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Twenty Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 10, 2013

Do you remember the atomic clock? It was an imaginary clock that measured our nearness to nuclear conflict. Based on the state of relations between theUnited Statesand theSoviet Union, the clock would be moved closer to 12 o’clock or further away from 12 o’clock. If it ever hit 12:00, it would mean a nuclear strike was imminent and the world as we know it would be forever changed. Whole countries would be destroyed. Millions of people would be killed. Radiation fallout would poison survivors everywhere. The only way to survive such a massive attack was to live in a remote jungle area that the two countries were not interested in destroying and even that was no guarantee. People worried about the possibility as part of their daily lives, though they could do nothing about it.

The Thessalonians are worried about the end of the world too, only they are worried about the Day of the Lord, when God will come and judge the earth. The struggle between good and evil will end and God will be triumphant. God will gather the worthy into God’s arms and dismiss the unworthy to a place entirely separated from God. They were in the middle of apocalyptic fever and were anxiously concerned about their fate. If the day of the Lord had already come, as they had been led to believe, what were they to do? How were they to wait and see what the Lord would do – especially with them? Would they be taken or left behind? They knew they were not perfect, and even though they had been told they were saved and on the right path, they were worried about how God would judge them.

Apocalyptic expectations were common in Jesus’ day. The Jewish Scriptures foretold it. Jesus talked about the coming of the day of the Lord in dramatic and frightening language. So it is not surprising that the Thessalonians believed a communication they had received from some unknown source about the Day of the Lord already being present.

The author of 2 Thessalonians wants to calm them down, because they are of no use to the proclamation of the good news in their anxious and frightened state. He wants to refocus them on what is in the present, and it is not the Day of the Lord. In the first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul has talked about the nearness of that day and how to prepare for it. In this letter, which many scholars agree was probably not written by Paul, the author still wants his flock to know that the day of the Lord is near, but it is not here yet.

To accomplish his goal, the author praises the Thessalonians. They have been zealous in proclaiming the word even though they are undergoing persecution. He promises them that when thekingdomofGodcomes, God will wreak vengeance on those who have persecuted them, who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of Jesus. He comforts them in their trials. Then he reminds them that the Day of the Lord is not coming yet. How does he know this? Because certain things have to happen before God puts a stop to the struggle between good and evil and comes in triumph. There has to be a rebellion, and there has to be a “lawless one” revealed, someone who will pretend to be God, but will ultimately be destroyed. In other words the situation will get worse before it gets better, but they will at least not be in doubt that God is coming and they will be vindicated. If they do not see the signs, then they should not worry.

Third, the author reminds the Thessalonians of their identity. They are chosen people called by God. They are the first fruits of salvation, certainly figuratively and perhaps literally, as First Thessalonians is Paul’s earliest letter. Not only did they receive baptism by water, but they received the power of the Holy Spirit as well to guide them into doing the right things – the things necessary for salvation. They are destined to obtain the glory of Jesus.

Now, as to what they are to do between this time and the Second Coming to be ready. They are to keep doing what they have been doing. They are to be grounded in the traditions they have learned from Paul – the stories Jesus tells and the stories about Jesus that teach them how to love God and neighbor. They are to keep on keeping on, whether times are good or bad. They are to remember their faith and act out of it, holding Jesus in their hearts at all times. They are to wear their “What would Jesus do?” bracelets and do it. If they do what the author says, God and Christ, who gave them eternal comfort and hope, will strengthen them to do these good works.

It can be very hard for us to relate to this story The Apocalypse, the figure of Satan, the frantic worry about being judged are all foreign to us – or are they?

Most Episcopalians I know are not worried about the Day of the Lord. It has been so long now since Jesus said it was coming that we do not expect it any time soon. Nor do we expect that we might not go to heaven or whatever metaphor we use for eternal life. But there are people who are always trying to figure out when Jesus will return. They look at the unrest in the Middle East or the growth ofChinaas a superpower or other signs to say it is time. When I was in college, a man often stood around the student union with a sign saying the world was going to end. And remember the most recent offering of a date the world was supposed to end? There are even secular predictions about the end of the world. There is still a nuclear threat, though it is not as great, and some people see global warming or some other disaster caused by people as the beginning of the end.

While we may not worry about a devil with horns, we know there is evil in the world and wonder where the current violence will all lead – the wars, the oppression, cruelties too many to number. It seems there is much more evil than good in the world, and we question why God allows bad things to happen to good people.

We may not worry about some of these big things, but we all look into the future and worry about our own things. What is it you worry about that keeps you up at night – the economy, your children’s future, job security, growing old? All of these worries draw you away from living in the present moment, and that is what we are called to do while we live between the already and the not yet, just as the Thessalonians are. We are to remember who we are and whose we are. We are to live out what we promised in our baptism. We are to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, the evil powers of the world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God and our own sinful desires. We are to keep on trusting Jesus and continue in the tradition we have learned. We are to speak God’s word and do God’s work now, working for justice and peace and not worrying about the future. We are to do the next right thing. As Martin Luther once remarked, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

Make no mistake. The Day of the Lord is coming. God will triumph, and thekingdomofGodwill come on earth. That day will also bring judgment of what we have done on earth because what we do here matters to other people and to God. Life is challenging, always changing, and sometimes scary, but our lives are to remain firmly fixed in our commandments to love God and neighbor. This is our call as children of God, and we must remain steady in our efforts to work for God’s glory.

AMEN

     - The Rev. Ann Barker