BEFORE WE BEGIN
The liturgical church year is coming to a close. The church year begins with the season of Advent, which begins on November 29th this year. At the end of this cycle, here in November, we consider the Parousia, or Jesus’ second coming.
Loosely speaking, there are two schools of thought regarding the “end times”. Evangelicals teach a highly-developed concept of the rapture. At the seminaries of contemporary churches (i.e. Lutheran, Episcopal, Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, etc.), they teach a different understanding. My reflections are based upon this contemporary understanding. I hope you find my reflections on this topic inspiring rather than disturbing.
Amos lived in the northern kingdom of Israel in the eighth century B.C., before the Babylonian exile. He was troubled by the injustice around him, especially the disparity between rich and poor, and the lack of concern that the rich exhibited for the poor. If you want to read what is wrong with God’s people at this time, Amos 5:11-13 and 6:4-7 sum it up nicely.
- In the first paragraph, God’s people are looking for “the day of the Lord”. For the people of Amos’ day, this meant the restoration of the glory days, like the time of Kings David and Solomon. Amos tells his readers to be careful what they ask for. (v. 18)
- He uses the contrast between light and dark, night and day to convey his message of warning. (v. 18b and 20) The bear, lion, and snake are other images he uses to say “Be careful what you ask for!” (v. 19)
- Verse 21 makes a sharp left turn. When God starts out a paragraph with “I hate”, I think it is time for us to pay close attention. In Exodus 23:14-17, God tells his people to observe three annual festivals. They are Passover, Pentecost, and the Booths (or Rosh Hashanah). Here in Amos, He says that he hates them! Why? The answer is in The Takeaway below.
- Worse yet, in verse 22 he says that He doesn’t want their love offerings. He doesn’t even want to look at them.
- Even worse, He calls their songs of praise “noise”. (v. 23) This is not good!
- What does God want? Justice, plain and simple. (v. 24)
Remember last week’s Gospel lesson, the Beatitudes? “Blessed are the poor…”? God’s chief concern is for the poor, the meek, the poor in spirit, etc. God expects us to mirror his love and concern for the care of the disadvantaged around us.
I love magnificent worship settings, and find them very uplifting and inspiring. But if I don’t show God’s love in my daily actions; if I ignore the needs of the poor and broken in my midst, I behave exactly like Amos’ people. God will find my worship displeasing and unacceptable.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
In America, one in five children go hungry. Twenty percent of our children! Are we to be like the people of Amos’ day, and ignore this tragic problem? Or shall we be Children of God, and do His will on earth?
1 THESSALONIASNS 4:13-18
This passage contains a verse which Evangelicals believe to be the basis for their belief in the “Rapture”. I will be telling you about the other understanding; the one taught at the seminaries for the church organizations listed above. If you are a devotee of the “Rapture”, I suggest you either skip this lesson, or read on to understand how others might interpret this.
Most Christians at that time, including Paul, believed that Jesus’ second coming would happen at any moment. Some Thessalonian Christians had already died, and were buried. Their loved ones were concerned that the deceased would miss out on this eagerly-awaited event. Paul explains it to them.
- Verse 13 states the concern; some are worried about their brothers and sisters in Christ who have already died.
- In verse 14, Paul says “God’s got your back!” (In different words, of course.)
- Verse 15 states, Paul states that “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord…” He repeats this in verse 17. He obviously thought that he would be alive to witness Jesus’ return to earth.
- Verse 16 gets to the heart of the matter. When the trumpet sounds, and Jesus begins his earthward journey, the resurrection of the dead will happen first.
- Those still living plus the newly-resurrected will meet Jesus “in the clouds”. (v. 17) The only details we have about what happens next is that “we will be with the Lord forever”.
- Scripture tells us that Jesus will return to earth to conquer evil and establish a 1,000 year reign. Rapturists believe that this passage means that Jesus descends from heaven, but does a “U-turn” in the clouds taking the raptured to heaven.
- Contemporary Christians interpret this verse differently. The verb “meet” in Greek is “apantesis”, which refers to a custom of the day. When someone was on their way to your home to pay a visit, you would go out to “meet” them before they arrived at your door. Then, you would escort them into your home. Therefore, when Jesus returns, we will simply be part of the happy procession to lead him home. I will give you three examples of this:
- When Mary goes to the home of her cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth meets her on the road to her home.
- In the story of the prodigal son, when he returns home, the father runs to meet him “while he is far off”.
- After the death of Lazarus, Jesus heads to the scene. While he is still on his journey, both Mary and Martha have enough time and distance to make separate trips to meet him, before he arrives at their home.
- Verse 18 is probably the most important and overlooked verse of this entire passage. Now that Paul has explained what will happen (that’s what the “Therefore” means), he says we should encourage one another with these words. Paul thought he was writing words of encouragement, not words to scare people.
When Jesus returns, we will all take part in the joyous parade! It does not matter if we are alive or have already passed. We will be part of the joyous celebration, and encourage, not terrify others with the good news of the second coming.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
I was discussing with a pastor friend of mine the two different understandings of this passage; I was a little animated in my explanation. He said “Don, it doesn’t matter.” That stopped me dead in my tracks. I thought about it, and realized that he was right. If we are “in Christ”, it doesn’t matter whether it’s going to be the rapture or a parade—God’s got our back!
Either way, we should be sharing the Good News, and bringing others to Jesus.
The 25th chapter of Matthew contains the last of Jesus’ parables. The passion narrative begins in chapter 26. Keep in mind that Jesus told parables to teach us one thing. Each parable contains one God Lesson. If we dig too deeply into these stories, we’re going to miss the God Lesson he intended for us.
It helps to know a little about the wedding customs of the day. They were very different from how we do it today. Back then, the groom would come to the bride’s house. He’d take the bride and her bridesmaids, and make a procession back to his home. That’s it! They were married! In this parable, Jesus teaches us another lesson about the kingdom, by comparing it to one of these wedding processions.
So, within the context of a familiar wedding scene, Jesus tells this story:
- The ten bridesmaids prepare for the wedding feast, and put oil in their lamps. (No flashlights back then, I guess.) They all filled their lamps, and some also brought extra oil. (vv. 2-4)
- But wait! There’s a twist! The groom is delayed. It grows late, and all ten bridesmaids fall asleep. (V. 5)
- When the groom finally arrives, some of the girls’ lamps are almost out of oil, but some have their extra flask of oil. (vv. 6-8)
- There is drama. (vv. 9-10a)
- The groom and the prepared bridesmaids (and we assume the bride) go off to the wedding, and shut the door. (v. 10b)
- Now for the sad part. When the foolish girls finally return, they are denied entry. The groom even says that he doesn’t know them! (vv. 11-12)
- Jesus gives us the moral of the story in verse 13: “Keep awake… for you know neither the day nor the hour.” The odd thing here is that all 10 fell asleep, yet Jesus’ point is to keep awake. I do see that the winners in the story were prepared. Maybe “be prepared” is also a good point.
The point here is that nobody knows when Jesus will return. Paul had a pretty good idea, and he was very incorrect. Since nobody knows, we must be vigilant and prepared.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
My favorite bumper sticker: “Jesus is coming. Look busy!” I know this was intended to be funny, but there’s truth in it. Just make sure that you don’t just “look” busy, but are genuinely engaged in doing his work.
A famous Christian theologian was playing croquet with some of his students. (This is a very old story.) The teacher asked the question, what they would do if Jesus were to return tomorrow. One said that he would leave immediately, and make peace with his brother. Another said that he would quit the game, and do good works. When they asked the teacher what he would do, he said that he would continue playing the game. The point is that we should have already made peace with our brother, and should already be doing good works. We should be at peace, knowing that we are totally ready.
If you knew that Jesus would return to earth sometime this week, what would you do differently? Why aren’t you doing that now?