Sunday, November 09, 2014

One Fine Day: AMOS 5:18-24, 1 THESSALONIANS 4:13-18

Sunday, November 9, 2014
After Pentecost
Proper 27
Year A

There is an old saying that goes like this:
That person is so heavenly bound, they’re no earthly good.
It’s used to refer to someone who is so busy looking up waiting for Jesus to come back that they forget about the world falling apart around them.
At the time Amos was writing, Israel was so heavenly bound, they were no earthly good. And when Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, they too were so heavenly bound they were no earthly good.
There is a great deal of “woe” in the book of Amos. Israel is a total mess at the time that Amos is writing and he’s not the sort of person to tip toe around the issue. Oh, he’s eloquent. He has colorful images and rich metaphor. But yikes! This guy does not hold back. He certainly means well, but there is no softening of his verbal blows. God gave Amos a word to share with the people and he clearly has no qualms about sharing it.
To Amos credit, Israel had grown pretty lazy. They were just sort of in a religious holding pattern in which they went through the same old motions just because that’s what they thought would save them from God’s judgment. They were missing everything going on around them because they were too busy waiting for God to vindicate them.
When Amos says, “Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord!” he’s telling the people, “Look out! You’re too busy looking forward to the last judgment and you’re missing what is happening in the immediate future! You’re just going through these motions and they are totally meaningless!” They were so busy sitting around waiting for the day of judgment that they were risking being subject to that judgment themselves for ignoring the injustice that was crashing down all around them. “The Day of the Lord is not what you’re expecting!” Amos warns.
            The Thessalonians had a similar problem. They were expecting Jesus to show up right away – within their lifetime. And then he didn’t. They had been waiting for the Day of the Lord and were faced with the harsh reality that it was not when and where and how they were expecting it.
While they were waiting, loved ones had died and this seriously messed with their perception of how this was all supposed to shake out. They were concerned about what would happen to their loved ones when Jesus did come back. If they died before the second coming, what would happen to them?
Just as Amos told the Israelites, the Thessalonians had to come to grips with the idea that The Day of the Lord is not what anyone expects and we can’t even begin to pin it down. No prophecy about when the second coming will happen has ever come true. Nobody really knows what it’s going to be like, so let’s stop guessing. Yes. We should definitely know that it’s coming and that should inform what we are doing here, but the point is that Jesus is coming again – the point is not when and how. Paul tells his beloved church that this should be encouraging, not discouraging. If it’s causing discouragement or confusion or injustice then the point has been missed.
            We have no idea what to expect: there is great freedom in not having to figure it out. There is freedom from anxiety. There is freedom from having to try to be in control of it. Paul says, “I don’t have all the answers, and neither do you. . . and that’s OK because Jesus is triumphant and that’s what really matters.”
            We want to know that there is more than just nothingness when we leave this physical realm. We, like the Israelites want vindication for all the stuff that went wrong. We want to know for sure what’s going to happen to us and what has happened to those who came and went before us.
Of course, taking Paul’s words to heart can be a difficult task. Endings are not generally easy on us. Death is frightening. Talking about “the end of times” is frightening. It’s perfectly natural to draw back from the unknown. While many people have had visions of God and of heaven, none of us have actually been there. We don’t know exactly what to expect. We don’t live in a Tom and Jerry cartoon where everyone either drops into a fire under the ground or floats up onto a cloud with a harp. There is great mystery around the “what next” after this life and that’s uncomfortable.
Death separates and that is perhaps what is most frightening for those of us still walking around on planet earth in the world we know. It’s painful when we are physically separated from those we love.
This summer, with all my travelling, I spent a total of about a month away from my kids. I saw them for about three days between my two trips abroad. I was perfectly OK with this arrangement. Moms need breaks from being Mom from time to time or we’ll lose our minds. And I knew that while a month is a long time, I have a lifetime with my sweet children and I would see them again on the other side of summer and we’d all have wonderful stories to share. While Alexis was pretty content with the arrangement too – it was much harder on Gloria and Levi. When you’re only 6 years old, a month is a REALLY long time. And they were busy on trips of their own with Grammy and Aunt Sarah – they even got to go to Disney World – but they definitely felt the separation from Tim and I deeply.
They knew they would see us again. But from their perspective, it was just about forever before they would see us again. I have an adorable picture from the car on the way home from the airport when we were all finally back together again. It’s me – looking pretty haggard and worn from way too many international flights in too short a time – with Levi practically fused to my arm. The look on his face is one of utter bliss and contentment. The separation was over.
The Thessalonians wanted to know the date their separation would be over. They wanted to know Jesus’ travel itinerary. They didn’t like to be left hanging. But, Paul doesn’t have the answer for them or for us. We don’t know when the separation will end, but Paul assures us that there is hope anyway.
            Just like Amos said the day of the Lord was not what we’d expect, Jesus in his coming turns things on their head and we cannot possibly begin to guess how exactly he’s going to do that. The details are mysterious exactly because Jesus doesn’t ever do things the way we’d expect. He’s not the tame, watered-down messiah we can get a handle on or control. He’s the wild, unexpected Messiah who conquers death!
We are not left separated, but through him and his defeat of death, we are united. The temporary physical separation is difficult, but we have hope in Christ. We are not faced with nothingness. We aren’t left hanging. Jesus overcame that all as victor. While we don’t know all the details, we are not left with uncertainty. The thing we can be certain of – hope in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior – is sufficient. It’s sufficient to get us through the time of separation, to comfort us through our grief, and to help us through all manner of trials and difficult times. This is not to say that we won’t suffer separation. This is not to say that we should not grieve when separated from those we love. This is not to say that we will not have trials and difficult times.
But in the midst of the separation, the grief, the hardships, we have something to cling to. We have SOMEONE to cling to – Jesus, the one who conquers sin and separation and nothingness.
Paul can’t tell us when Jesus will be back. He can’t tell us much about what that will look like. Shoot – he can’t even tell us what the peaceful sleep of those who died in Christ before us is like, but what he does have to say is pretty exciting!
“the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God,” The Lord himself! Jesus is coming back – physically – tangibly. We know that Christ is with us now, but our human senses have trouble getting ahold of the presence of God here and now. One day, he’ll be right there – right where we can see and hear and touch him just like we can one another right now.
“and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” All of the saints who have gone before us. . . they’ll be there! In fact, they’re gonna beat us to the finish line! They get to go first. And those of us who are still breathing this very air will get scooped up with them – whatever that means; Paul is vague about that too – and we will meet the Lord face to face!
            “And so we will be with the Lord forever.” I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine anything better than just always being with God. Always. No watches. No schedules. Nothing else to do but be with God. No wonder that multitude we talked about last week were praising God so hard. Imagine how that will feel!
You know, some people are near-sighted. They only see what’s right in front of them. Others are far-sighted and they can see distances well, but forget trying to read without a pair of glasses on. We need to be able to see both long distance and what’s right in front of us, though. That’s why some people wear glasses to see close up and some people wear glasses to see far away and some people have to wear bi-focals because they have trouble seeing either one just right. We need to have our spiritual lens prescription checked from time to time. Fighting injustice without Jesus at the head of the charge is an exercise in futility. Staring at heaven all the time and ignoring the wrong going on around us is the same. Just like we shouldn’t be so heavenly bound, we’re no earthly good, there is a risk of falling too far in the other direction of becoming so earthly bound, we’ve forgotten the hope offered to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus is Lord of Heaven AND Earth.  . .


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