November 9, 2014
Ruthann Savage-King, Seminarian Intern
Lord, bless the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts for you are our rock and our salvation.
“We don’t want you to grieve as others do who have no hope.
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, 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.”
Do you remember seeing the bumper sticker that says –
WARNING: IN CASE OF RAPTURE THIS CAR WILL BE UNMANNED
Many of you have had the opportunity to meet my wife Cindy, born, raised and ordained in the Southern Baptist Church. Cindy worked for a “think tank” in Cambridge for a while. One day a group of folks started to gather around a window pointing to a large storm that was gathering, looking very fierce and threatening – and – headed in their direction. Just as Cindy walked past the crowd someone said “It looks like the rapture!” To which Cindy replied: CEE YA!!
This passage in Thessalonians along with the book of Revelation have been among the most cited in the discussion of the second coming of Christ. To meet the Lord in the air certainly would leave a car without a driver!
At the time that Paul wrote this letter he was trying to reassure the Thessalonians who had experienced a number of deaths in their community. They were Paul’s “children in Christ”, recent converts, for whom the afterlife had always been viewed negatively.
Paul is telling them that while grief at the death of a loved one is normal, it shouldn’t cause them to be paralyzed in despair in the face of the hope of the divinely assured future when we will be with the Lord forever.
But just how soon might that be?
This letter of Paul’s is believed to be the first written book of the New Testament in about 52 AD.
The first canonical book of the New Testament is the Gospel of Matthew which was written by multiple folks and assembled between 80 and 90 AD, 10 years after the destruction of the temple in 70AD. Because of Ezekiel’s prophecy of a third temple, considered the messianic temple that was to be constructed on the site of the destroyed second temple, many believers in 70 AD thought they would see the return of Christ at any moment. After all Jesus had predicted the destruction of Herod’s Temple, and promised that it would precede the return of the Son of Man, known as the Second Coming. So in 70 AD many people sold everything and went to the desert to await the return of Jesus. Some quietly returned to resume their lives, while others lost theirs in the desert.
By 80 to 90 AD a Third Temple had not yet been built, it appeared likely that it wouldn’t be for quite some time, and context impacts writing, even if it’s remembering the words of Jesus 50 years after the Crucifixion. There are parables in the Gospel of Matthew that don’t show up in any other Gospel, including the one of the 10 Bridesmaids one that has been interpreted to refer to the imminent return of Jesus.
In the mid-1780s in Germany a small religious group was founded that rather quickly escaped to America to avoid persecution. Believing that the Second Coming of Christ would occur during their lifetimes, these folks were content to live simply under a strict religious doctrine, giving up tobacco, and advocating celibacy. The Harmonists, that is the Society of Harmony, maintained and grew their population through conversion, indenture, and the occasional adoption of an abandoned child. The Shakers and the Harmonists came close to a merger, but they had some theological differences they couldn’t overcome. With a dwindling population and net worth, the Society was disbanded in 1905.
What do the believers of 70 AD have in common with the Harmonists whose society survived 125 years – they were sure the second coming was going to happen in their lifetimes – and all were disappointed. Often folks who believe in the imminent return of Christ do just what is necessary to feed, clothe and house themselves while they wait. Even the Doomsday groups who believe the world will be destroyed on a particular date do the same.
And really – it’s not the waiting that is the problem.
Ten bridesmaids went to meet the bridegroom. Half of them brought extra oil, – the other half didn’t. The bridegroom took so long getting there that the bridesmaids were running out of oil for their lamps, but when the ones who didn’t have extra oil asked for help from those who did, they were turned away. They were turned away by their equals and eventually by the bridegroom who did not know them when they arrived late to the party.
I don’t like thinking of the 5 who didn’t bring extra oil as being foolish. I know that humans are inherently fallible – we will always make mistakes.
I know humans all need rest – sleeping for a while – that is not the problem.
I know that many humans are poorer than others. Financially or spiritually. Owning property or living out of a car. Mentally ill, cognitively challenged, working a job, highly skilled or holding 3 PhDs. Some have extra oil while others don’t.
All, however, are in need. All need to know the love of Jesus, God’s desire to be in relationship with all of us, and the promise of eternal life.
The question is: do we wait with our knowledge of God’s kingdom, eyes trained on the heavens where Jesus will appear with the New Jerusalem?
Or do we share our knowledge? Do we share our riches, our skills, our talents – more importantly, do we share God’s love and God’s desire to be with us all, by joining in relationships with others?
There will be enough.
Enough knowledge, riches, skills, talents – and enough of God’s love to share.
An old Gospel preacher used to ask:
What would you like Jesus to catch you doing when he returns?