Monday, October 15, 2007

A Vision for the Church: Moving Beyond Escapism to Expectation

(A sermon based on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13)

“Some people are just sorry.”

Have you ever said that about someone? Have you ever heard it said? Maybe there was some truth to it when you said it, although you would likely have to qualify it to death to turn it into an accurate statement.

It sounds like Paul is talking about “just sorry” folks in today’s text, doesn’t it? There were folks in Thessalonica who were living off the generosity of their fellow Christians. They were apparently able to work but unwilling. Now, Christians ought to help folks who need help, but the Christian ethic is that everyone is to work and to pull his or her own weight insofar as possible. But the church at Thessalonica had people in it who were not keeping their bodies busy and thus they had become busybodies. Their idle time was giving them the opportunity to cause mischief in the church.

Paul had no patience with such folks. “If any one will not work, let him not eat,” he wrote.

Some of you are thinking, “Well, I can stop listening to this sermon right now because we have no such problem in this church.” But wait! There is more to the story. It is to be found in the answer to the question “What lay behind the ‘sorryness’ of these folks?”

The answer is that they believed that Jesus was coming soon. There is nothing wrong with the belief in and of itself. The Second Coming of Christ is a classic Christian teaching and it is to be accepted and taken seriously. The issue has to do with how our belief in the Second Coming is going to affect our approach to life.

It is an exciting belief, after all. One day Jesus will return in power to judge the living and the dead and to fulfill the promise of the eternal kingdom of God. When he does, the heavens and the earth will be transformed into exactly what God intends for them to be. That is the blessed hope within which we live.

And it will be soon! How soon? That was a question with which Paul dealt in 1 Thessalonians. His answer to those Christians then was and to us now is “You don’t need to know.” He will come, though, and in God’s time-frame, it will be soon.

No doubt we should take that reality more seriously than we do. Some of the Thessalonian Christians took it very seriously and said, “Well, if Jesus is coming soon, I am going to sit myself down, live it up, and take it easy!” Those were the ones whom Paul criticized. They were using the imminent return of Jesus to escape their responsibilities.

Our response to the fact that Jesus is going to come back should create exactly the opposite reaction in us. The fact of the imminent return of Christ (imminent, again, according to God’s schedule) should inspire us to enthusiastic expectation rather than to escapism. Such enthusiastic expectation leads us to do exactly the opposite of what these Thessalonian Christians were doing—we should seek service rather than avoid it. Our enthusiastic expectation of the return of Christ will cause us not to escape our responsibilities but rather to embrace them. Rather than escaping Christ’s call to action we are to embrace Christ’s call to action.

It is the entire process that will culminate in the return of Christ that empowers us to do such embracing. His initial coming two thousand years ago, his continuing presence in our lives today, and his certain coming in the future—all of these events together give impetus to our service in the world. We are in the world but not of it, to be sure. But while we are in the world we are to worship, to serve, and to witness.

Because Christ came, because he is present with us today, and because he will come again, we expect great things to happen—and they will happen as we faithfully fulfill our calling. For in Christ everything is being transformed; everything is being made as he desires it to be. And one day, when Christ returns, that transformation will be complete and everything will be perfectly in line with God’s will. What a day that will be!

But right now, today is the only day that we have. One vision that I have for The Hill Baptist Church is that we will catch a glimpse of the reality that is present within us because we are Christ’s church. We are being transformed! This transforming power is changing everything about us; it changes our entire approach to life. We are being transformed and because we are being transformed we are God’s transforming agents in the world! One day, through Christ, God will make the world over in accord with his own vision of it. In the meantime, we are to work to make it as good as it can possibly be here and now.

The fact that God is transforming us and our world and that he will one day completely transform everything gives us enthusiasm for the living of these days. We live with hope, not hopelessness. We live with power, not impotence. We live with purpose, not emptiness. We live with enthusiasm, not escapism.

What we are talking about is apocalypticism, a way of looking at life that takes seriously what the Bible teaches about the eternal purposes of God. Rodney Clapp once advocated what he called “responsible apocalypticism: it concentrates on the end of time and, by doing so, makes all time valuable and significant.” He went on to say,

Look around. You can tell the responsible apocalypticists. They are the ones with time. Time to make babies, build houses, read novels, prepare dinner for friends—and even to plant trees. [Rodney Clapp, “Overdosing on the Apocalypse,” Christianity Today (October 28, 1991), p. 29]

That reference to planting trees reminded me of my uncle and his family. When he built his house in the early 1960s, he planted an oak tree in the corner of the back yard. Now, over forty years later, that oak is a huge, healthy tree. The planting of the tree was something of an indication of hope for the future of the family. Over the decades the family members have had their good times and bad, their rough spots and smooth, their joys and sorrows—but they have persevered. In other words, in hope, they have lived their lives.

And that is what we are to do. Time, you see, is a gift of God, and it is in God’s hands. Christianity is not about thumb twiddling; it is about doing the business of God here in our world. We live in faithful, enthusiastic expectation of the great end that God has in store. But we live also in faithful, enthusiastic, active expectation of what God has in store right here and right now. As Christians and as a church, let us enjoy this life to the fullest, but let us understand that everything is given its meaning by the presence, purpose, and plan of God.

So—what do you expect to happen today?

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