I Believe Jesus Will Come Again

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
1Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
6So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.
11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

This passage took on special meaning for my friends Rob and Gayle Grotheer this week. Rob is pastor of College Place UMC and was formerly on staff here at Wesley. On Monday afternoon, thieves broke into their home and took a lot of things that were very valuable to them. As we reflected together on this passage, it took on special meaning for Rob. How can one be ready for a thief when you don’t know when they are going to come?

The apostle Paul used the imagery of the thief to describe the return of Jesus Christ. He said if we live our lives in the darkness, in complacency, saying “there is peace and security”, then we are in for quite a shock. But if we live in the light, living every day as if the Lord were to return today, we will be ready not only for Christ’s return…we will be ready for the judgment of God as well.

Jesus told his disciples he would return, and the lives of the apostles were spent actively waiting for that return. Throughout Paul’s writings, we see him encouraging Christians to maintain hope and not give up anticipating that Jesus will return.  So Paul says, “So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; … and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other”

Each week in worship we declare our central belief that Jesus “…sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead” (which is just an old way of saying the living and the dead).  The Nicene Creed is somewhat more descriptive about Christ’s return, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
We recite this to proclaim a central truth that is found throughout the New Testament…Jesus said he will return and he declares there will be a final judgment of everyone.

So how can we be ready when we don’t know when he will return? I mean it’s been 1,979 years since Jesus ascended into heaven and he hasn’t come back yet. That’s just the kind of thought process Paul warns us against. We’ve heard people say, “Live everyday as if it was your last,” and I like that saying, but how do we do it?

The ancient monastics accomplished this in a way that may sound morbid to us.  We must think more about our death. We must contemplate more about our mortality in a way that reminds us there will be an end.  Evagrius of Pontus said, ‘Think about your death and you will see that your body is decaying. Think about the loss, feel the pain. Our mortality helps us put the vanity of the world outside. Think about those who will be in heaven and the souls in hell. It is important to meditate on their condition, the bitter silence and the moaning, the fear and the strife, the waiting and the pain without relief, the tears that cannot cease to flow. Think also about the day of resurrection, imagine God’s judgment. Imagine the sight of the confusion of sinners before God and above them all the sound of the gnashing of teeth, dread and torments. Bring before your mind the good laid up for the righteous, their confidence before God the Father and Christ His Son. Think on all this. Weep and lament for the judgement of sinners, keep alert to the grief they suffer; be afraid that you are hurrying towards the same condemnation. Rejoice and exult at the good laid up for the righteous. Aim at enjoying the one, and being far from the other. Do not forget this, wherever you are and whatever you do. Keep these memories in your mind and they will cast out the thoughts and actions that harm you.’

I admit this is not the most exciting thing a preacher has asked you to think about. But I am saying to you that this is how we change the way we live. Think more upon your end; So that your actions will be shaped by the limits of your mortality. How I treat others, how I speak to others, how I live my life – if I never think of the end then what I do along the way doesn’t matter.

Thomas a Kempis, the famous 15th century monk wrote, “Happy is the man (or woman) who hath the hour of his death always before his eyes, and daily prepareth himself to die.”  He also wrote, “O the dullness and hardness of man’s heart, which thinks only of the present, and looks not forward to the future. Thou ought in every deed and thought so to order thyself, as if thou wert to die this day.”

Are you ready?

Leadership Ingredients: Courage

They told this story about Agatho. He and his disciples spent a long time in building his cell. When they had finished it he lived in it, but in the first week he saw a vision which seemed harmful to him. So he said to his disciples what the Lord said to his apostles, ‘Rise, let us go hence’ (John 14:31). But the disciples were exasperated and said, ‘If you meant the whole time to move from here, why did we have to work so hard and spend so long in building you a cell? People will begin to be shocked by us, and say: “Look, they are moving again, they are restless and never settle.” ’ When Agatho saw that they were afraid of what people would say, he said, ‘Although some may be shocked, there are others who will be edified and say, “Blessed are they, for they have moved their abode for God’s sake, and left all their property freely.” Whoever wants to come with me, let him come; I am going anyway.’ They bowed down on the ground before him, and begged to be allowed to go with him.

Courage is required of all leaders. Unfortunately, there is a lack of courage these days, which is one reason the leadership pool is so shallow. Every industry and profession is suffering from a lack of leadership and the United Methodist Church is no different. I was on the phone this morning with a mentor of mine and the topic of courage came up as it related to the United Methodist Church leaders. There are too few courageous leaders – laity, clergy, and bishops. Ironically, when one of our leaders shows courage and stands up for certain issues, they are castigated and called “out of touch”. It’s always easier to alienate those we disagree with rather than engage in an intellectual, reasoned conversation.

Our culture cultivates careful practitioners and while there is nothing wrong with being careful, we have confused care with the inability to lead. A leader cannot make everyone happy and to attempt it is futile and can be destructive to any congregation or organization.

I am not saying courage is bullying. Courage is not demanding your own way. Courage, as Agatho in the parable above shows us, is acting upon the vision God provides no matter what others may think. I love the way Agatho says, “If you want to come with me, come on. I’m going.” That is courageous leadership even when others want to call him crazy. And as the parable above enlightens us, our biggest fear is what others may think of us.

Courage is a key ingredient of leadership. Spend time in prayer discerning God’s vision for your life and for your organization and when God gives you a clear direction – move. I truly believe that Godly leaders of courage will not alienate their followers. After all, you are not really a leader if you take off and no one follows. What Agatho’s followers discovered is that a courageous leader helped them move beyond their fear of what others may think of them. Once they saw that fear clearly, they were ready to follow.

Joshua 1:9, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you may go.”

Break the Silence…Lament!

Read Psalm 74

We are told all the time that all our problems are solvable.  The wars are solvable – we need either more or less troops.  Our illnesses are solvable – we just need the correct diagnosis and the right medicine.  Our poverty is solvable – “those” people just need to work.  The problem with this assumption is we all know it is not true.  Life is more complex and intricate than we often assume.

One of the powerful messages we are reclaiming during the Lenten season at Wesley is that the Hebrews did not feel that masking the emotional pain of life was appropriate.  They brought their pain to God and cried out in God’s presence.  They were not afraid to speak these prayers of darkness to God.  They believed that this was the only way faith worked – you bring the good to God and you bring the bad to God.  You bring all things to God.

The lament of Psalm 74 is a communal cry and prayer of the Israelites as the Babylonians destroyed the temple in 576 BC.  You can hear their cry as the elements and carvings of the temple are destroyed.  You can feel the pain as they desecrate the holy space.

Professor Walter Brueggemann gives us some wonderful insights regarding the Psalms, especially the lament Psalms.  This “outline” of lament may help us to reclaim our cry. (Spirituality of the Psalms)

First, Brueggeman says that a lament is a cry of expression that always addresses the Lord God. What is said to God may be scandalous and offend some of our sensibilities; but the ones who lament are completely committed, and they believe whatever must be said must be said directly to God who partners with us. We have permission to speak freely, but that speech is always directed to God – honestly and openly.  We bring all we are TO God.  A lament is not a cursing of God, but it is an honest prayer and expression TO God.

Second, the Rev. Dr. Claus Westermann, the great 20th century Old Testament scholar, pointed out the distinctive pattern of the lament.  There is an inherited way it is done.  There is order to it.  This order of the prayer was/is recognized by the Israelites.  The lament has two components:

  • The Plea which is a complaint that God should correct a skewed situation.
  • The Praise where the one praying always moves from a sense of urgency and desperation to joy, gratitude, and well-being.

In Matthew 8:1-4, there is a brief healing story.  “When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; 2and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” 3He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 4Then Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.””

In his book Psalmist’s Cry: Scripts for Embracing Lament, Walter Brueggemann shows how this healing story models for us the way that lament works as a powerful means to address the emotional pain in our lives and not just mask the symptoms.

First, the leper comes to Jesus and admits his status and despair – his “plea”.  He doesn’t pretend to be anything other than one of the most wounded. He doesn’t come to Jesus on his terms, pretending to have control over his life.  He kneels before Christ and says “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”  I am unclean, I am broken, I am weary and I am downtrodden – but you can make me clean.

Second, we notice the trust this healed man places in Jesus.  What if Jesus wouldn’t heal him?  But is more than that, there is an ongoing trust.  He trusted Jesus with not only his initial healing but also with whatever was to come after – to go to the priests and present offerings (and keep the healing quiet).

We have seen this trust in all the lament Psalms we’ve read so far this Lenten season.  There is a definitive plea and always a move to praise…even in the midst of fear and pain.

The lament points out that there are no easy and quick solutions to many things in life.  Not every problem is “solvable”.  But that does not mean we lose our voice.  The Psalms of lament say to us, “you can go to God in darkness and despair and speak to God, and in that plea we can place our trust in God.”