1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
I wrote most of this sermon on Tuesday night, before the Presidential election was decided. And then I looked it over, tweaked it a bit on Wednesday, before the election was decided. And now I’m recording this service on Thursday afternoon, before the election was decided. I don’t know if from the time and place at which you’re watching or hearing this if the election is decided yet or not, but I do know one thing, and I knew it back on Tuesday night when I first wrote this, and I know that it will still be true no matter when or where you hear this, and that one thing is this; we’re all afraid of something.
You may be afraid of change, or you may be afraid that things won’t change after this election. Or maybe you’re not swept up in all that is our political soap opera and you honestly don’t care who wins. But I’m willing to guess that many of the folks who truly don’t care about this election are partially in that state of mind because they’re consumed by something or someone else, something else in your life is making you anxious or afraid. Someone is sick. You don’t know where you’re going to be living or working in a few years. You’re afraid to be alone, afraid to get divorced, afraid that your past will catch up with you. You’re just afraid to die. We’re all afraid of something. It’s part of who we are.
And so we go out in search of a message or a promise that will dissipate or quite or fears. We choose to believe a promise that gives our lives meaning, some security and some direction. And these promises are often ones we make to ourselves, some sort of resolution or promise to change for the better, to take control of our lives once and for all. Or we listen to a promise from a politician or some guru who says, “follow me and I promise that things will get better or that I can save us from this or that.”
We are people who are scared, and that makes us people in need of a promise to hold on to. The only problem is that we are also fundamentally promise breaking people. No politician, no friend, no parent or spouse or man, woman or child has ever fully lived up to the promises they make. We always end up back where we started, as people in need of another resolution, in need of another promise, in need of another savior.
In First Thessalonians, St Paul writes to an anxious group of people who are not only afraid of their own deaths, but they’re also afraid that those who have already died will be forgotten by God. They’re afraid that their world will fall apart, and everything and everyone that they care about will fall by the wayside as well. But Paul reminds them of the power of the promise spoken to us from God; “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 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.” God has promised us resurrection from death. He has promised us absolution from sin. He has promised us that we are his and that we need not be afraid.
In his National Book Award winning novel The Moviegoer, Walker Percy’s protagonist is young man named Binx Bolling. Throughout the story he finds himself on what he calls “the search”, a search for meaning and truth in the world and in his life. And the very first time this idea that there may be more to life than money, or sex or politics or power or just things, the first time it occurred to Binx came back while he was serving in the Korean War. Waking in a ditch, bleeding beneath a chindolea bush with a dung beetle no more than six inches from his nose, Binx promises himself to pursue the search for true meaning his life. Yet, when he returns home safe and sound, he forgets all about his promise. Instead Binx settles back into the suburbs and back into the old rhythms of everyday life.
Binx, like the rest of us, can’t even keep the promise to himself that he is going to pursue the search for a promise to stake his life on. What he needs isn’t another promise to pursue, but instead to hear and believe in the promise that he has already been given. Like the rest of us, Binx is someone who breaks promises, and what he needs is a promise that won’t be broken. He needs a little certainty in his life that can’t be shattered.
In First Thessalonians, we aren’t given another promise. Instead, what we’re reminded of is THE promise of God, the promise of absolution and resurrection. The promise that we are not alone, that our lives are of ultimate value and meaning and purpose, and that we have a future, no matter what, in Christ.
That powerful imagery in our reading of God descending from the clouds with the sounds of trumpets reminds me of something the theologian Karl Barth once said while describing the one-way power of God’s promise descending upon us all:
“God says to us: ‘Since I am the living God who is near and who is one, almighty, holy and merciful, I will be your God. I will care for you. I will carry you in my eternal thoughts…For you I will be your God, for you as you are, ridden with anxiety, worries and frustration, for your sins and for your death, but also for your resurrection from the dead, for your life in time and eternity. I will stand by you, I will take sides with you, I will declare my unconditional solidarity with you, against all odds, against the whole world and all of mankind if need be, in particular against your own self, [I promise to be your God and your salvation]!’”
I think that one of the things we’re all really afraid of is uncertainty. Not just the uncertainty of our election or the future of this country, but much more profoundly what we’re afraid of is the uncertainty of who we are. Are we important, are we loveable, does anyone care about us? Do I have a future? Do I have someone or something to hold on to? Do I even know who I am right now? A painful truth is that we are mysteries to ourselves. When we try to tell ourselves the story of who we are as individuals or as a nation, we elude ourselves, we lie to ourselves and tell ourselves the story we want to hear. This is why Freud rejected the entire genre of the autobiography; how can we tell others the truth about ourselves when we don’t even know ourselves. Perhaps the best person to tell our story or to tell us who we are is the one who created us. We are people in need of a promise, but we’re people who break promises. But the God who created us, redeemed us and sustains us is a God who doesn’t break promises. God knows us, he knows our story and he knows how it will end.
Towards the end of the Moviegoer, Binx Bolling, now firmly on his search for a promise to hold on to, peers out of his window at church. He sees a man walking out with ashes on his forehead. He sees him get in his car and pray over the steering wheel of his old Mercury. Binx questions if this is someone who is just participating in the act of going to church because he’s been told to, or if he’s there at that street corner, hoping and believing that God himself is present there. And then Binx says this, “Or is he here for both reasons; through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate bonus?”
It’s maybe a bit of a stretch, but I think that this is a beautiful and honest depiction of someone searching for a promise and wrestling with the mystery of who we are and who God is. Someone who sees a man possibly going to church for all the wrong reasons, but in the end they still receive the promise in the form of ashes on their forehead, the promise that while we are dust and to dust we shall return, God will resurrect us. In the end what I think Binx is beginning to see is that the power of God’s promise to us, the promise of forgiveness and grace and eternal life, this promise has a power that is active and present in the here and now. Whether you’re in church for the right or wrong reasons, whether you’ve figured out who you truly are or not, whether you voted for the right or the wrong person, if that person ever could truly exist, regardless of everything, God’s powerful promise that you are his and he is yours is a truth that transcends all time and space, all mystery, fear and anxiety. No matter where you are on your journey, no matter where our country is on its, God’s promise is a real one, and it’s a powerful one.
Advent and Christmas are right around the corner, so let’s think of the promise in these words; “To you this day is born a savior!” (Luke 2:11) What does this mean? We are people in need of a savior. Who are we? We are people who have a savior. God’s promise is this; we have a true savior. And it’s not a man with yet another plan. But it’s a baby boy, who became a man and became the sacrifice for your sin and for your very life. This is who you are. This promise is for you. You are God’s and God’s grace is yours. Now and always.