The End is Nigh, But Then…

A Homily for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Job 19:23-27a; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus the Lord, the source of our eternal comfort and good hope. Amen.

blake the day of judgment
The Day of Judgment by William Blake

The Church in Thessalonica had a problem. They had the same problem the entire Church has faced across the nations and the ages, even to this place today. They had been promised that Christ would return soon and suddenly. But. But then things started going wrong. But then members of the congregation started to die. But then the rumors started: that something worse was coming. Something cataclysmic. But then the panic flooded in.

You’ve felt it, I know. Your skin crawling. The hair on your neck standing on end. That pit in your stomach. The inevitable sinking feeling.

It’s the sensation of your world about to shatter like glass, the realization that there’s no going back to the way things were.

Now, in defense of the Thessalonians, this is kind of Paul’s fault. They had written to him, asking about the sisters and brothers who had died. What about them? Could Jesus save them? And Paul gave a great pastoral answer. Writing in his first letter to that congregation, he said:

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, 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. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Whew. What a load off the mind – we will be part of the royal welcome party for Christ, our coming King, and even the faithful departed will join us. Thanks, Pastor Paul! You really put my mind at ea…

But then Pastor Paul kept going:

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!

Uh…Pastor Paul? My mind is no longer at ease, and in fact I think I do need something written.

800px-Durer_Revelation_Four_Riders
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer

The Thessalonian Christians were really quite disturbed; the problem of death was replaced by something much worse, and the more paranoid members of the community were convinced that every little thing was a portent of impending doom. This panic roiled the entire congregation, to the point that Paul was forced to write them a second letter, which we read today, trying to undo the misunderstanding in his first epistle: yes, he says, things will get bad.

The Church will face trials and tribulations. The powers and principalities will rage.

The nations will fum’th in sight.

But!

But the Church has been chosen as the first fruits of salvation.

But the Sprit has brought about sanctification, making the Church holy.

But glory is assured by Christ.

As our new bishop is so fond of saying, “But God!”

The Thessalonians weren’t the only ones to be troubled by Paul’s cryptic and frightening words. The past fifty years have seen a surge in popular Protestant apocalypticism, from The Late, Great Planet Earth to the Left Behind series to more modern YouTube conspiracy theories jamming newspaper headlines into some elaborate plot of impending  Armageddon: The stock market went down today, which means it’s bearish. And as Daniel so clearly indicates, a bear is a sign that the end is nigh. Meanwhile, if you take the value of the Nasdaq, divide it by three, and squint, it looks 999, which of course is the mark of the beast upside down. Therefore, we know the world will end at 3pm on the 9th of December, 2022. (It’s all here in my book, on sale now.)

four beasts dore
Vision of the Four Beasts by Gustave Doré

Even ignoring those more extreme fundamentalist examples, though, we re-cycle through this apocalyptic season year after year – after All Saints’, our readings turn decidedly towards the end of the age. Frightful images of fire and fury dominate the texts through November and into early December. And though they’ve been widely misconstrued by pop culture, they resonate with us because we’ve all had that feeling of dread which pervades so much of our world. We’ve all known that sense of panic, that thought that the world has been irrevocably changed for the worse. We’ve all had that suspicion that every new event to unfold heralds some coming cataclysm.

Maybe you’ve had one of those months in your life when you braced at every phone call and text message, wondering what else could possibly go wrong – only to have that question horribly answered.

Or you’ve experienced the lead up to military conflict, where day after day, the inevitability of war moves closer.

Perhaps you’ve lived through a serious illness where every week is a new symptom, another visit with another specialist, more waiting for good news or bad news, but please, just a name for what’s happening.

Or maybe it’s just the daily news, another political crisis, another natural disaster, another mass shooting, another dire warning about the climate, another report on stagnant wages or rising healthcare costs, another paralyzing display of nature’s fallen state.

Dear ones, we are living in the time between the times. The beasts from Daniel’s vision still rage, the powers and principalities still loom over us, violent chaos still swirls. Sin, the devil, and death still prow like roaring lions.

But God!

This life may overwhelm us, but God is there to lift us up.

The lawless one may rule, but God has written the Law of love upon our hearts.

Wars may be waged, but God’s Kingdom is one of peace.

Diseases may plague us, but God promises healing and wholeness!

Chaos reigns, but God will restore creation to its proper order!

Death is still an ever-present reality, but God the Father has brought Christ again from the dead.

The end is nigh, but God!

Be not shaken in mind or alarmed, even though the rebellious powers hold sway, for Christ has come to set all things right. Behold, the tomb is already empty! God’s final victory, though it has yet to come in its fullness, has already been established and is erupting forth into the world here and now!

Because God is bringing a new creation and a heavenly Kingdom, we like Job know that our Redeemer lives. If all things, even our very skin is thus destroyed, we shall see God face to face.

Amen.

 

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