Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"A peace no thief can steal"

November 14, 1999 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon  1 Thessalonians 5:1-11Matthew 25:14-30

            My mother was the youngest of four children growing up in Vermont. Her parents intended to help all four go to college. Aunt Jean and Uncle Pete made it through with no problem, but then something got in the way of Oscar and Esther Peterson’s plans for their children. The stock market crashed. It became hard enough just to make ends meet. There wasn’t enough money to think about helping the younger two children through college. Times were rough. Some of you can remember what it was like, for you lived through it.

            This summer I enjoyed Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation. It’s a collection of personal vignettes of individuals who came of age during the Great Depression, who then went on to face the potential ending of the world as they knew it, when fascism threatened to engulf the globe. As Brokaw looked at the generation of his and my parents, he saw greatness of character, forged in what must have felt somewhat like "apocalyptic" times. Indeed, hard times often have the effect of making us stronger, even as they threaten to tear us apart.

            Now, it may seem strange to start out a sermon based on a forward looking scripture by talking about the past, but there’s a reason. While there is great prosperity abroad in our land, with a stock market that seems to go up and up, there is also a general sense of dis-ease with the times. People don’t feel all that secure. Add to that the fact that in a month and a half our calendars will flip over to the year 2000, and most folks aren’t all that sure whether to whoop and holler or be just a bit anxious.

            Now, if you’re like most of us, you’re sick and tired of hearing all about this "Y2K" stuff. Am I right? A touch of caution is in order as the world’s computers flip over from ‘99 to ‘00, and we hope that ‘00 means 2000 and not 1900. It’s important to remember, though, that life goes on, as it always does - even in the worst of times. Wasn’t that true during the Depression of the 1930's? Some of you know that much better than I. While we might not choose tribulation, it’s possible to survive. Not only that, but often we come through our struggles stronger than we were before they arrived on our doorstep. That’s a perspective we all need, don’t we?

            However, the perspective that helps us the most in facing into whatever troubles may come our way is not a backward glance. I doubt if those whom Tom Brokaw called "the greatest generation" made it from 1929 to 1945 by facing backward. There were a lot of risks along the way, some of which were pretty big ones, with awesome consequences. Backward leaps just don’t get you across such a chasm, do they?

            As we approach the second millennium, there are a lot of people looking back. All the time I hear folks talking about how bad things have gotten - especially in the area of morality. And, y’know, I have to agree. Even in the short time I’ve been around I’ve seen big changes. It seems like our society keeps pressing the envelope of what is acceptable. Having said that, however, the historian in me also knows that we’ve been here before many, many times. We just forget the bigger picture of the past. We sugarcoat it with the flavor of "nostalgia," ignoring the corruption and immorality that have always been around, even in this great country of ours.

            We also forget the bigger picture of the future. That’s what the apostle Paul, and his co-workers Silvanus and Timothy were trying to lift up in their letters to the believers in Thessalonika long ago. In the section just before the part that Esther read, Paul and his cohorts wrote some words I speak every time we gather at the grave side of a departed loved one. "We don’t want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as those who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died." (4:13-14)

            These were forward looking words, in answer to questions about the hope proclaimed by the early church, the hope that Jesus would return in their lifetime and usher in the kingdom of God. What happens, many wondered back then, to those who die before it all takes place? They wouldn’t be among the living when Jesus returned. Would they then be lost? A loud and clear "NO" was the answer of this letter. Why? Because when the day comes for the new to replace the old, those who have died with their eyes focused upon God’s future will be gathered by Christ together with the living - they will rise from the grave. Together, it says in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, we will be caught up into God’s tomorrow, to be with the Lord forever.

            That phrase "caught up in the clouds," sometimes called the "rapture," is intended to open up the imagination of the faithful, not to close it. A closed heart and mind cannot face into discouraging times with boldness, willing to take risks for God. The prayer-full imagination is set on fire by faith that the future is not a closed book, that the powers-that-be do not have the last word on what is to happen, that we are not powerless in the face of somebody else’s choices.

            By the way, let me remind you that those computer programmers who didn’t have the foresight many years ago to use four digits instead of two when calculating the year - they and their heirs are not in control of the universe. Their mistakes are not the final word. Neither are their successes. Bill Gates may be the richest man alive, but his empire will one day collapse. That and much, much more is what this teaching is about. It’s not about closing the book and trying to calculate when the end of the world will come.

            If that were the case, Paul and his friends would not have then written, "now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night." (5:1-2) What an interesting way of describing the coming of God’s kingdom! These images don’t seem to fit together - the day of the Lord and a thief in the night. The latter is precisely what we don’t like about our present age. Of course, it all depends upon how you look at things.

            Take those three servants in Jesus parable that we acted out with the children earlier. Their master went away on a trip and extravagantly entrusted them with great wealth. Two of them took some risks and came out better for it. The third servant saw something different than they, apparently, when he looked at his master. He literally expected a thief in the night, a malicious master who would take away whatever gain was achieved, and so that servant didn’t take any risks. He just dug a hole and sat on his talents. You know what? He got the master he expected. He imagined a bad guy, and that’s what his master turned out to be for him.

            Of course, the day of the master’s return was the same day for all three. None of them knew when that day would come. But it did arrive. Were these other two servants expecting the same kind of master? Jesus didn’t really say. But they must have had a different vision, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to risk like they did. I mean, think about it. Can you imagine being given, in one fell swoop, anywhere from 3 to 15 times your yearly salary of someone else’s money to invest for them, with no real experience on your part? Stepping out by trial and error to do so would involve a great deal of trust - trusting in someone who trusts you, in spite of your faults. The real question behind the parable is - do we trust God enough to risk everything we’ve been given?

            Can one trust a thief in the night? Well, if that’s how you see God, no. Of course, I know it says "the day of the Lord" will come like a thief in the night. It doesn’t say the Lord is a thief. But isn’t that the whole point? We don’t know when the day will come when things change. We can read some of the signs of the times, but God’s transformation of the old into the new will come as a surprise for everyone, us included. Still, we know the One who is coming, and we trust he is a Savior not a thief, a loving Lord not a harsh master, someone who scatters his seed extravagantly upon the land not someone who reaps what he doesn’t sow.

            The way some people are preparing for the millennium, even some Christians, you’d think they expect a thief. They’re stockpiling like crazy. Scripture doesn’t tell us to do that, does it? It doesn’t say grab your guns and head for the hills. When the Bible speaks of being ready, it means having your life in order. It means knowing who you are and, more importantly, whose you are. It means trusting fully, all or nothing, in the One who is a Savior, not a thief. It means living through the troubles that come with a true faith and a sure hope that God will provide a way through them into the promised land. Furthermore, it involves putting your own "sweat equity" into the effort, believing that it’s worth the risk. Living with such a faith gets us through whatever tribulation we face in life, even if it’s not the last day...

            Eugene Peterson prefaced his creative translation of 1 & 2 Thessalonians with these words: "The way we conceive the future sculpts the present, gives contour and tone to nearly every action and thought through the day... The Christian faith has always been characterized by a strong and focused sense of future, with belief in the Second Coming of Jesus as the most distinctive detail... The practical effect of this belief is to charge each moment of the present with hope. For if the future is dominated by the coming again of Jesus, there is little room left on the screen for projecting our anxieties and fantasies. We’re far more free to respond spontaneously to the freedom of God." (The Message, Navpress, 1993, p.428)

            You know what happened to my mother and her next older brother? It was tough, yes. But they both made it to college and beyond. It may not have been in the more expensive schools that their older siblings had attended, and their parents may not have been able to help much, financially. Even so, they both graduated. Mom even went on to get her Master’s degree, and for a while taught at a college in New York. Along the way, she followed her brother to Purdue University in Indiana, and there she met a Midwest farm boy who one day became my father.

            "Thy kingdom come" ... "Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil." This we pray in trust, and that trust fills us with a peace that no thief can steal.

online resources for Thessalonians and Matthew texts.

For commentaries consulted, see Matthew and Thessalonias

(para traducir a español, presione la bandera de España)



©1999Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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