Unsure of the outcome of the election and unsure of what to say in any case, I turned to the lectionary for guidance on what to preach about today. The lectionary is a list of carefully chosen texts that guides many preachers week after week. I find its chief value is that it keeps you on track with the progress of the Christian year.
The start of the season of Advent is still several weeks away, but this is very much an Advent text because it speaks of the coming, or advent, of Jesus. Specifically, it speaks of the Parousia of Jesus, what we often call the Second Coming of Jesus.
It’s significant that this is one of the earliest writings in the New Testament. Paul first writes to the church at Thessalonica somewhere around the year 50, or only about 20 years after the death of Jesus. Expectation is high that Jesus will return any day, and believers in this Greek port city have a concern.
Some of their loved ones have died since giving their hearts to Jesus. Does this mean they’ll miss out when Jesus returns? Because they have died before Jesus returns, will they miss the benefits of resurrection life that he brings with him on his return?
Paul writes to reassure them about their hope for eternal life. He doesn’t want them to grieve like those who have no hope. You have great hope, he says. You need to understand that when Jesus returns, he’ll bring with him all who have died trusting in him.
I’m not just making this up, Paul is quick to say. This is an authoritative teaching. This is “a message from the Lord.” How Paul received this message, he doesn’t say. But he’s confident to say that it comes from Jesus.
He’s also confident that he’ll be around to see it. He speaks of “we who are alive and still around at the Lord’s coming.” Paul is sure he’ll be alive to witness this Second Coming.
This is how it will happen, he says. The Lord will descend from heaven with a shout from God’s top-ranking angel and a blast from God’s trumpet. Those who have died in Christ will rise from the dead. We who are living will be taken up with them into the clouds to meet with the Lord in the air. Thereafter we will always be with him.
Knowing that this Advent is truly coming, we should not only feel encouraged as individuals, Paul says, but we should actively encourage one another. These are encouraging words, but they are easily misinterpreted, and they have been frequently and greatly misinterpreted, especially in the last 200 years.
Note, first, that this passage is not about anybody going to heaven. This is about heaven coming down to us on earth. This is about Jesus returning to earth and bringing heaven with him.
In other words, this is no Rapture. The Rapture is a purely fictional event in which believers are secretly zapped up to heaven so they’ll escape some coming tribulation. Note that Paul speaks of no coming tribulation and no zapping up to heaven. What he says is that when Jesus comes down from heaven, we will meet him and be with him forever.
That’s why we call it the Second Coming. It’s the second time he comes to earth. But he doesn’t take people back to heaven with him. He stays on earth, as Emmanuel, God with us, forever.
The Rapture, the notion that we’re zapped up to heaven secretly, is a story that was cut from the whole cloth in 1830 by a one-time Anglican priest named John Nelson Darby. His teachings are followed today in Dispensationalist, or “Left Behind” teachings. Sadly, those teachings have infected a lot of otherwise sound minds.
Funny thing about this “secret” Rapture. If there’s a shout from God’s top-ranking angel and a blast from God’s trumpet, how can anyone miss that? How can anyone sleep through all that noise? There can be no bumper sticker saying, “In case of Rapture, wake me up.” The noise of Jesus’ return will be tremendous. You won’t be sleeping throuogh it.
This passage offers no notion of anyone leaving or anyone being left behind. What we have here is a very loud and hard-to-miss event that Paul describes as a Parousia. What’s a Parousia? In first-century thinking, it’s the celebration that happens when the emperor or a king or some other high authority comes to town.
The king arrives in a colorful parade, with an impressive entourage. He rides a magnificent white horse or maybe a chariot pulled by four magnificent white horses. Trumpets blare and soldiers march in precision formation. The whole city goes out to view the spectacle and to cheer and welcome the king, then follow him into the heart of the city for a big party.
That’s the kind of thing Paul envisions, only he stages it in the clouds. When Jesus returns, he says, we’ll all go out to meet him and welcome him home to stay. You don’t have to take Paul’s imagery literally to understand or accept what he’s saying. It will be a celebration like no other.
Talk of meeting Jesus “in the clouds” is familiar picture language. Throughout the Old Testament, when God makes a spectacular appearance similar to what happens in this scene, God does not ride a two-wheeled chariot pulled by horses, or anything like it. God rides the clouds.
During his mock “trial” before the religious authorities, when the high priest asks Jesus if he is the Messiah, Jesus answers, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62-62).
Again, it’s stereotyped language not meant to be taken literally. It’s unlikely that the high priest ever did see Jesus seated at the right hand of God or coming with the clouds. But he understands perfectly well what Jesus means by saying that he will, and he is outraged. God rides the clouds. Here humans don’t.
In fact, Paul got the timing all wrong. He was sure Jesus would return in his lifetime. It didn’t happen, at least in the way Paul thought about. Jesus is with us today, not in physical form but in a form that Paul knew about, the form of the Holy Spirit. Read Acts chapter 2 for the story of the Spirit’s Parousia at Pentecost. There were plenty of wind and fire pyrotechnics on that day to announce the Lord’s coming.
In many ways, we are like those believers in the church at Thessalonica. We believe Jesus is coming someday. We are encouraged by Paul’s assurances that it will be a great event. But we have no clue as to when it will happen, and we’re really not too sure what will happen when it does.
Sure, lots of people say they know when it’s going to happen, and they’re mistaken. Lots of people also say they know precisely what’s coming next, and they’re most likely mistaken, too.
In physics there’s something called an event horizon. When you approach a black hole in space, you near a horizon that once you cross, there’s no going back. Beyond this horizon is nothing. There are no more events. Beyond this point, everything gets sucked into the black hole. Even light disappears.
Many people think that death is an event horizon, beyond which there is nothing. Believers in Christ, though, know that the horizon of death is like any other horizon we are familiar with.
When you watch a ship sail out to sea, it gets smaller and smaller and then, in an instant, it pops over the rim and disappears. It’s still there, but you can’t see it anymore. Same thing with a sharp corner in a forest or the mountains. When a car goes around the corner, you can’t see it anymore. It’s still there. It’s just gone around the corner. Same thing when a door closes, or you just can’t see beyond it for some reason. Death is not the end. There is an event beyond the horizon of death. We just can’t see it from here.
Heaven isn’t the end, either. Heaven is the abode of God. It’s where God “lives,” to use language that’s very misleading because God actually “lives” everywhere, not just in one place.
Heaven may be where we go immediately or shortly after death, but it’s not our final destination. Our final destination is resurrection life. That’s life after we are resurrected – after we are raised from our graves, as Paul describes in this passage.
After Jesus returns, we’ll be with him forever, here on earth – or, as the book of Revelation says, on a transformed earth. We can’t imagine what such life would be like, and I think that’s just fine. Our imaginations are often outrageous but altogether too limited when it comes to such things.
As Paul says in Ephesians 3:20, God is “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Whatever you can ask or imagine, it’s not good enough. Whatever you can ask or imagine, God can do better. Whatever you can ask or imagine, God will do better.
So don’t worry about when it’s going to happen. Jesus will return in God’s own good time, and God doesn’t need you to waste time and effort speculating on when it’s going to happen. Just know that it will happen. When you approach that horizon called death, know that there is something beyond. And one day Jesus will return across that horizon, riding the clouds in triumph. We will all hail his return, and we will be with him forever and ever.
This message was delivered November 8, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.