Sermon: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
The Lord be with you.
There is a kind of Christianity that is very world-denying. An old gospel song represents this way of looking at the world:
This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
This kind of Christianity is “other-worldly” — seeing this life and this world as only some kind of necessary and often burdensome preparation for life in a glorious heaven somewhere — kind of like a grueling practice before the real game. And it is often linked with certain views about prophecy and the end of the world. There is a fascination with the second coming and the signs of the times and the events of the end times. Ordinary life in this world pales in comparison with the thrill of imagining all the spectacular and supernatural ways they believe God is going to intervene in this world at the end.
Throughout church history, groups have taken this way of thinking to extremes. One such group was known as the Millerites. A preacher named William Miller in New York state attracted a large following by preaching that Christ was coming back soon. In the early 1840s he preached at hundreds of tent meetings across America and predicted that Jesus would come back between the spring of 1843 and the spring of 1844. Other people began to study the Bible and came up with more precise dates, and large numbers of folks took these prophecies seriously and began to prepare for the end.
The date of October 22, 1844, was eventually understood as the day when Christ would return and the faithful would ascend to heaven. Devoted Millerites stopped working to get ready for the coming event and began selling or giving away their worldly possessions. They even donned white robes as they prepared to ascend to heaven.
Guess what? It didn’t happen, did it? The world went on, life went on, and the Millerites’ other-worldly hopes were dashed.
When we moved from Vermont to Waukegan, Illinois so that I could attend seminary, we were close to a town called Zion, Illinois. The name ought to give you a clue about its history. We visited a church called the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church, but only later learned about the city and the church’s background.
The church was directly in the center of town, and all the streets around it, which went north and south or east and west, were named after biblical characters and were organized in alphabetical order. It was like the tabernacle in the Old Testament, where all the tribes were placed around the central sanctuary of the Hebrews in a designated order. The church began in the late 1800s and became famous for teaching that the earth was flat, not round. They also followed many Old Testament laws, including forbidding their members from eating pork. If you visited the town, you could be arrested for smoking, for wearing the wrong clothing, or for whistling on Sunday.
The pastors of the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church also predicted specific dates for the end of the world. First it was 1923, then 1927, then 1930 and then 1935.
Guess what? It didn’t happen, did it? The world went on, life went on, and the folks in Zion, Illinois saw their other-worldly hopes dashed time and time again.
Some people are profoundly attracted to these apocalyptic ways of thinking and speculating about the end of the world, the return of Christ, and the final victory of God over evil. In my own Christian experience, the Scofield Bible, teaching about the so-called “rapture,” the Left Behind series of books and movies, and the prophetic teaching of a multitude of televangelists have been and remain very popular.
As Christians, we certainly do believe that God has a future plan and a hope for his people. We confess it every week in the Creed. But there is a danger with becoming preoccupied with these things. They can distract our attention from this world now and what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.
God loves the world. And God calls us to love the world, not deny it or turn our back on it. God wants us to live fully in this world and not just see it as a place we’re passing through. God created us to take care of this world and its creatures, to take care of one another, to find beauty and value and significance in our daily lives, in our work, and in all all of our relationships. If what we said last week about the resurrection and God’s plan to transform this creation into a new heavens and new earth is correct, then God wants us to immerse ourselves in this world and in this life, living by faith and doing good works to plant seeds of hope and blessing now that will have an impact for eternity.
This morning we read from 2 Thessalonians, a letter in which Paul talks to a church about many matters related to Christ’s return and the judgment to come. Apparently, people who lived there were intrigued by this teaching, as Paul gave them information and clarification about what they were to expect in waiting for the Lord’s return.
But apparently there were some people who latched on to this teaching and began saying, “Well, if Christ is coming back to judge the world and change everything, why should we go on living and working and doing ordinary things?” The letter says these folks became idle busybodies, disrupting the life of the community, expecting others to take care of them, and causing ill feelings all around.
In today’s passage, Paul talks about people who were living in idleness and failing to follow the example of the apostles, who taught them the importance of daily work and personal responsibility as an essential part of their faith. So he writes to them here, “Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”
In an article he wrote about this passage, John W. Martens wrote: “Perhaps working at being a faithful Christian is less fascinating than idly calculating when the end will come, but part of our vocation as Christians is modeling the good life for others by taking joy in our daily work, engaging in relationships with others and demonstrating our love of God. We should prepare for the end by doing all things in goodness now, by offering people a true sign of the end, when the goodness of God will be all in all.”
It is in the daily practices of faith, hope, and love, trusting Christ and taking care of ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and our world that we most faithfully prepare for Jesus’ return and the coming of the new creation. The Christian life is not about denying this world, it is about firmly situating our lives in this world and doing everything we do here and now in the name of Christ, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Now may the word of Christ dwell in us richly in all wisdom. Amen.