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Monday, September 28, 2015

Comforted and Strengthened (2 Thessalonians 2:1-17)

          I was around 30 or so and had been a senior pastor for just a few years.  One of the elderly women in our church died and I had preached her funeral.  Her family appreciated the way things went.  So they called me a few months later.  One of her distant relatives, someone who did not have a pastor, was in a coma.  They were considering taking him off life support but they wanted to talk to me first. 
Something occurred to me this week as I remember that time 15 years ago.  It did not occur to me then, but it struck me this past week.  The man was young – only 48.  I was not so dense at age 30 that I thought 48 was “old.”  I was not foolish to think, ‘OK, he lived a good life.’ But it didn’t register with me that 48 is young.  I am now 45 years old.  Forty-eight seems young now.  He was 48 and his wife had to make the agonizing decision to take him off life support and sit with him as he died.  She wanted a pastor present.  She hoped I could offer meaning and make sense of what was taking place. 
I don’t know if I was of any help to her.  She was not part of our church family, so I did not see her after I preached her husband’s funeral.  Often people will turn to pastors, even people who have never been in church, when questions of mortality and ultimate meaning arise and they have no resources to answer such questions. 
The two questions facing us are (1) what bad news or misfortune hits with such devastation that we find ourselves at such a loss and so disoriented or overwhelmed that it would indeed be a crisis?  What losses in life knock us flat on our backs?  Your answer will be different than the person a few rows behind or even the person sitting next to you.  Maybe some of us have been through such a devastating crisis are in the middle of one. 
Syrian refugees are in the midst of life-changing events and indeed a life and death struggle.  In our own community, families locked in poverty face agonizing decisions that could render them homeless and maybe even tear their families apart.  And even families who are in relatively safe communities and have financial means, are middle class or higher, face personal crises that potentially bring suffering and loss.  What is the danger you face or I face?  That is the first question.
The second is what resources do you or I have to stand as the looming shadow of the approaching threat grows and threatens to swallow us?  What do we have that enables us not only to survive the threat, but to thrive in the face of it?  Jesus did not just promise he would get us through, help us survive.  He offered more.  He offers abundant life.  When faced with the death of a loved one at too young an age or the myriad struggles that come with poverty or the trail of tears refugees must walk or some other crisis, what gets us through and helps us joyfully thrive even in dark times?
We approach 2 Thessalonians 2 through these questions because of the first two verses.  We beg you brothers and sisters … do not be quickly alarmed as if the day of the Lord has already come (paraphrase).  The Thessalonian Church members accepted that persecution would come.  They would suffer because they chose to follow Jesus.  That was the course they had chosen.  That was not their crisis.  The letter does not specifically identify the source of the persecution.  It could have come from many corners.  Whatever the source, there were enemies opposing the preaching of Jesus in Thessalonica. 
The crisis came in continued speculation and confusion about when the risen Jesus would return, bring history to an end, judge the word, and usher in the Kingdom of God.  Even though this question had been directly addressed in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5, confusion and concern over it persisted.  In fact, the people were very alarmed.  Their faith was beginning to crack not because of persecution but because of doubt.  Did Jesus come and did they miss it? 
Our crisis is not theirs but in our church as in their church, doubt comes when we get blindsided by some major problem threatens the vibrant relationship we have with God, and robs us of the joy we have in Christ.  The promise to that ancient church remains for us preserved in this letter. 
We see the specific issue for the Thessalonians beginning in verse 3.  Before the Day of the Lord comes, there will be a rebellion led by the lawless one.  This lawless one is called the beast in the book of Revelation.  In 1st and 2nd John, the term used is antichrist.  That term, ‘antichrist,’ is only recorded in two books in the Bible – 1st John and 2nd John.  Lawless one, beast, and antichrist – do these terms refer to specific individuals?  Are they each ways of identifying the same individual?
James Efird who taught at Duke Divinity School points out that because Paul did not specifically identify this person it is futile to try to do so.[i]  Paul felt the lawless one would be active soon, within a decade of his writing.  And, the Roman Emperor Domitian would have fit the bill as his persecution of Christians in the last decade of the first century AD did make things hard for Christians.  Abraham Mallherbe believes Paul was not identifying a specific enemy of God but rather had in mind an end-times “personification of lawlessness, the ultimate representative of those in whom lawlessness comes to expression.”[ii]
We could fill in names.  Hitler was the antichrist, the lawless one.  Osama Bin Laden is who Paul meant.  Or maybe today, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the one.  When he’s off the seen another enemy of humanity will come along.  The point is evil is in the world right now.
God has already won the final battle.  That happened when Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world and then rose from the grave.  Those two events are inseparable.  Taken together, we see what God has won – our freedom from death and sin.  There is no final battle coming. 
However, the news of the victory has not yet made it throughout the world.  So for the time being, we live as people who have the Holy Spirit, are saved, born again, and are called to be heralds announcing the life people can have in Christ.  We have this truth and the mission to which we are called in the midst of a world where there is pain and suffering.  Evil has been defeated but not yet sentenced to eternal death.  In this interim period between resurrection and second coming, we live in the tension of the eternal power of God and the present reality of evil, suffering, and death. 
The Lawless One of 2 Thessalonians 2 represents the reality that evil is in the world.  We have to live within that reality.  This chapter falls in with a style of writing called apocalyptic.  This style uses fantastic images as an artistic way of describing God’s activity within human history.  Many reader mistakenly see in apocalyptic writing a script or a forecast of the end times.  It doesn’t actually work that way.  The book of Daniel, Matthew 24 & 25, and the book of Revelation are examples of apocalyptic writings.  In each case, the thing to catch is the promise of God described in poetic images.
Again, Professor Efird on the lawless one in 2 Thessalonians: “given the symbolic nature of apocalyptic thinking, it is possible that Paul did not have anyone or anything in mind as this “man of lawlessness.”  It appears that he speaks again in traditional symbolic imagery to describe a scene he does not know how to depict with specifics.  Paul always realized, as some others have not, that the future belongs to God and will be worked out by God.”[iii]
The urging in 2 Thessalonians is that the church not be shaken by rumors or lies or threats.  Whomever or whatever power opposes God and injures God’s people will wilt before the force of Jesus.  Verse 8, “The Lord Jesus will destroy [the lawless one] with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming.”
Of course this promise raises a more immediate concern.  It is wonderful to think that one day Jesus will come and conquer evil and death will no longer threaten nor will anything else.  We can count on that.  But what about between then and now?  Remember, we began with two questions: (1) what crises threaten us?  And (2) what helps faces these threats?  So, we say, great!  One day Jesus will come and defeat evil.  But what about today?  How do we live under threats to world security and safety, the threat of disease and death, and the specter of destructive behaviors and relationships that fall apart and leave us defeated and heartbroken? 
I have not mentioned Satan, this morning.  Verse 9 says the lawless one and Satan are affiliated with each and they use “all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception” in the destruction of the lives of men and women.  Satan’s works are made manifest in antichrists and lawless men and women.  We don’t see the devil, but forces of evil are real and active.  We see the results of their malevolence when we fall prey to temptation and step off the path of discipleship and onto the way that leads away from God.
This takes different forms in each person’s life.  Evil is extraordinarily individual.  What tempts you has no allure for me.  What leads me into sin wouldn’t be snare for you at all.  In the promises of this passage, what help do have that enables us to repel these threats and live an abundant life in Christ?  What assurance do we have for today?
In 2 Thessalonians 1:3-5, we see the potentially redemptive character of persecution and the concomitant suffering.  As we endure and keep our eyes on God, we receive his blessing and direct the attention of our persecutors to Him.  Paul prays for God’s grace for the church.  Today people in the church pray for each other and God answers with encouragement and transformation.  God’s Holy Spirit is with us.  It is God himself with us that gets us through our trials.  Through our suffering, God can actually work for good.  I don’t believe God causes suffering, but I do believe God works in it.
In 2 Thessalonians 2, that same Holy Spirit is said to sanctify us.  Just as the forces of evil conspire to tempt us into causing our ruin, the Holy Spirit God is at work in us, making more God-like.  Sanctification is a fancy word that means we become holy.  And as the closing verses the chapter reaffirm, this is not something we accomplish but a work God does in us.  We are told, “stand firm and hold fast to the tradition of faith,” but immediately after that instruction we see that our Lord Jesus Christ and God the Father both comfort and strengthen us (from 2:15-17).  The fullness of God – each person of the Trinity - stands by us with the Spirit makes us more like God and less prone to sin, and the Son and Father comfort us so that our suffering is muted and our blessing multiplied and strengthens so we can stay faithful when tempted and tested.
What temptation do you face or what trial are you suffering through at this moment in your life?  Whatever the answer, we have a promise.  God is with us in it.  With our focus on him, even trials will become the grounds on which our faith is honed and enlarged and we find ourselves in the joy of the Lord instead of the clutches of the enemy. 
May our Lord Jesus Christ … carry us into every good work and word.

[i] J. Efird (2006), Left Behind: What the Bible Really Says about the End Times, Smith & Helwys (Macon, GA), p.51
[ii] A. Malherbe (2000), First and Second Thessaloians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Doubleday (New York), p.431-432.
[iii] Efird, p.51.

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