I Thessalonians 4:13-18; Luke 17:20–21
Do you remember what you were doing last September 23rd? If it helps, it was a Saturday — the fourth Saturday in September. Did you sleep in? Were you working, traveling, cleaning the house? How were you feeling that day, do you remember? No? How about October 21, 2011? Any memories of that day? It was the third Friday of the month, ten days before Halloween. Do you remember that day or how you felt about getting up that morning? Or what about April 29, 2007? That was a Sunday so I know where I was, but what about you? Did you sleep in or did you come to church? And do you have any recollection of how you felt when you stepped out of the door that morning and felt the warm breeze on your face promising the return of spring? 1
I’m guessing that unless something very significant happened to you on those days, you don’t remember anything about them, but there are three men who can tell you exactly what they were doing and feeling on at least one of those days not because of what happened but because of what didn’t happen. What didn’t happen on September 23, 2017, or October 21, 2011, or April 29, 2007 was that the world didn’t end. David Meade, Herbert Armstrong, and Pat Robertson all thought that the world was going to end on one of those days, and each one woke up on their predicted date to find out to their disappointment that the sun had risen in its usual way and instead of standing at the throne of God surrounded by rapturous angels, they were standing in their slippers wishing they had hedged their bets and set up the coffee maker the night before. And of course, those three stand in the company of hundreds of people who have made public pronouncements throughout history predicting the exact day that Jesus would return, the world as we know it would end, and all of the faithful would be taken up on clouds of glory. Some of the prophets based their theories solely on their readings of Revelation, others added additional scriptures, world events, and maybe a little astrology. Some had whole groups of people join them in their vigil on the last day while others were lonely voices persevering in the face of their skeptics. Some were men, some were women, some were modern day Americans, many were from times and cultures of our ancient past. But all of them had one thing in common: they were all wrong. Jesus didn’t come again, they weren’t whisked away on clouds of glory, and instead of waking up to a new creation, they woke up to the disappointment of finding the world to be exactly the same as it had been the day before except that now they had some explaining to do.
This is my final sermon in my series, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” in which I’ve looked at issues that confronted the first Christians and confront us still. I’ve preached about the relationship between sin and grace, issues of church and state, our obsession with matters of sex, the nature of the Holy Spirit, and our fears over death and dying, all of which troubled those first Christians as much as they still trouble us today. (And if you’re thinking, “Hey, I missed that one and I’d really like to hear it, especially the one about sex,” just google “Reverend Laurie DeMott’s Sermon podcast,” and you can listen to them. They make a great sleep aid.) Anyway, I have saved the biggest question for last because this question produced two fundamentally different streams of thinking in the early church — two different approaches to Jesus, faith, and the future that continue to divide us as Christians today — and that question, which you might have guessed from my opening is, “When is Jesus coming back?”
The very first writings that we have from the early Christian church indicate that the first generation of believers thought that they would also be the last generation. They were convinced that Jesus would return in their lifetimes. In the letter to the church at Thessalonika, Paul and his co-workers Silvanus and Timothy write, “The Lord himself, with a cry of command… 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 letter is the earliest surviving document we have from the church, written in the early days of Paul’s ministry about 51 CE, only about 20 years after Jesus. The church had been teaching the new converts that Jesus would come again soon to bring about the close of the age, but while they were waiting for his return, some of their members had died and they were worried about their fate. Paul and his co-workers reassured them that the dead would be raised up at the time of Jesus’ coming and that that stream of faithful rising to heaven would be joined by “we who are alive.” Paul didn’t add any caveats like, “if we are still alive when that happens,” but assumed confidently that it wouldn’t be much longer at all before Jesus came again.
The early church assumed that Jesus’ return was imminent for two reasons: first, because he said he would return and we’ll get to that later, but secondly, they believed the end times were upon them because apocalyptic thinking — the belief that one is living in the last days — was in the air. It wasn’t just Christians who thought the end was nigh; Jewish prophets were also predicting that God was about to drop the hammer on Rome and re-make the world and they had been predicting that pretty much since the Jewish attempt at political independence a few generations before had imploded and they found themselves instead under the thumb of Rome. In fact, doomsday scenarios were so popular in first century Palestine that some biblical scholars have proposed that the book of Revelation, the basis of so many Christian predictions about the end of the world, was actually written by a Jewish author and just re-purposed by the early church. Both Jews and Christians in first century Palestine were suffering from persecution and were struggling with the loss of their political and religious freedoms, and history has shown that any time people feel anxiety about their future and feel powerless to change their circumstances, to combat the corruption of the powerful, or to cope with forces beyond their control, they are more apt to welcome the idea that they are living in the last days. When the world becomes a threatening place and you feel powerless to change it, you look for heroes who will ride in and clean up the mess for you.
And so the rise of apocalyptic thinking is not peculiar to the first century church or to our own 21st century times. It has happened over and over again in human history. In the mid 1600s, for example, an extreme Puritan group in England called the Fifth Monarchists prophesied the end of the world during their lifetimes. They pointed to the approaching year of 1666 because, as everyone knows, 666 is an ominous number for end-time believers. The Fifth Monarchists remained a fringe group until the year 1666 when a devastating plague hit the city and residents died by the thousands. To add to the people’s distress, in September of that year, a great fire swept through the city and destroyed tens of thousand homes. The people of London felt under assault by enemies they were powerless to fight, and suddenly they were more than willing to listen to the promises of the Fifth Monarchists that Jesus was about to return and save them from their unseen enemies. As one historian notes, “Fortunately [the predictions of the end] were wrong, and over the next few centuries London grew ever-so-slightly less depressing,” 2 but as we know, the inclination to interpret powerful threats as the end of the world has not diminished. Over and over again, in anxious times prophets arise who predict the imminent coming of Jesus, and over and over again, Jesus doesn’t show and the Christians who staked their lives on his return are left wondering, “Is he ever going to come and save us from this mess?”
And so, as I said, this is the question which has troubled the church from the first days of Paul, and unlike secular society which can just dismiss the Second Coming of Christ as a fantasy of feeble minded faithful, Christians have to take it seriously for the simple reason that Jesus himself said that he would not leave us alone but would return, and God’s Kingdom — God’s rule of compassion and peace — would be established on the earth. We might be able to accept that the Fifth Monarchists and Pat Robertson were wrong, but are we willing to say too that Jesus was wrong?
By the time the gospels had been written, several decades had passed since Jesus’ ministry. Paul had died, most of the disciples had died, the first generation of Christians had died and a new generation had been born, and still Jesus had not returned, so the gospel writers decided that they had better record the teachings and the story of Jesus’ life before memories grew dim. Even as they were still trying to resolve the seeming contradiction between Jesus’s promise to return and his failure to appear, they were also writing down what he had told them and paying closer attention to all of the things he had said. They began to realize that he maybe his return was less about the end times and more about the present times; that his return had already happened in part in the lives of his followers.
“‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed;’” Jesus said, “‘nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’”
Unlike Paul who was on the frontlines of establishing the new church, the gospel writers had the advantage of being able to see the work that the church had accomplished in just one generation. In that short time, the followers of Christ had been able to care for one another in extraordinary ways and challenge cultural assumptions: slaves were welcomed into their fellowship, Greeks and Gentiles flocked to the church, and women played a prominent role in the church leadership. In less than a century, Christianity had extended to the far boundaries of their world. The gospel writers looked at the work of the early church and remembered the words of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit and came to believe that Jesus’ return was already a reality every time the Holy Spirit entered the hearts and lives of his followers. Or in the words we pray every Sunday, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
When I was looking for a song for Bluegrass Band to sing this Sunday, I tried to find something to fit the theme of my sermon and came across the song we sang called “Camping in Canaan’s Land.” The first version I heard was a youtube recording of some church group singing the song and the lyrics they sang were pretty typical of the kind of yearning for Jesus’ coming that is popular among many conservative Christians today.
“I’ll be camping in Canaan’s Land,” the group sang with beatific longing for that wondrous day when they would dwell in God’s new creation. When I found the sheet music, however, I discovered that the church group had made a slight change to the lyrics, a slight shift from the author’s original intent. While they had sung the entire song in the future tense — “I will be camping in Canaan’s Land,” — the original lyrics were in the present tense, “I am camping in Canaan’s Land… every day I’m camping in Canaan’s Land.”
‘I’m already here, man!’ the original song proclaimed. ‘This is it. I’m living out the promise of Christ right here on this day, on every day that Christ’s spirit is present with me helping me to get out of bed in the morning, inspiring me to serve, giving me the confidence to work for and live out God’s rule of compassion and peace in my life.’
And so that’s the way we sung our song today, not with a promise that someday Jesus will stride in and make everything better and all we have to do is sit tight and make sure we are ready when it happens, but with the promise that Jesus has already returned and we are partners with him in the work of the Kingdom of God. God‘s rule is not complete but it is breaking out all around us in the lives of those who take Christ’s work seriously.
“The Kingdom of God is among you,” Jesus said, “because I am among you and all of those who follow me are part of God’s realm of compassion and peace. God’s rule can be seen in my life, in the way I love, in the way I forgive, in the way I pray, and in the way I die, and God’s rule will be made manifest when you too love as I loved, when you too forgive as I forgave, when you too pray and give your hearts over to God as I prayed and gave, and when you too stay faithful to the very end. You don’t have to wait for me to come again because I have already returned in the work of the Spirit, in the work of the church, and in your work as you serve me.”
As I said, this is my final sermon in my series but it is the one upon which all of the others rest because when we think of Jesus’ return as something happening right here and now in the lives of Christians who take our call seriously, then we will believe that we are not powerful against the forces of sin, or death, or evil, or the decay of the world but are partners with Christ in bringing about the rule of God’s peace for others. The kingdom of God is surely at hand; literally in the hands of you and I and all of the faithful who are determined to give themselves to the work of Christ and work with him to remake the world in the image of God’s gracious redeeming love.
1. According to what I found on the internet, it was 63 degrees and breezy that day.
2. https://www.popularmechanics.com/culture/web/g3226/doomsday-predictions/ (Interesting topic for Popular Mechanics.)