Tazewell County Parish—Luke 21:5-19, II Thessalonians 3:6-13
We are less than six weeks away now from the end of a calendar year and the beginning of a new one. When I was much younger, that sort of thing used to impress me, but I don’t really give it much thought anymore. Those of us who were old enough to be conscious of the passage of time 17 years ago may remember all the hype that surrounded not only the arrival of a new year or a new decade, but a new century and a new millennium. We all took a deep breath, and when we saw that everything didn’t grind to a halt because of a Y2K virus, we exhaled and moved on. And when the western world marked the transition from the year 999 to the year 1000, there were widespread apocalyptic predictions. Surely such an occasion was a fitting time for God to bring history to an end and declare Judgment Day. Many sincerely thought that would be the case. Of course, many thought that would also be the case if the Cubs ever won the World Series, but, hey, we’re still here, right?!
Ours is not the only age when some Christians have thought the world was approaching the end times. There has always been a cacophony of voices, Christian and otherwise, making similarly strange and dire predictions. Some will strike us as obviously crazy. You may remember a guy named Harold Camping who covered himself with embarrassment not too long ago by trying to predict the day and the hour. Others will seem to make more sense. Those that make sense will, no doubt, enumerate the events of the last 120 years in support of their case. Take yourself back to the late 1890s. There was, in that time, a widespread sense of optimism about the future of the human race. There was even a suggestion to disband the patent office, because everything that needed to be invented was already invented. In the wake of Charles Darwin’s radical theory of biological evolution, with humankind constantly evolving into a higher form of life, it was thought that intellectual progress, moral development, and social improvement were likewise inevitable. If we could just educate the masses, then slavery and war and poverty and child labor and all of our other social problems would soon disappear. Utopia was just around the corner. This sense of optimism even infected Christian theology. The duty of Christians was to usher in the kingdom of God. God had given us both the duty and the ability, so it was thought, to work in such a way that, within a generation or two, the lion would be lying down with the lamb and children would safely play with poisonous snakes.
Then came something we now call World War I. It decimated an entire generation of young men in western Europe and shattered the myth of inevitable human progress. And then, as if to drive home the point, the Second World War picked up the pieces of that shattered myth and ground them to dust and scattered them to the winds. And in case we’re ever tempted to forget that fact, our attention is periodically refocused by the likes of a Hitler or a Stalin or groups like ISIS or Boko Haran.
But it doesn’t stop there. Of course, we can’t turn on CNN without hearing of “wars and rumors of wars,” hundreds of them scattered over the world. And after the wars come reports of periodic outbreaks of famine and disease: Ebola, MRSA, flesh-eating bacteria, resurgent forms of the plague, etc. etc. But we really don’t need CNN to tell us what ‘s wrong in the world, because few of us feel safe walking the streets of our own neighborhoods at night, and we can witness firsthand the erosion of the family as the primary social unit, and the breakdown of any notion of objective morality, sexual and otherwise. Thank God for the Church, which is a safe harbor in a stormy world.
But is it?
Even within the Church there is unrelenting pressure to treat the scriptures and creeds as documents of purely human origin, and to remake God into the image of what we would like God to be, rather than how God has actually revealed himself. So even the Church is not the refuge we sometimes assume it to be. No wonder it’s so easy to draw a crowd by announcing a study of the Book of Revelation! Wars, diseases, natural disasters—it feels, at least, like we are living in apocalyptic times. Hear these words once again that appear in our liturgy today from Luke’s gospel: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.” For Luke’s original readers, these were the signs that were meant to accompany the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. But subsequent generations of Christians have understood this passage to refer to the end of this world and the beginning of the next—in other words, the second coming of Christ, Judgment Day, the end of history. So when we read the Bible, and then read the newspaper, it is very tempting to simply head for the nearest hilltop and wait for the Lord’s appearing. Leave the world to rot in its own decadence; Jesus is coming soon.
Leave the church to its own decadence; Jesus is coming soon.
Withdraw. Disengage. Wait. This was the attitude apparently adopted by at least some members of the infant church in the city of Thessalonica. They reasoned that since Jesus was coming soon anyway, why work? Why get involved with the life of the world and the problems of the world? Why not just live off the groceries that are already in the cupboards and the money already saved in the mattress? So they quit working! St Paul, who had led that community to faith in Christ only a few months earlier, had to write and use stern language with these people: Let those who refuse to work not eat!
Paul’s word to the Thessalonians is also a good one for us to hear as we read the ominous signs of the times and face the temptation to withdraw from the world, or the church, or from wherever it is that the Lord has placed us, in expectation of the imminent collapse of the status quo. The way of withdrawal is not the way of the gospel. It is not the way of Christ, in whose way you and I are pledged to follow.
For Jesus, the path leading to the glory of the resurrection led straight through the cross! He went not up to glory before he was crucified, and entered not into joy but first he suffered death. For us, the path that leads to redemption and forgiveness and reconciliation leads right through the middle of the world—yes, even the world which lies under a sentence of condemnation.
It is indeed true that our Lord has commanded us to not be of the world. We who bear the name of Christ are to eschew the values and priorities of this world, and any of its social conventions or institutions that are dishonoring to God or that deny the dignity of any of his human creatures. But while we are busy making sure we are not of the world, let us not forget the other part of Jesus’ command: We are to be in the world. We are not to be of it, but we are to be in it. This means that disengagement and withdrawal are not options for a faithful Christian, even as we recognize that the world is rotten, that the rottenness has even spilled over into and infected the Church, and even as we believe that things will not really get much better until the Lord does intervene and bring history to an end.
Rather, we express our faith in the Lord of history by continuing to do our duty within history. There’s a story about one of the monastic saints—I honestly forget whether it was supposed to have been Benedict or Francis, but it was one of the two—one of these fellows was hoeing a garden one day when he was asked, “What would you do if you knew the second coming of Christ were going to happen within the next minute?” Without even stopping to think, this saint calmly replied, “I’d try to finish hoeing this row.” In other words, if Jesus comes today, I want him to find me doing my duty, I want him to find me faithful in the task to which he had assigned me.
This is, I realize, an intimidating and fearful prospect. It is much more appealing and comforting, in the face of all the nastiness in the world, to hole up and batten down the hatches in our secured subdivisions and not worry about how to make the streets safer for everyone, to no longer concern ourselves with feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, to not bother with making wise political decisions that reflect the values of the gospel, to let the rest of the Church go to hell in a hand basket as long as we have our parish and our diocese. Easier, and more comforting, but also irresponsible.
However, my friends, we are not without hope and encouragement in this high and difficult calling. First, we have Jesus’s promise that he will always be with us, and that we will suffer no eternal harm. “Not a hair of your head will perish,” he tells us in today’s gospel, “by your endurance you will gain your lives.” Second, we have the sacramental manifestation of that promise in the fellowship of the Church, the community of God’s faithful ones. Put bluntly, we have one another. We are the presence of Christ to one another. We can claim God’s promise that for those who worship the name of the Lord, in the words of the prophet Malachi, “the sun of righteousness will rise, with healing in its wings.” And every time we present ourselves at this altar, the same Lord who makes that promise provides us with a foretaste and an assurance of its fulfillment. We live in a world filled with evil and sin, sickness, random violence and death, poverty and injustice, moral depravity of every sort. But we serve a God who is a God of life and hope and healing and forgiveness and justice and peace and love. Our job is not to run away from that nasty world, but to introduce that world to its God. He will supply what it takes to accomplish that task.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.