratives start to swirl as they wait for Jesus to return. It turns out that the best defense against fake news is to be well-grounded in the truth—the truth which flows from the knowledge of their salvation (verse 12).

At my church we’ve been singing a hymn by Wendell Kimbrough based on Psalm 62. Paul’s command to stand firm and hold fast made me think of the chorus of “I’ll Not Be Shaken”:

I’ll not be shaken! I’ll not be shaken

For all my hope is in His love

From God alone comes my salvation

I wait and trust His steadfast love

Imagine being so worried that you were left behind that you started to question all of it. Would that chorus be enough? My church community is quite the mix of Christians from various backgrounds, so I don’t have to try too hard to imagine the effects of bad end times theology. More than one person in my faith community has talked about the haunting effects of the fears of dispensationalism on their faith. Undoing that trauma can feel like an uphill battle. Paul’s commendation to trust in the things we know, and even more so, to trust in the God that we know, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, encourages me and is how I try to encourage others in their fear.

Paul’s word choice in the blessing prayer is truly Holy Spirit inspired. To a community that is full of fear and anxiety that they have missed God’s timing, Paul gives a blessing of eternal comfort and good hope. Eternal comfort. Comfort that crosses all time. Comfort that is unable to be missed because it always exists. That’s some comfort. And good hope. Hope for the future, the future that still includes Jesus’ return.

And just as Paul gently guides the community in what to do when they start to get worked up, he subtly places before them where they can focus their attention through the prayer that closes this section. After praying the blessing of eternal comfort and hope from both Jesus and the Father, Paul prays for them to have strength to act and speak, seeking to break the curse of being stuck in fear and worry. Paul ties the eternal comfort blessing to the continuing action of God in their midst through their good works and deeds.

You could almost think he’s trying to tell them that if they keep busy in the things of God, they won’t have time to worry about what’s coming and when it’s coming. You could almost think he’s trying to get them to stop worrying and be present to experiencing God in the here and now. Because through that experience of God in the here and now, our faith is strengthened for all things God. And since faith without works is dead, a strengthened faith is one that is seen by others.

So what’s better? Living in fear or living in trust? Is it better to just go about your life and trust that what God says God will do, God will actually do? The evil one doesn’t want God’s people to realize that they have eternal comfort and good hope because the alternative leaves us desperate and questioning, inactive and ineffective in doing kingdom good. The evil one wants us to question whether or not we’re “in or out” or have been left behind by God so that we won’t seek God’s face out of fear that God’s already rejected us. It’s remarkable how controlled Paul is as he writes to the church about such a significant topic. Though he is frustrated, his main aim is to comfort them with God’s loving truth. Paul lived and died by that grace. I’m reminded again of “I’ll Not Be Shaken”: “I’ll not be shaken! I’ll not be shaken/For all my hope is in His love/ From God alone comes my salvation/ I wait and trust His steadfast love.”


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