Sunday 33 • 13 Nov 2016

Isaiah 65:17-25
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Rev. Chris Udy

After the week we’ve just had
it would be very tempting
to hear our readings for today
and think that, maybe,
they have something to say
about the days we’re facing – and they do –
but probably not in the way we might first imagine.
We need to remember that every November,
in these last few weeks of the Church’s year
we read passages like the ones we heard today.
From each of the Gospels, at this time of year,
we hear about Jesus
telling his disciples that the temple in Jerusalem
would one day be destroyed,
and then describing a time of persecution and trial
before another, final day
when the Son of Man would appear
and the history and purpose of the world
would come to an end.
That happens every year.
This year we read from Luke;
next year it will be Matthew, and then Mark,
and every year the message is much the same:
the time is coming, and is now very near,
when everything will be turned upside down
and the world will seem a dark and dangerous place.
We read passages like that every year –
and the Church has been reading those passages
for almost 2 thousand years,
and every year they seem to make some sense
and touch a cord.

But today we also read a part of Paul’s letter
to the Christian community in Thessalonica,
written, you might remember,
before any of the gospels appeared.
This letter is the oldest Christian document we have.
It’s the earliest of Paul’s letters to survive,
probably written at the end of AD 52.
Luke’s Gospel – the one we read from today –
was written sometime between 80 and 90 AD -
so more than 30 years later.

That time difference is critical,
because during those years
a very significant problem
was emerging for the Church.

It’s now very clear
that Jesus expected “the day of the Lord”
very soon after his death.
If we read a little further in Luke
we hear him say:
“Look at the fig tree and all the trees;
as soon as they sprout leaves
you can see for yourselves
and know that summer is already near.
So also, when you see these things taking place,
you know that the kingdom of God is near.
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away
until all things have taken place.
Heaven and earth will pass away,
but my words will not pass away.” (Luke 21:29-33).

Jesus was apocalyptic -
in other words, he fully and firmly believed
that the generation who had heard his preaching
would still be alive
to see the dawn of the kingdom of God -
God’s reign of justice and peace.
He also believed
that there would be darkness before that dawn,
so he taught his disciples to watch for signs
and to be ready for their day of redemption,
even when the signs they saw
were difficult and strange -
and as the disciples carried his message out,
first to Jewish people, and then to Gentiles,
they also taught those early Christian communities
to watch, and to be ready,
to be patient, and to endure.

Twenty years later - in 50AD -
Paul arrived in Thessalonica,
on his second evangelistic journey.
After the Council of Jerusalem,
the first Council of the Church,
he set off with Silas,
taking the message from the Council
that Gentiles were to be welcomed
into the congregations of Christians
being established across the Roman Empire.
First Paul and Silas revisited
communities they’d been to before -
but then they struck out into new territory,
to Philippi in Macedonia,
and then to Thessalonica,
just north of Athens.
In both places Paul discovered
that his preaching was very effective -
many people enthusiastically accepted and welcomed
what he told them about Jesus - especially Gentiles -
but he also stirred up bitter opposition.
At this point in time
the Christian movement was still Jewish;
they met in Synagogues,
they read Torah,
and their worship followed the rhythm
of the Jewish fasts and festivals.
Paul first encountered problems in Philippi,
where he was jailed for disturbing the peace -
but when he reached Thessalonica,
and started teaching in the Synagogue,
and Gentiles - who neither read Torah
nor worshipped as the Jewish leaders wanted -
as those Gentiles started joining the congregation,
the leaders reacted:
there was a backlash,
and it was ugly, and racist.
Over just a few weeks tensions rose
until one afternoon an angry mob
started searching for Paul in the city.
When they couldn’t find him
they dragged one of Paul’s supporters,
a man named Jason, to the magistrates,
where they shouted
“These people
have been turning the world upside down,
and they have come here also,
and Jason has entertained them
as his guests.” (Acts 17:6-7)
That night Paul left Thessalonica in secret,
and travelled down to Athens
where he spoke to the philosophers on the Areopagus
about their “unknown God”
and waited for Silas and Timothy to join him.
From Athens he went on to Corinth,
and it was from Corinth, some 18 months later,
that he wrote the first letter to the Thessalonians.

While he was with the Thessalonians
he had passed on
what Jesus taught his disciples:
that the kingdom of God was
immediately at hand;
that it would appear in power and glory
before the first generation of Christian disciples died.
He taught them that their part was to watch for signs
and be ready for redemption.
For the next 12 months or so
Paul received regular news from Thessalonica,
all of it indicating that,
despite continuing tension
and a backlash from the local Jewish leaders,
the Christian congregation was growing
both in numbers and in spirit.
Everything seemed positive,
until some concerns emerged.

As in any community,
as time passed,
some of those who had joined the congregation
grew ill, or grew old, and died -
and those who loved them
wanted to know
that they would not be left out
of the glory and redemption of God’s kingdom.
Paul heard echoes of these concerns
so he wrote a pastoral letter -
the first letter to the Thessalonians.
In that letter he assured them
that those who had died
would be raised to life
to be gathered into God’s kingdom,
and “then we who are alive,
(we) who are left,” Paul wrote,
“will be caught up in the clouds
together with them
to meet the Lord in the air;
and so we will be with the Lord forever.”

Apparently, when that first letter reached Thessalonica
it calmed the fears and concerns of the congregation
with regard to resurrection -
but it also reinforced another conviction.
The Thessalonians read Paul’s letter
and remembered Paul’s teaching
to conclude that Paul was telling them,
as clearly as he could,
that their days of watching and waiting
were almost complete,
and that the dawn
of the day of the Lord had arrived.

Understandably, many of those
who were most passionate and fervent in the faith
decided there wasn’t much point
in painting the house,
or sowing seed for next year’s crops
or working to earn a living.
We read today
that some of them gave up work of any kind,
and they did nothing
but pray, and get in the road
of those who’d kept on working.
When Paul heard what was going on
he sent a second,
much more severe and careful letter
in which, as we read, he reminded the Thessalonians
of an order he had given them
during his first visit:
“Anyone who is unwilling to work
should not eat”.

We still live with the legacy
of those turbulent early years
of the Christian movement.
That first wave of conversion
was fuelled by urgency and courage
and a vivid hope of redemption -
and those who were part of it
saw amazing things happening around them.
Men and women of all cultures
found themselves working and worshipping together
in communities that were, already,
profoundly different -
more open, more inclusive, more generous,
more harmonious and loving -
than the world they’d known before.
They really were a foretaste
of God’s justice and God’s peace -
and from them came
the letters and Gospels
through which we encounter the Word in Jesus
and hear the gospel that is redeeming us.

But from those years we also receive
shadows of disappointment
and ideas that seemed to make sense at the time
and were offered by leaders
wanting to make wise decisions
during volatile years.
Paul’s attitude to women,
his suspicion of sexuality,
his encouragement to celibacy -
all responses to the issues of his day,
found their way into scripture
and have stayed with us for millennia -
and with them the seeds
of other serious problems and concerns:
racism, exclusivity and moral arrogance.

Sometimes we see the early Church
trying to offer corrections
when it became clear that their earliest teachings
had been mistakes, or were misunderstood -
so Paul wrote -
not only his second letter
to the Christians in Thessalonica,
but later a whole series of letters to Corinth,
trying to re-direct their energy
into building warm and strong and healthy communities.

By the time Luke’s gospel was written -
at least 30 years after Paul’s letters appeared -
Christian communities were much more stable,
much more mature and settled -
but the world was also a much more dangerous place.
They’d seen the temple destroyed 10 years before;
they’d been expelled from Synagogues
and suffered the first of what would become
a series of official persecutions.
The Church had been driven underground,
and it was obvious that the birth-pains of God’s kingdom
were going to be difficult and extended.
So Luke takes great care
to caution and condition
and explain the words of Jesus.
They’re still there -
we can see what Jesus
was thinking and hoping would happen -
and Jesus was absolutely right about one thing -
he really didn’t know
when God’s kingdom would arrive.
And that first generation of Christians?
those who first heard him preach,
and saw him heal,
and followed him to Jerusalem,
all of them died in the faith
without seeing what they had hoped for
all their lives.

So every year we read the words of Jesus
and we hear sermons much like this -
and every year or so we hear about
a small group - or sometimes a large group -
of people who decide they want to stop the world
and turn the calendar back
to a simpler, less complicated era,
when people like them seemed still in control.
Sometimes, if they’re religious,
they even form the conviction
that they can do better than Jesus -
so they circle a date on the calendar;
they give up trying to understand
and love a changing world;
and because they have little to offer the world
they sometimes decide
to neglect their every-day responsibilities -
like work and family life -
and look for Jesus to appear among the clouds.

Those who set a date for the second coming
are always disappointed –
and sometimes dangerous -
but even among those who will never set a date,
there are many thoughtful, faithful,
creative and intelligent Christians
who believe that the day will come,
and it may be soon.
They live as Jesus urged all his disciples:
they watch for signs
and they wait for their redemption
as they live and work and worship
as Jesus taught them to.

There are also other Christians -
thoughtful, faithful,
creative and intelligent women and men,
who no longer expect
to see Jesus arrive in the clouds -
but look for him to return every day -
to challenge them out of prejudice,
to disturb them into compassion,
to call them to follow him
in the work they do,
and in their relationships
and in the communities they build and support.
They also watch
for signs of God’s kingdom coming
as they wait and work
and hope for the world’s redemption.

For many of us it’s been a difficult week,
and we wonder at what’s coming.
Some Christians have even suggested
that the result of the US election
has some positive potential –
I’m struggling to understand what that might be
but whatever happens, I am convinced
that what matters is that we live as Jesus did:
watching for the signs -
being aware of the world’s distress,
speaking up for those who are most at risk
of prejudice, exclusion and violence,
working and praying for healing and freedom -
and waiting hopefully - living by faith - trusting -
that the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ
is also at work in the world
to guide us through
our mistakes and misunderstandings
and to lead us into his reign of justice and peace.