2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
When is Jesus coming back? Everyone has their own theories. But one man thought he might have had a direct connection to God.
It happened one Saturday night when the pastor of the Almighty God Tabernacle was working late. Around 10 o’clock he decided to call his wife before he left for home. He let the phone ring several times, but his wife didn’t answer. He hung up and tried a few moments later.
This time she answered right away and He asked her, “I just called you. Why didn’t you answer?” She said, “The phone didn’t ring.”
The following Monday, the pastor received a call at the church office. The caller asked, “Why did you call me last Saturday night?” The pastor was confused. The caller said, “It rang and rang, but I didn’t answer.” Then the pastor remembered the incident and apologized for disturbing him. He explained that he had intended to call his wife and must have dialed the wrong number. The man said, “No problem. But let me tell you what happened.”
“You see, I was planning to commit suicide that night, but before I did, I prayed, ‘God if you’re there, and you don’t want me to do this, give me a sign now’. At that point my phone started to ring. I looked at the Caller ID, and it said, ‘Almighty God.’ I was just too afraid to answer!”
Back in 1970, Hal Lindsey published his blockbuster book, The Late Great Planet Earth. The book compared the Bible’s end-time prophecies with the current events of the day to try and predict when we all would be raptured up to heaven. He keyed in on the year when Israel became a nation – 1948. And then looking to Matthew 24, he predicted that Jesus would return within one generation from the founding of Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. A generation in the bible is 40 years. So Christ was due to show up sometime in the late 80’s.
What gave Lindsey’s book some credibility was the Six-Day War that Israel had fought and won just three years earlier. That war gave them back the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. And that made it possible for them to rebuild the Temple on the site. That book spawned a lot of interest in bible prophecy and end times. There were conferences popping up all over.
And it continues to today. Back in 1991, I attended one of those conferences. Chuck Missler organizedthe first Temple Conference in Jerusalem. Chuck was a former rocket scientist and he brought his analytical skills to bear on bible prophecy. We heard several experts put forth their theories on where the Temple was located. We saw some of the Temple implements and robes that were already prepared for use in the temple to be built.
It was all very exciting stuff to speculate about and to wonder, “Is Jesus returning in our lifetimes?” Twenty eight years later, no rapture. Chuck Missler died last year.
There are several passages in the bible that talk about Christ’s return. Passages from Daniel, Ezekiel, Revelation, the Gospels and, perhaps, this morning’s excerpt from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians.
Paul seems to lay out some marker for Christ’s return. He writes: That day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.
People read this stuff and, right away, they’re in Hal Lindsey mode trying to discern when it’s going to happen. But predicting Christ’s return was the last thing that Paul was trying to do. Just the opposite. He was trying to redirect their focus away from speculating when Jesus would come back.
Paul had written them an earlier letter that seemed to say Christ’s return was imminent. He wrote them: The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. Let us not fall asleep as others do. Paul seemed to be an early forerunner of Hal Lindsey. So they’re already for the great return. And if Jesus is coming next week, then all the rituals, all the traditions, all the stuff of the church wasn’t all that important. It’s all passing away.
But weeks go by and nothing happens except more persecution. And now they’re wondering, “What gives?” So Paul tells the Thessalonians, “Get a grip!” He names events that must happen before the Lord returns. The idea is, If you haven’t seen those things, then Christ has not come back. So stop fretting about what was somewhere off in the future and get on with living the life of faith.
The key verse comes in the middle of our passage today where he tells them: So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.” Stand firm! Hold fast!
When Paul speaks of “traditions,” he’s not talking about customs they followed. It’s not traditions in the way we think of things like our family traditions for celebrating Christmas or Thanksgiving. When Paul speaks of “traditions,” he’s talking about the information about Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s information that had been witnessed by the apostles and then handed on to him and others.
There was no written New Testament yet. So the important information about Christ was orally transmitted over and over again. Eventually, that oral transmission would be written down to form our New Testament. Paul tells them, “Don’t let anyone redirect your focus away from that.”
There’s a lot to distract our focus from the Good News. We have a lot of doomsday prophets in our time. “The world will end in 12 years!” Iran is going to get the bomb and blow us all up!
Climate change! The seas are going to rise and we’re going to run out of oil! And events in our time can distract to respond in unproductive ways.
People respond in different ways. They just engage in a little wishful thinking that Jesus is coming tomorrow, so they didn’t have to worry about these things. They just prepared for departure. They check out of life. They got rid of their possessions, They quit their jobs and then wait for the Lord’s appearing. They’re still waiting.
Some folks check out Fof life in more subtle ways. They might withdraw from community life in the church. They refuse to get involved. Better to move away from the noise and chaos to a place of quiet and rest.
There are others who just give out. It’s one depressing news story after the next. And the sheer volume of all this bad news exhausts them. Indeed, the TV news shows are geared to stoke your anger because it means better ratings.
Many no longer believe that they make a difference. Nothing is going to change no matter what they say or do. Then there are those who are just overwhelmed by the sheer numbers. The growing numbers of homeless. The growing trillion dollar deficits for our government. The growing numbers of terrorists being recruited all over the world.
It gets to the point that we believe that the social problems we face are inevitable. Nothing we can do about it. Why try to transform this society when such a transformation is impossible? Come Lord Jesus!
I heard a story of people who just freaked out. Fear immobilized them. It happened on the night of the Chicago fire in 1871. On that same night, another wildfire raged in nearby Wisconsin. It consumed the city of Peshtigo. Nearly 1,200 people perished, and there might have been more but for the efforts of a priest, Peter Pernin.
The fire drove people ahead of it until they came to Peshtigo River. When Father Pernin got there, he found most people still on the riverbank. They saw the fire behind them and figured that Judgment Day had arrived. So they stood there, thinking there was nothing to do but await their fate. Father Pernin, started shoving people into the water. That kind of broke the spell kicked that crowd into reality.
That water was their salvation, So they all leaped in and were saved. Perhaps that water reminded them of their baptismal vows and that it isn’t over for the planet until God says it’s over.
Well, — truth be told — these kinds of possibilities don’t really concern most of us. What really stops us in our tracks isn’t the persecution of the surrounding culture. It isn’t Climate Change or Terrorism. It’s other things: Like Cancer. Heart disease. Family relationships. How do we as people of faith respond when cancer looms over our heads? When the marriage hits a rough patch? When one of the kids is living a destructive life?
Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians is still good advice. “Stand firm and hold fast.”
Stand firm on the traditions, the teachings that have been handed down. For the Thessalonians who were being jeered and taunted by their neighbors, he reminds them that God had already chosen them to be the first fruits of salvation.
You see, it didn’t feel that way for them. They didn’t see themselves as chosen. They saw themselves adrift and alienated in their Roman culture. Paul told them, “Stand firm!” “For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ”
You see, it’s not just that God had chosen them. But God had also called them. They had a divine purpose in life, regardless of how things might have appeared. So stand firm! Hold fast! We are not only chosen, but even more so, we are called. Consider this.
No one was born with the faith.
No one was baptized in utero, so to speak.
Someone had to share the Good News with us.
And then we had to choose to receive that Good News.
Faith is just one generation away from extinction.
And the Enemy would like nothing better than to squelch it in our generation.
When we, like the Thessalonian church face challenges, the answer isn’t to retreat, or resign, or retire from life of as a disciple. Just the opposite. Paul stands like Fr. Pernin did on the edge of that river. And he hollers out to us from the pages of Scripture: Jesus is coming back!
But the critical stuff is not when he will return. The important stuff is what he did when he was here in the first place. He opened heaven to you. He promised to be with you ……..always.
Stand firm on that. Hold fast to that. It’s not over until God says it’s over.
And even then, for those who trust Christ, thankfully, it’s not over.