Waiting On God
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Our passage from Paulís first letter to the Thessalonians follows immediately after last weeks passage on the Second Coming of Christ. The Thessalonians had a number of questions for Paul. This passage addresses the question of how to anticipate the Parousia. What would be the signs of its imminent occurrence? Though Paul has reassured the Thessalonians that their deceased loved ones will also see Jesus at the Parousia, they still are inpatient for the Second Coming and want to know when it will comeÖ and expected that Paulís answer would be that it will be in their life times.
Basically in this passage, Paulís answer is that no one knows when the Parousia will come. But worry not, he says to the Thessalonians. If they continue their efforts to build up the Kingdom of God they will be judged righteous at the Parousia. I doubt this was a very satisfactory answer.† They wanted to know when their labor would be over and Paul is basically saying no one knows.
Well, the Parousia has not come. It hadnít come last Sunday. And it didnít come this week.
What exactly are we looking for in the Parousia? It is that moment when the Kingdom of God becomes our society. †By that I do not mean that everyone becomes a Christian. Far from it. Rather, I suggest it is a transformation from the acceptance of individuals fending for themselves to an acceptance of a worldwide community. I donít mean some sort of world government. But rather it is a universal realization that all humans are one family and we need to work out how we live and how we solve problems together in a nonviolent, considerate manner. It would be an age when nations and tribes no longer slaughter each other, when it is unacceptable for anyone to go hungry or be homeless, when no one dies or is ill of a curable condition, when each ethnic group can live out its culture but where all ethnic groups live in harmony. Itís an age where families and neighborhoods thrive, where individuals are committed to their civic duty and take pride in their neighborhoods, and where individuals can practice their faiths or no faith at all and share their beliefs in the commons.
Now if this sounds like utopia, it is.† Only God is perfect. But God has chosen to work through us to bring about the Kingdom of God knowing that we are flawed and whatever system we build will be flawed. But Jesus taught us how to live in the Kingdom. He called each one of us to live that Kingdom so that bit by bit it can emerge out of the chaos and meanness and hatefulness of our present society. But God knows that the Kingdom will come only imperfectly. Itís what mathematicians call an asymptote. An asymptote is a point or line that you move towards but can never reach, each step taking you closer never to reach that destination. This is what Paul is admonishing the Thessalonians to do: keep living as if the Kingdom is here for little by little you do build it up.
And indeed over the past 2000 years we have made a difference. The Kingdom has emerged here and there: we recognize that everyone has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Worldwide itís very spotty, but there is a strong and popular notion that this is the right way to live. The world knows slavery is evil and must end. Women across the world continue to gain more and more freedom and rights. Children are more protected and so forth. So the Kingdom is happening around us.
Yet, keeping the faith and living in the Kingdom can be frustrating and disappointing. It seems you can work and work at it and the world ignores you and even slips backwards into brutality. I suspect the Thessalonians, impatient as they were, were feeling this.
Laurie and our family have from time to time participated in various social outreach efforts. A long time ago in the 80s (or was it the 90s?) we joined the anti-war demonstration in Central Park and later locally. Weíve help on feeding the hungry and homeless. My daughter has worked with cognitive disable young adults. We helped out at the Elizabeth Coalition for the Homeless. Two of my daughters go on annual mission trips.
But when we look back over the decades we cannot help but wonder what was the point. The world seems just as broken as every, that our efforts, though they helped a person here and there, made no lasting global difference Ö particularly the anti-war demonstrations. We seemed to be fighting wars more than ever.† The hopelessness drains you after awhile.† The direction that the world seems to be going feels out of control like a runaway train heading for derailment. Why even bother to vote? It doesnít seem to make any difference anymore.
And you feel very alone in this as your neighbors and coworkers just struggle along trying to make the best of what we have Ö
So is the Parousia ever to come? Why not fold up our tents and just live our personal lives forgetting all the demands and radicalness of Jesusí teachings?
Paul says to us donít give up Ö because we are not alone in this. God doesnít expect anyone of us to create the Kingdom of God by ourselves. Indeed, thatís Godís job. We are just to do the small bit God calls us to. God is responsible for the rest.
And even though there seems to be no possibility and no hope that events and conditions will change, God is still with usÖ ready to surprise us. I believe that God is constantly working through the world. Human society is very diverse and very complex. God speaks to us through that diversity and complexity. But God doesnít speak in a great trumpet call for all of the world to hear. God whispers. And many Ö most Ö probably donít even realize God is speaking.
In any give human community, be it the world, a nation or a neighborhood or family, God moves through the interactions and thinking of the community. We may not notice God is speaking in these interactions, but sometimes, once in a while some event will occur that seems to come out of no where Ö A community is more than just individuals. When individuals form a community, the community takes on a spirit of its own that emerges out of the individuals living the community. And every so often that spirit will surprise us Ö as if the spirit does reach out to Godís spirit and does something out of the blue.
I do not believe that the event itself is God or a direct action of God. Godís spirit moves and the community responds for better or worse Ö or indifferently. The community, the gathering of the people, is responsible for how it lives out Godís call. There is no guarantee it will do what God wants.
But when we despair of any hope, of any opportunity to break out of a rut or a deep hole of hopelessness, we must remember we are part of a community Ö and there is much more in the community than our individual selves. And something may and probably will finally break through our despair into hope. And these Parousias may be world changing or as close to us as our home.
A current example is that the media is (finally) reporting on is Occupy Wall Street. For most of us, including the media, this strange and amorphous protest just seemed to appear out of nowhere. One day the media was droning on about federal deficits and the next day news leaked that there were a bunch of young adults around Wall Street protesting Ö not deficits, but economic inequality.
There it was, somewhat mysterious, often frustrating, seemingly chaotic and disorganized Ö and probably fleeting. It had Ė and still has Ė no defined leadership or list of demands. A reasonable expectation is that the protesters will disburse once the cold weather comes.
Then we started hearing that Occupy groups were forming in other places: Philadelphia (where my grandson protested), Boston, Minnesota, Bismark in North Dakota (where itís probably always cold), Jackson in Mississippi, and then in Europe and even Australia.
Then we had a snow storm on Oct 29th and it was cold and wet and very uncomfortable. And on Oct 30th, the protesters were still in Liberty Plaza by Wall Street. Now the protesters have bought military type tents design to protect against the cold. They plan to stay in the park for the cold weather of winter.
Now I donít believe that Occupy Wall Street is an act of God. It coalesced around a number of young people who were fed up with the wealthy leaving the rest of us without secure jobs, healthcare, retirement and so forth.
But I do believe that these young people were responding to Godís spirit moving in our national community, crying out in judgment: the very judgment that Jesus will make at the General Resurrection:† ďfor I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me [Matthew 25: 42-43 NRSV].Ē
They probably didnít think along these lines. But thatís not necessary. God doesnít care whether God gets credit or not. God only wants us to respond. But having responded God is not going to lead it or control it. Thatís up to the protesters. They now have the responsibility Ö a huge responsibility† Ö to present to the world a mature and credible face. And certainly some have failed in this Ö some have fallen into the old trap of violence and hate. And if that continues then the effort will die a miserable death and Godís cry will be just a sad forlorn echo.
But in our age of despair and cynicism they have already given us hope. It is that hope that has encouraged groups all over the nation to respond to the injustice endemic in this current age. And if the Parousia means anything, it means hope.
So whether you celebrate Occupy Wall Street or are uncomfortable with it, it has lit a flame Ö at least for the moment.
But such flames of the Parousia can be lit in our personal lives.
My wife reported a story that a friend told her. Our friend was studying for the ministry and interning in a church in New England. She was assigned the youth group. One of the teenagers in the youth group was very troublesome. She acted out frequently, misbehaving and getting into trouble. She was doing very poorly in school and apparently had learning deficits.
She said once that there was no hope for her Ö that she wouldnít be able to go to college or learn a trade. Our friend encouraged her not to give up. But when she squeaked through high school all she could do was take an unskilled job in a bakery. She seemed to be just one more loss soul.
Well, she was a good employee and the baker had her working in the kitchen. He realized that she was a good baker.† Indeed she was so good, that he paid for her to go to culinary school. Today she is one of the finest bakers around.
Just out of the blue she was given an opportunity. When she was struggling through high school, she Ė and I suspect her parents Ė would not imagine such a future. This almost random event Ö the God event Ö that drove her to take an unskilled job in a bakery Ö led her to a good life career Ö a Parousia Ö she was judged and found excellent and her life transformed.
So beware!† Jesus may come anytime Ö out of nowhere Ö to change a nation or change a life. There will be judgment. But if we today live our lives as Jesus taught us, that judgment will be one of excellence and hope and opportunity.
Think about it Ö
Godís grace and love be with you Ö