November 11, 2001
"Eternal Comfort and Good Hope"
The epistle reading for today reaches our ears as a strange cacophony that seems to come from another world. Words about the coming of the "day of the Lord," and the rise of the "lawless one," bring to mind an image of the bizarre and disheveled man standing on main street holding a sign which reads, "Repent, the end is near!"¹
A brief look at the church Paul wrote to in this letter may help us to understand the concerns of the letter as well as how the passage can speak to us today.
Paul was the founder of the church in Thessalonica, a busy, prosperous port city in northern Greece. East and West were linked by the port and by a highway which stretched from Rome to Constantinople. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of a Christian mission in Thessalonica.
Paul's time in this wealthy port city was like a whirlwind tour. He preached in the synagogue on three sabbath days with amazing results. So many people were moved to embrace the Christian faith that the Jewish community became alarmed. They worked to stirred up city officials against the Christian movement and Paul along with his companion Silas had to be escorted out of town under the cover of night.
They had been in Thessalonica for only three weeks.
It had been a wonderful start for a church, but could a group of brand new Christians survive as a community having experience just three weeks of Paul's ministry? If this small group could survive - and possibly even thrive - it would have powerful lessons to offer the church the church of every age.
Paul was more than anxious to know how things were going after his untimely departure from Thessalonica. He sent his young protégé Timothy to work with the young church and to strengthen them in their faith. How were they doing? Would the Christian community even be intact? Would they have been able to hang tough with their faith in the face of opposition? Timothy came back to Paul with good news about how the church was thriving. The faith and generosity of the group of believers in Thessalonica was being talked about all over Macedonia. Paul sends Timothy back with a letter of encouragement. We know this letter as 1 Thessalonians. this letter is likely the earliest writing we have in our New Testament. In it we catch a powerful glimpse into the apostle's life and can see clearly Paul's anxiety for the infant church. (1 Thess. 2:17-3:2)
Timothy returns with a classic, "There's good news and bad news," report. It is however, mostly good news. The church continues to thrive. They are known for their faith and mutual love. In the face of trial and persecution, they are hanging tough in their faith.
But... the difficulties the congregation faces are not just those that come from outside forces. There are people who are either a part of the Christian community or who have access to the community who have brought confusion to the church with distorted teaching that had the potential to erode the people's confidence in their faith. [And this is an important issue isn't it? The most difficult trials the church sometimes faces are not the outer trials at all, but the difficulties that arise from within the fellowship.]
The bad news Timothy brought to Paul was that the church was confused and shaken by an attack on one of the foundation hopes of the faith Paul brought when he first came to them. The Contemporary English Version of the bible translates the beginning of our epistle reading this way:
Then Paul goes into some detail about the "wicked one" ( or Antichrist). The intervening verses [2 Thessalonians 2:6-12] talk about a conflict between Christ and the wicked one which results in a complete victory over evil. The Lord Jesus can not have already returned because this victory has not yet taken place. The people were shaken because if the Lord had already returned, then life goes on as it always had and the hope which gave them so much strength would have turned out to be unfounded.
// A brief aside is in order here:
The coming of Christ to earth in glory is a foundational teaching of Christianity over the ages. In our own time, the teaching is frequently overemphasized or underemphasized.
Some focus on the coming of Christ almost to the exclusion of other Christian teachings. There are folks who produce charts and maps and predictions and generally create a frenzy around this teaching. Since the time of Nero, history's villains have been identified as the antichrist. You might say these people major in the minors.
Others, however, have little room in their teaching ministry for the coming of Christ. Yet, the doctrine of Christ's second coming is rooted in every Christian tradition. Millions of Christians each week join in the proclamation:
Both the Nicene and Apostles Creeds affirm that Christ, "...will come again to judge the living and the dead." When placed properly in the context of the whole Christian message, the coming of Christ to the earth in glory is a key part of our trusting in the One who is the Alpha and the Omega. "In the beginning God..." is the first faith affirmation of scripture. So also... "In the end God..." is also a crucial part of our faith." The hope of Christ's coming again is the equivalent of a parent reassuring a troubled child that, "Everything's going to be all right." ² //
When Jesus gathered with his disciples in the Upper Room, there was obviously great distress and anxiety within the apostolic band. How would they possibly continue without him? In this midst of this turmoil, Jesus says to them, "Let not your hearts be troubled..." Then he goes on to assure them that he will in fact not leave them adrift in this world, but will come back for them, "... I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also." [John 14:1ff] All the details about when, how, in what fashion and under what circumstances he would accomplish this were not important at crunch time. Peace and stability in a time of trial was what they wanted and what Jesus addressed.
And so it was with that earliest group of Christians in Thessalonica. Paul had assured them that they were not going through trial and persecution in vain. Their faith was strong and their fellowship was built on the solid ground of mutual love. The community was sustained by the assurance of Christ's ultimate victory over evil.
That victory had not yet come and the "Day of the Lord," likewise had not yet come. They were urged not to be shaken by this off the wall teaching.
The lectionary continuation of our epistle reading picks up at verse 13. "..we always give thanks for you, brothers and sisters..." They were among the very first people in the world outside of the Holy Land to embrace and live out the Christian faith. It was crucial that they not become discouraged and give up. So Paul continues his encouraging words, "...stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us..." And then these wonderful words that transcend time and place:
Is this a magnificent phrase to hold on to for our own lives or what? "...eternal comfort and good hope..."
Though ages have passed, kingdoms have come and gone, radical revolutions have changed culture and peoples... this one thing has not changed. When our lives are confronted with trial and tribulation - we long for the same assurance the apostles longed for on the night of Jesus' arrest. We are hoping for the same comfort the community of believers at Thessalonica sought from the apostle.
And the eternal word of God shoots through the trials of every age as an arrow penetrates its target with the assurance of the ages. When trouble comes, the God who loves us and gave us grace through Jesus Christ will also give us, eternal comfort and good hope!
¹ Several commentators including William Barclay (Daily Study Bible) and Gary Demerest (The Communicators Commentary) affirm that this is one of the most difficult passages in all of the Pauline corpus. Barclay comments, "This is undoubtedly one of the most difficult passages in the whole New Testament; and it is so because it is using terms and thinking in pictures which were perfectly familiar to those to whom Paul was speaking, but which are utterly strange to us." (Daily Study Bible, Commentary on 2 Thessalonians)
² All of this does nothing to settle "dispensational", "pre-trib," "post-trib," "millennial," or "a-millennial" debates - and we wouldn't even attempt such. The main point is that the issue of God's bringing all things under the reign of Christ is a central part of Christian faith and a key foundation in the Christian's hope.
Job's words here are in response the the continuing accusations of his three "friends" (with friends like these....) Believing he is close to death, Job wishes that his words could all be recorded for posterity so that when all things have been made right by a righteous God, he will turn out to be justified.
In spite of all evidence to the contrary and the mistaken theology of his compatriots, Job insists that his "Redeemer" lives and would show Job to be righteous long after Job was gone.
"I know that my Redeemer lives," is one of the great statements of faith in the bible - it is spoken in the face of great trial and confusion about why Job was suffering as he was. Nevertheless, Job continues in trust.
Another line in Job that merits attention is from 13:15, "Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face."[NIV]
One of the ways to explore the meaning of Job is to raise the issue of how most of us would do in his shoes.
Betty Eadie's book, Embraced by the Light (See Luke sermon from link above) is filled with more than questionable theology. Her claims of direct revelation are dubious, but the tremendous appeal of the book to unchurched and churched people alike speaks about a concern that needs examination. Eadie's theology and even experience are summarily dismissed by many pastors and theologians -- but we dare not dismiss the concern in our parishioner's lives that is so vulnerable to this kind of material. What does it mean when Christian folk elevate books like this to the level of biblical revelation? You might do an alternative sermon on this issue. See -- Immortality or Resurrection? -- at the resources on the Luke sermon page linked above.
The Sadducees' question is based on the Levirate law of Marriage. (Deut. 25:5) They were few in number, but wealthy and happy with the status quo. Almost all the priests and aristocrats were Sadducees. They accepted only the written books of Moses and did not believe in angels, spirits or resurrection. While the Pharisees taught that life was planned and ordered by God, the Sadducees believed in unrestricted free-will. The Sadducees, in contrast with the Pharisees, did not believe in the coming of Messiah.
³ You will need to decide whether to go into the issue of resurrection versus immortality if you are using this homily. If you wish to do that, you could pick some material from the alternate sermon on this passage and conclude with the notion that "resurrection" is the "hope" of the Christian and that this has little to do with the speculations of immortality that fill our culture with respect to this issue. Or -- use the conclusion we've suggested in the sermon above and choose another opportunity to discuss the important difference between the philosophical notion of the "immortality of the soul" and our Christian doctrine of resurrection.
v.27 To see the passion aroused by the issue of resurrection, see Acts 4:1 where the priests, temple guard and Sadducees came to arrest Peter and the disciples for teaching "the resurrection" from the dead. See also Paul's very nifty ruse in dividing those who were deciding his fate. (Acts 23:6 -- "But perceiving that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, "Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!")
v.34 In Mark's account of this incident, Jesus begins his rejoinder with, "...Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? He goes on to answer their question with an example from the books of Moses which they accepted and which they believed had no teaching on resurrection. A wonderful response really -- from a Galilean peasant to the aristocratic, elitist Sadducees.
vv.34-35 The words "this age" (ho aion houtos - used nine times in the N.T.) is contrasted with "that age" (ho aion ekeynos - used five times in the N.T. referring to eternal life or life beyond the grave).
v.35 "Are considered worthy" (kataxioo = deemed entirely deserving - worthy) See Matt. 10:11,13 where "worthy" is translated from "axios" "Deserving", "praiseworthy" In Mt. likely a person who honors God. The text here says nothing about how one gets to be worthy or the process of justification.
"Like angels" -- they do not "become" angels, but are like angels in that they no longer die.
vv.37-38 God's covenant with the Patriarchs was not simply temporal. Since the relationship with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is everlasting so they would share also in the resurrection.
vv.39-40 Though not a part of the lectionary selection, these verses contain an affirmation that Jesus' argument was convincing as "they no longer dared to ask him another question."
The lectionary text here has two themes. The one has to do with the hysteria which had grown in the community regarding the return of Christ. Some people in Thessalonica had even stopped working and sat waiting for the return of Christ. Then a new difficulty came along when the teaching was proffered that the Day of the Lord had already come. The church was rich in faith and committed to the love of Christ and Paul was anxious to keep them from the extremes that can plague the church. (Of any age!) One group stops working because Christ will be here shortly - if not within days or hours. The other group says the Day of the Lord has already come and the hope many held was shaken.
After reassuring them, Paul goes on to talk about some principles of the Christian life that are valuable for the church of every age:
One of the keys to understanding the contemporary value of this letter is to know that the church is always living in light of the ultimate victory of Christ over evil. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
Call to Worship (Based on Psalm 17:1-9)
Leader: Come fill this
place with your presence O Lord,
Prayer of Dedication
It is the "Good News" of your love for us that has brought us to this place, O Lord of all. It is the promise of life and life everlasting that strengthens us for our daily lives. It is the profusion of blessings you have poured into our lives that enables us to honor you with these gifts. Amen.
Go out in joy, all you people of