November 10, 2019 Sermon
“Do Not be Alarmed”
Old Testament Scripture: Haggai 1:15b-2:9
In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the LORD of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.
New Testament Reading: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, 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. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?
But 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. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.
Sermon: “Do Not Be Alarmed” Rev. David Hawkins
There are times in our lives when it seems that the whole world is against us. A failure at work, a failure in character, a loss of a job, or a loved one, or simply living day to day in a fog of tedious, purposeless routine can lead us to think that there is no point in even trying.
I think we’ve all felt, at one time or another, like throwing in the towel. That the cost of continuing is more than we can afford, emotional, physically, or spiritually. That we are lost, forgotten, and beaten down.
The Church in Thessalonica is in that place.
Now, some of the churches that Paul planted where in places that were heavily populated by Jews, and the people in the churches were Jews. But Paul also planted churches in Gentile cities, with Gentile congregations, and he was often heavily criticized for this. You may remember a heated argument in the Book of Acts between Peter and Paul regarding whether or not non-Jewish people could be Christians. This is hard thing for us to conceptualize 2000 years later, but the early Christian church was by and large, a Jewish religion.
But, this church in Thessalonica is one of the churches that Paul planted that is almost entirely Gentile. Thessalonica was a busy seaport city, wealthy, and diverse. There were Jews in the city, and Paul visited and preaching in their synagogue. Some of these Jews, and many of the Greeks in the town became Christians, and started the Thessalonian Church.
The other Jews in the city were outraged at Paul’s preaching and at the establishment of a religion that claimed Jewish roots for its identity, and yet was not Jewish, and they went to the city authorities with complaints about the new church.
Some of their complaints were about the theology of the new church. Rome was polytheistic, and the people worshipped many different Gods and Goddesses. We remember some of them: Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury, and so on. Each of these gods had their own sort of groups of followers. And Rome believed that their great power and influence in the world was a result of their paying appropriate honor to these Gods. It was strictly a business arrangement. You would belong to one of these gods, offer up the appropriate sacrifices and rituals, and the god would bless you.
And, you could belong to as many of these different gods as you wanted. The more, the better. In fact, the Roman Empire made it a practice to not eradicate the religions of the peoples they conquered. Rather, they absorbed the local deities into their own sort of pantheon of gods and goddesses, thinking that it certainly wouldn’t hurt to include as many different gods as possible, you know, just to cover the angles.
The problem was, the Jews and the Christians were extremely exclusive. They worshiped
only one God. The Romans had real problems with that, and the history of the Roman Empire and the Jewish nation is filled with the tension that resulted from this conflict of religious allegiance. However, for large periods of the time, there existed a shaky peace between the Romans and the Jews, with neither side willing to shake things up too much.
But now, we have this new group, these Christians in town, and they also claim exclusive allegiance to one God. And this is problematic. Because if the good of the country was dependent on everyone do the best that they could to appease all the gods, then this sort of exclusive worship to one God would certainly anger all the others,
Not only that, the Christians only recognized one King, and that king was Jesus. That meant that they didn’t worship the emperor as a god, and this was both politically and religiously an outrage. After all, the emperor was the one from whom all things came, and all honor and respect was due to him, in the same way that it was due the gods.
And so the Christian church in Thessalonica was being squeezed from two directions: from the Jewish church, who had worked out their own, albeit unstable, agreement with Roman authorities, and the rest of the religious community, who believed that the church was inviting destruction to be rained down on all of them with their exclusive worship of an unknown, and invisible God, and their recognition of this King Jesus, of whom nobody had ever heard.
And so life was tough for Thessalonian Christians. Really very tough. They were hated by pretty much everyone in town. It was like being a Democrat in West Texas. Or a Republican in San Francisco.
And to make matters worse, there were some in the congregation, maybe they were members, maybe they were visitors from out of town, who decided to interpret the difficulties that the church was having as signs that the end times had come, and that the apocalypse was upon them. That the world was going to be destroyed, and that Jesus was literally on his way at any moment to take up his faithful followers and that the whole universe was on the verge of cosmic destruction.
It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It seems like every time something bad happens, there are fifteen different religious authorities on TV announcing that, yep, this is it, the world is coming to an end, we see all the signs. And yet, the world keeps on spinning.
I’m especially reminded of the predictions made by people like Harold Camping, a radio evangelist, who was absolutely sure that May 21, 2011 was the day in which Jesus would return. When May 21, 2011 came and went without the coming of the Rapture, he amended his prediction to be October 21, 2011. Which also turned out to be incorrect.
And if it was just the raving predictions of an idiot in California, this would just be a funny story. The problem is, thousands of people believed him, to the point of selling their houses, quitting their jobs, leaving home, abandoning their families, etc. There is a story of a worker in New York giving more than $150,000, his life insurance, his savings, everything.
Rather than giving people the hope they needed in order to persevere in their present circumstances, Harold Camping led them to give up entirely, and sit and wait for the end times to consume the world. And he was wrong. Wrong in a way that ruined the lives of those who believed him.
And he’s not the only one to do this, of course. Millions and millions of dollars have been spent on books about the end times. We are consumed by the idea of the rapture, of a cosmic war, of the destruction of the universe. But we’re not the first generation to be duped by the false prophets of doom. All throughout history, the imminent end of the world was forecast, especially in times of political upheaval. The lawless one is named, the anti-Christ is revealed, the prophecies are coming true, one by one by one, always in a logical, persuasive way, inexorably pointing to the fact that the world is going to end very, very soon.
But they are always, always wrong.
And it makes me think that maybe these frauds who continuously, and lucratively, predict the end of the world don’t really understand what it is that the imagery of the final battle is supposed to represent. That maybe they have mistaken the apocalyptic themes of destruction and judgment to be the main point. That the only conclusion to be drawn from these symbols is that God hates the world, and everyone in it, and can’t wait to destroy it. That the only way to interpret the signs and wonders in this world, is to give up, believe in Jesus, and wait for the world to end.
For them, the idea of a final cataclysmic battle between good and evil means the end of effort on our part, the end of striving, the end of pushing on, the end of the journey. And that’s a relief. For them, the end of the world is almost a narcotic, a release from the pain and suffering of this world.
And that is the difference between Paul and those who preach the Apocalypse.
Those who preach the apocalypse aren’t spreading hope. They are spreading a toxic brew of fear and apathy. Instead of inspiring folks to continue the fight, to hold fast to their convictions and their faith in spite of the danger, even when it seems hopeless, they are encouraging them to sit down and wait patiently for the end, when everything will be okay again. Except, of course, if you aren’t saved. In which case you will die forever in a horrible, fiery hell.
But Paul wants no part of the that. He wants no part of a church that sits and waits for the end. He wants no part of a church that gives up. And this is why he writes to the church in Thessalonica. To remind them of the hope they have in Jesus Christ. Not fear. Not apathy. But hope.
Hope that promises that even when all the signs point to failure, to humiliation, we are still loved. Hope that promises that even when we can’t see a way out of the problems we face, God knows very well where we are going, and is waiting for us when we get there. Hope that promises that even in our greatest weakness, we are given the strength we need to get up, dust ourselves off, and keep walking the path that is set before us.
And we need this hope. Because the reality is, we do live in tough times. Plainview is changing, in ways that we don’t understand. Young people are moving out of town. There are fewer young farmers, and that means things. Grandparents are moving away to be near their grandkids. And that means things.
And it affects the church in ways that we find difficult to counter. Let’s face it Presbyterianism is kind of wordy, kind of scholarly, kind of heady sometimes, and not everyone wants that. There is so much info out there, a lot of people would just as soon be told what to think, and we don’t do that very well. At least I don’t.
And we’re not alone in seeing the effects of a changing population in Plainview. Other mainline churches are experiencing the same sorts of difficulties that we are. It’s a hard time.
And it would be easy to see all this as a sign to give up. To see this as the end of the church. To see this as the end of Plainview.
And it’s not just around here.
There have been historic floods down in Houston, and Japan recently experience the worst storm in 60 years. The Islands nation of the Bahamas were nearly completely destroyed by Hurricane Dorian. For people experiencing these disasters, it feels like literally the end of the world. It’s hard to even think about the next step.
And in other countries, economies and political systems are spinning out of control. Upheaval in the Mideast fuels the fires of apocalyptic speculation. For many in our own country, our national discourse and political gridlock is a cosmic sign of imminent doom.
It would be very tempting to think that our world is coming to an end. Almost a relief. That all these problems are going to go away, that all the stress and tension of our everyday lives, all the tragedy and pain from natural disasters would just be taken from us in one huge apocalyptic big bang.
But in reality, the world is not ending. It is going to continue. And so must we. And the idea that the world is on the eve of destruction doesn’t really do anything to help us.
This is where Paul’s words to the church in Thessalonica are just as relevant today as they were two thousand years ago. We are not in this fight alone. We are given hope in the promise that regardless of the storms, regardless of the unrest in the world, regardless of our own uncertain futures, we are not alone in our journey. We are not alone the battle we that is raging all around us.
Now, let me just say this. Yes, it is entirely possible that the world will end tomorrow. We as Christians are called to be in that impossible place where we live as though it will end, and as though it won’t, at the same time.
And this takes strength. It takes study. It takes a sense of humor. It takes grit. And it takes hope. Hope that, regardless of the signs all around us of impending doom, Jesus is still with us, still loves us, still prays for us, still reigns in power for us.