Living With Uncertainty
(2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38)
Two of the scripture passages today – from the Second Letter to the Thessalonians and the Gospel According to Luke – have to do with parts of the Christian faith for which we don’t have all the answers. The Second Letter to the Thessalonians passage is about the second coming of Jesus, and the Gospel According to Luke passage is about the resurrection of the dead.
In the Second Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul is responding to the anxiety of the Thessalonian Christians. The Thessalonian Christians are shaken up – or, translated more literally, shaken out of mind – because someone has told them that the day of the Lord is already at hand and that Jesus has already come again. I can imagine that they were wondering why they weren’t gathered to him when he came. If the day of the Lord is here and Jesus has come again, what are they doing at church? Shouldn’t they be with him?
As you know, Paul was an apostle. He traveled throughout the known world, preached the gospel, and established churches. Once he established a church and it was up and running, he would move on, leaving that church to develop without him there to manage or control the development. Often, the members of the church would come to believe something that wasn’t in line with what Paul had taught them. Paul would hear about this different belief and then write to the church about it. That was what he was doing in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians. He was responding to their anxiety about the second coming of Jesus. The Thessalonian Christians were living with the anxiety that attends uncertainty.
In the passage from the Gospel According to Luke, Jesus is being questioned by the Sadducees, who are identified as “those who say there is no resurrection” (20:27). The Sadducees are trying to make Jesus look foolish by presenting him with an absurd scenario about marriage. Instead, the Sadducees are made to look foolish and are revealed as not being worthy of the age of resurrection because they so clearly think as those who belong to the current age. In his response to the Sadducees, Jesus gives a mini-lesson on the resurrection of the dead and what life is like in the age of the resurrection. His main point is that we cannot imagine what life after resurrection is like because resurrection is about transformation, and transformation means things aren’t like they are now. We simply cannot know what it will be like because we are limited by what we know now, and what we know now is not what it will be like!
Both the second coming of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead are parts of the Christian faith for which we don’t have all the answers. We simply don’t know when the day of the Lord will come, nor do we know what life will be like in the resurrection. In our faith life, we live with uncertainty in these areas. That’s just the way it is.
So, how do we live faithfully in the midst of uncertainty? In the Second Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul brings the Thessalonian Christians back to basics. He reminds them about their relationship to God. God has chosen them “as the first fruits for salvation through the sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth” (2:13). They can trust their relationship to God and stand firm in what they were taught by Paul and the other apostles. They can trust their relationship to Jesus Christ, too. God – as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer – loves them and through grace gave them eternal comfort and good hope. Don’t worry about the uncertainties. Remember what you were taught and continue to live faithfully. You’re going to hear all sorts of theories about the second coming of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead. Some of them will be comforting and some of them will be disturbing. But don’t let those theories shake you out of your minds because that’s all they are: theories! No one knows for sure when Jesus will come again or what the resurrection of the dead will be like. So don’t worry about what you hear. Just keep walking the walk and talking the talk and all else will take care of itself. Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all else will be given unto you as well (Mt 6:33). Keep your lamps trimmed and burning (Mt 25:1-13). Be a watchful and faithful servant (Lk 12:35-48). Just keep walking the walk and talking the talk.
Paul’s counsel to the Thessalonian Christians about the second coming of Jesus and life after the resurrection is sound. When we feel shaken out of our minds by something – whether that thing is part of our Christian faith, like the second coming and the resurrection; or whether that thing is part of our daily living like our job or our health; or whether that thing is part of our world, like all of the crises currently taking place in our world, we need to go back to basics: Who is God? What is our relationship to God? Psalm 145, which we read together today, states, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all the he has made. . . . The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds. The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down. . . . The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings. The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. . . . The Lord watches over all who love him” (8-9, 13b-14, 17-18, 20a).
Whatever it is that makes us anxious with the kind of anxiety that shakes us out of our mind, we are to let it go and give it to God. We are to trust that God is alive and well and active in our lives and our worlds. The best thing somebody said to me when I was going through an uncertain and anxious time was, “Even now, God is working to bless your life.” When we’re in those uncertain and anxious times, we have to remember that, even now, God is working to bless our lives and our world. Even when we don’t see evidence of the work he is doing, God is doing the work God does.
In the course I teach at Southern CT State University, I use a book titled, This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women. The book is a compilation of essays that contain belief statements written by both famous and regular people. The belief statements were first written for a radio series hosted by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s. The series was brought back in 2005 for an NPR radio segment.
The first essay I have my students read was written by Josh Rittenburg when he was 16 years old. Josh writes:
“I'm 16. On a recent night, while I was busy thinking about important social issues, like what to do over the weekend and who to do it with, I overheard my parents talking about my future. My dad was upset — not the usual stuff that he and Mom and, I guess, a lot of parents worry about, like which college I'm going to, how far away it is from home and how much it's going to cost. Instead, he was upset about the world his generation is turning over to mine — a world he fears has a dark and difficult future, if it has a future at all.
[My dad] sounded like this: "There will be a pandemic that kills millions, a devastating energy crisis, a horrible worldwide depression and a nuclear explosion set off in anger."
Imagine being 16 years old and hearing your parents talk about the awful world you are inheriting. I can imagine that this would be a scary thing to hear. Josh could have gotten completely freaked out and had an anxiety attack. He could have gone into a deep depression. He could have gotten into bed and pulled the covers over his head in an attempt to bury his head in the sand. But he did none of those things.
Instead, Josh looks at some old family photos. Josh writes:
“As I lay on the living room couch, eavesdropping on their conversation, starting to worry about the future my father was describing, I found myself looking at some old family photos. There was a picture of my grandfather in his Citadel uniform. He was a member of the class of 1942, the war class. Next to his picture were photos of my great-grandparents, Ellis Island immigrants.”
Seeing the old photographs helped Josh. The photos reminded him that his great-grandparents and grandparents had inherited an awful world, too. They had inherited two world wars, a killer flu, segregation, and the nuclear bomb. But they had also inherited a wonderful world. In their lifetimes, they saw the end of two world wars, the development of a polio vaccine, and the passage of the civil rights laws. Josh goes on to write, “They even saw the Red Sox win the World Series — twice.” Now that’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?!
Josh puts two and two together and realizes that his generation will experience the same thing his great-grandparents and grandparents experienced:
“I believe that my generation will see better things, too — that we will witness the time when AIDS is cured and cancer is defeated; when the Middle East will find peace and Africa grain, and the Cubs win the World Series — probably only once. I will see things as inconceivable to me today as a moon shot was to my grandfather when he was 16, or the Internet to my father when he was 16.”
Josh concludes his essay with this:
“Ever since I was a little kid, whenever I've had a lousy day, my dad would put his arm around me and promise me that ‘tomorrow will be a better day.’ I challenged my father once, ‘How do you know that?’ He said, ‘I just do.’ I believed him. My great-grandparents believed that, and my grandparents, and so do I.
As I listened to my dad talking that night, so worried about what the future holds for me and my generation, I wanted to put my arm around him, and tell him what he always told me: ‘Don't worry dad, tomorrow will be a better day.’ This, I believe.”
Life is life is life. Whether we live when Jesus lived, or during the Middle Ages, or during the Renaissance, or during the Protestant Reformation, or during the Industrial Age, or during the Victorian Age, or during the 20th Century, or now, at the beginning of the 21st Century, the world we inherit and inhabit is both awful and wonderful. Whenever we live, while we live, we will be faced with things that will be awful. Some of us won’t survive those awful things, but many of us will. We will also see things that will be wonderful. Some of us will survive the awful things because of the wonderful things that will come to be! Life is life is life: the awful and the wonderful all mixed up together.
Josh had the right idea: He decided to have faith. “Tomorrow will be a better day,” he said to himself. “Tomorrow will be a better day, because there will be solutions to the current problems that I cannot even imagine. Tomorrow will be a better day, because wonderful things will come to be that I cannot even imagine. Tomorrow will be a better day, and maybe even I will be a part of why in ways that I cannot even imagine. Yes, tomorrow will be a better day, in ways that I cannot even imagine!”
Paul wrote a similar sentiment to the Ephesian Christians when he wrote, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph. 3:20).
We are Christians. We worship the God of Jesus Christ. We are disciples of the Messiah who conquered all the powers of darkness, even death. Death is not our enemy, for it has no ultimate power over us. The only enemy who continues to have power over us is ourselves. Only we, ourselves, have the power to turn away from the will and the way of God. No enemy outside of us can do that to us; only we can do that to ourselves. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing, as long as we don’t separate ourselves. As long as we remain faithful disciples, all is well.
As I was writing this sermon, an old hymn came to mind. It goes like this: “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul. It is well with my soul, It is well, it is well with my soul.” And it is. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, on Sunday, November 22, 2015, the Twenty-sixth Sunday After Pentecost.
 Allison, Jay, and Dan Gediman. Holt Paperbacks, 2007.
Image is from the blog, Faith is Evident, authored by Tom Crawford.