Sermon delivered on the 3rd Sunday before Advent A, November 9, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Joshua 24.1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78.1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18; Matthew 25.1-13.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In these Sundays between All Saints and Advent Sunday, the focus is on the communion of saints, both the living and the dead. Appropriately, then, in our epistle lesson we see Paul being a pastor to his people by offering them real hope and consolation for their dead who have died in Christ, i.e., for those who were united with Christ in baptism and faith when they died. But what was the basis for that hope? It is this question I want us to look at briefly this morning.
In our epistle lesson, Paul is addressing a concern that the Thessalonians have apparently expressed to him. What will happen when the Lord returns to finally usher in his new creation? Will only those who are alive at that time be the beneficiaries? What will happen to those who have died in Christ? Will they be left out of God’s new world?
Of course not, says Paul, because when the Lord Jesus returns amid many great signs and wonders, those who have died in the Lord will be raised by God to join those who are still living to meet and greet him! So nobody who is the Lord’s gets left out of the great end-time party! We notice that Paul is not trying to say exactly where the dead are or what state they are in. It is enough for him (and us) to know that they are in God’s care and that when the Lord Jesus appears again, so will they.
This is why Paul tells us not to grieve as those who have no hope. This does not mean that when we suffer the death of loved ones we should not grieve. That would be cruel nonsense and Paul himself never gave any hint of trying to practice something like that (cf. Philippians 2.25-27). Instead, Paul was reminding us about our Christian hope, that not even death can separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 8.38-39), so that whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 6.3-5, 14.8; 1 Thessalonians 5.10). This was in stark contrast to the prevailing view of death in Paul’s day and (sadly) increasingly in our own, that death is final and permanent. Death is hard enough to endure as it is. But think what it would be like if we thought of death as a permanent separation from the Source of all life and a final state rather than as sleep from which we will one day awake because we are connected to the Source of all life as Paul teaches here and elsewhere. This is why we are to grieve as those who have hope.
But what are we to make of the vivid images Paul uses in describing the Lord’s return and the resurrection of the dead? Is he really teaching that there is going to be a “rapture” that is epitomized in the Left Behind series where the good guys are swept away to be with the Lord while the bad guys are left stranded here to endure a hellish existence in God’s rejected world? The short answer is absolutely not. But you knew that I couldn’t just give you the short answer.
First, let us remember that rapture theology is a 19th-century invention. We have no evidence the early church ever taught any such thing or that this kind of theology existed before then. To explain the language Paul uses, we must keep in mind that Paul was offering comfort to his people, not speculation about the Lord’s return. Paul is trying to describe an event that is simply indescribable because we have no frame of reference for it. And so he uses various biblical pictures and images to make his main point that the dead are not going to be left out of God’s new creation.
When Paul talks about the Lord descending from heaven he is not talking about a literal spatial return. Instead, the language Paul uses about trumpets sounding is likely alluding to the language of Psalm 47.5, a passage the early church believed to be a reference to Jesus’ ascension. In other words, Paul is telling us that Jesus will return from heaven (God’s space) in the same way he was taken up into heaven. Paul’s use of trumpet blasts also utilizes a common OT metaphor for one of the signs that would accompany the great and terrible day of the Lord in which God would execute judgment on his sin-sick world and its people (Zechariah 9.14; Joel 2.1; Zephaniah 1.14-16). Not only that, Paul’s descent language mirrors the dynamic of the new heavens and earth that is presented in Revelation 21.1-7. More about that in a moment.
But what about verse 17 where Paul tells us that those of us who are alive will be caught up in the clouds along with the dead who have been raised to meet the Lord Jesus in the air and be with him forever? Doesn’t that mean we will be taken from this evil world to enjoy eternal bliss with Jesus as disembodied spirits in heaven? Again, the short answer is no. Paul likely had in mind the image of people coming out of a city to meet a returning victorious general or leader to welcome him home and escort him back into their city, a common practice for people living in Paul’s day.
The image of being caught up in the clouds also evokes images from Daniel 7.1-28 where the Son of Man is vindicated by God after his suffering. Cloud language is always a biblical metaphor for God’s presence and here Paul is reminding us that we too will be vindicated in our suffering when the Lord returns and his people come out to welcome him as he ushers in God’s new world.
We can be sure Paul had this in mind because of what he says about the resurrection elsewhere (cf. Philippians 3.19-21; 1 Corinthians 15.50-57). What is the logic of resurrection? Think it through. The resurrection promises us new bodily existence in God’s new creation, the time when God consummates his promise to renew his sin-sick world and its people by bringing about new heavens and a new earth. This, of course, will happen when our Lord Jesus returns in great power and glory, and this is precisely what Paul is talking about here. If God intends to renew all creation by recreating the kind of world he intended originally, and if part of living in that world entails having new resurrection bodies, where is the advantage of being snatched away out of it? It is this world that is going to be the real paradise when the dimensions of heaven and earth are finally fused together into a new whole as Revelation 21.1-22.21 boldly proclaim. Here is where the action and the eternal party is, so why would a loving God who has made all this possible for us in and through Jesus snatch us away so that we miss it? Does not compute! To the contrary, the ones to be pitied are those who are excluded from this beautiful promise of new creation about which Paul and the other NT authors write. [To learn more about this, check out this video from Dr. Ben Witherington]
And it is important for us to understand that Paul is not just talking about us and how we are saved, although that is part of it. Paul has in view something much more comprehensive, the gospel contained in all of Scripture. We are reminded of this in our OT and psalm lessons this morning. Joshua and his people renew their covenant with the Lord to be the people God called them to be through Abraham and his descendants. They are to be a blessing to God’s good world and its peoples gone bad through sin and rebellion and the evil it unleashed. God would later promise his people Israel a new covenant which was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, the one true Israelite through whom God would rescue us from evil, sin, and death and reconcile us to himself. To be part of that people and to live in a manner that would bring God’s blessing to the world is the basis of all wisdom as the psalmist reminds us because in rescuing his world from evil, sin, and death, God must judge the evil in it and rid his world of all vestiges of it, including all who practice evil and who live in rebellion against God’s gracious rule, even (especially?) God’s people.
This is the same warning we see in Jesus’ parable in our gospel lesson. Be ready, he says, because you don’t know when I will return to issue final judgment on all that corrupts my world. Lip service won’t cut it. You must live in a manner that imitates me and there will come a point, either at your death or when I return, that you will have no further chances to be part of the party. So don’t be left behind. Be wise and live each day as my people as my people who are prepared for my return by being God’s blessing to the world because I want you to be at the party!
This, then, is the gospel. It is about God rescuing his world and its people, not about me and my salvation, although again that is a part of it. Paul writes about this more fully in Romans 8.18-30 and in our epistle lesson we see him drawing on that hope to offer comfort for those of us who mourn our Christian dead. Elsewhere, Paul reminds us that we don’t have to wait to die to be with the Lord because he has given us his Spirit to live in and through us to sustain and equip us to be his saints so that we can live our lives patterned after the life of Jesus to bring God’s healing and blessing to the world (Romans 8.1-11). We can trust this promise because we have experienced the Spirit’s presence in our lives and because what God has done for us in our Lord Jesus’ death and resurrection. He has reconciled us to him and given us a taste of our bright future that Paul talks about here.
There is a lot for us to chew on in all this. Our epistle lesson ends with Paul’s command for us to encourage one another with his words. Are we doing that and grieving as people with hope or are we living in denial or wringing our hands in despair as the rest of the world does? Do we believe the hope and promise contained in the whole of scripture that God is actively involved in rescuing his world and us right now, even when we cannot perceive it? Do we live like people who believe that in the cross God has defeated evil and sin and reconciled us to him or do we still live in fear? Do we live like we have the Holy Spirit living in us to comfort us when we are afflicted and to trust God to sustain us when we are forced to walk through the darkest valley or do we act like we must walk through that valley all alone? Do we believe in the hope and promise of the resurrection of the body and the new heavens and earth, the time when the party will never end and we will never again be afflicted by any kind of evil as we are now? Are we living in the power of the Spirit as God’s holy people who are prepared for Jesus’ return in our day? This is not the same thing as living with a sense of urgency each day because we notice in Jesus’ parable all the bridesmaids fell asleep and it is not in our nature to live for long periods of time with a sense of urgency. How we answer these questions will determine what kind of church we are and what kind of faith, hope, and love we have, not to mention possessing joy and power, because if we can answer yes to these questions, we are acknowledging that we trust in the Lord and live in his power, not our own. That means, of course, we know we have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.