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November 11, 2001
2 Thessalonians 2: 1-5, 13-17
It is time for us secret softies to fess up. We loved the movie, "City Slickers." Three middle-age city executives are on vacation at a dude ranch in the Southwest. They sign up for a fun-filled cattle drive. The tough trail boss, "Curly," played by Jack Palance, is talking with the overworked Billy Crystal. Curly says, "You city folks come up here every year, same age, with the same problems. You spend 50 weeks a year getting knots in your rope, and come down here thinking two weeks will untie it. None of you get it. Do you know what the secret of life is? The secret of life is just one thing (Curly holds up one finger). You stick to that, and everything else don't mean nothing." Crystal then asks what that one thing is. Curly responds: "That's what you've got to figure out
We loved Richard Dreyfuss in "Mr. Holland's Opus." It was a sweet story with heart-tugging moments. When Mr. Holland took up the baton and conducted his own opus, tears came to the eyes of all secret softies.
Secret softies may also be hanging on to a few Barry Manilow albums, though they will swear they are not theirs. Barry Manilow sold 58 million records; His premier album "The Manilow Collection" went double platinum, but nobody confesses to buying his music. It is part of the culture to ridicule Manilow as "elevator music", but many secret softies believe, deep in their hearts, that "Copacabana" is a classic.
Our culture has taken a U-turn back to the sentimental. After a steady diet of sarcasm and irony, especially in the 90s, we have returned to the delightfully softie, schmaltzy world of tearjerker films and soul-tugging music. We secretly appreciate all the over-sentimentality of pop culture, but live in fear that someone may discover we actually liked those old commercials for the cotton industry, which spoke of "The touch. The feel. The fabric of our lives."
Television shows like Seinfeld and movies like Pulp Fiction, made selfishness, sarcasm, and nihilism cool. Grunge bands like Alice in Chains and Mudhoney exuded edginess. It was in the nineties that Nirvana released its album Nevermind. To be edgy and mean in the 90s was to be painfully hip. It's not that the 90s were without nostalgia and sentiment; it was just that it was not cool to admit we are a hanky-toting softie with a preference for tear-jerkers, love stories and happy endings.
In the late 90s, this began to change, at least to a degree. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana is dead. Grunge rock is dead.
It's no accident that the highest-grossing films over the past three years were Titanic - the tragic historical epic replete with a tragic, fictional love story, and The Sixth Sense - about that terrorized but deeply sincere young boy who simply wanted the scary ghosts to leave him alone.
Irony has not disappeared from the culture by any means. But for every edgy show like "The Sopranos," a countercurrent is expressed during "Touched by an Angel." Being a secret softie is no longer necessary though. No longer do we need to apologize for choking up during Katie Couric's moving interview with Lance Armstrong, or while watching footage of Cal Ripken's last game.
Which is a good thing, because as Christians, we enjoy our share of softieism. Christian softieism flies off the shelves in Christian bookstores: Scripture jewelry, dashboard deities, Last Supper wall clocks and Bibleman, a Scripture-spouting super hero action figure.
Consider the stuffed animal "Happy Hank," by King's Creations. It says, "I'm Happy Hank. I'm happy 'cause Jesus loves me." Happy Hank has fifteen sayings in all. It is for ages 1 and up, surface washable, has no plastic pieces that can be swallowed, high-quality plush material, embroidered eyes and soft fabric nose, removable overalls. Happy Hank costs $29.95 plus tax. Squeeze his tummy and Happy Hank will share his love of Jesus.
Or again, for some Christian over-sentimentality, think about this offer: you can have your own piece of the Holy Land such as holy soil from Jerusalem, salt from the Dead Sea, or a sacred stone from the River Jordan. All of them can now be bought online from Holy Land Mall. Among the sanctified souvenirs is a laser-engraved pebble, "an authentic stone taken from the beautiful Jordan River," which comes complete with a certificate of origin to guarantee authenticity. Each stone is lovingly engraved with a Christian symbol, such as the cross, to remind you that Jesus once lived in the Holy Land, and the yin and yang symbol, to remind you of Confucius, who... er... did not. But, at $14.95, at least the price is right.
Christians are by definition schmaltzy softies. We believe things that our culture regards as strange and soft-headed. For example, we believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ. At least among ourselves, in hushed words, we talk about the second coming.
We Christians are sometimes laughably afraid that someone may find out that we really are Christians. The way we dance around and mumble around our beliefs, you would almost think that the penalty for Christianity is, at the very least, to have our fingernails ripped out. Of course, really we face nothing like that. At worst someone might smile at our foolishness.
But it was not that way in first century Thessalonica.. By the time this letter was written to the Christians in Thessalonica, real persecution of Christians was a fact of life.
That brings us to the subject of 2 Thess 2. The subject is the second coming of Jesus Christ, the parousia. This concern appears to have become paramount in the minds of the letter's recipients because they were being persecuted. The apostle reassures the Thessalonians that the "day of the Lord" will, as they have been told earlier, release them from their present suffering, and that they have not somehow missed it.
The Greek word "parousia," which means "presence" or "arrival," has generated a body of discussion in Christian circles vastly disproportionate to its presence in the New Testament. Occurring some 24 times, parousia appears only once in the gospels, and is found mainly in the Pauline correspondence (14 of 24 occurrences). The concept of Jesus' second coming was important to the first Christians, but its importance increased as time passed, as the period lengthened between the inauguration of the kingdom of God in Jesus' life and work and its awaited consummation with Jesus' triumphant return.
Periods of persecution renewed interest in Jesus' second coming. The Christians at Thessalonica, in about the year 51, appeared to be experiencing just such a period of persecution, and this was when 2 Thessalonians was written (1:4). The motive of the letter is reassure the Thessalonian Christians that the persecution they were presently experiencing will not be endless, but will be terminated by the return of Jesus.
The plea in verse 2 for the Thessalonians not to be "shaken in mind" was probalby written to counter rampant speculation about the date and manner of Jesus' second coming. The significance of Jesus' return was its purpose (the culmination of God's purpose for history), not its time or manner.
The Man of Sin
The "falling away" or "rebellion" to which the writer refers in v. 3 as a necessary prelude to the final coming of Christ is spelled out in more detail in other early Christian writings about the end time (e.g., 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Timothy 3:1-5; Jude 17-19; and especially Matthew 24). Common to all expectations of that dire time was the belief that false prophets or teachers would arise to lead the faithful astray (see, e.g., Mark 13:5-7; Luke 17:22-24; 21:8-9; Matthew 24:11; Revelation 13:13-14; etc.). The "lawless one" or "man of sin" named here represents the embodiment of those deceitful guides.
Who or what the writer had in mind by "the lawless one" is open to question, Over the centuries, millions of Christians have debated that question. Certainly there are echoes of other demonic figures, who exalted themselves as God. .although it is unlikely to have been one of Paul's ordinary earthly opponents (of which he had many). The imagery of atheistic hubris echoes descriptions of figures in the Hebrew Bible who also exalted themselves above their divinely ordained station
(e.g., Isaiah 14:12-14
12 How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!
13 For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north:
14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.)
[Also, the Prince of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:1-10.]
Matthew's description of the presence of the Roman general Titus in the Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70 as "the desolating sacrilege" (Matthew 24:15) shares the imagery used here of the one who "takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God" (v. 4). But the point in talking about the man of sin in IITH2 is to reassure the Thessalonians that the time had not yet come for the return of Christ.
If Jesus is really Coming Again
As we look further at chapter two, v13 is interesting for its tone of compulsion. The AV reads, "But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you." We must always give thanks to God for you. The phrase is unique to 2 Thessalonians. Ordinarily, Paul simply gives thanks for the Christians in his churches and expresses no hint of compulsion. The almost desperate tone of 2 Thessalonians lacks much of the joyful anticipation Paul found in the Christian faith, as expressed elsewhere in his letters, and reflects a time of stress and uncertainty in the early Christian church. The reassurance offered for that uncertainty is the "eternal comfort and good hope" (v. 16) given to the Thessalonians by God through their Lord Jesus Christ.
But Paul also wants to correct some false impressions that may have been caused by his previous letter. According to 1 Thessalonians, the second coming of Jesus was imminent, and Paul had set out to prepare the church for this fast-approaching day with words like these: The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. Let us not fall asleep as others do. As one of the oldest letters in the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians conveys the exhilarating reality that when the earliest Christians said that Jesus is coming again, this did not meant that Jesus was coming in some vague tomorrow stretching down through the centuries. They literally meant tomorrow - or maybe later on this afternoon.
This created problems. If Jesus is coming on Monday, we do not need to go to work on Monday morning. We do not need to maintain the fabric of society and culture because all of that is going to disapppear in a flash. With that attitude then, Christians could be accused of being lazy, antisocial outcasts. Sometimes attitudes about the second coming still get us in trouble: Like the church newsletter that opened with the disturbing question: "Are you ready if Jesus comes back today?" then on the second page had a plea for people to give to the five year plan to build a family life center.
Sometimes we are inconsistent. That is why we need to read II Thessalonians. The letter says that several events have to occur before The Day of the Lord, so don't sell the farm or quit your job just yet.
Continue in Faith
The two letters together, I and II Thessalonians together, tell Christians to 1) remember that Jesus could return at any moment and yet, 2) stand firm and hold fast to the traditions we have been taught in the meantime.
During his 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy often closed his speeches with the story of Colonel Davenport, the Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives: On May 19th, 1780, the sky of Hartford darkened ominously, and some of the representatives, glancing out the windows, feared the end was at hand. Quelling a clamor for immediate adjournment, Davenport rose and said, "The Day of Judgment is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. Therefore, I wish that candles be brought."
Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, was making pretty much the same point as Colonel Davenport. How do we prepare for the Second Coming? By doing what God hasa called us to do, by living our faith every day.
Being a person of faith has made a comeback in our culture. Eyes do not automatically roll when someone mentions spending the weekend at a spiritual retreat or reading a devotional book. We are embracing even the spiritually schmaltzy with a little less sneaking around. But faith goes beyond feeling free to carry a Bible in public or talk about Jesus without being embarrassed. Faith accepts and lives spiritual truth even when it does sound sentimental and overdone.
It is not an accident that the newest, most popular songs in many congregations are lightweight, emotional soul tuggers like "Here I am Lord":
I, the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry,
All who dwell in deepest sin, my hand will save.
I who made the stars of night, I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send?
Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.
The Bible also has stories that make us weep, causing cinematic epics to pale by comparison. As a culture longing for what is beautiful and true and earnest, who can hear these words from Isaiah and not be moved?
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. Because you are precious in my sight and honored, And I love you. (Isaiah 43:2, 4)
To some those words may sound like bad show-tune lyrics, but the truth is that the Creator of the world spoke them to an exiled, persecuted people. Maybe that's why we love the words so much. We find ourselves, after living through the edgy, cynical 90s, and in particular after September 11, 2001, in need of comfort.
Paul reminds us to stand firm and hold on to the traditions of our faith, not because it's finally okay to stop sneaking around, admitting that yes, we believe in something bigger than ourselves. The point is that we have searched for meaning and that search is over.
Yes, Jesus is coming again. But in the meantime, we do not have to be afraid to live in the light of Christ's presence today. Sing the psalms. Tell the old story of the old gospel. Don't make it a secret because this is a story of power.
Paul is all for filling us with moving words. Maybe the world calls them sentimental, but words II Thessalonians vs16-17 deserve to be proclaimed without shame:
"Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, Comfort your hearts, and stablish you in every good word and work."
Source:Chaney, Jen. "Sentimental journey: The 90's are over." Utne Reader, May-June 2001,16-17.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 01/11/02