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It's The End Of the World As We Know It - And I Have Hope!

In the fall, I preached for the first time at an actual church, with a hundred listeners, a microphone, and fancy robes. 

Of course, the passages I was assigned to tackle (I had my choice of 3) were all about the end of the world as we know it. Not generally a popular topic, certainly a controversial one, and quite honestly, a rather stressful one for me on the occasion of my first sermon. 

Two months later, I feel okay about it... I have a tiny bit of experience under my belt, a whole lot of encouragement from my community, and a renewed sense of my love for discussing the big ideas and questions of life. 

So I wanted to share this sermon (and maybe some of the others I've given since) with you all. 

If you are not a church person and you're still reading, first of all - I commend you. And secondly, I'd particularly love to hear your thoughts! I know there can be a lot of church-speak, and strange ideas, but I am keen to make the strangeness of the Christian faith as accessible as possible. And I love it when my conversations push me to unpack and rethink the beliefs I hold (so long as it's all done in kindness). 

I'm also happy to hear from the church peeps - I'm a believer in the sermon being a jumping point for ongoing conversation and learning, not an end in itself. And God knows, I am by no means a perfect theologian or preacher. Let's talk! 


(this sermon is taking a deeper look at 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, which you can read here, if you like!)



Planet of the Apes. Armageddon. 28 Days Later. Snowpiercer. Matrix. These movies are among the most well-known in apocalyptic films - yes, there is an entire genre of movies devoted to possible ends for life as we know it on earth. It’s such a popular area of speculation that a few years ago, Disney made an entirely child-friendly film about a robot romance in the vast junkyard of earth, 700 years after it was abandoned by humanity. 


It isn’t only Hollywood that ruminates on the great shifts ahead of us. The “last days” and “end of time” have been considered by religions and philosophers around the globe and throughout the ages. Christianity is no exception. Some church communities and biblical scholars devote themselves to understanding precisely what is going to happen and when. 


Which is an understandable choice! In numerous places, our Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, the writings of the early church and those of the Jewish prophets, speak of the “end” in rather cryptic and sometimes alarming ways. Christianity has a rich heritage of apocalyptic writings. Our Scriptures are a collection of multiple literary genres: poetry, history, epistles, and apocalyptic literature. And like any genre of writing, it has its own “rules”, forms, symbols, and re-occurring themes However, many of us read apocalyptic passages the same way that we read historical ones; when we do this, the strange imagery and strong language can confuse or provoke fear, and we feel compelled to piece together whatever clues we seem to have been given. 


Or, if you’re like me, all the opinions and possibilities and tidings of woe cause you to shy away from thinking about it at all, let alone discussing it on a Sunday morning! If I’m perfectly honest, when I sat down to select which of this week’s readings I would preach on, I started with Matthew, read it, and thought, “Nope. Let’s find an easier topic.” Then I read the Epistle, and thought, “Not much better. Maybe I’ll preach from the Old Testament…” So I turned to Zephaniah. And it finally struck me that there was no easier topic to be had for me. 

As many of you know, I am relatively new to Anglican circles, and am still learning about our rhythms of worship, including the liturgical calendar and its seasons. Advent is nearly upon us, but before we begin a new year, we are approaching the Reign of Christ the King, which is the last Sunday before Advent begins. It is a time of looking ahead to the future hope we have placed in Jesus. Yes, hope. Because as we look forward, as we consider “the end” of life as we know it, we are not to be people of fear, but people of hope. 


And this is precisely how I want us to enter into today’s texts, particularly Paul’s Epistle to the Thessalonians. Let us hear again his last statement in our passage this morning, from the 11th verse of the 5th chapter - “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” Paul is asserting that the words he has just shared should leave the Thessalonians encouraging one another. How is this possible? How is it that talk of the Day of the Lord can fill their hearts (and ours) with hope? 


Christ’s return is a foundational belief in the Christian church. Each week, we affirm it as a sure-but-unrealized reality in the heart of the Eucharistic prayer, when we proclaim the mystery of the faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. 


And in the Nicene Creed: He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. 


These truths have been taught since the very first days of the Christian faith. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is believed to be the earliest New Testament content that we have, and we see these fundamentals affirmed in every chapter. They are woven together throughout the letter, and today’s reading is the second half of a section in which Paul particularly addresses questions and concerns in the community surrounding Jesus’ return. Questions and concerns that echo in our own community, our own hearts. Questions like, Will Jesus really return? Why will he return? Does it matter that he is returning? How do I prepare for it? And when will it happen? 


The answer to that last question is plainly spelled out for us by Paul: we do not know. And we cannot know. Christ’s return will happen unexpectedly, like a thief doesn’t call ahead to tell you when they’ll be breaking in, like a baby doesn’t let you plan the precise timing of their birth - at least, not apart from the wonders of modern medicine! God cannot be controlled or pinned down, and his return is the same. 


If that’s the case, we might ask, what is the point of preaching about Jesus’ return? Why talk about it at all? That, I think, is an important question. We do not know when the end of time as we know it will happen, and we do not know exactly what it will look like, but this is what we can affirm: the same Jesus who lived a life of mercy, compassion, truth-speaking, humility, and love – who died and rose again – is coming back. He will reign as King, all his promises will be fulfilled, and it will be on earth just as it is in heaven. This is good news! This is what we long for. What we hope for. We preach about Christ’s return, because the truth about our future changes how we live now. 


Our eschatology, that is, our beliefs about Christ’s return and what it means for us, is intimately tied in with our identity. And our ethics, our choices about right and wrong, morality and righteousness, flow out of our identity. Our ethics are the embodiment, the lived practices, of our identity. 

In this passage from Thessalonians, our identity is “children of light and children of the day.” We belong to the day - the day of the Lord, and the light of his goodness. Paul contrasts those in the light with those acting in secret, hiding their behaviour because they know it is shameful. 


But we belong to the light. We are people of faith and love. We wear the helmet of the hope of salvation, a Greek word tied to the verb “to heal”. Christ’s return does not mean that we live in fear of our wrongdoings being exposed. It means the fulfilment of our salvation, an utterly holistic healing of all that is broken within us. It means that we will live with Jesus! 


This is our identity, as those who are in Christ. As we are in relationship with Jesus, we seek to follow him in the light, moving towards the fulfilment of his reign as King, and our being-made-whole in Him. 

So what does that mean for our ethics? How do we live as people of hope? 


Paul’s answer is, essentially, “Keep doing what you are doing.” Encourage one another. Build one another up. Live kingdom-lives. While Christ’s reign is not-yet fully realized, the inaugaration has happened, and we live under his rule. We live out of this reality, this identity. 


Earlier in the letter, Paul praises the Thessalonians because they “became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia...not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere” (1:7-8) - this church was known in their community, and beyond, for their acceptance of a new identity in Christ, and for living into this identity. 


What about here, at St. Cuthbert’s? How do we live in the hope of Christ’s return? Where do we see kingdom-living taking root? A phrase I have heard more than once in the past few months is ‘Living our thanksgiving.” What does that look like for us? For you? 


I have seen it in the welcome I’ve experienced here, the many of you who have made sure to introduce yourselves, who have spoken with me, asked me about my life, shared pieces of your stories. You’ve welcomed me, a stranger, into your midst to serve and to lead. 


I see it often at coffee hour, in snippets of conversation that I overhear. In the car rides offered to those unable to drive themselves. In the inclusion of youth and children in worship, participating in the liturgy with eagerness. 


I see it in the way this space is offered to the community, as new bridges are being built with our neighbours in the residences of 1435 Bayview, and as we come alongside those who serve Moorelands Camp and the Flemingdon Park Ministries. 


This is kingdom-living! This is life that flows from our identity, that springs from who we are in Christ, who we are in light of Christ’s death, resurrection, and coming return. We need not fear! We live in faith, we live in love, and we live with the Holy Spirit among us as a seal, the promise of our future hope. 


And so it is that we proclaim each week with joy, and with hope: 
Christ has died. 
Christ has risen. 
Christ will come again. 


Amen.


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