“Left In or Left Out”
1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11
January 31, 2016
Two of the most common phobias in our modern times are the fear of heights and the fear of public speaking. Either one would be a serious handicap for anyone preaching from this pulpit! Apparently it has something of a reputation in our West Michigan Conference, especially among those who have stood in it for its unusual height and the narrow, curving stairs leading up to it.
Luckily, I have never been afflicted with an irrational fear of heights. Perhaps because I grew up in San Francisco, where steep hills are everywhere. My elementary school was located very close to the top of Twin Peaks Mountain in the middle of the city. We had a spectacular view of San Francisco Bay which, of course, none of us kids appreciated. To reach the playground and our classrooms, we had to climb eight flights of 12 steps each.
Maybe those early years spent looking way, way down immunized me from a fear of heights. I’ve peered over the Grand Canyon; I’ve stood on the glass floor on the top of the CN Tower in Toronto; I love staring out the window and looking down on airplane flights.
But a fear of heights is not always irrational. Sometimes it’s completely sane, a rational fear! This was the case several years ago at a church Women’s Retreat held at Bay Shore Camp on the shores of Lake Huron. Several of us had decided we were going to try the zip line.
Are you familiar with zip lines? Here’s how it goes – first, you buckle on a helmet and strap yourself into a harness-like contraption that surrounds your legs and waist in a manner that makes no one look good. Then you climb up many, wooden, increasingly wobbly and wind-blown stairs until you reach the hearty young men at the top. The hearty young men are there to prevent you from turning around and going back down those wobbly stairs!
One of the hearty men hooks you up to a safety line, then to the thick rope hanging from the long, descending guide wire that, several hundred feet ahead, swoops back up and is attached to what looks like a telephone pole.
The young man then unhooks the safety line, and indicates that you are to step out onto a 2-foot square wooden plank that has no visible means of support…and no railing. This is where the rational fear of heights comes in. Everything your mother, your gym teacher and your innate sense of self-preservation every taught you now says that you should not be standing on that tiny square of wood. And you certainly should not get off of it by stepping out into thin air.
As far as I know, no one has ever died by riding a zip line. Yet. While I was standing there on the wooden plank, trying to talk myself into taking that first step, my partner, my friend Janet, was also standing on her little wooden plank a dozen or so feet away. She was looking daring, adventurous and self-assured. I was looking like the world’s biggest chicken. So I took that first step. And it turned out that sliding down a high wire a few stories above the solid earth is a real blast! You just can’t think about it too much beforehand.
Which may be the approach we should take to the end of the world. In this evening’s Scripture reading, Paul draws us a truly remarkable picture of what will happen when Christ returns to claim his own. In every decade since, people have poured over his words, added other words and images from other places in the Bible, other traditions and stories from their own cultures, plus their own imaginations, and come up with something that any rational person would fear. In our time, two particular authors have turned Paul’s description of the End Times into a regular circus of entertainment, fear and judgmentalism.
The Left Behind series, by Tim La Haye and Jerry Jenkins, is a collection of biblical techno-thrillers about the end of the world that has outsold every other pop novel in America. The first volume, Left Behind, kicks off with the Rapture, the sudden snatching up of the millions of true believers into heaven. Subsequent volumes detail the Great Tribulation, the seven years of suffering, plagues and rule by the Antichrist that occur until Jesus’ final return.
The series uses selected verses from various books of the Bible, mostly the Book of Revelation, but also today’s passage from Thessalonians. They combine those verses with pop entertainment’s image of rock-jawed heroism and slam-bang special effects. The Left Behind books have sold more than 62 million copies. After 9/11, there was such a run on the latest book of the series that it became the bestselling novel of the year.
But just because they’re popular, doesn’t mean that they’ve gotten the Bible right. Many critics of the series say that not only do the Left Behind books show a greater interest in God’s wrath than in God’s love, but they are also scripturally questionable. Some denominations even took time to say so. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA declared that “the theology of the series is not in accord with our Reformed understanding of the Book of Revelation.” The Missouri Synod Lutheran Church denounced it as “an unbiblical flight of fancy.” Prof. Ben Witherington, who teaches at Methodist-related Asbury Theology Seminary say that the theology of these novels can best be described as “Beam me up, Scotty” belief.
What we Paul really saying when he wrote this letter to the church in Thessalonica? The people there had questions about the Second Coming of Christ. How would it happen? When would it happen? What would become of those who had already died? What about those who were still alive?
It’s clear from his answer that Paul expected to be among those who were still living when the end came. “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
Paul’s timing was more than a little off. This book of the Bible, this letter he wrote to the church in Thessolonica, was his first, written mostly likely in the mid-50s, about 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Now we need to come to grips with what his letter means for those of us who are still here, almost 2,000 years and 730,000 sunrises and sunsets, later.
The core of Paul’s vision, that which he offered to his first readers and what still speaks to us, is his conviction that as Christ died and was raised and is coming, so is our fate bound up with that reality. The dead are dead in Christ, Paul says, and as he lives so they will live.
This isn’t resuscitation. As life comes to us in the first place as a gift from God, new life comes to us as another gift from God. At our death, our creaturely existence ceases. Later Paul will write to the church in Corinth, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. We will all be changed,” transformed from what is perishable and mortal to what is imperishable and immortal. The good news of the gospel is that God does not allow death to destroy the ones whom God made and loves. Rather, God acts in Christ not preserving or re-creating us, but give us new life.
It’s easy to get lost in the bold, apocalyptic images of Paul’s writing to the Thessalonians. It’s easy to take the emotional, high-intensity sci-fi images of the Left Behind books or so many other books and movies as accurate depictions of Paul’s message. But to do so is to miss the real point and force of this passage. Paul is speaking of an event that comes from beyond the boundaries of daily life. Christ’s coming is God’s work and it is beyond the ordinary. In our attempts to explain it, we drain the passage of its power by literalizing it.
Ultimately Christ will return to receive and care for God’s children; we will not be abandoned. All does not end in oblivion and certainly not in hopelessness. The power of Paul’s words lies in their testimony to the power of God, which has grasped our lives and has the power to hold us firmly and forever, even in defiance of death.
That hope does not depend on knowing exactly how and why the end will take place. The power of our belief in Christ’s return comes from our determination to live out of hope, and to do so with and for others.
Jesus never told us to give up on the world because we’d soon be leaving! “Don’t bother, I’ll be right back” is not part of the Great Commandment. It would be theologically irresponsible of us to base our faith on the promise of a “great escape.”
Furthermore, embracing life in Christ because we think it’s the best form of spiritual fire insurance trivializes our relationship with God. Rather than focusing on “making the final cut” our focus should be reconciling the world to God. We’re called to spend our days making peace and serving justice, building a world in which all are left in the circle of hope and redemption, not spending our time identifying who is left out.
The real point of this passage that has caused so much controversy over the centuries is found in chapter 4, verse 18, “Therefore encourage one another with these words,” and – for extra emphasis -- again in chapter 5, verse 11, “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”
Far from being focused exclusively on what will happen after we die, the Christian belief in the end of life and the world as we know it actually directs us into action in relation to others. Paul’s teaching about the future and the fate of the dead is given to us so that we will minister to one another in the here and now. Because we know Christ is always faithful, past, present and future, we are free to care for others.
Which leads me back to the zip line. It was so much fun that Janet and I decided to do it a second time. Only this time, we were going to do it facing backwards. We climbed up the wobbly scaffolding. The same hearty young man hooked on the safety line, then the thick rope connected to the guide wire, then unhooked the safety line. I stepped onto the wooden plank and tried to turn around. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t move my feet. My brain said “go.” My feet said “no way.”
“Janet,” I croaked, “I don’t think I can do this.”
I don’t know if she heard me or not. “Come on, Jennie!” she called out. “Let’s goooooo!” Off she went and off I went and here I am to tell the tale.
Jesus is coming. I don’t know when and I don’t know how. But I do know that the promise of that event is not meant to convince us to give up on the world. The point is: it’s time to get busy. The point is: it’s time to encourage one another. The point is: Let’s goooooo!