in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
(1 Thessalonians 5:18)
|We encounter the people of Thessalonica this morning, a beloved community of the apostle Paul. Christ has been born, Christ has died, and Christ has risen. Early Christians have taken heart to the words of God’s disciples, and have anticipated not only the reality of the resurrection, but also the hope of the parousia, or the event of the Kingdom Come, on earth as it is in heaven. When we speak of “the second coming of Christ” (how’s that for first thing on a Sunday morning?) we do not talk about the so-called “rapture” of late 20th century imagination, but of a time when “every tear shall be wiped away from every eye,” and when “mourning shall become dancing.” As it turns out, those early Christians had every reason to anticipate and desire Christ’s return, as they encountered a bloodthirsty Roman empire and a clandestine faith tradition that was not favorable with the principalities and powers of their world. In Christ’s kingdom, there would not be a return to a kind of restored Edenic beginning, but a fulfillment of the promises that God had made with God’s people. A savior was promised for the people of Israel, a savior was given. A savior extended the covenant of God to the periphery of the Gentiles, and now the perfect joy and bliss of the Kingdom Come was expected, supposedly within the lifetime of those who had brushed shoulders with Christ’s very own friends and followers. Needless to say, when such hopes were established, one waited with anxious and eager anticipation, actively seeking a day when persecution and violence would cease under the rigorous grip of an imperial power.
To take a stab at what the emotional undercurrent must have been for the Thessalonians, I am willing to bet that they were desirous, impatient and to use the colloquial, chomping at the bit. When you have been told that the Reign of God will happen before your generation retires, you are great with expectation. Forget the retirement fund, and take a river cruise in the Danube. Better yet, mark the calendar, pour the champagne, and await the celebration.
It must have been a grave disappointment to continue through the days, paying off creditors, burying relatives and suffering through the consequences of Roman conquest. Why must God take such time, and what are we to do as we await for this supposed Kingdom?
Going back to a far less ancient or interesting part of history, say circa 1990, I was a Girl Scout, a member of my church troop. Not only were we famous for selling cookies in our crisp white and green uniforms, but we also took camping trips, and as the personal favorite of one of our Scout leaders, went orienteering. I do not mean to attribute to my former Scout leader malevolent and magnificent powers, but I am fairly certain that she controlled all weather patterns, and managed to have it pour down rain every time that we planned one of these excursions. Before an orienteering event in North Carolina’s beautiful Pisgah National Forest, she kept reminding us to wear a lot of wool, despite it being May, because “you never know what kind of weather you’ll have.” (It could also be because Pisgah National Forest is also nicknamed Pisgah National Rain Forest, but I digress). One thoroughly soggy Saturday, we took our rusting compasses to embark on the journey of finding our way in the woods, bearing the resemblance of drowned rats. It was particularly difficult to concentrate, as cranky adolescents are not known for their expert cognitive skills in moments of duress. It probably took us twice as long to get anywhere, in part because we were living into an utter desperation: why had we decided to go on this stinking trip and when in God’s creation would we be finished?!? An afternoon of Pre-Algebra would have proved far more worthwhile, as that at least was a kind of torture to be conducted indoors.
There was grumpiness, there was annoyance, and there was impatience. There was also a total loss of direction because of our frustration and general despair of perhaps never leaving the flooding forest.
Though what we endured is nothing like what the people of Thessalonica braved in the tentative days of early Christianity, we can all attest to the human experience of how utterly natural it is to lose direction not merely in the face of adversity, but even in the banal interruptions of our everyday lives. To be sure, we experience both of these things. This is a season of stress, of overcrowded mall parking lots, and the general malaise of hearing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” too many times in a grocery store. It is also a season of institutionalized racism, broken bodies and the anguished cries of the oppressed, the marginalized, the shamed and forgotten. This world, right now, is not the Kingdom Come. A rosy past that has us yearning in nostalgia is also NOT the Kingdom Come. (My late great-grandmother once assured me that there is nothing romantic about the absence of indoor plumbing). Try as we might, it appears that in the course of human history, we tend to merely remove older problems to replace them with new ones, or repurpose, as it’s fashionably said, the terrors that we think may need a little redecorating. As seductive and as enticing as the lure of progress may be, the people of Thessalonica remind us that now, all of these millennia later, we find ourselves still drumming our fingers and waiting expectantly for God’s promised Kingdom Come. And we still have difficulty finding our True North in this beating, tiring, pouring rain.
Lest this sermon is appearing to be losing the luster of Christmas cheer, the apostle Paul bestows his benediction with love, tenderness and terrific hope. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of Christ Jesus in you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every kind of evil.” These words suggest living into the Kingdom of God, not because it happens to be right here, but because we believe in its coming in this season of Advent, and believe the claim that it has on our lives: we are its citizens, even now.
Because I have not thoroughly exhausted my allusions to damp weather, the patron saint of Scotland, St. Columba, was a pleasant sort of convict, exiled from his native Ireland, sent out by boat on the temperamental North Atlantic. He landed on the Hebridean island of Iona, and is credited with bringing Christianity to the region. In his theological musings, Columba spoke of Christ as a “center,” much like the old Christian symbol of the anchor. “With Christ as my center, as my direction, I am always grounded.” To add a bit to his words, it would seem that Columba saw Christ as his True North, as his guidance, as that which oriented him.
That same Christ of St. Columba is also what orients us, and gives us a sense of where we must go in the muddle of our great and ordinary everyday experiences, rain and shine. If this sounds like an arduous and utterly confusing task, I offer words of consolation from the Great Comforter, John Calvin, as understood from one Dr. Stephen J. Ray, Jr. of Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. Each and every moment, we are given an opportunity to walk towards Christ, to materialize the good. This is a choice to be made, in every exchange in the grocery store parking lot, the civic square, the Christmas dinner, and the conference room. We can choose to acknowledge our real direction and identity as citizens of God’s Kingdom, or we can orient ourselves in despair, lost and wayward in the stormy weather. If we find that we have done well for the day, we wake up and try again tomorrow. If we find that we have failed miserably, we wake up again and try again tomorrow. God will continue to invite us, to engage us, to beckon us. That baby in the manger is our center, our orientation.
I leave us with another image, back to the Isle of Iona. Long after the life of St. Columba, a group of pilgrims are sitting in a cow field, resting after many miles of walking. It is a warm summer’s day, and yes, there is precipitation. What was going to be a turkey sandwich was slowly being washed away into a kind of liquid, but we ate slowly, savoring each slivering bite. Concluding our meal, a prayer was spoken, and we got up from the muddy site to continue on our journey. There was no hurry, as we did not want to miss what God might ask of us in every blade of grass, in each beached stone at our feet. After all, the Scots claim there is no such thing as irredeemable weather, so long as you choose to don yourself with the correct attire. We may or may not be properly dressed today. If not, we’ll try again tomorrow. Keep walking.