“Lo he comes with clouds descending”

Proper 32        November 12, 2017

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18          Matthew 25:1-13

Not quite two weeks ago the world commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, remembering the moment when Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg.  Luther was a product of late medieval theology, with its emphasis on a punitive, angry God eager to condemn most of humanity for its sins.  Behind Luther’s theological work was a very personal struggle: how do I find a merciful God?  Clearly he was not the only one struggling with this; the success of the Reformation indicates it was a question that resonated with many.  It is a less pressing question for us today; most of us tend to take for granted that God is merciful.

It has been observed that every age in the history of the church has its own particular key question that defines it. In the time of the Roman Empire, where people were very aware of decline and mortality all around them, that question may have been: how do I achieve immortality? Again, not really our question today.  Like any generation, we seek comfort in the face of the reality of death, but we are unlikely to put the question in quite that way.
So what is our question today? What is the one key theological question that defines our age?  In the 20th century, that question may have been: how can I have faith, in the midst of scientific knowledge on the one hand, and terrible wars and cruelty on the other.  That question is of course very much with us, but I have come to suspect in recent years that another question has become even more pressing.  How can we have hope?  What does hope even mean, and how do we find it?

While I saw the 1960s through a child’s eyes, I am old enough to remember growing up in an atmosphere of optimism.  The potential of science and technology to build a better world seemed unlimited; the feeling of progress on social issues like the civil rights movement and feminism was exciting.  For most teenagers today, the way the world felt back then would be totally alien.  What today’s teenagers take for granted, not as something they need to learn, but as something simply in the background, is that we have trashed the planet and continue to do so without a second thought. They may well feel that their opportunities in life are limited, that the system has been rigged to benefit the rich.  And that politics offers no solution, as it has sold out to vested interests.  It is hard to argue with their analysis. In other words, they are growing up with a profound lack of hope. And frankly, it is not just the teenagers: it is hard for any of us to be hopeful about the mess the world is in.

And in our own lives: we are getting older, and most of us are dealing with health issues – if we are not suffering from them, they are just around the corner.  In a society that puts such a high value on being young and fit, how do we cope with the loss of our abilities and independence.  Depression is epidemic.  How do we find opportunities and possibilities that our life can still be rich and meaningful – in other words, how do we find hope?

I raise the question this morning because our readings are very much about the question of hope: the concrete hope of Jesus’s return in glory that occupied the imagination of the very early church.  That expectation is one of the things that really separates us from the church of the New Testament.  It is so easy to forget: they didn’t actually think they were founding an institution that would have to last through two thousand years and more of human history. They really believed that they had only a short time to prepare before Jesus came back to set the world right.  He had promised to return, and why wouldn’t they expect that to be soon, within their own lifetimes.

Clearly this is what Paul had taught the church at Thessalonika; but now they are disturbed.  Some of their beloved members are dying, and they are worried that these people will miss out when Jesus returns.  So Paul’s answer is to reassure them that when Jesus returns, the dead will be raised and will participate in his kingdom of glory.  He wishes to give them hope.
What is perhaps difficult for us to accept is Paul’s description of Jesus coming again, descending from the clouds with the archangel’s trumpet, and catching us up into the air.  This passage is the warrant for the belief in the Rapture, much beloved in some Evangelical churches: the idea that Christ will snatch his chosen ones up from the earth.  For Anglicans, however, this picture is likely to be an obstacle: we may have trouble believing this, even taking it seriously, and so it doesn’t really work as something to give us hope.

Paul’s language here is borrowed from apocalyptic: the book of Daniel, specifically, and later there will be echoes in Revelation.  Apocalyptic language is not language we should take literally: it is a way of talking about spiritual realities, a vision of the spiritual shape of the world, in pictures. We don’t have to take this language literally, and imagine that this is exactly what it will look like when Jesus returns. But even then, it is still foreign to us.  First Thessalonians, as the earliest of Paul’s letters, is also the oldest piece of Christian writing that has survived.  The hope that is brimming over of Jesus’s imminent return has faded.  After 2000 years of waiting, we just don’t expect Jesus back tomorrow, do we?  We still confess it in the creed, that he will return to judge the quick and the dead, it is still part of our faith, theoretically, anyway.  But it is not really part of our lived expectation, is it?  When we write something in our agenda for next Tuesday, we don’t write “Doctor’s appointment, 2:30, unless Jesus returns before then.”

This is the problem that is already faced in our gospel reading.  By the time Matthew is writing his gospel, 30 or 40 years may have passed since Paul wrote the words we heard above.  Already it must have begun to be difficult to keep the immediate expectation alive that Jesus would be back any day.  And so Matthew chooses to highlight this parable of Jesus, a parable that talks about the bridegroom’s delay, and the bridesmaids waiting – a waiting that is beginning to stretch on and on, so that they begin to fall asleep, and their lamps begin to go out.  More than Thessalonians eager expectation, this is a story we can perhaps relate to.  It’s a story to keep up moral as we wait. Except that after two thousand years, it may take more than a story to keep our expectation alive.

What do we do with this teaching that hangs on in the creed like an artifact of another time, that Jesus will return in glory?  Can we find a way of making it come alive for us – can we let it give us the thing we need most, hope?

In some ways it seems to easy for us, too cheap: we make a mess of the world, and then we expect Jesus to come back and fix it for us.  We are right to reject this kind of quick fix hope, a hope that lets us off the hook without a second thought from our responsibilities to be good stewards of God’s creation.  That is my problem with Rapture theology, and why it looks to me like a blasphemous heresy: it seems to treat God’s creation like worthless garbage to be thrown away when Jesus comes, rather than God’s creation of which we are a part, and which must be redeemed along with us if we are to be redeemed.

We should reject the idea that Jesus will just fix it all for us, as though our trashing of the planet doesn’t really matter.  Our theology needs to reflect our responsibility. On the other hand, this responsibility is crushing us.   However we reckon it up, it is getting harder to see how we can dig ourselves out of this hole we’ve got ourselves into.  All of our technology, all of our ability to organize ourselves through politics and economy – all of that seems unable to address our problems, and indeed to make them worse.

That is the starting point for any 12 step healing, for any theologically healthy approach to the world: the recognition that we cannot help ourselves, that we need to rely on a higher power to get us out of the mess we are in.  That has always been the core truth at the centre of the Christian understanding of being human: we are completely reliant on the grace of God if we are to thrive.  This is not the same as abandoning our responsibility and leaving it all up to God. The 12 step approach is all about learning to assume responsibility and doing the hard work of healing.  But it recognizes that we cannot do it alone, that only with God’s help can be assume responsibility.

What is hope?  It is not the same as optimism, it is not the blithe certainty that everything will be okay.  Hope is about recognizing that we don’t just have a past with God, that long history of the Bible and the church: we have a future as well.  When we sit down to calculate the challenges that face us, be it climate change or our own aging, it is not enough just to reckon up what we have to offer.  Hope means remembering that there are factors we can’t yet see in our calculations, that God is not done with us yet.  We have a lot of hard work ahead of us, but we are not alone with that work.

So what do we do with the idea of Jesus returning in glory.  For me, it is still hard to imagine; it is a theoretical truth, but not a living expectation. Perhaps when we recite the creed, that is a part where you are tempted to cross your fingers.  But the creed isn’t just there to speak of the parts of the faith that we already feel and have made our own.  It is also there to remind of those parts we find difficult to imagine or accept.  He will come again to judge the living and the dead: his promise stands, whether we believe it or not. And in that promise is the seed of something we need, maybe the thing we need most of all: the seed of hope.  It is the promise that God is not finished with us yet, that Jesus has not simply gone back to heaven and forgotten about us.  In that promise is the sure commitment that our future will not be a future without God, that God will continue to accompany us, to challenge, strengthen and inspire us, and to unfold new possibilities we cannot begin to imagine, infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.