2nd Sunday before Advent
19 October 2017 – 11:20 h
St Catherine’s Anglican Church Stuttgart
Anglican Church Ulm
Rev´d Dr. Howard Perry-Trauthig
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. (Ps 19:14) Amen.
No one likes to be a bearer of bad tidings. We all have to be sometimes, but I have never met a person who really liked it. There are all kinds of tactics and strategies to make it easier for us. Usually we try to combine the bad news with the good news. “I have some bad news and some good news for you. Which one do you want to hear first?”
This is a question I could ask all of you today – except that it is too late. You have already heard all three readings. The first reading from the prophet Zephaniah focuses entirely on the day of the Lord, the day of Yahweh´s judgement on his people who have abandoned his covenant. This reading threatens and does not give much hope. The Gospel Lesson, the Parable of the Talents, is not much better. We all probably feel sorry for the third servant – like we perhaps did for the foolish bridemaids in the Gospel Lesson last week. This last servant was not very bright, but the punishment seems to be too harsh. The Epistle Lesson from Paul´s first letter to the Thessalonians also begins with “the day of the Lord.” Paul commends the Thessalonians that he does not have to teach them more about the coming day of the Lord. For they know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. It may not be pleasant, but they are prepared. Moreover, and most importantly, they have no need to be afraid. As awful as the day of the Lord will be, they do not need to fear it. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ…
This is the good news rather packed away in all the warnings about the day of the Lord. It is a reassuring message for us. And it is truly good news because the day of the Lord for Paul is the day that Jesus Christ returns and sets all things right, Parousia. That is not so good for those on the wrong side, but for those who follow Christ it is the fulfillment of all their hopes and prayers. The only difficult thing is that this has not happened yet. Christ has not yet returned. We are, as it were, stuck in the middle – and have been for quite a long time now.
However, if we pursue Paul´s thoughts further in this letter we discover that he emphasizes the relation between the believers´ present experience and the Parousia. We can experience, we can feel, we can perceive hints, signs, indications of the Parousia now. The future is a real part of our present. The trick is to be able to discern it. It requires practice, weekly practice at the very least. This is what we do every Sunday in worship. Among other things, we practice discerning the faint, flickering, short-lived appearances of the Parousia, the Kingdom of God, in our world, our lives.
When we stop to consider this line of thought, we recognize that this is mind-boggling. For Paul breaks with our standard conception of time and space as two different things.
This corresponds to the revolution in physics that Einstein launched. Time and space are no longer separate categories. They merge into spacetime and are inseparable. The clear separation of time and space in classical physics that our senses confirm is shattered.
Given all this, I think that Paul´s letter has two messages for us today.
The first is a message of comfort and encouragement.
1) Be reassured. Through your faith in Jesus Christ you will be spared of all the awful things on the day of the Lord. There is no need to fear the future. When the Lord comes in glory, you will rejoice.
The other message is more exciting, I think:
2) Open your minds. Open your way of thinking.
Paul calls for us not to stay locked into the categories we tend to use.
Don´t stay locked into your usual categories and ways of thinking – because you are accustomed to them, because they confirm you in what you already think
In other words, Get out of your bubble!!
My interpretation of Paul´s message to the Thessalonians for us today is as a challenge, as a call for more adventuresome thinking!
Think outside the box!
We can think outside the box BECAUSE we have nothing to fear. We have been destined for salvation, not for wrath. We have nothing to fear because we have nothing to lose if we are wrong.
Sola fidei – salvation by faith. The Reformation´s fundamental article of faith gives us this freedom.
For we have not earned this assurance, this salvation of which Paul speaks with our upright good behavior – not even with our intellectual brilliance and bright ideas.
It is a gift. It is something we have accepted. And it gives us freedom – of action and of thought. We don´t have to keep looking over our shoulders and worrying about whether we have made a mistake and sinned. Of course, we have! We are fallible, sometimes very fallible and sometimes very weak. But we also have faith. We have accepted the gift – and this gift frees from the burden of past mistakes – and opens the future for – well, actually for everything.
In a letter Martin Luther summed it up as no one else could: Be a sinner, and sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be stronger…1
Let me repeat this because I want to be sure that you all hear it: Be a sinner, and sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be stronger…
This morning I want to give that a little twist and say:
Go then and think boldly!
When you have a problem, when you have a question that is plaguing you, think boldly. It doesn´t matter if it is an intellectual issue or a practical problem.
Go then and think boldly!
To take a practical problem, suppose your four year-old stubbornly refuses to brush his teeth. What on earth can you do, should you do? Everything you have tried so far has not worked, brushing with him, buying Simpsons toothpaste, fussing at him. Nothing has worked. What about telling him he is not allowed to brush his teeth anymore – and taking away the toothbrush and the toothpaste. He may end up doing after all out of spite! You tell him to do one thing to get him to do the opposite. It is a bit tricky, and it doesn´t always work. And it is not always appropriate – or safe. Think about teaching a child to wait until the little figure turns green before crossing the street, for example. Paradoxical intervention is, however, a proven method in therapy.2
In a similar way, we need to think outside of the box in regard to so many problems facing our society and then act accordingly. We have done such thinking and acting in a small way as our response to the refugee crisis here in Stuttgart. We need that on a larger scale, too, whether it is the refugee crisis or dealing with climate change or even negotiating Brexit
It might help us with our problems here with the organ, too!
Think boldly! Think outside the box!
It may be a crazy idea – but it may turn out to be a brilliant.
It may really be crazy and completely and totally impractical – however, it may help someone else come up with a good idea! She may never have come up with her idea if she had not first heard your crackpot idea and thought, “That is so idiotic!” – and then starting thinking further.
The church actually has a long history of doing just this (thinking outside the box, etc.). The church began in Palestine amongst Jews who spoke Aramaic and read their scriptures in Hebrew. Then it expanded and grew, moving into areas where the common language was Greek, a simpler idiom of classical Greek. However, in Rome and most of the Roman Empire the common language was Latin. And then the church made it to England where the common language was English. Those are three transformations of Christian theology. The thinkers who mastered these transformations were all forced to think boldly, to think outside the box. Unfortunately, once the church gets comfortable, it has the tendency to cement its transformations into a system that stifles bold thought.
Fortunately, we have individuals Christians who again and again think outside the box, stir things up and light a fire under us all again – like Martin Luther. He is probably the best known, but far from being the only one. The feminists theologians I encountered as a student, in books but also in lectures and seminars as teachers or my fellow students come to my mind. They were all masters in thinking boldly and outside the box – and helping me to do the same.
In this year in which we celebrate 500 years since the beginning of the Reformation, let us remember Paul´s words of comfort and encouragement: God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ…
1 Letter 99, Paragraph 13. Erika Bullmann Flores, Tr. from: Dr. Martin Luther’s Sämmtliche Schriften. Dr. Johann Georg Walch Ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.), Vol. 15, cols. 2585-2590.
2 https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-therapy/201001/cool-intervention-8-paradoxical-interventions. 18.11.2017 23:51