I’d like to begin today by talking about the things that we might assume these texts are talking about, rather than what they are actually written to address. Our passage in Isaiah talks about salvation. It was not written to tell anyone about Jesus. Our passage in Thessalonians talks about idleness. It was not written to address welfare or any other so called “entitlement” program of the United States Government. Likewise, our passage from Luke was not written to describe a pattern of events leading up to a final day of judgment.
Now, let’s unpack this a little more. The book of Isaiah is believed to have been written during three different periods – before, during, and after the Babylonian captivity and exile of the Jewish people. Our section was most likely written before the actual exile, and it is accompanied with passages that speak of the judgment that was to come at the hands of a foreign power.
It was a terrible time, unlike any that we have ever known! Although there was a concept of eternal sleep (King Saul consulted the sleeping spirit of the dead prophet, Samuel, through a medium), scholars disagree about concepts of eternal bliss or punishment for the ancient Israelites. Salvation was not so much about individual eternal reward. Salvation was about justice and righteousness and release for those who suffer.
For those of us who live after the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we can certainly say that the salvation Isaiah points to is found in fullness through Jesus! But when we do, we must be careful not to focus so heavily on the eternal reward that we forget the connection between salvation and the experiences of everyday life.
That leads us to the issues facing the church in Thessalonica. Paul was not writing them to tell them to get off their rumps and get jobs. Paul is telling them not to be deceived by those who tell them that Jesus has already returned, or that the return of Jesus (whenever he comes) means that they have no responsibility. On the contrary, the return of Jesus means that we have so much more responsibility, because our faith opens our eyes to see the work that needs to be done. Our faith forces our eyes open when we would rather shut out the image of the family begging to work for food, the veteran who can’t qualify for a job in her field because her certifications are military and not civil, the man released from prison who is still haunted by his past, and systems of government that reduce people into categories based on the preferences of those who have more power to choose than others.
So, if there is an “idleness” in our city, it is not the same as in Thessalonica, unless we consider whether we are working to build up the Kingdom of God or just waiting on Jesus to come back and fix it for us. Of course we all have our limitations – regardless of age and ability – and ultimately our hope is in the return of Jesus.
Our hope is in the return of Jesus in our hearts and minds. Our hope is in the peace we receive through the knowledge of God’s active presence in all things. Our hope is not in the adornments of a temple or the power and wealth of a nation. Our hope, as we have it in the words of Jesus, is actually in the fact that life will be hard, that people will disagree with you in matters of faith, and that some will even die because of the gospel of love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ!
Wow. How in the world did that message sell in the first place?! What kind of marketing angle was able to spin that into the faith of millions spanning the globe? Well, without getting into the dynamics of the struggles for power in the Middle Ages, it must be clear that the Holy Spirit was active in this process. Not only that, but this gospel – this word of truth – has never shied away from the fact that life is hard.
Matthew’s gospel reminds us that rain falls on the just and the unjust, and here (in Luke) Jesus takes a moment to respond to a request for a sign of troubles that are to come. It’s not clear who asks, and it doesn’t seem to matter, but someone in the crowd expresses amazement at the temple and its offerings. Certain types of offerings during certain seasons were put on display in the temple, and Jesus dismisses it all with a shrug, “This is all temporary you know. Not one stone will be left on top of another.”
This sets them off. “When?” they say, “What are the signs to know it’s coming?” I can imagine Jesus slapping his forehead. “Oy! Don’t you get it? Wars and famines come and go. The earth creaks and moans like an old house sometimes.” As the passage continues beyond today’s reading, Jesus does describe his return in connection with some cataclysmic events. But I would submit that Jesus begins by putting the focus on what they can expect in the meantime.
All these things that he describes – persecution in synagogues, before kings, and at the hands of next of kin – have happened. Whether or not Jesus was describing a laundry list for his return or just stating the obvious conclusion for those that follow him, the result is the same – following Jesus will get you into trouble at some point. The good news in that, is that the trials we face add truth to our story. The good news is that even when we do not receive salvation in the form of release from suffering now, we know it is coming one day!
And so it is through our endurance that we receive our souls. That’s a tricky sentence. Through our endurance we receive our souls. On the surface it is an affront to grace. I do not receive salvation because of my work, but only by the grace of God. And is my soul not mine to start with, or does one earn it like wings?
Perhaps if we focus on the concept of endurance, it might clear things up a bit. Endurance is a word that embodies struggle. To endure means to see something through to the end. Long distance runners develop the ability to endure longer and longer distances by repetition in training and adding a little more distance each day. Some runners describe what they call a runner’s high because of the endorphins the brain releases to counteract the stress and pain of over worked muscles. For the young, endurance is about pushing harder in the moment. Endurance is about extending the experience like the kid in the commercial who finishes every workout by doing “one more” of whatever he’s doing. For those who have experienced more years and days, endurance is not always as connected to an immediate experience as it is to the collection of experiences that make up a life.
Whether it is in the immediate or in the long run, endurance is ours to do. And when I say “ours” I mean that in the sense of our common calling. Sure, we all have things to endure on our own, and sometimes the love and care of the church can even be too much for us to bear. But sometimes we can be as endorphins to one another and the world around us. Sometimes the stress of loving one another can improve us like steel sharpening steel! Sometimes the presence of Jesus can even be seen in the way we suffer with and for one another because we have been called to be the church of Jesus Christ!
It would be easy for a congregation like us to get down on ourselves. I haven’t heard it in a while, but I still do every now and then. You know what I’m talking about. Oh, we need new blood. Oh, we need new ideas. Oh, we might as well be vampires and zombies if that’s our only way of looking at ministry!
Somehow what I am hearing more about these days are comments about members checking in on each other in their distress. I’m hearing about Christmas baskets being made in record time. Last week we even sent 105 out to an interfaith prison ministry for families of inmates, and we’re on track to make and distribute 1,000 baskets by December 7th! We’ve redone our nursery to make it more hospitable and useable. We maintain ecumenical relationships that uphold ministries to the elderly and college students alike. We have a variety of study opportunities for those who want to grow in faith. This is not a congregation that is sitting idle! This is a congregation that has its mind set on enduring to the end and gaining the ability to tell a deeper and richer story with every passing generation!
That’s what it means to receive your soul through endurance. It means to hold the cup of blessing and let it be carved more deeply by life – even by sorrow if it must be. And so, as we read these passages and consider our salvation, perhaps it still leads us to some of those same questions about poverty and social responsibility that we naturally think of when we consider who seems to be “earning their keep” and who seems to be “free loading.”
Author Danielle Shroyer puts it this way in a posting on the lectionary blog, The Hardest Question: “Our world is filled with places and spaces desperate for what is ‘right,’ for what we call justice or shalom or the Kingdom of God. It’s not about having a right to work but about working for what’s right. So there’s our question: are we idle in doing what is right?”
Let us be guided and informed by the challenge to not remain idle in doing what is right, and to God be the glory – now and always. Amen.