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Sermon – “Endurance” – November 17, 2014

Sunday, November 17, 2013

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg


Isaiah 65: 17-25; 2 Thessalonians 3: 6- 13; Luke 21: 5-19

In the early 1830ʼs William Miller, a Baptist lay minister in northern New York state, calculated Christ would return to earth between 1843 and 1844. His arguments at first were met with skepticism. Over time he gained a hearing, including a man who began a newspaper called the “End Times” to popularize Millerʼs expectation. Eventually thousands– perhaps as many as one hundred thousand people, almost all from the Northeastern United States–sold off their worldly possessions and traveled to high country to await Jesusʼ coming.

In 1955 a woman in Illinois got some hundreds of people to believe that aliens had warned her the Earth would be destroyed and they would send flying saucers to rescue those prepared. Again, people quit jobs and sold their goods and on Christmas Eve of 1955 waited for the aliens.

A man with a radio ministry named Camping identified 2011 as the end of time. Those who followed him prepared to ascend into heaven by, among other things, leaving work and divesting property.

We can see that a good way to make people quit work and get rid of possessions is to convince them that their only future, and that of everyone else, is in a different world. I included the flying-saucer example to show that itʼs not only Bible-related guesses at timing the end of the world which make people abandon employment and earthly goods. It seems that at least a portion of the population is ready to move on from the responsibilities of life, and will welcome news of an apocalypse at least in part because it sets them free from the drudgery of meeting each dayʼs needs with effort, and preserving assets for future use.

In Paulʼs letter to the Thessalonians which we read for our scripture this morning, he warns church members not to be idle. Given what we have heard about people who accept an end-time faith, which the New Testament always has been, it may not be laziness or pleasure-seeking which is the problem. It may be that there is a way to hear the news about Godʼs bringing history to a good conclusion and taking care of the faithful which leads people to being indifferent about keeping body and soul together.

Now, it certainly isnʼt everyone who responds to expecting Godʼs intervention by goofing off. There are only “some” among the Thessalonians who are doing that. Most of the church is probably like those people we hear about on the news who win the lottery and then keep showing up at the job for years afterward. Theyʼre like those friends of ours who have retired and have found ways to be busier than ever.

All of us, however, have evenings when we feel reluctant to keep up the responsibilities we have, and mornings when only duty impels us back to work, whatever kind of work it is. Godʼs word to us may be part of our picking up our burden again and doing our best, but it is easy to understand how Paulʼs converts included some who found an ally for their weariness in religion, and a rationale for their fleeing accountability to employers and creditors by opposing that with an understanding of being accountable to God.

Religion, after all, plays an important role in assuring us that there is more to this world than the daily grind, and it teaches us to keep our own efforts in perspective. It warns us against storing up treasures on earth. It reveals our hours, days and weeks to be negligible against the backdrop of eternity, and urges that what really matters are spiritual realities. There is enough suspicion of wealth and commendation of virtuous simplicity in the scriptures to have made all the ancient churches commend voluntary poverty, and though it is less common in Western cultures than Eastern cultures to identify holiness with being penniless, most of us still feel that the more sincere a church is, the more true to Christʼs example, the less obviously wealthy and materialistic it will be.

The good that God will do depends, not on human endeavor, but on Godʼs sovereign will and power. The vision from Isaiah is of a future in which many of the ordinary tensions and troubles we experience are overturned by God. The terms on which life is offered to us in the here-and-now, in this “everyday world” will no longer apply– everyone will live a long life, everyone will act in ways which delight God, no child will be born for a bad outcome, or have suffering as its destiny– even the snake will subsist on dust. The grim patterns of pain and danger familiar to us will be replaced by new realities. None of those things will be our doing. It will all be done by God, to our benefit–or, more exactly, to the profit of those in whose time this improvement will take place. In the meantime we benefit from the vision because it promises us that Godʼs justice and generosity, so often belied by events in our view, will definitively prevail. We are heartened by Godʼs eventual triumph over all evils.

Humans have a capacity for sacrifice when they expect some good to result. Parents deny themselves in order to make their childrenʼs future easier. Warriors accept their danger in the hope of their nationʼs gaining some advantage. People get up early and go to the gym expecting that to make their lives more pleasant or longer.

What goes wrong in Christianity, and goes wrong so early that we hear about it in the letters of Paul, which are the earliest writings in our New Testament, is that this willingness to endure difficulty for the sake of tomorrow is abandoned, by some, when they believe that God is bringing a better tomorrow quite apart from anything they can do. The more they expect God to deliver on promises like that of Isaiah very soon, the less motive they have to engage in the routine responsibilities of life.

The gospels are written beginning a generation after Paulʼs death, with what proportion of direct witness and the testimony of tradition it is hard to say. What we see is that the expectation of Godʼs bringing time to an end, and eternityʼs taking over, remains a vital part of Christian life. This morningʼs reading from Luke is that gospelʼs equivalent of similar portions of Mark and Matthew offering counsel about the coming end times.

There is a double message in the gospel, the two parts of which are in tension with one another. One thing we are told is that God will wrap everything up, and that it may occur in our own lifetimes. We are encouraged to live as though we are inhabiting creationʼs last days. It is taken for granted that we will be heartened and pleased by the prospect of God putting an end to the world as we know it.

Thatʼs half the message, and thatʼs the portion which has been taken to heart by the Seventh Day Adventists–who trace their approach to religion back to the William Miller with whom we began– and others who base their religious energy and message on the apocalypse. There are television evangelists specializing in end-time prophecy, and hundreds of thousands of people doing their best to live like thereʼs no tomorrow.

The other part of the message about Godʼs bringing down the curtain on time is that there is no way for a human being to predict it, and consequently a person ought to continue to live in the world attending to the business of life, since that will serve practical purposes and existing obligations until such time as the world is no more. This is confusing, since the gospels combine broad hints and certain signs to be regarded with saying that nobody will know.

Even the part of this morningʼs gospel reading which seems like advice to relax and let God take charge is not quite that. Those who will be asked to make a defense of their religious loyalty are charged not to prepare beforehand what to say, but to count on the Spirit. It is common to over read mystical elements in that encouragement, as though persons with nothing in their heads or on their hearts will suddenly be indomitably eloquent by Godʼs inspiration. I think it makes more sense to recognize that believers are expected to have sincere convictions and genuine beliefs about the benefit of their faith without having to rehearse arguments in its favor, and that it is more persuasive to listen to someone’s spontaneous honesty than anyoneʼs prepared remarks in spiritual matters.

In fact, I think encouraging simplicity and sincerity in responding to others is another way to avoid unhelpful distraction from whatever duties and daily efforts one must make. Time not spent preparing for an interrogation which may or may not come for any particular individual is time that can be spent caring for others, and seeking, through prayer, Godʼs resources and support for oneself.

It is hard to live tensions, in religion as anywhere else in life. We should, however, not make light of the thought that Godʼs goodness and power will at some point be displayed in Godʼs resolution of all thatʼs wrong in the cosmos. We must also continue to do our best with whatever task each day gives us to do, not only to avoid imposing on others, but to be faithful to the life God has given us. In our embrace of the way the world works we show our faith in its Maker, and our patience and trust with its nature.

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