Encouragement for End Times
25th Sunday after Pentecost: November 10, 2013
at All Saints, Hilton Head
II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
At All Saints, you have seen a great deal of me lately. In fact, I fear that I may be taking advantage of your welcome – having been here on Wednesday for the Eucharist, dinner, and a presentation ... and then, for a meeting on Thursday ... and back again today for meetings, Eucharist, Confirmation, and a reception. Thank you for your persistent and gracious hospitality. And, I assure you that I will leave town for a while, soon after the reception today!
You probably are aware that the season of Pentecost is quite long. Actually, it is much longer than any other season of the church year ... and it is, in fact, almost one-half of the entire year. As this long season of Pentecost winds down, we may note subtle changes in the themes of our Bible readings. It almost seems that we have been involved in Pentecost for so long that we must begin to focus on what will come next, even before this season is complete.
After All Saints Sunday last week, a particular theological theme begins to take a prominent place. And that theme is called “eschatology” - “the theology of last things” or “the end of time.” This certainly is not the most popular of biblical themes, but it is a prominent one in the Bible, nevertheless. Therefore, we need to gain some sense of what eschatology means for the life of the church and for ourselves as well. Our readings today help us with those understandings. And, readings in the coming weeks will build on this same theme.
The prophet Haggai writes to the people of God at a time that is profoundly traumatic for them. At this point in the history of Israel, God’s people have been conquered, and the temple of Jerusalem has been destroyed. Now, in fact, circumstances are beginning to become more positive at the time of Haggai’s writing. However, for our understanding, we need to realize that the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was an indication to the people that the end of time was coming. Previous prophecy had drawn that parallel and indicated such an explanation of this catastrophe. That is, if the temple is destroyed, then the end of time must be at hand. Thus, the people to whom Haggai wrote were traumatized, and they expected the worst.
Into this setting, Haggai spoke words of comfort and assurance, on behalf of God. Notice, first, the observation of destruction, remembering what that destruction symbolized. “Who is left among you,” the prophet writes, “that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” (Hag 2:3). But quickly, then, follow words that seek to comfort and reassure the people. “Take courage” (2:4), the prophet proclaims ... and then he repeats that phrase - “Take courage”. And the reason for taking courage in the face of calamity is simply this word from the Lord: “I am with you” (2:4).
As we know from our salvation history - which is the sweep of the Bible’s story - those are the primary and essential words of assurance from God. “I am with you” are words that recur over and over again, when God’s people need comfort and support. And, of course, most prominently, that is the message of God in sending Jesus Christ into the world - “I am with you.”
Here in the Old Testament, though, God’s words of assurance come through Haggai, even as the world seems to be coming to an end. “I am with you.” Even in the worst of times, even as the world is coming apart, these words of comfort and encouragement from God assure people – in that time and in our time – of God’s constant presence.
The Second Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians brings up several topics of eschatology - for instance, the end of time and the second coming of Christ. In fact, our reading today sets the stage in those terms. We may read this introduction of St. Paul’s subject, “As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together with him” (2:1). St. Paul clearly intends to address matters of eschatology in what follows.
I want to highlight two words of encouragement from St. Paul in anticipation of the end of time. Even in bad times, St. Paul offers encouraging words to God’s people. First, he writes, “We beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here” (2:1-2). His message encourages steadfastness, perseverance, and commitment in keeping the faith, all the time – Christian steadfastness, even as things of this world seem to be at their worst.
The second word of encouragement from St. Paul in such times is to hold up gratitude as a virtue. “We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth” (2:13). The reason that gratitude holds such an important place in the Bible actually is fairly simple, even though dealing with gratitude in terms of eschatology may seem strange. St. Paul reminds us that gratitude is always appropriate toward God, who is the source of all good things. To the extent that we are grateful to God, we put God and ourselves in the proper places. God is the source; God is the provider. On the other hand, we are recipients of God’s gifts. Those gifts do not originate with us but, rather, with God. And so, as St. Paul indicates, it is appropriate to give thanks to God always ... and especially in tough times, which may sometimes seem like the end of time.
Now, the Gospel reading also deals with the theme of eschatology – but in a different way. Jesus’ response to the Sadducee indicates that relationships after our earthly life will be different from what we experience now. And, I cannot resist telling you a story from earlier in my ministry that illustrates this theme.
A couple came to me one day and told me that they wanted to get married. I began to speak with them about planning for such a commitment and about expectations leading up to that event. Early in the conversation, the young man indicated that he was a member of the Mormon church but would like to talk with me, nevertheless. After we spent some time together, I gave them a Prayer Book so that they could examine the marriage liturgy prior to our next meeting.
In a week’s time, the couple returned. Somewhat to my surprise, they said that the liturgy seemed fine to them. However, the young man did have one request of me. He asked if I could omit what he called “that ‘death do us part’” part because as a Mormon, he believed in eternal marriage. In response, I indicated that the afterlife was beyond my jurisdiction. We eventually parted company as friends ... but differing on this particular matter.
Jesus, of course, makes the point far more profoundly. “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Lk 20:34-35).
Therefore, our readings today offer us several messages about the difficult and challenging theme of eschatology. The Gospel deals with relationships in the afterlife and, in particular, with some limitations that our earthly life presupposes. But more importantly for the purpose of this sermon are the words of encouragement found in our other readings. These encouraging words may deal in particular with life at the mysterious end of time – but they actually are also appropriate and encouraging words at any time of difficulty or uncertainty.
First, there is the encouraging word of God’s continual presence: “I am with you.” God’s presence is real and true at all times – and especially real in times of need. That presence is known most fully in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who came to earth with this message from God: “I am with you.”
Then also are two words of encouragement from Second Thessalonians. St. Paul writes of practical advice which we may take to heart in times of difficulty and distress. Be steadfast and persevere, he says, even in the worst of times, even at the end of time. And finally, never forget to give thanks to God, who has given us so many things and who is the source of all good gifts, at this time and in all times. Amen.
The Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg
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