Radical Preaching

Can preaching again have something to say?
This blog marks the attempt to bring the theological vision of Radical Orthodoxy into the worship and preaching of the local church.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Living in the Real World (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11)

Every Friday afternoon in the fall was more or less the same for me. A 2:00 meeting to walk through our assignments and our roles for that evening. Then, a half hour of drilling myself to make sure I knew my responsibilities as well as the other members of my team. Then, it was time to put on the game face. I was not naturally mean, so I had to prepare for what was ahead. I would drink a lot of caffeine, listen to Guns and Roses Welcome to the Jungle, take a handful of Advil, and think about what had to be done. Then, it was time to tighten the straps on my shoulder pads, pump up my helmet, tape up my ankles and shoes. By 7:00, we were bouncing off the walls. There are few things like that experience, to walk out of a steaming hot locker room, and feel the cool air, hear the eruption of the crowd and the sounds of the band. It is like going to battle. Much of football is mental, convincing your opponent that you are bigger, stronger, smarter, and faster than him, so you never let your guard down, you never let fear show on your face. I thought it was the most real experience of my life.

We are obsessed today with reality. We are obsessed with being "real." The most popular shows on television are "reality" shows; however, at root, none of these examples are real. For instance, prior to any football game, there is a great deal of fear. There is a good bit of nervousness about how you will play, whether you will let your team down, whether you will fail. The majority of your time is spent appearing to not be nervous and afraid, when inside your guts toss and turn. It becomes necessary oftentimes to be "real" by presenting an image of someone that you are not, to help you avoid feeling and being revealed as weak and vulnerable. It becomes important to attempt to delude ourselves into believing that the images that we construct are real, even if the consequences are disastrous.

As a fifth grader, we had our own little version of a fight club. Every morning when we were dismissed to the bathroom, all the the fifth grade boys would bunch up, and inevitably the fights would begin. There is a bizarre ritual involved in boy fights, a strange grammar for how these fights are resolved. You see, at heart, both boys are scared to death. They might lose. They might get beaten up. They might be called all kinds of names. Their popularity rides on their performance. Thus, the fight begins with each boy talking and insulting the other one. As the dance continues, it progresses to pushes and increased insults and taunts. Finally, one boy will start the fight by throwing a punch, and then it is on. If both boys were asked separately, most would confess that they had no real desire to fight, but did so just to save face and to maintain a certain image of what it means to be a man. Reality means being willing to throw punches to satisfy an image and not look weak.

In counseling people having marital problems, I have discovered the same problem. To "keep it real" means to always point out the other's faults, to not expose one's own, and to keep the other on the defensive: to not talk, to not share emotions, to not express love in meaningful ways. Often, the more insecure the man, the more often this becomes verbally and physically abusive, as he seeks to overcome his doubts and fears by confirming the image of the strong man and the weak, submissive woman. Reality becomes doing anything to anyone so as not to appear vulnerable.

Nations also do the same thing. There are always deep-seeded fears amongst nations. There is the fear that someone will attack your nation and take what is yours. There is the fear that you will be seen as being weak. To be seen as weak is to become vulnerable to attack or exploitation. Therefore, it is imperative to be strong. The image of strength drives nation's to do almost anything to keep up the illusion of safety and security. The reality of the nations is the desperate quest to appear stronger than all her neighbors, and to do anything to maintain this appearance.

It is exactly to this point that Paul turns in his letter to the church in Thessalonica. The church there is a beachhead community, a mustard seed of faith in a sea of emperor worship. God's gracious love has invaded Thessalonica, and Paul has come to reveal what is truly real and what is truly false. In Chapter 4, Paul draws on the language of a visit by a king (a parousia) to tell the church in Thessalonica about what will happen when King Jesus comes- the dead will be raised, the living wioll be caught up in the air, and all God's faithful children will come to be with Him for all eternity. This is reality. This is the real world, the real kingdom. In today's lesson, Paul reminds the Thessalonian church of this reality as it applies to them as citizens of Christ's kingdom. Facing stiff persecution and tremendous suffering for their faith, the Thessalonian church must have been sorely tempted to turn towards the false reality of the peace that Caesar offered. All it took was a public confession that Caesar was Lord, and one could worship anything privately. The reality of the world would say go ahead and make this confession, and then go to church and worship in peace. However, for Paul, this is not the real world revealed by Christ Jesus, and this will not be the world that will survive in the next world.

Paul tells the Thessalonians, "For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, 'There is peace and security,' then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape." Empires always invest heavily in propaganda. Their chief tool is to flatten the whole world into their realm of control. There are no answers, no questions, no risks, no dangers that the Empire cannot address. She is the guarantee of peace and security. Thus, we must give her our unquestioning allegiance since she is reality, and outside her there is nothing but chaos and danger. Worship me, she says, because only I can deliver peace, safety, security, and prosperity. Paul tells the Thessalonian church that when Jesus comes, His judgment will fall upon this vision of reality like a thief in the night. They will roam the streets proclaiming peace and security, but they will not escape the judgment to come. The reality that there is a God outside YHWH, a peace outside the shalom of Christ will come crashing down. For Paul this is not an opinion, it is reality.

However, there is another reality at work in this passage. Yes, judgment and death will fall upon those who worship the false gods of the nations and adopt their false reality. At the same time, those who belong to Christ belong to a different reality. We are children of the light, children of the day, and our destination is not death and destruction. Contrary to much of what sells in bookstores, the day of the Lord will not fall upon us unawares. We know it is coming and should prepare ourselves for the eventual awesome and awe-filled Day of the Lord, that apocalyptic day when evil, injustice, and unrighteousness are judged and destroyed. Paul tells us that since we know this is the case to not be deceived and fall back into the darkness. Instead, we are called to live as children of the light who are awake and sober.

To be awake means to view the world through the eyes of Christ. In baptism, we put on Christ Jesus. We surrender our lives to take on his life. His reality becomes our own, and Paul calls on us to be awake. To be awake, to keep our eyes open, is a call to active faith. On one hand, as the baptismal covenant suggests, it is to reject Satan and all of his evil works. It is also the call to be like Christ, to see the world through his eyes. Paul tells us that the children of the light put on the breastplate of faith and love, the helmet of the hope of salvation. To be awake means to realize the reality does not come by the false projection of an image of yourself that hides your weaknesses and vulnerabilities. After all, the armor worn by a centurion was a way to encase the weakest parts of the human body and to project an aura of invincibility. The ways of darkness teach us to encase our lives in armor, to wrap ourselves up in chains, fences, and seclusion in order to be safe. Security comes via alienation, fear, and doubt. Not so for the children of the light. Paul tells us that to stay awake means to allow the light to shine upon our vulnerabilities and weaknesses: to show the world just how weak we are, daring even to walk into battle with only the protection of love, faith, and the hope of salvation.

Paul also tells us to remain sober. It takes a certain sobriety to walk into battle secured only by faith, love, and hope. The powerful temptation is to turn away from the reality made visible in Christ Jesus, and to drink again the wine of the Empire. When the fiery darts of the evil one begin to strike, it is very east to be seduced by the lies of false reality and security promised by Caesar. In training to be a Roman soldier, the first thing one had to learn was to remain in the ranks when the fighting began. When enemies were charging, the most natural thing to do is to run away, but to do so meant certain death for you and your neighbor. Instead, soldiers had to be disciplined to stand firm, to tighten their ranks, and to rely upon the man standing to the right and to the left, to the soldier to his front and to his rear. He had to learn to listen for the sounds of the trumpets and drums, and the voice of his commander. He had to believe that this was the the reality that would deliver him to salvation. In the midst of the battle, to be sober meant to take very seriously one's training and to not be seduced into the drunkenness of fear that will allow to do incredibly stupid and risky things.

Paul calls upon the children of light to likewise be sober. It is not enough to be awake. The church must also be actively sober. We must train ourselves through the practices of our faith to not become drunk on the false promises of salvation offered by the empire. Instead, we must learn that true reality is to walk into life's battles together, covered in the breastplate of faith and love, and wearing the helmet of the hope of salvation. It is to realize that our lives are bound up together, that we must build one another up, rely on one another, and trust one another. As armies train to know how to withstand the battle, so too must the church train together. The early church declared, "The rule of faith is the rule of prayer." In other words, to be awake and remain sober means to pray, to worship, to love others as ourselves, to build up the body, to show compassion to the weak and downtrodden, to extend hospitality to all people. Strange is the army that goes into battle without the appearance of invulnerability, without the glint of steel and the bright shining armor reflecting the noonday sun. Even stranger is an army that will receive even the weakest and sickest into her ranks. Imagine an army of prostitutes and accountants, of thieves and fishermen, of old women and foolish men. The reality of Caesar is that this is nothing. The reality of Christ is that this is His body.

During the Bolshevik years of the Soviet Union, there was an active attempt to destroy Christianity. Stalin sought to replace the imagery of baby Jesus with baby Lenin, and the image of the powerful God of the Old Testament with his own image as Father Joseph. Churches were dynamited. Priests were killed. Yet never could the Soviets for all their power and willingness to kill and destroy able to prevent the grandmothers from coming to church to pray. They would meet anywhere. Many went even to Siberia's brutal gulags. Here was an army of elderly women who knew reality. Here was an army that was awake and sober, clothed in the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of salvation.

The question for us today is to hear what is at the heart of what Paul is saying. In an age when the church has been seduced to believe that our salvation is protected by the military, by power politics, by blind faith in the nation-state, can we realize that right now we are doing the one "real" thing in all the world? Can we realize that our strength will not save us, but that worship, prayer, and faithful living will form us into a mighty army of God? Do we believe that salvation could possibly come not on the tip of a 30,000 lb. daisy cutter bomb, but in a manger in a barn in Bethlehem, and on a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem? Can we believe that by continuing to do what we already do- faithfully and over time- that we will help God bring salvation to the world. That reality is frightening and awesome. It is also the reality of Christ Jesus.


Blogger Pontificator said...

Excellent. Thank you.

November 13, 2005 8:54 AM  
Blogger Eric Lee said...

Thanks for posting this. It was rather good. I just got around to catching up on some of my reading.



November 21, 2005 2:57 PM  
Blogger Secret Rapture said...

My Inaugural Address at the Great White Throne Judgment of the Dead, after I have raptured out billions!

At: http://www.angelfire.com/crazy/spaceman/

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December 03, 2005 2:57 AM  

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