1st Thessalonians 4. 13-18
The “secondComing” is nothing less than
the promise of god’s never-ending love!
Odds are – if you’re Lutheran … or if you’ve spent much time, at all, around Lutherans – you don’t know much about the end times. Odds are most of what you do know came from bumper stickers and billboards. Truth is, we Lutherans don’t spend a whole lot of time, even, talking about it. Most of our effort and energy goes into proclaiming the firstComing, not the Second. Suffering under Pilate! Crucified, died, buried! Descending and, on the third day, rising! That’s who we are, as church! That‘s what we are! Sure, like the creed says, we believe he will come to judge. But that coming – that advent – is always in the shadow of the cross. So, when we hear about the Hal-Lindsey-Late-Great-Planet-Earth stuff … or the Time-LaHaye-Left-Behind kind of things … well, you can usually tell who the Lutherans are by their blank stares! We don’t talk about Armageddon or the Antichrist. About pre-trib or post-trib, pre-millennial or post-millennial. It’s all, pretty much, beyond us. So, chances are good that if I’m talking to Lutherans and I mention the Rapture, most of us won’t have clue!
The Rapture, FYI, is that piece of the lastDays when Jesus – according to popular opinion – comes and takes some people away, to be with him, while leaving others – most others, actually, to stay behind. The only reason I bring it up, this morning, is because this is where it comes from. Not UTPB. Not Stonehenge. But from 1st Thessalonians, chapter four …
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.
This is where the pop wisdom comes from: In case of Rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned! The Rapture: Get right or get left! The Rapture, don’t miss it for the world! Take 1st Thessalonians. Mix in a little Revelation. Add a pinch of Daniel. And voilà, the so-called secondComing! “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.” It’s just what we expect would happen! How it would be if it was up to us! Spectacular! Sensational! Extraördinary! And they lived happily ever-after!
More than one fortune’s been made – made and maintained – with that story. But faith isn’t so much concerned with the then-and-there, as it is the here-and-now! But that’s what happens when we read scripture more like a math book or a bus schedule! Literal! Superficial! Unemotional! We dissect it! We parse it! Diagram it! We unravel it and reweave it! But unless we’re very, very careful, it becomes something it never was! Sure, it looks the same! And it sounds the same! But it’s not …
Take, for instance, the passage we read a few moments ago. Word by word. Letter by letter. Every ‘i’ dotted. Every ‘t’ crossed. We read it as if we were wearing a lab coat. Plain. White. Terrified we might contaminate what we read. But that’s not scripture! For that matter, that’s not faith! Living! Believing! This handful of verses is full of feeling! It’s brimming with it! Overflowing with it! The people in Thessalonica want to know what happens to the dead. Specifically, to THEIR dead! The ones they loved! The ones they lost! One of the first words Paul uses is the word ‘grieve.’ Heartache. Tears. “What now!” “What next?” We can only imagine the depth of their need. Of their urgency. “Paul!” “Tell us!” “Please!” They were looking for a promise that matched their pain.
And so, the apostle responds the only way he could. With poetry. With song. He doesn’t discuss facts and figures. Instead, he uses phrases, images, that have comforted god’s people for generations. And with them, he promises that no one will be overlooked. He proclaims that none will be forgotten. That no one will be left behind. Especially those who have died. You don’t simply understand the words with your head. You understand them in your gut! You feel them! In your heart! In your soul! You can’t take the passage – this passage – literally. You have to … experience it! Taste it! Dance with it! “We believe,” Paul tells the church, “that Jesus died and rose! And we believe we do the same! Each of us! All of us!” The dead won’t be forgotten! They won’t be left behind! They’ll be first!
This isn’t a passage to be saved for the end of a year. When dreams of a secondComing thicken. This is a passage that should be savored … like at the virtual vigil we hosted, last Monday! When we mourned, remembered, those who have died from Covid. The one million two hundred fifty thousand who have died around the world. The two hundred thirty-eight thousand who have died – so far – across the United States. Nineteen thousand plus in Texas. Two hundred twenty-one here in Ector and Midland counties. …
with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first ….
It’s poetry, not prose! It’s emotion! It’s hunger! And it must be read with feelings! And taking it at face value is missing the point entirely. It’s missing the passion. It’s missing Christ. Christ and the cross. “What of them,” the church asks, “What of us?” Paul answers … Paul sings … “God has you! God has you in his arms! And god will never let you go!” God will never let THEM go! Where does the Rapture fit in? It doesn’t. That’s why we Lutherans don’t know much about it. But we do know about the commitment. And we do know about the devotion. And we do know about the love. The commitment, devotion, and love of god! Not a commitment, devotion, and love of tomorrow. A commitment, devotion, and love that hasn’t, yet, happened. Lying somewhere over the hill and around the bend. But a commitment, devotion, and love that is rooted behind us. Something tangible! Something real! Something we can believe in! Something we can stake our lives on! My friends, it’s not the words! And it’s not the letters! But it’s the rhyme and the rhythm! It’s the melody and it’s the song! Always the melody and song!