It’s only November 7th, and we’re already descending into the mysteries of the Season of Advent and the expectation of the Lord’s coming.
For almost a decade now I’ve been on a crusade (er… so to speak) to recapture the true meaning of Advent. Every Advent -I remind people that it’s not just the season of gift buying and wrapping to get ready for Christmas. The Season of Advent is a serious season about the second coming of Jesus. Advent, through it’s appointed collects and propers, begins with the remembrance that Jesus said that he’d return again. And then as the season moves on it shifts slowly from waiting for Jesus’ second return to remembering his first coming in a manger in Bethlehem. But, where Advent begins is so very important.
Most people smile and nod politely (including my wife), and tolerate my Advent crusade, but spend their time and energy fluffing up the poinsettias.
Oh, the hard life of a preacher.
This week’s lessons is such a wonderful set-up though, that my crusade just HAS to work this year!
Our epistle lesson today is from the earliest Christian document that the world knows of: Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. Long before the Gospels were penned, Paul had written this letter to the Christian congregation in the city of Thessalonica to encourage them in the faith.
He was writing them because they were scared to death. OK, that might be a bad way to phrase it… They were scared because some people in their congregation were dying.
And they weren’t expecting people to be dying.
They were expecting Jesus to return and take everyone away – while they were alive.
In the years and decades immediately following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension the first Christians were expecting Jesus to return. Any minute. Like maybe tomorrow. Or the day after that at the latest.
They assumed that Jesus would return in glory BEFORE they died. They were hoping that Jesus was going to come and vindicate them and their faith right there and then, and that the believers would be alive and well when he came.
The problem that the Thessalonians were dealing with was this: Jesus was taking so long that people were starting to die.
Which posed a theological quandry: what would happen to them? Did their loved ones miss the boat? Was Jesus taking so long that some of their fellow brother and sister Christians (and family members and neighbors) were going to miss out on the joys of paradise when Jesus returned?
I know it seems a little silly to us today – a full 1,900 years later – but for them this was an existential question with personal and eternal significance.
And so Paul wrote them to quell their fears. They were going to be fine, Paul says. In fact, when Jesus arrives not only will those who have died in the Lord rise with Jesus, but they will go first. Not only are they not going to be left out, they have the better seats.
Paul: All is well. Don’t worry.
On the cusp of 2011, we’re in a very different place than the church in Thessalonica. Don’t get me wrong, there are some Christians who spend a whole lot of energy and emotion on the return of Jesus (and there’s a small sect that thinks it’s going to happen in May of 2012…), but for the majority of us we’re just doing the work of the church. Tending to the sick, conjuring up efforts to grow, teaching our kids and youth, and trying to balance the budget.
And so, on the outside it may look like the worry of the Thessalonians might not have much to say to us.
Except for urgency. They remind us of the urgency of faith.
For them, Jesus was real. He was really coming. And Jesus and his return was going to have an immediate and all-encompassing impact on their lives.
Their faith was driven by urgency.
I don’t recommend spending every waking moment obsessing on the return of Jesus. But, if we could find a way to infuse our faith with a bit of the urgency of the faith of the Thessalonian Christians at the mid-point of the first century, we’d do a lot of good for ourselves and the whole world.
The other kernel of truth we can take away here is Paul’s unbounded trust in the goodness of God. What we see here in Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is his ability to be theologically supple.
Surely he too believed at one time or another that Jesus was would return quickly – certainly before his current generation had passed away. But, now with the reality of that generation beginning to die away he had to do break some new theological ground.
He didn’t have some cute little verse that he could quote to tell him and others that everyone would be ok. He had to step back and trust in the goodness of God. God in Christ would not abandon them. He believed that in his core – it was a foundational element of his faith.
And if that was true, then he could follow that with: all is going to be ok. In life, and in death, Jesus would take care of his own.
How might we, the church, grow into faithful urgency? How can we be confident in the hope of God at the same time?