This is the message that I gave at Walker Valley United Methodist Church for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, 18 November 2001. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 65: 17 – 25, 2 Thessalonians 3: 6 – 13, and Luke 21: 5 – 19.
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, or at least the portion that we read as the second lesson this morning, is an interesting one. For some, this passage justifies a hard line approach to the issue of welfare in today’s society. For as we read, Paul made it very clear that if one was unwilling to work, then they should not eat.
But such a hard line runs counter to the very words of Jesus who admonished us to "feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, comfort the needy, and free the oppressed". In addition, such an approach ran counter to even Paul’s own words of joy when the churches he wrote to helped the other churches in times of needs.
And finally, Paul’s intention in writing this passage was entirely different. Rather than speaking to the needs of those for whom help was needed, Paul was writing about the Christians at Thessalonica who had become lazy in their faith. There was at that time a belief that the Second Coming of Christ was at hand and, therefore, working for the future of the church was not necessary.
Remember the incident between Martha and Mary at Bethany. Jesus had come to their home to have dinner and while Martha worked very seriously on the meal, Mary sat and listened to Jesus. Martha became angry with Mary for neglecting her duties. And Jesus chided Martha for taking her work to seriously and letting it get in the way of more important things.
But we must also be aware that when we let our devotion to Christ overtakes our responsibilities, we fail in both. What Jesus honored in Mary was her love, her adoration, and her focus on human relations. Jesus did not refuse to eat the meal that Martha prepared and he was very grateful for her hospitality. But what Jesus wanted Martha to see was that there was a balance between work and faith.
That was what Paul was saying to the people in Thessalonica. Just because the Second Coming might be coming was not a time to stop working. And those who stopped working for that reason were to be avoided.
The people came to Jesus wanting to know if this were "the end times," a question that still haunts us today. But Jesus pointed out that the signs of that time had not appeared and that the disciples should ignore the messages of others claiming to be the Messiah. Jesus warned his disciples and followers that the end times would be a difficult time and that they would endure much, but that they should hold onto their faith.
At times like the ones we are encountering today, it is very easy to think that such times are upon us now. It can very easily be a time for fear. Those who are fearful seek every sign and listen to the false messiahs. The clear message from Jesus is for us to not be led astray. When the time comes, it will be clear and obvious.
Our second response can be to adopt a "who cares" attitude, much like that of Thessalonians. But even an attitude such as that does not combat or protect us from feelings of depression, discouragement, or loneliness. Jesus told us to remain steadfast in our faith, to watch and pray. While we may be standing knee deep in thunder, broken dreams and a broken heart, Jesus reminds us that "not a hair on your head will perish."
In a world that is coming apart at the seams, the ways of coping generated by non-belief give little security. Our only security in a time such as these is found through Christ and the power that rolled away the stone at the foot of the tomb.
Isaiah wrote to the Hebrews in captivity. For many of them, the trials of captivity were taking a toll on them. "When will this end?" many of them cried. When will the grief and suffering end. Isaiah told of the day when the mourning that then filled the streets of Jerusalem would be replaced with rejoicing. No more would the "sound of weeping" be heard; no more would there be a "cry of distress." Through Christ’s resurrection the day will come when the suffering and misery will end.
For the Hebrews, this new day would be a day when they could live in their own homes again, eat the fruit of their vineyards, and enjoy the work of their hands. Their labors would not be in vain. Their service to God would be rewarded. They were reminded, as we are, that all that we do for God matters. Sometimes it doesn’t seem so.
As we come this week to celebrate Thanksgiving, we are reminded of those who came to this country, not knowing what they would find or what they would do when they got here. In our history classes, we learned how the Pilgrims struggled first to find the place where they were supposed to be. Failing that, they may what became known as the Mayflower Compact, an agreement to work and live together where they were. We know, through history, how those first months in what we now call Massachusetts were an intense struggle. Yet they survived and were able to celebrate that first Thanksgiving. The table they set that first Thanksgiving may not have been the one of legend but it was one where the presence of God was known and where their faith in God was rewarded.
As we come to our own table of Thanksgiving this week, we are again reminded of God’s presence in our lives. We are again reminded that our rewards come through our efforts to be God’s faithful servants. And more importantly we are reminded that the future is not as bleak as it may seem.
What will the future be? It is hard to look around us and see a time of peace and hope and prosperity. Now is a time when many are claiming not a time of joy and triumph but gloom and disaster. It is a certainly a time which, as Thomas Paine wrote, "tries our souls." Our actions will tell us what the future will be.
We may be like those in Thessalonica who quit working because they saw no need to continue working; we may be like those in the Babylonian captivity who saw no hope in the future, who saw futility in their work.
Or we can take heart of the words of Isaiah that there is a promise for a better tomorrow, that all that we do today will not be in vain. We can take heart in the words of Jesus when he told us to hold fast to our faith in times of trial and despair. Thus the future, the vision of the lion and the lamb eating together becomes a reality.
The future will be what we make it to be. If we see a future grim and hopeless, without the presence of Christ, that is what it will be. But if through our words, our deeds, our actions, the light of Christ through the Holy Spirit is let to shine then the future will be one of brightness and joy