Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 32
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Now he is not the God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto him.
There are some weeks when the scriptures just seem to fall into place. A few key words fit together like a puzzle and the message out of the texts becomes very clear. There are other weeks when it is extremely difficult to find a single message that is not only edifying but also relevant to the people who are listening. Sometimes I wonder about relevance, whether we give it too much importance in our planning. The Gospel is meant to bring about transformation in the lives of those who hear. All too often, however, we transform the Gospel to fit into our idea of what we want it to be. We want the texts to conform to our agenda for the day.
This is especially true when there is a secular holiday on Sunday. This week is Veteran’s Day. It might be tempting to completely ignore the day, since Veteran’s Day is about honoring those who have served the country in times of war. Some Christians find it impossible to juxtapose a life of faith and warfare. For them, honor to soldiers within the context of the Christian community is an offense to the character of God and His purpose for peace. Yet, most of our congregations have people who have family or friends that have been involved, or are involved, in military service. How do we meet their needs while still proclaiming a message of forgiveness, restoration and peace?
It is interesting that this Sunday is the feast day for St. Martin of Tours. St. Martin is a paradox. He is the patron saint of soldiers. St. Martin lived in the fourth century, born to pagan parents and though he began learning about the Christian faith early in his teens, he did not become a Christian immediately. He joined the army at 15, following in the footsteps of his father, and he did well. He was a Calvary officer assigned to the ceremonial unit of the emperor’s bodyguard and he was rarely exposed to combat. One day as he was riding his horse to Amiens, Martin came upon a beggar who was very poorly clothed. Having nothing to give him, Martin cut his cape in half and gave it to the man. That night he had a dream and saw Christ wearing half of his cloak. He immediately decided to become a Christian and was baptized.
The next time he was faced with battle, Martin said to the emperor, “I have served you as a soldier; allow me henceforth to serve Christ. Give the bounty to these others who are going out to battle. I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.” He was deemed a coward and imprisoned. He volunteered to lead the army into battle, to face the enemy unarmed in the name of Christ, but the parties signed a peace treaty before Martin could do so. He was ordained as a deacon and eventually became a bishop.
He was also paradoxical when dealing with heresy. He served in a region rampant in pagan ideals and heresy was widespread. He fought valiantly in word and deed against that which was heretical. However, when some men were found guilty of heresy and sentenced to death, Martin stepped in to save their lives. He did not feel that heresy was deserving of the death penalty. Martin initially succeeded in convincing the emperor to let them live, but they were eventually killed anyway. They were the first men to die for heresy.
He wanted to live a life of solitude and gained permission to live as a hermit. Despite his desires, the people wanted him to be bishop. They called him to bless a sick person and then took him to the church. The neighboring bishops were shocked at his poor and unkempt appearance, but were convinced by the passion of the clergy and people. He was responsible for the decline of paganism in his area. His piety and preaching were powerful, but there are also miracles attributed to his ministry. He had destroyed temples and cut down sacred trees. When he was about to cut down a sacred tree the chief priest said that they would cut it, down he would have to prove his faith in God by standing where it would fall. Martin agreed. Just as it was about to fall on him, Martin made the sign of the cross and the tree fell in the other direction.
So, in St. Martin we see a man who was a conscientious objector but also the patron saint of soldiers. He was firmly opposed to any sort of heresy, but was equally opposed to the murder of heretics. He was a kind man, willing to give a begging stranger half his cloak and to preach the Gospel, but also desirous of solitude and the simple life. He might seem like a contradiction, his life shows us the reality of living in Christ. Sometimes the things we do might seem like they are inappropriate or inconsistent, but in doing so we show kindness and compassion to those who may need to see the grace of God in the ordinary and secular aspects of our world.
So, we do what we can to keep our worship focused on the Lord while still meeting the needs of the people who are seeking ways to make their faith relevant to their lives. How does a soldier live out his faith? How does any person live out their faith in the world which sees Christian thought as foolish and irrelevant?
Another person who is remembered on November 11th is Soren Kierkegaard, the philosopher and theologian. He was a Lutheran who was trying to make nineteenth century Christianity relevant to the people in his own day and place. He wrote extensively on the nature of faith, the institution of the Christian Church, Christian ethics and theology, and the emotions and feelings of individuals when faced with life choices. Many have questioned his ideas especially since he used many pseudonyms while writing a sort of dialogue, leaving room for questions and doubt. I suppose it was like Soren himself was trying to discover the answers to the questions of faith. He challenged people to think about their faith. To him, too many Christians were setting aside the paradox of God for an easy faith that conforms to the world rather than seeking to bring the world to Christ.
So, how do we make these thoughts fit into the texts for this week? Job had doubts. The Thessalonians were afraid of the persecution that they faced. Jesus was faced with the threat of people who were so cemented in their interpretation of the scriptures that they could not see the grace of God as He stood in their midst. We have doubts. We face fears. We follow in Jesus’ footsteps by offering the reality of God’s grace to those who only want to make us seem foolish and irrelevant.
The book of Job is filled with dialogues between Job and his friends and God. Job has suffered incredible loss and his friends are trying to help him discover the reasons for his suffering. He has suffered the loss of his family and his health. Even his friends seem to have abandoned him emotionally. They lay the blame on Job, certain that he must have done something wrong to deserve such horrible torment. Job knows that he is innocent, so he cries out in agony to God for answers. He knows that somehow, someway, sometime he will be proven correct. He clings to the certainty that his life will be restored.
There is a story that tells about two friends who were walking through the desert. During the journey they had a fight which ended in one friend slapping the other. The one who got slapped was hurt and he wrote in the sand: “Today, my best friend slapped me in the face.” They kept on their journey. When they reached an oasis, they decided to take a bath. The friend who was hurt started to drown but his friend saved him. When he recovered from the fright, he wrote on a stone: “Today, my best friend saved my life.”
The friend who saved and slapped his best friend, asked him, “Why, after I hurt you, did you write in the sand but now you write on a stone?” The other friend, smiling, replied: “When a friend hurts us, we should write it down in the sand, where the winds of forgiveness will blow it away. But when something great happens, we should engrave it in the stone, in the memory of the heart, where no wind can erase it.
We are not perfect. We make mistakes. We sin. Every sin no matter how small is a sin against our God. He writes our sin in the sand so that the winds of forgiveness can blow them away. However, in the midst of our sin we all have moments of revelation when we remember that there is something or someone who will restore us, redeem us, save us. God takes those words of faith and writes them on stone. Those are the words He remembers. They are the words He embraces. Our faith, no matter how small, is the one thing that God makes permanent and it is by our faith that we can truly have hope. “I know that my Redeemer lives,” even in the midst of my suffering and pain. O that those words were written down so that when I fail they will be permanent.
Paul’s second lesson to the Thessalonians addresses an issue that most of us would rather not discuss – the end times. The language of eschatology is difficult for even theologians. Which images are literal, which are figurative? When should we be concerned about the prophecies? Is what has been written for our generation or has it all come to pass in a way we did not recognize? Who is the man of lawlessness? Was he a character in the days of Paul or is he someone yet to come? Will the coming of Christ be a physical return or spiritual? While there are those who will insist they have the answer, there are perfectly acceptable arguments from many different points of view. We argue about what is true. We even argue about the definition of the terms. I suppose that is why it is so confusing to the average Christian, and why it is something that most Christians would rather not discuss.
Paul writes in this letter the message that really matters: God loves you and He chose you to be fruit, sanctified by the Holy Spirit and called by the Gospel to obtain the glory of Christ. Paul also reminds us that through it is God who chooses, sanctifies and calls, we have a responsibility for our salvation – faith in the truth. We are called to stand firm in the Christian faith we have been given, no matter the circumstances we face. Christ might return this very minute. He might not return for a thousand years. We may be totally surprised by the way things play out in this world in which we live, but we do not have to be surprised by the outcome. We have been given faith and by God’s grace we have a hope that reaches beyond the mystery of the eschatological promises of God.
The Sadducees were concerned about the type of eternal life that is founded in procreation. A person lived forever because they begat offspring to carry the family name and estate into the future. They did not believe in an eternal life that came after death. When a person died they were dead unless they had children. To them, the idea of resurrection was just foolishness and easily ridiculed. They thought their logic was solid enough to make a fool out of Jesus with their questions. After all, resurrection of the dead made no sense because it caused all sorts of problems in the afterlife, such as this situation presented to Jesus.
Jesus answered them with two points. First of all, the eternal life that comes with the resurrection of the dead is not like the world in which we live. It is different. It is new. It is not defined by the laws or practices of the earth. There will be no marriage, no need for procreation. Eternal life is not dependent on heirs. So, Jesus tells them that the question itself is ridiculous because it assumes that nothing will change. Then He uses scripture to prove that eternal life is something that comes after death – that death is not the end of one’s life but just the beginning. He says, “Now he is not the God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto him.” It is Moses himself that defines God as “the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Since Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were dead in flesh when Moses stood before the burning bush, then they must have still had life.
In our world today there are a great many people who live in fear. People feel frightened sometimes not even knowing what it is that frightens them. We are afraid of illness, terrorism, poverty and oppression. With the threat of war in the air we wonder if we will live to see tomorrow. It seems like the prayer requests for those suffering from cancer come regularly and other diseases that have made the news recently.
Even with the threats we face, the scriptures tell us not to fear those things. The reality, whether we want to admit it or not, is that we are enemies with God and it is Him that we should fear. We are enemies because when we sin. We sin against Him. Even the smallest infraction is an offense to His holiness. He has the power to destroy us, for He is the One who created us. His judgment is right and His wrath is just. And yet, it is God Himself who is our refuge. He sent Jesus to take His wrath upon Himself and all judgment fell on His own shoulders as He hung on the cross. By His blood, God makes us His children rather than His enemies and He protects us from all that might bring us harm.
We will face fearful things in this world. Sickness and war threatens our lives. We might even run into a gang of criminals or find ourselves surrounded by hoodlums. The fear we experience can paralyze us. Some people are simply unable to live daily in this world because of their worries. The fear can make us reject others, to persecute them or avoid them. The fear can make us hate, kill or lust after things which are not ours. Life in fear is not life; it is bondage. Yet fear in God is true life because it frees us to live in the salvation He has provided in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God is our refuge and our strength, not because He is a kind and loving God, but because He is more fearsome than our worst enemies. We need not live in fear of the things in this world that might hurt us. Instead, let us live with fear and trembling in the shadow of the Most High God because that is where we will find true peace in the face of our enemies.
So, when we are faced with a week like this one – the scriptures talk about difficult subjects like Job and the end times, the day is a secular holiday many will expect recognized and the commemorations for the day are people whose lives and ideas seem contradictory – what do we do? We remember the most important thing about faith – God is the God of the living, not the dead. He is worthy of our fear and trembling, there we will find His grace and His peace. He calls us to live the life of faith in this world. Sometimes that life will seem like a contradiction, especially to those wishing to make us look foolish. However, God is with us. He will see us through. Our hope rests not in this world but in the life He has promised for us through Jesus Christ.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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