Hespeler, November 26, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Reign of Christ
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46
The passage that Allison read to us this morning, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, has got to be one of my favourite parables. I have returned to it again and again down through the years as I reflect on questions about how we ought to live as Christians and how we ought to find the presence of Jesus in this world.
But, as I reflected on the parable this time, I was struck by something. I’ve always focused on the things that the Son of Man says to the two different groups about what they have done or failed to do. But I’ve never really paid much attention to what happens before that. Before the Son of Man speaks to them, he does something very important. He sorts them out into two groups: the sheep and the goats.
How to Sort the Animals
I always assumed that that part of the story didn’t matter much. It was just sort of the setup for what was going to follow. But maybe I shouldn’t have made that assumption. I don’t know what is involved in separating sheep from goats. But the people who would have listened to Jesus tell the story, would have been much more familiar with both animals. Would they have read more into that sorting than someone like me?
You can sort sheep from goats by using their different physical characteristics. Goats tend to have straight hair while sheep have woolly fur. The horns, if they have them, grow differently – straight up or curling back. Goat tails go up while sheep tails go down. Presumably, the shepherd would use these physical traits to sort the animals.
More than Appearance
But surely, you would think, this parable can’t just be about a difference in appearance. Because that would mean that this parable starts with the Son of Man profiling people based on how they look. And that can be quite problematic, can’t it? We have all seen how such profiling has often contributed to racism and other alarming prejudices. I have a bit of trouble with the notion that, when Jesus judges the people of this world, he would make use of anything like such an approach.
So, I don’t think that this parable begins with appearance. It’s got to be about something else – some other difference between sheep and goats. Many of us, with our lack of experience of such things, don’t see much difference between sheep and goats beyond appearance. But they are, in fact, very different animals.
Differences in Behaviour
The only thing I know about goat behaviour is that, apparently, Bill Grogan’s goat was feeling fine one day and he ate three red shirts right off of the line. I don’t know if you know that song, but I certainly learned it when I was growing up. But that old camp song does hint at something true about goats. They will eat just about anything.
They are particularly adventurous in searching for their meals. They will step out quite alone and go far afield looking for some tasty tidbit. As such, they do often get into a fair bit of mischief. So, think of goats as the great individualists of the pastures. They tend to behave as if it is every goat for him or herself.
For the sheep, on the other hand, it is all about the herd. Sheep stick together. They know that they are safest when they are close to one another and look out for one another. They always graze close to the ground on tasty grass and clover and are not adventurous in their diets. If one sheep goes off in a particular direction, the rest are very likely to follow. Sheep are the great communitarians of the pastures. And I think that there is something of relevance in that to the whole parable.
Judging Based on What They Did
When the Son of Man comes, you see, we are told that he will judge between the sheep and the goats based on what they did: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” And those are all very laudable and praiseworthy actions, of course. But the very notion that such actions lead to salvation or access to the kingdom of God for the sheep raises some theological questions.
Teaching about Salvation
The teaching about salvation in much of the New Testament, especially as it is laid out by the Apostle Paul, is quite clear. Our good deeds and best intentions, as wonderful as they might be, are not what earns us salvation. We are just not able to attain the standards of God’s goodness and righteousness on our own power. But that is okay because God offers us whatever salvation we need as a gift, something that is obtained for us by what Jesus has done for us. This is called grace, and it is activated in our lives by faith – not by us believing certain things but by us choosing to put our trust in Jesus.
This teaching is foundational to Christian theology. Yet it seems to be contradicted in this parable when the sheep are told that they will inherit the kingdom because of what they have done. That’s why I can’t help but wonder whether there might not be a little bit more than just that going on in this parable. Perhaps it’s not just about what these grazing animals have done or failed to do. Maybe it has something more to do with the differences between sheep and goats. Maybe it has something to do with their nature.
The sheep in this parable engage in what we might call good deeds and specifically in charitable deeds. They have been giving of their time and talent to visit people who are struggling. They have provided food and clothing to those who need them. And such charitable deeds are certainly good and praiseworthy. But I also think that we are becoming more and more aware that such charitable giving is sometimes little more than a band-aid, and not a solution to the real problems of poverty, isolation and exclusion.
We have certainly seen that through our experience here at St. Andrews, but we also see it all across this country in the wake of the economic troubles of the last few years. The number of families using resources like food banks is growing constantly. The numbers doubled in Toronto over the last year. But simply giving people emergency food, though essential, doesn’t solve the underlying problems of low wages, underemployment and unaffordable housing.
Why They Are Not Necessarily Enough
Charitable acts are good, of course, especially when responding to immediate crises and when helping people to survive in an unfair world, but if all we are doing is giving food to the hungry, clothing to the naked and visiting those who have been unjustly imprisoned or who have fallen ill because of all of the ways in which the world is just not right, nothing will ever change. By keeping the most disadvantaged from becoming so hopeless that they rebel, we might even be helping to maintain an unacceptable status quo.
What is needed is a whole new mindset, a different way of thinking about the problems. And this parable seems to suggest that a goat’s mindset is not going to do it. Goats are only interested in taking care of themselves. It is a constant scramble to find what they desire or need. But so long as that is all we can think about – and we are constantly being told in our society today that that is all that we should think about – the deep underlying problems will not be tackled.
Thinking Like Sheep
No, what I think this parable is suggesting is that the sheep’s approach of looking out for the whole community and working collectively on our problems is the only way that anything can possibly change. Obviously, a change in mindset is only the beginning, a lot of work needs to be done to bring about actual change in how society works. But I would suggest that it must start with a fundamental shift from thinking like goats to thinking like sheep.
And, if that is part of the parable and the message that Jesus is trying to give, then doesn’t that cast the whole question about gaining entrance into the kingdom into a very different light? Perhaps what he’s really saying is not that the sheep have earned their way into the kingdom by their good deeds, perhaps the meaning is that they are already part of the kingdom because of the way they have chosen to look at the world, a worldview that has led them to behave in certain ways, doing such things as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.
A Different Way of Seeing Things
For me, that brings this parable much closer to the teaching about salvation that we find elsewhere in the New Testament. It is about grace, and it is about responding to that grace with faith and trust. The point of the parable is that, when you do respond like that, it does tend to make you relate to the world in different ways. If you have come to understand all that God has done for you in and through Jesus Christ, if you understand how Jesus laid himself down for the sake of all of his people, how can you just continue to approach the world like a goat? How can you only be concerned with feeding and taking care of yourself without thinking about the needs of those who struggle?
And when you understand it that way, you can see that it is not that the sheep have earned their way by means of their good deeds. It is rather that their good deeds have shown them up for who they truly are, just as the failure to respond to need has shown up the goats for who they truly are. The sheep are those who have learned to trust in God’s grace, and it has changed the way that they have lived. And so, you see, the Son of Man has not sorted the two groups based on appearance. I told you he wouldn’t do that. But the way they have acted and behaved and the way that they have related to their world, have been the very criteria that the Son of Man has used to recognize those who were already his.
This parable ends with the goats being sent “away into eternal punishment.” And that is indeed a very troubling image. The idea that God would condemn a group of people to eternal punishment just for failing to respond to people in need does not particularly sound like a gracious act. But remember that this is a parable and not a literal description of what is going to happen at the end of all things. And it is not about what people have done so much as it is about how people have come to see the world.
I tend to understand it this way. Those who have learned from Jesus and his example of perfect service and sacrifice and so have come to see the world like sheep, are already living into the reality of the kingdom of God. That is why they show it in their actions.
Those who stubbornly hold to a goatish worldview have essentially cut themselves off from the kingdom here and now. Their way of seeing the world means that they will never encounter the living Christ in this world because they cannot see him in the face of the hungry, naked, sick and captive.
Living in the Kingdom Now
This is less about what happens to us when we are dead than it is about what kingdom we choose to live in here and now. I happen to believe that, after we all die, we will simply find ourselves in the hands of the gracious God who has been revealed to us in Jesus. I do not fear the punishment of such a God, no matter what my failures or shortcomings might be.
It all starts with choosing to trust in him. The more we live into that faith, the more it transforms us and the more the world is transformed through us.
Hespeler, November 19, 2023 © Scott McAndless – 25th Sunday after Pentecost
Judges 4:1-10, 15-24, Judges 5:24-31, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30
One day, when I was quite young, I stumbled upon the passage that we read in the Book of Judges this morning. It was just the sort of story that an adolescent boy can’t get enough of. What can I say, I loved the violence and the gory details of the story of Jael. It quickly became the Bible story that I loved to show off to people when they wanted to know something weird from the Bible. I guess some things never change.
But I have learned recently to appreciate the story for some reasons beyond the somewhat gory details. It is a story of how men messed everything up, pushed people to the edge and they were only making everything worse. And it is a story about how women had to step in and save the day.
And, if you do much reading in the Bible, and especially in the Old Testament, you will know what a truly extraordinary thing such a story is. The Bible is a book that was written within a society that was completely oriented towards male dominance and authority.
The Usual Biblical Heroine
The heroes of the Bible, by and large, are men. Whenever the nation is in need of saving, they are the ones who ride to the rescue. Female heroines are few and far between and most often their work of saving the nation comes in the form of producing children to ensure the next generation, which is not to suggest even for a moment that such work is not important or heroic, it is. It is just that the Bible so often assumes that that is the only heroic role that a woman can have.
It is for that reason that the story of Deborah and of Jael stands out in the Bible. And, unfortunately, the tradition has often ignored these extraordinary women. That is a real shame because, while it is true that the Bible is focused on the stories and fates of men, it is not true that it simply discounts the women of the history of faith. Sometimes it takes some digging, but incredible stories are there. So, I would like to share with you the story of two extraordinary women who saved the Hebrew nation at a time of great peril.
Deborah sat under a palm tree in the hill country of Ephraim as she did most every day. The place, which was indeed a holy and sanctified place, was so closely associated with this extraordinary woman, that you just had to say the Palm of Deborah, and everyone immediately knew what tree you were talking about.
Deborah was acknowledged by all as a wise and thoughtful woman. People respected her opinions so much that they would come from miles around to stand before her and ask her to settle their arguments and disputes. She always sought to act with justice and compassion and so her judgments were highly valued. Because they believed that she had been designated by God to lead the people, they called her Embeyisrael – the mother of Israel.
But, while Deborah could certainly help people to work through their individual disputes, they still struggled collectively with a very big challenge. Jabin, the King of Hazor, had become very wealthy and powerful throughout the whole region. And he had used his wealth and his influence to exploit the Hebrew people.
He kept them from living peaceably in the land and profiting from the work of their hands. His chief enforcer, Sisera, squeezed the people to wring every last bit of profit that he could out of them. And Deborah felt that, if she was to be a true leader of the people, she ought to have the courage to tackle this system of subjugation and exploitation that was destroying them.
But there was a problem. The systemic exploitation of Jabin and Sisera could only be challenged through direct confrontation. In that culture, it was not considered seemly for a woman to engage in that kind of thing. If she was going to take direct action, she would have to ask another to lead.
The Man for the Job
And so she sent for Barak. Barak was a man, a requirement for the job, but he had also shown himself capable of leading the militia of the tribes of Israel. She knew that if he spoke on her behalf and asked the tribes to come in the name of the Mother of Israel, they would respond.
But Barak was hesitant. The problem was not that he didn’t believe that he could do it. He was a man; he had no doubts about that. But he was somewhat resentful of the very idea that he might need to call up the tribes on behalf of the Mother of Israel. He felt as if this would rob him of the honour and the glory that was due to him and his name.
And so, he said that he would only do it on one condition. She would have to go with him. He figured that this way, if he was not successful, he could always blame the failure on her. Whereas, if he actually managed to defeat Sisera, that could only happen in the thick of battle where Deborah could not go. Thus, only he would have the glory from such a victory.
He thought that Deborah would refuse. Most men would have, for what man is willing to risk his life in battle without the possibility of earning personal glory? But Deborah didn’t think like a man. She would have laid aside all her own glory in order that her people might be safe from those who oppressed them. And so, Deborah agreed. But she could not help herself from giving a warning to Barak that he might be valuing the wrong things.
“I will surely go with you;” she said. “Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” But Barak only laughed at that. He was absolutely certain that there was no way that Deborah could steal his glory when he won.
The Wife of Heber
Jael was the wife of Heber the Kenite. And Heber, like most of the Kenites, had a rather precarious existence in the territories of the people of Israel. He lived as a nomad, herding sheep and cattle and living in tents as he travelled around in search of the best pastures.
As a herder, he had often had many clashes with the Israelite tribespeople. The Israelites, who were trying to eke a living out of their little plots of farmland, often resented it when herders like Heber let their animals graze on their land and destroy their crops.
And so, Heber sought some protection from his enemies, the Israelites. He went to the only strongman he could find and one who had no great love or respect for the Israelites. He made a deal with Sisera – a protection deal. He paid off Sisera and Sisera made sure that bad things happened to anyone who clashed with Heber.
So, Heber was actively participating in the exploitation of the settled Hebrews. Jael, his wife, hadn’t been consulted about any of this, of course, she was just expected to go along with it.
Her Own Person
But Jael was not just a possession belonging to her husband. The Hebrews might have had a law that went like this: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour,” but Jael knew that she was more than her husband’s possession.
Jael had eyes to see, and she had a brain to interpret the things that she saw. She saw how Sisera was oppressing the people. She knew that it wasn’t right. And the safe thing to do about that would have been to just keep her head down and do what her husband told her to do, but Jael wasn’t that kind of person.
The Battle at Kishon
When Barak looked down upon the Wadi Kishon and saw where Sisera had gathered his army, his heart quailed at the sight. The army of Hazor was massive and well-equipped. There had to be about 900 iron chariots on the floor of that valley. Barak knew that the men at his back who had gathered from the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were only farmers who had beaten their plowshares into swords and their pruning hooks into spears. How could they possibly hope to take on such professional troops? He was ready to call the whole thing off.
But, as Deborah looked over his shoulder, Yahweh allowed her to see something that he had missed. There had been a rainfall the night before, and the floor of the wadi was a mass of churned-up mud. She suspected that Sisera’s chariots would not give him the advantage that Barak feared. She commanded Barak in front of all the men. “Go, for God has given Sisera into your hand today!”
Barak really had no choice. His honour would not allow him to be chastised by a woman and do nothing about it. And so he brandished his sword and with a cry to Yahweh, the warrior god of Israel, he led the tribesmen as they charged down the steep sides of the wadi.
The men of Hazor were taken by surprise in the sudden attack. Under normal circumstances, they would have recovered quickly and maneuvered their chariots by the time the Israelites fell upon them. But the wheels of the chariots quickly became mired in the mud and Sisera’s army fell into confusion. The lightly armoured Israelite infantry swept over the trapped charioteers and they began to flee in every direction. But the wheels turned so slowly because of the mud, that the infantry were able to give chase and Barak led his troops in what felt like a rout.
So, there was victory that day, but there was no honour. For, in the confusion and while everyone was concentrating on the chariots, Sisera had slipped away on foot. And so, Barak knew that part of what Deborah had promised had come to pass. He would not gain the glory that he was due for such a victory. But, as he looked across the field and saw Deborah standing there, he took solace in one thing. At least all that she had predicted had not come to pass. She had not stolen his glory. So, at least the very worst had not happened and he had not been outshone by a mere woman.
A Demanding Visitor
Jael was alone in her tent. Her husband was away following his herds as usual. He would often be gone for days at a time leaving her to deal with whatever might happen.
And, it seemed, something definitely was happening outside her tent right now. There had been sounds of battle just beyond the hills for several hours. Now she heard the sound of somebody running. As she looked out, she saw that there was a man who was coming towards her. He was panting and, as he cried out with what little breath he had left, she suddenly recognized him. It was Sisera, the enforcer of Hazor.
As he approached the tent, all red and sweaty, he began to demand things of her. He reminded her of the alliance that her husband had made with his king and that she was required to live by it. That meant, he insisted, that she must hide him from his enemies who were seeking to kill him. She had no choice.
Jael Makes a Choice
And so, Jael responded immediately. “Oh, you poor dear,” she cried. “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.” And so, he came into her tent. He seemed to be afraid that his pursuers were only just a little behind him. He insisted that she hide him inside the tent as well. She laid him down in a corner and covered him with a rug. His final request to her was for a little water to drink, for he had been fighting and then running all day.
As she turned away to fetch what he requested, her eye fell on something. There, right by the tent flap, was a skin of milk. She had filled it from the she goat only minutes before Sisera had appeared and it would still be warm. As a mother, she knew very well that a bit of warm milk can do wonders to calm an impetuous child and perhaps even send it to sleep. Ever since he had appeared, Sisera had been acting like an impetuous child. And so, she gave him the milk to drink instead of water. And it worked like a charm. The exhausted man soon fell into a deep sleep.
The Tent Peg of Justice
Jael should not have done what she did next. It was a betrayal of the alliance her husband had made with the king of Hazor. It also violated the laws of hospitality, for anyone she had invited into her tent should have been under her protection. But then again, had she really invited him, or had she been invaded?
There, in that tent that day, something changed for Jael. She knew the damage that Sisera did to the people of Israel. She knew that, even if letting him have his way might be in the interest of herself and her family, it was truly not the right thing.
She also knew that nobody else was going to do a thing about it. So she decided that she would. She slipped outside the tent, grabbed a spare tent peg and a mallet, and the rest is a gory story to fascinate adolescent boys.
When Jael went out to find Barak and bring him back to her tent to witness the results of her handiwork, she expected him to be pleased. His enemy was gone! But his face fell, and he muttered darkly something about how the Mother of Israel had tricked him.
The Oldest Story?
The story of Deborah and Jael is thought by many scholars to be one of the oldest stories in the Bible. The Song of Deborah, from which we also read this morning, is written in some of the most archaic Hebrew in the entire book. I definitely think that more people should know the story and that is why I wanted to deal with it today.
But that still leaves us, of course, with the question of what we are supposed to do with it. I’m sure that none of us would want to take the lesson from it that we ought to all try and solve our problems with tent pegs.
Learning from Two Extraordinary Women
But, while we shouldn’t emulate their methods, I think we can all learn a lot from these women’s spirits. They were confronted by huge problems and great injustices. They also suffered from the curse of being told all their lives that they couldn’t do anything about the problems of this world because of who they were.
I think we are all given that message – many of us are given it constantly. What is the point of trying to challenge injustice? Who do you think you are? You are just a woman – just a minority – just a small church – just fill in the blank – why even try?
But whenever someone makes you feel like that, I think you should be able to tell them a story of a woman sitting under a palm tree and another woman who just finished milking a goat. If God could use them, why not you? Why not us?
Hespeler, November 12, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 5:18-24, Psalm 70, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13
Have you heard about the Rapture? If you move in certain Christian circles – or read the right books or watch the right YouTube channels you almost certainly have heard about the Rapture. In some churches it is taught as doctrine.
It is part of a belief about what is to come, what will happen at the end of all things when Christ returns. The most common teaching about the Rapture is that, just before the end of the world as we know it – just before Christ returns – there will be a time of great tribulation and suffering. As you can imagine, with all of the awful things going on in the world lately, there has been a lot of talk about such tribulations starting soon.
But the Rapture is an event that is supposed to take place just before the worst of the tribulations set in. In this event, those who believe in Christ are to be snatched up into the air and taken away into heaven where they will be spared from all the suffering that is to come.
A lot of people have come to believe this, especially as it has been popularised in a series of fictional novels known as the Left Behind series and also a movie. It is supposed to be a comforting belief, I know, but I have got to admit that, when I first heard about it as a young man, I did not experience it as comforting.
The very idea tended to create anxiety. It was portrayed as something that could happen at any moment – that people would suddenly just disappear. I worried that it would happen when I wasn’t ready – that I would just be left behind to face the worst events imaginable.
Among many Christian groups, particularly the more evangelical groups, belief in the Rapture has become very common. So much so that it often seems as if it is something that all Christians believe in and always have believed in. So, I thought that it would be helpful to outline where the notion came from and look into what it might indicate about the state of Christian belief today.
Where it Comes From
So, where does the Rapture come from? If you Google it or look it up on Wikipedia, you will almost certainly land on the passage of scripture that we read this morning from the First Letter to the Thessalonians – in particular the verse that says, “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 forever.” But let me tell you a few things about the interpretation of that verse.
For the first approximately 1780 years since the Apostle Paul wrote that letter to the church in Thessalonica, as far as we can tell, nobody understood that that verse was describing anything like what is today understood as the Rapture. The idea that all good Christians would be caught up into the air at the beginning of the end times was completely absent from all forms of Christianity until sometime around 1830 AD. So, first of all, when people tell you that the Rapture is something that is spoken of in the Bible, you really have to ask the question, if it is plainly in the Bible, how is it that so many Christians never found it there for so very long?
John Nelson Darby
The person who first introduced the idea of the Rapture to the world was a preacher named John Nelson Darby. He popularized the notion through his translation of the Bible, still published today as the Darby Bible. But before him, no one had ever suggested that the Bible taught any such thing. He is kind of the inventor of the idea of the Rapture. It was not an idea that caught on at all for many decades. Most Christians thought of it as a rather kooky fringe theory for a very long time. It only began to be more widely known and believed in the 1970s because of Hal Lindsay’s influential book, The Late Great Planet Earth.
But, over the last 50 years, the idea has become quite popular, so much so that many people seem to assume that it is what all Christians believe. And so, it seems to me that it’s something that we have to deal with.
Some Problems with it
Let me say, first of all, that I do see some real problems with the notion. I honestly feel that belief in the Rapture has had a very detrimental effect on Christianity itself. When you teach people that they can expect a quick and easy escape from this world and all of its problems, it really doesn’t help people to be invested in working to make the world a better place or solving some of those problems.
And that is exactly what has developed over the last several decades among those who put emphasis on the Rapture. There has been a distinct lack of concern about problems like global warming, poverty, social justice and inequality. After all, why would you bother working on such problems if you knew that you were going to be snatched up at any moment and leave them all behind?
Christianity in Disrepute
But these are real problems that are affecting people’s lives and endangering our future. The very fact that so many Christians have such a callous disregard for any such concerns has brought Christianity itself into disrepute in our world. And, what’s more, just imagine what could be accomplished if only we could persuade all of those Christians to do what Jesus asked of his disciples and put their efforts into working on these issues. What couldn’t we accomplish together?
So, my personal opinion is that this teaching about the Rapture has done us little good. But that is just one person’s opinion. I mean, if the Bible actually does teach something, it shouldn’t matter whether we like that teaching or not, right? So, what does the Bible actually say? What is supposed to happen to believers at the end of all things?
There was a protocol in the ancient Roman Empire. It was called a parousia, which was just a Greek word that meant an appearance or a coming. When an Emperor or some other high official paid a visit to a city, everyone knew what the proper Parousia Protocol was and were careful to follow it to the letter. It was pretty simple, but no deviation was allowed.
Of course, they didn’t have instant communications back then, and so the citizens might not know that the visit was taking place. So, the first thing that happened was that the approaching emperor and his train were announced with the blast of trumpets and the cry of the imperial messengers.
In ancient cities, the dead were always buried on the extreme outskirts of the city. And so, the first citizens that the emperor always encountered were the dead ones. And so, of course, he would stop and give honour to the ancestors of the people of the city.
The Citizens Process out
By that time, the citizens of the city had managed to get organized and so they joined in a joyful procession out to meet the emperor on the outskirts. There, after greeting him with honour and sacrifice they would all turn, and the emperor would lead the parade back into the city where the parousia would be celebrated with feasting and other festivities.
Everyone knew this protocol and most had likely experienced it at least once. It would have been the social event of the year in any city that the emperor visited. But what does any of that have to do with the Rapture? Well let’s go back to our reading from a letter that was written to the church in Thessalonica.
And let’s remember that Thessalonica was the chief city of the Province of Macedonia, the seat of the governor and was situated at the crossing of two major roads. The city would have experienced many visits by emperors and high officials.
What Paul is Describing
And now, knowing all of that, reread the passage that some would take as the only biblical description of the Rapture. Paul is describing what he calls the “coming” of the Lord Jesus. And the word in your Bibles that is translated as coming, it is the Greek word parousia.
And how does Paul describe the parousia of Christ? It is announced with trumpets and the cry of messengers (or, to use the Greek word, angels). The appearing Christ then meets first with the dead believers and then the great host of living believers go out to meet and greet him.
These are exactly the familiar steps of the imperial protocol. The only things that are different is that Christ is arriving from the sky and not down the road and the dead are presumably raised back to life to meet him. But other than that, the protocol would have been immediately recognizable to the Christians in Thessalonica.
What Rapture Teaching Gets Wrong
So, what does all of this mean when it comes to the teaching of the Rapture that has been embraced by some Christians. Well, it means, first of all, that anyone who suggests that what is being described in this particular passage is an escape for believers from this world’s trials and tribulations is wrong.
Everyone knew what the next step of a parousia was and it did not include all of the citizens of the particular city being visited going off with the emperor as he immediately went back to his imperial palace in Rome! Everyone knew that the next step was for everyone, now including the ruler, to return to the city and celebrate. Whatever Paul is here teaching the Thessalonians about what will happen at the coming of the Christ, he is definitely not suggesting that they will in some way escape the world. He is promising them that their future is to be found in a renewed world.
Hope When the World Falls Apart
But the other thing that I think all of this makes clear is how Paul meant for people to understand what he was talking about. It is true that the early church lived in expectation that, at some unexpected moment, their Lord Jesus would return to set things right in the world. This was absolutely something that allowed them to keep on going and not give up hope as they lived through some very difficult times. I don’t know about you but, given some of the really difficult things we’ve seen lately in our world, I am feeling that this kind of teaching has gained a new relevance for believers today.
And Paul is, here in this passage in his letter to the Thessalonians, actually trying to comfort the Thessalonians because they feel as if Christ’s return is just taking too long. They are losing hope because it has taken so long that people have already started dying and they are afraid those people are lost forever. And he comforts them by giving them this description of what it will be like when Christ comes. He doesn’t say when that’s going to happen, but he is promising that it will be an event that brings hope to both the living and the dead.
But then he jumps into this description of the return of Jesus using imagery from a familiar imperial visitation protocol. I think that right there is an indication that he is not giving a literal description of what is going to happen. He is offering something more like a parable.
He is saying that the coming of Christ is something like what happens when the emperor comes to town. The point you need to take from a parable like that is not that you’re going to study it and find out in perfect detail what is going to happen and exactly what events will take place when. That’s not the point of a parable.
Jesus is Better
And so, I would suggest that anyone who wants to take this passage and use it to say that they know exactly what it going to happen in the future and when has missed the point of it. Paul is explaining to these troubled Thessalonians that Jesus is better and more reliable than any old Roman Emperor, populist or celebrity. You can count on Jesus who will not abandon anybody – living or dead.
And once you understand how trustworthy Jesus is, you don’t need to be concerned for what the future holds – don’t need to worry about the wheres and the whens.
So that is what I would take away from this passage in Thessalonians. Trust in Jesus. He doesn’t abandon anyone who trusts in him. Nor does Jesus abandon the earth and its sorrows. Neither should we.
Today we celebrate the funeral of Shirley Brent at 2 pm.
We hope you can join us in person, but, if you can, here is a link to a Zoom stream. We will also be streaming on facebook live: https://www.facebook.com/standrewshespeler
Hespeler, November 5, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Remembrance Sunday
Genesis 4:1 17, 23, 24, Psalm 43, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12
You have all heard, I am sure, about the story of Cain and Abel. It is the story of the first brothers and of the first sibling rivalry. It is the story, in the Bible, of the first time anyone tried to solve their problems with violence. It didn’t go well.
It is also, and a lot of people don’t realize this, the first time that the word sin is mentioned in the Bible. The notion of sin doesn’t come up, not even once, in the whole story of Adam and Eve and the garden. It only comes up when Cain contemplates what he is going to do to his brother Abel.
So anyways, you probably know the part of the story that everyone knows – how both Cain and Abel made a sacrifice to God but God (in some way that is not explained) indicated that Abel’s sacrifice was more acceptable than Cain’s. And Cain was so jealous that he decided to attack his brother and killed him in the field. And so, the first sin became the first murder.
But what I am interested in today is what comes after that. God comes upon Cain and asks him where his brother is. And God knows – knows because the blood of Abel is crying out from the ground itself – what Cain has done.
And God punishes Cain – punishes him with exile, casting him out from the soil that sustained him as a farmer. And then Cain complains about this punishment. “My punishment is greater than I can bear!” he cries. “Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.”
Cain is saying that his punishment will not merely be exile; it will be death. People will seek him out and try to kill him because of what he has done. But think about what that is saying for a moment.
A World Full of People
A simple, straightforward reading of the Book of Genesis would lead you to think that, at this point in the story, there are approximately three human beings on the face of the earth. There is Adam and there is Eve and they have had two sons, one of whom is now dead. That’s it.
But now Cain, the murderer of his brother seems to imagine a world full of people, many of whom are trying to kill him! I know that people often read this story of Cain and note that, at the end of it, Cain suddenly has a wife. They rightfully ask where his wife came from. It also says that he built a city, and a city does not exist without people to live in it. But even before we get to those thorny questions, we have to ask where all of these enemies come from.
A More-Than-Historical Story
All of that suggests to me that perhaps the author of the Book of Genesis is telling something other than a simple historical narrative. He is talking about something a little bigger than just the drama that has consumed one nuclear family. He is making a commentary on the human condition and the problems that have beset us all through the ages. And, because of that, I think we would do well to pay close heed to this story because I suspect that it has some important things to say to us and the challenges that we face as humanity today.
So, with that in mind, who is it that Cain is afraid, in all the great big world, is out to kill him? Is he afraid that the world is full of psychopaths who wander the globe seeking random people to kill for sport? Such people do exist, but they are hardly everywhere. And, even if they were, Cain is certainly no more at risk of such a random attack than anyone else.
So, who is Cain afraid is going to target him for death? I think that the answer to that question would have been obvious to ancient readers. They knew how these things worked. Cain has killed Abel and so it would have been completely expected that someone from Abel’s family or clan would target Cain for death.
And, yes, I know, there is no mention of Abel having a family or clan but, as I said, the author of this story does not seem to be concerned with such details. He is telling a bigger story about what commonly happened in his society when somebody murdered somebody else. And what commonly happened in that world was that justice was meted out by means of family and clan through feud, vengeance and vendetta. That is what Cain is quite justifiably afraid of.
And so, God reassures Cain. And what does God say to set Cain’s heart at ease? God, kind of famously, says this: “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And I know how people have traditionally read that. They have understood God to be promising that, if anyone kills Cain, God will carry out the sevenfold vengeance, presumably by killing seven of that murderer’s people. And, once again, let’s just note how very populated this world seems to be.
But I want you to notice something. I want you to notice that God does not say who is going to take that sevenfold vengeance. God doesn’t say, “I’m going to do it,” just that it’s going to happen. And I would suggest to you that it would have been much more normal, in that world, to expect someone other than God to take that vengeance. The expectation was that the people from Cain’s own family or clan would take that vengeance.
The Chicago Way
There is a famous scene in the 1987 movie, The Untouchables, when Sean Connery, playing an Irish Chicago police officer, who strangely has a Scottish accent, tells Elliot Ness, played by Kevin Costner, how to beat the gangster, Al Capone. “You wanna know how to get Capone?” Connery asks. “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way!”
Well, that’s kind of the same thing that God is saying to Cain in this passage. He’s saying that the only way to prevent violence or murder from happening is to continually increase the level of retaliatory violence. If you always make sure that you hurt the other guy more than they have hurt you, well, that’s what’s going to prevent them from hurting you in the first place. It’s the Chicago way. God is saying that if they kill you, you just have to make sure you put seven of theirs in the morgue.
The Solution to Violence!
And so, there you have it, right? Right from the mouth of God, no less! Here we have the solution to the problem that has plagued humanity from the very beginning – what to do about violence, murder and war. Apparently, so long as you always meet violence with more violence, so long as you live according to the Chicago way, it seems as if the problem is completely solved.
And surely there could be no message better than that to celebrate on this Remembrance Sunday, that we can have the promise of peace so long as we follow the Chicago way.
Except, wait a minute. I can see a few questions percolating in a few brains out there. I think, maybe, some of you are wondering if that can really be the solution to the problem of violence in this world. Because, in many ways, is not all of human history pretty much a story of us trying to solve the problem of violence in the Chicago way? It seems to me that people have actually tried responding to violence with even more violence. I think they’ve tried that a whole lot, and I’m not exactly sure that it has worked, are you? So, is that really the end of the story?
More to the Story
No, it’s not. It’s not even the end of the story in the Book of Genesis. I know that people usually stop reading once Cain is marked and sent into exile, but that’s not the end of his story. That’s why we kept reading this morning. And I want us to note where the story ends up with Cain’s great-great-great-great-grandson, Lamech. I mean, isn’t this a wonderful opportunity to check in on this family and how they’re doing living under the Chicago Way five generations later? So, how are they doing?
We are told very little about Lamech apart from what he says one day to his two wives. But what little he says speaks volumes. “I have killed a man for wounding me,” he says, “A young man for striking me.”
And isn’t that just wonderful? Here we see that Lamech is keeping up the good old-fashioned Cain family tradition of the Chicago way. Somebody just put one of mine in the hospital so I put one of his in the morgue. That’s what he just said.
So, if he’s keeping up the tradition, all must be well, right? Violence must have been banished from the face of the earth. Well, not exactly because Lamech isn’t done.
“If Cain is avenged sevenfold,” he goes on, “Truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” And here we see the real problem with the Chicago way. In five generations we have apparently gone from seven times vengeance to seventy-seven times vengeance. Where once it was enough to put seven of theirs in the morgue, now we are putting seventy-seven of theirs for every one of ours.
And there is the real problem with eternal vengeance. It just keeps spiralling bigger and bigger and more out of control with each new generation. Vengeance is not the solution to violence; it is what makes sure it keeps growing.
So actually, the story of Cain and Abel, far from advocating the Chicago way as the solution to violence, shows us that it leads us further and further down the path of destruction. There has got to be a better way.
A Better Way
And there is. The story of Cain and Abel does not just end five generations later with the sayings of Lamech. There is, in the Bible, an epilogue to the story, but it doesn’t come until millennia later in the Gospel of Matthew. One day, we’re told, Peter came up to Jesus and said, “Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus answered him and said, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)
And I’m sure that you’ll notice that Peter and Jesus refer there to exactly the same numbers that appear in the Book of Genesis – 7 and then 77 times. That kind of thing doesn’t just happen by accident in the Bible. This is meant to connect the two passages and the application is pretty clear.
The story of Cain and Abel tells of violence and vengeance spinning out of control – killing more and more people each succeeding generation. It is the story of how the Chicago way doesn’t solve anything and only makes everything worse. And this passage offers the only possible antidote to that – and the antidote is spiralling mercy and forgiveness. As Sean Connery might put it, “They hurt you one time, you forgive them seventy-seven times.”
And all of this, as we are all too aware, has so many real-world implications for all of us here today. The world is in the midst of a war that could all too easily spin out of control.
I have all the sympathy in the world for the people of Israel – mostly civilians – who were targeted in last month’s Hamas terrorist attack. It was horrific and unconscionable. The impulse to strike back and take a Palestinian life for an Israeli life, a wounding for a wounding is also completely human and quite understandable. But is it the solution? Does it solve the underlying issues and make the possibility of violence go away? I don’t think it can – not even (and this is likely impossible) if you manage to wipe out the entirety of Hamas leadership and infrastructure such as it is.
So, if it isn’t going to solve it, what are you left with? A continual spiral. We have already passed the point when it is seven Palestinian lives for every Israeli life lost. But, despite what God promised to Cain, that won’t end it. And it won’t end it when, five generations and so much blood after this all started, it is seventy-seven lives for every life either.
Where is Hope?
So what are we left with? Where is there hope for the future of the human race? I can only offer the answer of Jesus to Peter – the only thing that can overwhelm spiralling violence is the spiralling power of forgiveness. I don’t offer this as the easier path – it is so much harder to pursue. Nor do I suggest that it is the safer path; it isn’t. It is just, in the long run, the only path and until we find it somehow, we have come no further than Lamech sitting around and boasting to his wives about how many people he has killed for wounding him.