1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
First Sunday of Advent – December 2, 2018
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Fear. Maybe I’m the only one, but when I stop moving for long enough, I can feel it in the air, almost as though it’s being carried on the breeze. I often hear it in the voices of people I talk to and sense it in the voices of people I interact with online. When it’s especially bad, I almost feel as though I can taste it at the back of my throat, like a bitter pill that refuses to be swallowed, no matter how hard I try. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but I don’t think that’s true. The fear is out there, and I’m pretty confident that you’ve felt it too. The reasons for that fear are as numerous as the people who are experiencing it at any given time. For me, it is driven by a pervasive spirit of hostility in our public discourse, by the knowledge of uncertainty that faces people I love, by the sense that my daughters are growing up in a world that feels less safe than the world in which I did, and I’m sure by many other things that dwell under the surface that I couldn’t articulate even if I wanted to do so. You can probably supply your own list with relative ease.
As I’ve been pondering the reality of that fear, I’ve been struck by how the passage before us today has the potential to be at turns disturbing and comforting. It’s disturbing because it represents that undercurrent of fear writ large, on a cosmic scale that speaks about the end of everything. It’s comforting, on the other hand, because it reminds us that this fear isn’t uniquely a product of our time; rather, it is common to every era of human history. The disciples who first heard Jesus speak these words wrestled mightily with the prospect that the temple in Jerusalem – which was not just a magnificent structure which left them in awe, but was also the very place where it was said that God had chosen to dwell on earth – would one day cease to exist. Their teacher was telling them in no uncertain terms that the navel of the universe, the center of the world for God’s people, was going to be laid waste, and that even this catastrophe was just the beginning of the pains that would accompany the birth of the new creation that God would bring forth. Talk about fear!
These disciples, of course, weren’t terribly keen on hearing that kind of news without getting a little bit more information. OK, teacher, just when is all this going to happen? How are we going to recognize the signs that will accompany what you’ve said? Jesus, for his part, wasn’t going to give them what they were looking for – at least not exactly. In fact, when he identifies some of the preliminary signs, he almost immediately tells them that, in the end, even he didn’t know exactly when the end of the age was going to come. That didn’t stop them – or subsequent generations of Christians – from trying to pin things down more precisely. Countless predictions concerning the events that are described here (as well as in the books of Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Revelation) have been made over the centuries, with a success rate of exactly 0% to date. Perhaps that should be comforting as well: the knowledge that thousands of people throughout history have looked at the world around them in fear and imagined that what was happening was uniquely terrible enough to represent the fulfillment of Scripture’s vision of the end and that, to a person, they have been mistaken.
What, then, is the purpose of this discourse for those of us who are following Jesus on the way almost two thousand years after he first spoke these words? How can this passage about the “end of the age” speak today, in a time that is so fraught with fear and anxiety, and what does it have to teach us during this season of introspection and renewal in preparation for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection?
Amid all these images of social and cosmic catastrophe, Jesus reminds us to be discerning about the voices that occupy our attention. Be wary, he tells us, of those who proclaim that they are uniquely capable of bringing change to the world. Don’t be led astray by anyone who declares that they enjoy special status or favor because they bear the name of Christ. Those who follow Jesus should recognize that he alone is capable of transforming our world by his glorious power. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to make the kingdom manifest, of course, only that we should be realistic about how much we can do on our own strength. Anyone who claims otherwise is sorely mistaken.
At the same time, Jesus calls us to beware of the aforementioned “tyranny of the present”. It may seem as though we are living in a time unlike any other, but, in the end, this time (and every other) rests in God’s hands. Worry and anxiety about the state of the world can be productive to a point. Ultimately, however, we must place our lives in the care of the one who made this world and who promises to restore it and to gather the nations from the end of the earth into God’s righteous reign. Until that day comes, then, we are called to trust in the word of God, which is trustworthy and true and which will never pass away, even if everything we know ceases to be. This word – that the Reign of God has drawn near; that we are called to love God and neighbor with everything we have; that our life is found in the Gospel, which compels us to give ourselves in service to others; and that Christ’s own life has already been laid down for our sake and for the sake of the world – is our guide as we walk on the way of God. We will never know the hour, but we can know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and in him find the strength to face the present and the future with confidence in his never-failing love and grace for us and the whole creation.
Brothers and sisters, the world is a scary place. In truth, it has been that way since the Fall. Today’s reading calls us to keep alert and to watch for the signs of Christ’s coming. But more than that, it calls us to trust in the presence of Christ which is already with us, to dwell together in the power of the Holy Spirit, and to listen for the voice of the one who leads us on the way to light, life, freedom, justice, peace, and love, not by ignoring our fears, but by walking in spite of them into the future that God is preparing for this broken and beautiful world. As we prepare for Holy Week and the contemplation of Christ’s unfathomable love for each one of us, may we come with all our hopes and fears to be renewed by the story of joy conquering pain, hope conquering fear, and life conquering death. Fear is in the air, but it cannot and will not remain forever. Thanks be to God! Amen.