Sunday, December 27, 2009

Twilight.... No, Not THAT Twilight!

This past Wednesday, the daughter of one of my parishioners passed away after a long illness. In a large church, one could be forgiven for sticking with the Lectionary text and letting the funeral do the talking for the loss, but in a church where, on a good Sunday, you'll see 25 people, that isn't an option.

So a few of you will read this and rightly accuse me of recycling an "old" sermon. While it hasn't been published on this blog before, I posted a version of it over on the "old" Circle Six Magazine forums sometime in 2008 or early 2009. By the way, give that magazine a look, I think you'll find it a really well-done piece of Internet.

I say all this because I don't like reusing sermons, and in fact my mentor and friend Rev. Dr. Doris Chandler was quite opposed to it - she never saved her old sermons, and only saved the children's sermons so she'd be sure to never repeat them. Yet when faced with the cold certainty of death, this is really the only thing I have: it's night, it sucks, and it's real... but the dawn is coming. I promise, it's coming.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

But 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.
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 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 forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

This is the Word of the Lord.

This reading may be familiar to you as one of those that is most often read at funerals. And while it’s appropriate for funerals, it's also true that I Thessalonians 4:13-18 is brimming with reassurance for every time of life – expectation, joy, and hope. Maybe it isn't the traditional Sunday-after-Christmas reading, but I think you'll agree that it's one we need to hear, especially today.

Certainly, the first-century Christians for whom this Epistle was written would have needed all the joy and hope they could get. It’s an understatement to say that they let a very difficult existence. They were, for the most part, very poor people; servants, slaves, laborers, with a few people of means in their midst. They met in small groups in people’s homes, surrounded by a culture that most often despised their very existence.

The Roman philosophy of governing, you see, was built on a theocracy. The emperor, or Caesar, was regarded as a living god, but even in Roman culture he was one god among many. The Romans, like many polytheistic societies, had gods for every detail of life, from the successful conquest of war to the abundance of harvest, to the opening and closing of doors. The Romans assimilated gods from other cultures as well, and allowed people relative freedom to worship whatever or whoever they chose to… as long as, once a year, they burned a pinch of incense as a sacrifice to the god Caesar.

The Jewish people were exempted from this practice, and were hated for that exemption. Jewish Christians held the same exemption, at least until they were expelled from the Jewish fellowship in the 80’s AD, but for Gentile Christians, the first Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me” flew in the face of honoring Caesar as anything more than a human being. Many people gave in to the pressure to sacrifice to Caesar, because those who did not give in risked loss of property, employment, home and family, freedom, and even their lives.

Add to this the fact that, in any social philosophy based upon religion, any misfortune that society suffers is generally blamed on those who do not hold the same religious worldview. Famine, drought, earthquake, attack from outside enemies, all of these were at one time or another blamed on Christians who, since they would not worship the gods of the culture, were regarded as ‘atheists.”

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the persecutions that these Christians were threatened with and subjected to every day, but I want to offer one example taken from the reign of the Emperor Nero.

In 64AD a fire started under mysterious circumstances and raged through Rome, destroying much of the city. Suspicion immediately fell on the Emperor Nero, not only because he was a complete fruitcake, but because he had made no secret of wanting to tear down much of the city and rebuild it on an even grander scale. Nero needed a scapegoat, and quick, and he settled on a much-hated Jewish sect called “Christians.”

No one knows how many Christians Nero put to death, but we know that he wasn’t satisfied to just kill them. He wanted them to suffer for the entertainment of Rome. Nero had some Christians sewn into animal skins and torn apart in the Circus Maximus by dogs and wild animals. Others he had dipped in wax, suspended from cages and burned to provide lighting on Vatican hill while he raced his chariot.

So you can see that it was not only unpopular to believe in Jesus, it was deadly.

When Paul wrote to the young church at Thessalonica, it was probably only about 20 years since the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There would have been many people still alive who remembered Jesus, perhaps had heard him speak or seen him heal, and quite a few with firsthand knowledge of the Resurrection. Still, many members of the church at Thessalonica would have been Gentiles, experientially and geographically removed from the Resurrection, the event that defined their faith. Not so different, in other words, from you and I.

It’s no wonder then that this letter, the earliest written document in the New Testament, makes a point of reminding the Thessalonians that, no matter what, Jesus had triumphed. It’s a reminder we all need to hear, and often, I think.

We live, after all, in an odd, twilight time. It’s nothing new; we’ve been living in twilight for about 2,000 years. We know that Good Friday was not the end. We know that this Christ, whose birth we celebrated this week, utterly defeated death and conquered the forces of evil, ascended to heaven and sits in triumph at God’s right hand. We know that the Kingdom of God has been established in power.

Yet if all of this is so, why does so much evil persist in the world? How could centuries of persecution, as bad and even worse than Nero’s, have been allowed to occur, and why does persecution of Christians go on, around the world, even today? What about the evils of Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and Darfur, just to name a few? Why do people still die? Is this Kingdom of God real, or are we the biggest fools in the universe?

The easiest answer, the most obvious one, anyway, is to say that the Kingdom of God is not yet here, that Christ’s final victory over sin, suffering, injustice and death will not come until the history of the world itself ends.

And since we can find evidence for both views in Scripture – the Kingdom of God has come, the Kingdom of God will come – somehow, both statements, though apparently contradictory, must be true. But how?

The late theologian and teacher Shirley Guthrie offers this story as explanation:

On June 6, 1944, at 6:30 am, Allied forces mounted the single largest invasion of all time against Nazi-occupied France. D-Day signaled the utter defeat of Nazi Germany and the absolute triumph of Allied forces in World War II. Yet the hostilities did not end until almost a year later – May 7 and 8, 1945, VE day, when Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered.

The Germans fought a number of desperate fall-back battles all across Europe. Many lives were lost and a lot of damage was done before the final surrender. Yet with that decisive battle in Normandy it was clear that the war was won, even if it was not yet over.

The decisive battle of human history took place when, in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God “invaded” the world, and conquered the ruling forces of evil. The Cross is a completed work, so the war has been won. Yet we await the final triumph of the risen Christ at the end of history. So between the times, in this twilight, the deadly battles continue, even though the outcome is already assured. We remember what God has done and therefore can have hope for what God will do.

I’ve used that word “twilight” several times now, haven’t I? I want to be absolutely clear on what I mean by this word, which is by the way Shirley Guthrie’s word. It applies in so many ways to the Kingdom of God, to our personal faith journeys, and especially to the life and ministry of Fairfield Highlands Presbyterian Church, this family of believers who is sharing this week not only in the celebration of the birth of Christ but in the grief at the loss of Evelyn's daughter. It applies, ultimately, of course, to life itself.

Because when I talk about the twilight we are living in, I don't mean the kind of twilight that comes right before the darkness of night falls, cold, silent, and impenetrable. That kind of twilight spells the end, and it's a twilight we're all too familiar with – we as a human race have been there, and done that... and in Christ, God has said “enough!”

Back when I was a youth director, I'd take a group to the summer conference in Montreat every year. Several of the regular conference attendees had a tradition on the last night of the conference. Everyone who didn't have to drive home the next day would stay up all night, and in the early morning hours a group would set out in the darkness to climb to the top of a nearby mountain. Saying it that way makes it sound like a harder climb than it really was. In reality it was a fun journey; there was a lot of stumbling and giggling and dropping flashlights and such. The goal of the trip was to reach the mountaintop in time to see the sky go from black, to purple, to steadily lighter shades of blue until the sky erupted into loud “hosannah's” of color as the dawn broke over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

That's the twilight I'm talking about – when the first rays of dawn are just beginning to color the eastern sky. Night is as good as over, the darkness is conquered, and we see the promise of a new day!

“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died… 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 forever!”

This is why we hope. This is why we believe. Despite sickness and crime and evil and persecutions, despite economic downturns and foreclosures and layoffs and political uncertainty, and even in the face of the ultimate night, the closed casket poised over the open grave, we hope!

Because, yes, Christ has died.

But Christ has risen!

And Christ will come again!

This is our amen!

1 comment:

  1. Nice job, John! I can only hope there is a dawn.