Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Thessalonians 3:6–13
Prayer of the Day: O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without you nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Embrace us with your mercy, that with you as our ruler and guide, we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
This Sunday’s lessons are hard to hear. They all bear the dreadful news of God’s judgment. Even the Psalm, which is a jubilant hymn of praise, ends with the dire warning that the Lord “comes to judge the earth.” I am not sure how to preach these texts as good news in the shadow of an election cycle that has laid bare for us the darkest angels of our nature and exposed the deep race, class, gender and ideological divides in our nation. By the time Sunday rolls around, the question of who is to occupy the oval office will have been settled. But I doubt that the deep wounds we have inflicted upon one another will be on their way to healing anytime soon. With all of the raw anger hanging in the air, what healing effect can be expected from preaching the anger of God? With all the judging we have done against one another over the last year, what good can possibly come from turning up the volume of that anger to cosmic dimensions?
Perhaps there is a silver lining here. After all, anger thrives only between siblings, neighbors, people who have some connection to each other. Even enemies are bonded, if only by their mutual hate. I wouldn’t much care what a perfect stranger thought or did about something in which I have no interest. Our anger, then, is at least a testament that our identity as a people remains intact. We are united by matters about which we all passionately care. My hope is that we will eventually find the grace to see beyond our differences to a good that is common to all of us. Whoever occupies the White House during the next four years will have no greater challenge than helping us catch a glimpse of that good which is greater and more inspiring than all of our own selfish interests.
So, too, I believe that the anger of God testifies to God’s abiding commitment to God’s creation and God’s people. It is the shape God’s passionate love takes in a creation distorted, exploited and ruined by the selfish appetites of its human creatures. It is precisely because God loves us so dearly that God says “no” to our self-destructive impulses, “no” to our Promethean ambitions to exploit the earth, “no” to the exaltation of our own clans, tribes and nations over God’s gracious reign. God will not permit us to achieve peace at the expense of justice, happiness at the expense of compassion or wealth at the expense of the poor. Yes, God is angry, but not because of anything we have done directly to God. Yes, God inflicts punishment, but not because God cannot abide infractions against God’s law. God is angry over the misery our sin inflicts upon ourselves and our neighbors. God’s punishment aims not to repay us for our wrong doing, but to curb our self-destructive impulses which, left unchecked, would destroy us. God’s judgment is God’s mercy though, like headstrong toddlers bent on running into the street, we see God’s stern intervention only as a malicious restraint on our willful freedom.
Paul reminds us in his second letter to the Church in Corinth that we are Christ’s ambassadors sent to proclaim reconciliation between God and humanity. We are the new people of God who are, as John of Patmos reminds us, made up of every tribe, language and nation. Reconciliation is the only way forward for the church and, I believe, for the nation and for the world. We cannot hope to rid ourselves of all the folks we don’t like. Twelve million undocumented immigrants, generations of descendants of slaves still smarting from the sting of racism, women steadfastly pushing with their gifts and abilities into what used to be a man’s world, gay, lesbian and transgendered persons seeking justice and legal protection for their families; angry white men who feel that their jobs, their culture and their very country is slipping out of their hands; we are all here to stay. There can be no future for America that does not include us all. Reconciliation is not an option. It is our only hope. We cannot afford to allow any obstacles to deter us from pursuing it. The pursuit of anything less is too horrible to contemplate.
Here’s a poem about the dreariness, resentment and joy of human connectedness by John Updike.
Just the thought of them makes your jawbone ache:
those turkey dinners, those holidays with
the air around the woodstove baked to a stupor,
and Aunt Lil’s tablecloth stained by her girlhood’s gravy.
A doggy wordless wisdom whimpers from
your uncles’ collected eyes; their very jokes
creak with genetic sorrow, a strain
of common heritable that hurts the gut.
Sheer boredom and fascination! A spidering
of chromosomes webs even the infants in
and holds us fast around the spread
of rotting food, of too-sweet pie.
The cousins buzz, the nephews crawl;
to love one’s self is to love them all.
Source, Collected Poems, (c. 1993 by John Updike, pub. by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.). John Updike (1932-2009) was a prolific American author and poet. He grew up in Shillington, Pennsylvania. His early poems and fiction are grounded in the gritty industrial and cultural environment of the rust belt. His awards include the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the American Book Award for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for both fiction and criticism. You can learn more about John Updike and read more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The name Malachi means “my messenger” in Hebrew. It was most likely a pseudo name derived from chapter 3:1 and given as the author of this prophetic book by a later editor. This prophet was active sometime around 500 to 450 B.C. after the Jews returned from Exile in Babylon and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. His concern is for proper maintenance of the temple cult and the worship practices of his people. Malachi castigates the priests for accepting sick and defective animals in sacrifice at the temple rather than animals “without blemish” as the Levitical laws required. Malachi 1:6-14. See, e.g., Leviticus 1:3; Leviticus 1:10. He condemns the men of the community for divorcing the “wife of your youth” (perhaps in order to obtain a newer model?). Malachi 2:13-16. There is a clear connection here between unfaithfulness to Israel’s covenant with her God and the unfaithfulness of Israelite men to their wives. Both are based on covenant promises. Offering animals unfit for consumption as offerings at the temple reflects contempt for God’s covenant with Israel just as cavalierly divorcing one’s wife of many years constitutes an egregious breach of faith on the human plain. There is no separation of the sacred from the secular. All of life is bound together by covenant promises.
In chapter 3, speaking on behalf of the Lord, Malachi declares: “Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me.” Malachi 3:1. But this prophecy has a double edge, for “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Malachi 3:2. Like a refiner’s fire, this messenger will purify the priesthood so that the peoples’ offerings and worship will once again be pleasing to the Lord and invoke blessing rather than judgment. Malachi 3:3-4. It is against the backdrop of these oracles that the verses from our lesson must be read. The day of judgment that consumes the wicked is also the refining fire that will perfect the people of God.
This lesson serves as a reminder that salvation cannot come without judgment. Forgiveness does not benefit the sinner apart from the sinner’s repentance. Sanctification is the flip side of salvation by grace. Faith that does not transform is something less than faith. If one does not come away from an encounter with God full of stark terror or with a broken bone or with blinded eyes, then you have to wonder whether the encounter was with the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus Christ. Nobody comes away from a meeting with the living God unscathed. Yet, though God be ever so terrifying, God is nevertheless good. It is a measure of God’s compassion that God takes the trouble to judge us, refine us and resurrect us as new people.
The danger here is that we might be tempted to read this text as drawing the line between the righteous and the wicked prematurely. That was precisely the problem with much of the religious tradition that Jesus confronted in his ministry. Chief among the complaints against him was that he associated with “sinners.” E.g. Mark 2:15-17. We do well to remember that the line between righteousness and wickedness does not run along any international border, or between any racial, religious, ethnic or political dividing line. Rather, the line runs through each human heart which must be both judged and redeemed by the Word of the Lord.
This psalm of praise is an “enthronement psalm” celebrating the lordship of Israel’s God. The people are invited to sing a “new song” to the Lord echoing a nearly identical phrase in Isaiah 42:10 which introduces a song used in celebration of God’s coming to deliver Israel from captivity in Babylon. This similarity has led some commentators to conclude that the psalm is post-exilic. That might well be the case, but it seems to me a slender reed upon which to make a definitive decision on dating. The victories of the Lord celebrated in verses 1-3 could as easily refer to events connected with the Exodus. In the absence of reference to any specific historical event, the issue of dating must remain open.
Verse 6 makes clear that the “king” whose enthronement is celebrated here is the Lord. This, too, may well indicate a post-exilic time in which any king there might be would necessarily be a gentile ruler. The psalm would then be a bold assertion that the earth is under the sole jurisdiction of the Lord rather than any emperor or king asserting authority over the nations. If, however, this psalm dates back to the monarchic period of Israel’s history, it would testify to the prophetic insistence that even Israel’s king is finally subject to the reign of God.
Verses 4-8 extend the call to praise out to the whole earth, its peoples and all the forces of nature. All the earth is invited to “make a joyful noise to the Lord” with all manner of musical instruments. Vss. 4-6. The sea is ordered to “roar,” the floods to “clap” and the hills to “sing together for joy.” What is the great act of God evoking such cosmic celebration? The answer is given in verse 3 where the psalmist announces that God “has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.” This faithfulness has been expressed in a victory handed to Israel that is witnessed by the whole earth. Vs. 3. Furthermore, Israel will not be the only beneficiary of God’s faithfulness. For this God comes to “judge the earth” and “the world” with righteousness, establishing “equity” for all peoples. Vs. 9
Whether this psalm was written during the monarchic period of Israel’s history when she was but a small player in a violent and dangerous geopolitical neighborhood or whether it was composed following the Babylonian Exile when Israel lived as a conquered people, there was and still is a huge gap between the psalmist’s bold assertions of God’s reign and the “reality” in which the people were living. As we will see in our gospel lesson, God’s people of every age are called to live as children under God’s reign in the midst of a world where many other hostile forces assert their lordship. Faith refuses to accept the “reality” of the present world as the only one or the final one. God’s reign is the only real kingship and will endure after “crowns and thrones” have perished and after all other kingdoms have “waxed and waned.” “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” The Lutheran Hymnal, # 658.
The relationship between the form and substance of II Thessalonians and I Thessalonians has led most commentators to believe that II Thessalonians was composed by a Christian leader writing to a later generation in the name of Paul and his colleagues. However that might be, this second letter echoes Paul’s admonitions to the Thessalonians in the first letter not to concern themselves with “times” and “seasons” for the triumphal return of Christ. I Thessalonians 5:1-11. Here, too, Paul urges the church “not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word or by letter purporting to come from us to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.” Vs 2. He then continues to discuss the appearance of “the man of lawlessness” and the “rebellion” preceding the second coming. This particular section of scripture has given rise to much speculation and is one of the texts that appears to have inspired the Left Behind series. Paul (or the anonymous author) does not explain who the “man of lawlessness” is, nor does he say much about the force that is “restraining him now” discussed in the omitted verses 6-12. Evidently, he assumes that the readers know perfectly well what he was talking about and they probably did. We, alas, have no clue. That is what happens when you read someone else’s mail. You might also want to read the summary article on enterthebible.org by Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament for some good background on this brief letter.
In today’s lesson Paul addresses a perennial problem for the church. What to do with slackers in the Body of Christ? It appears that there were folks in the Thessalonian church taking advantage of the church’s hospitality and charity. Perhaps the congregation practiced common ownership of goods similar to the Jerusalem church in the Book of Acts. See Acts 4:32-37. Under this “honor system” the temptation to game the system runs high. See Acts 5:1-11. Or it might be that this church had an order of widows similar to that described in Paul’s first letter to Timothy under which elderly widows with no family to care for them received sustenance from the church in return for their commitment to minister to the needs of the saints. It seems, however, that the order was becoming a dumping ground for unwanted grannies and a refuge for younger women capable of gainful employment. I Timothy 5:3-16. In any event, it is clear that the church in Thessalonica is beset by folks who are taking far more than they give.
This problem is comparable to the dilemma presented by drifters who show up at our doors with a heart wrenching problem that cash and only cash can solve. It is perhaps similar to members of our churches who feel entitled to its benefits, but feel no responsibility to support it. They show up when someone needs to be baptized, confirmed, married or buried. You might see them on Christmas or Easter. You don’t see them at any other time, but they still think of the church as “theirs.” It is easy to share Paul’s annoyance with these slackers and I am sometimes tempted to call them out on their crass abuses of our ministry. But I never do. My reluctance is twofold. I am glad to see anyone come within the influence of the Body of Christ because I see there an opportunity to exercise hospitality and witness to the gospel.
Additionally, I cannot help but feel that the church itself is partly responsible for creating this problem. Back in the days when everyone went to church, evangelism (such that it was) consisted of little more than consumer marketing. Because we assumed that everyone was looking for a church, we advertised our church as the best in town. We touted our air conditioned buildings; our youth programs; our Sunday Schools and varied activities for seniors. Even when our outreach was specifically religious, we sold our faith as a consumer good. The trouble with consumer advertising is that it only draws consumers and consumers only consume. When we ask them to contribute, they balk-and rightly so. They were lured into our midst with the promise of freebies. Then we go and stick an offering plate under their nose, ask them to give up an evening every month to be on a committee or spend their Saturday raking our leaves. It’s a classic bait and switch.
Jesus did not market to consumers. Even to those who sought him out, he warned them that they might be sleeping on the ground or even dying on a cross should they follow him. He had no use for people who put even their family commitments ahead of discipleship. Jesus never sought mass appeal. He avoided it like the plague. Like the United States Marines, Jesus was looking for a few good people. He wanted disciples, not members. He spent the years of his ministry working intensely with twelve people and that remained his focus even when it meant turning the crowds away. Paul’s ultimatum might sound rather severe: “Whoever will not work, let them not eat.” Vs. 10. We do well to remember that Paul is not a governmental agent denying food stamps to hungry families. He is an apostle speaking to people who are under the false impression that the church is a club designed to meet the needs of its members rather than the Body of Christ devoted to the work of preaching, reconciliation and peacemaking. For their own sake and for the sake of the church these slackers need to be called to account.
Now that we are living in a post Christian age where there no longer is a huge contingent of church shoppers out there to whom we can market church membership, we can perhaps find our way back to the good work of making disciples.
This section of the gospel, like apocalyptic literature generally, has been subject to all manner of end times prognostication. With the arguable exception of “great signs from heaven” in vs 11, the natural and political traumas described have been regular features of every age. Consequently, it has always been possible to employ these scriptures to convince gullible persons with short historical memories that the end has in fact drawn near. Careful reading of the text reveals, however, that Jesus’ point is precisely the opposite. Neither the destruction of the temple nor any of the geopolitical fallout signal the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus is careful to point out that the cosmic signs heralding that final chapter will be impossible to miss. Luke 21:25-28. The disciples should not imagine that the ordinary traumas of war, pestilence and famine constitute signs of the end. Vss. 10-11.
New Testament Scholarship has sometimes viewed the entire Gospel of Luke and its sequel, the Book of Acts, as a response to dashed expectations of a church that had been looking for the imminent return of Jesus in glory. The German New Testament scholar Hans Conzelmann wrote extensively on the Gospel of Luke arguing that Luke changed the emphasis in Jesus’ teaching from an expectation that the coming of the Son of Man was imminent to a focus on the redemptive presence of God’s saving work in history through the church. This, he maintained, was Luke’s answer to a theological crisis in the church occasioned by the delay of Christ’s return as expected. That would account for the emphasis in Sunday’s gospel reading on the indefinite period of testimony required of the disciples between the resurrection and Christ’s return. Conzelmann’s thinking has been quite influential in shaping New Testament scholarship generally.
Frankly, I think Conzelmann was wrong. I am not convinced that Jesus thought the end of the world or the consummation of God’s kingdom was imminent. I believe rather that Jesus understood the kingdom as having come in its fullness through his ministry and that he invited his disciples to join him in living under its jurisdiction. I also think he understood that life under the reign of God would take the form of the cross until the “coming of the Son of Man,” the timing of which is known to God alone. I am unconvinced that the church anticipated the immediate return of Christ. Though mindful that the Son of Man would come “like a thief in the night” and that watchfulness was important, I believe the church well understood that Israel waited 400 years for liberation from Egypt; wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land and spent 70 years in exile before returning home from Babylon. Though perhaps tempted by “end times” hysteria (as is our own age), the church understood from the get go that God will not be rushed. The church also understood that God can be trusted to supply her with whatever might be required to complete her journey-however long that journey might take. In short, there never was a “crisis of faith” in the early church over the supposed delay of Jesus’ return necessitating a re-write of the church’s preaching or self-understanding.
Patience and endurance have always been central to the church’s life of faith. These virtues are learned under the yolk of oppression when no hope of liberation is in sight; when one is wandering in the wilderness without a map; or while one lives as a captive foreigner in a hostile, alien culture. These virtues might not seem so very important when the direction is clear, the way ahead is smooth and the goal is in sight. But when you are waiting for all the weapons of war to be beaten into plowshares, for a world in which each person can sit under his or her own fig tree living without fear, for the blind to see, the lame to walk, the hungry to be fed and every tear to be wiped from every eye, for that you need a truck load of endurance. It is that for which I pray to help me wait faithfully for Jesus’ triumphal return and “live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal.”
What the disciples should be preparing for is an indefinite time in which they are to live as children of their Heavenly Father in a world hostile to his reign. They can expect persecution from the government, from their fellow countrymen and even from members of their own families. Vs. 12. The disciples must be prepared to give their testimony and may do so with confidence as Jesus will give them “a mouth and wisdom which none of [their] adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Vs. 15. Though the “end” may not be imminent, the kingdom surely is-and the world’s opposition to it as well. The faithful disciple can therefore assume that tribulation will be the status quo. Nevertheless, such tribulation is not to be met with fear and foreboding. While the rest of the world is running for cover, disciples of Jesus are invited to hold their heads high in hope. They understand their trials to be not death-throws, but birth pangs.
Some New Testament scholars have practically made a career of dissecting this text and trying to figure out where the gospel writers got their material, what the material looked like before they wove it into their gospel narratives and what different meaning (if any) these supposedly independent pieces might have had in the context where they were originally composed. The fancy name for that is “redaction criticism.” In the case of this particular gospel lesson, it is commonly held that Luke relied upon Mark 13 (the “Little Apocalypse”) in composing these verses. The similarities between the two gospels at this point of intersection are striking. But there are also significant differences leading to a split of opinion over whether Luke may have relied upon other sources in addition to Mark. Marshall, I. Howard, Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978, The Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 755. There is also a good deal of scholarly argument over whether Mark relied upon a tract circulating during the Jewish War of 70 A.C.E. Ibid. 761. That war ended with Rome’s conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. It is not altogether inconceivable that such written oracles warning of the impending disaster and seeking to interpret its significance were in existence at that time or that Mark might have relied upon one of them in composing his Little Apocalypse. Yet the fact remains that no document of this kind has ever been identified. Thus, the suggestion that either Mark or Luke relied upon such a document is merely speculative. At least that is how I see it. Bottom line? Whatever may or may not have happened along the way in formation of the gospels might be of academic interest, but as far as I am concerned it is not particularly significant. I preach from the gospel as it is, not from what somebody else tells me it might have looked like in some earlier form.