A note from Jamie Howison: A serious nod is due to Bishop N.T. Wright, for his article “Farewell to the Rapture,” published in Bible Review in August 2001 and accessible from the NT Wright Page. And of course, an additional nod to Robert Farrar Capon, whose book Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus needs to be in every preacher’s library.
ow that we have passed All Saints day, the lectionary cycle of readings moves us into a series of Sundays in which we will read what might be described as crisis readings. For these last three Sundays of this liturgical year—and the new year begins on November 27, when we mark the first Sunday of Advent—we’ll be working with texts that in different ways speak of judgment, and of our need for readiness. And in fact, these themes will roll into the first two or three Sundays of Advent, the dominant theme of which is not about getting ready for Christmas but rather about being open to, and prepared for, what God will bring about for all of time and history.
It makes a good deal of sense that the lectionary cycle has this shape, as it reflects the shape of the gospels themselves. Jesus’ own life moves toward a culmination in crises—his arrest and execution—and at the same time his teachings and parables become increasingly urgent and challenging.
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And so this evening we heard first a crisis reading from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. That little church community in Thessalonica has a problem, you see; its members are dying. Early in his preaching and church-planting ministry, Paul had assumed that Christ would soon return to bring in a new reign, a new creation… soon being the operative word. Like John of Patmos, who concludes the Book of Revelation with his stunning picture of a new heaven and a new earth, and the words, “The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20), Paul was convinced that the world as it had been known was in its final days. At any time, at any moment, things would be re-created, set right, and vindicated through the return and reign of Christ.
That would have sounded like extraordinarily good news to the people in that young church community in Thessalonica, living as they did under the oftentimes violent and oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. They’d survived the excesses and horrors wrought by the Emperor Caligula, and within just a few years of the writing of this epistle would be confronted by the madness of Nero. That Jesus—and not the emperor—was Lord, and that the fullness of the coming of Kingdom of God was soon? Things just don’t get any more hopeful that that.
Yet in the midst of that deep hope, some of them were dying. Some died at the hands of imperial courts and soldiers, but some just got sick or died of old age. How can that be, Paul? And so Paul writes to them that, “we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” Death will not have the last word here, Paul says, and in fact the Greek word that most of our translations render as “died” is actually “fallen asleep.” “We do not want you to be uninformed… about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” That’s not a denial of death, but rather Paul’s way of telling this little church community that even death will not be able to separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Jesus is the trump card in this game, not death.
It is at this point that Paul really winds up and hits his readers with everything he’s got. The remainder of the passage we read tonight is what N.T. Wright calls “a brightly colored version” of what is presented in other epistles (ie. 1 Corinthians 15:51-54, Philippians 3:20-21), drawing together metaphors from both biblical and political sources to try to communicate to them why they must not lose hope, even in the face of death.
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 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 for ever.
Wow. Fasten your seatbelts, kids, the ride is about to get exciting… or does it all just sound a bit weird, other-worldly, and without touchstones to our own experience of things? In his work with this passage, Wright points out that Paul is referencing some established biblical language, including both the picture of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai to the sounding of a trumpet, and the imagery from the book of Daniel in which the “holy ones” of God are seated with God in glory. Yet in Bishop Wright’s view, Paul is also quite intentionally referencing a political image.
Paul conjures up images of an emperor visiting a colony or province. The citizens go out to meet him in open country and then escort him into the city. Paul’s image of the people ‘meeting the Lord in the air’ should be read with the assumption that the people will immediately turn around and lead the Lord back to the newly remade world.
Blended together these images form what Wright calls, “a vivid and biblically allusive description of the great transformation of the present world,” which intentionally “subvert(s) the political imagery of the dominant and dehumanizing empires of our world.” Jesus is Lord; the emperor is not. And for this Lord, even death is not an insurmountable. Not only that, but for all of its brokenness and even chaos, the world that God created will not be abandoned; it will be remade. “Therefore,” Paul writes to his little church community in Thessalonica, “encourage one another with these words.”
But you know, sometimes encouragement has to take the form of a complacency rattling challenge, which is what Jesus is doing with this parable of the ten bridesmaids. All ten are all invited to a wedding feast, but as Jesus tells the story five are wise enough to take extra oil for their lamps—presumably because grooms in the ancient world were notoriously late?—while the other five don’t bother. Sure enough the bridegroom is delayed—which has long been read as a reference to Christ’s return being delayed—leaving those five to scurry off to try to buy some lamp oil in the middle of the night, in a cultural context that was devoid of 24 hour convenience stores no less. By the time they get back, the wedding feast has finally begun, but they find that they can’t get in. “‘Lord, lord,’” they cry out, “‘open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’” And then Jesus caps his story by saying, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Now, there is no question that Jesus is challenging his original audience, and us with them, to take on a posture of wakefulness and of radical openness to the inbreaking of God’s kingdom. We have been saved by grace, but a life under grace still demands a response, a trusting, and a profound openness to ourselves being shaken up, challenged, remade.
You see, I don’t believe that either Jesus with his parable or Paul with his picture of the coming king were attempting to do the thing that we’ve sometimes tried to make them do, namely to scare the hell out of people. In both cases, these teachings are directed to people who are already a part of the movement—in the case of the parable, it is the disciples who are the audience, in the case of Paul’s letter it is that little church community. Such teachings were never intended to be used to frighten our non-believing friends into the church, nor were they meant to be posted on highway billboards or turned into evangelistic end-times movies. As Robert Capon reminds us,
When all is said and done—when we have scared ourselves silly with the now-or-never urgency of faith and the once-and-always finality of judgment—we need to take a deep breath and let it out with a laugh. Because what we are waiting for is a party…
We must receive tonight’s readings as both proclamations of deep hope and as a call intended to shake to wakefulness a people already learning to trust the great good news.