Sermon from August 22: Dare We Talk About Judgment?

Dare We Talk About Judgment?
Pentecost XIII; August 22, 2021
II Thessalonians 1

There are always so many issues in any piece of Scripture, but it seems that what catches our attention is usually the part that feels wrong to us. So here I am, looking at a chapter of Scripture that overflows with thanksgiving and praise, feeling that I ought to talk about judgment. Well, it will all come together, I pray.

Paul writes some pretty judging words, doesn’t he? “It is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you.” “These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction.” And the like. Let’s start with an honest check-in. If you have struggled under an oppressive situation – say, an abusive marriage, a tyrannical boss, a toxic coworker – doesn’t it feel good when the other person “gets what’s coming to them”? When the abuser is called out? When the toxic coworker or tyrannical boss is fired? You feel somehow vindicated, don’t you? You and I have likely never lived with real religious oppression, and so we don’t know what it feels like. I pray we never will. Jews and Muslims in our country, on the other hand, have lived with real religious oppression. And folks to whom Paul wrote knew real oppression: at the least they would be shunned by neighbors and coworkers, by relatives and friends, for becoming Christians. At worst they could be arrested and even executed. You and I don’t really know the hope that is implied by the promise that those who afflict you will someday themselves be afflicted.

Well, the women who were harassed by Governor Cuomo or by Harvey Weinstein or by any number of other men who were finally called out for their behavior: they know. But let’s not protest too much what Paul wrote: those who have been afflicted can see the justice of God at work when what goes around comes around, when the afflicter becomes the afflicted.

But I need to say something about judgment in this light. We nice modern liberal Protestants don’t like to talk about judgment, but we avoid it only by avoiding large portions of the Bible. We can ignore judgment only by ignoring a lot of the teaching of Jesus. In sum, it does matter what we believe and what we do. What we believe about God and about ourselves plays a very large role in shaping how we treat ourselves, other people, and the world. And that matters. Judgment comes in large ways and small, and I do believe that a final judgment awaits us. Paul suggests here that those who oppose God and who oppose the people of God will find themselves eternally separated from God as a result of Judgment Day. I have often wondered if that wouldn’t be to get off easy: perhaps a real hell for those who despise God and God’s people would be to be forced to endure the presence of God for eternity. “I can’t stand to be in God’s presence for an hour a week, and now I have to be in the presence of God forever?” Understand this is merely my speculation: Scripture doesn’t say much about either heaven or hell. What it does say is that we all face judgment, and our beliefs and our behavior do matter.

As a follower of Jesus, I’m inclined to think of judgment less in terms of a courtroom and more in terms of an “O. R.” talk. You know “O. R.:” “our relationship.” “Bob, we need to talk about our relationship.” Are there more frightening words in life? I anticipate Judgment Day as sitting down, one-to-one with Jesus, who says, “Let’s talk about our relationship.” Uh-oh. Here it comes. What will I hear?

What did the Christians of Thessalonica hear? “Your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.” Isn’t that a great thing to hear!

Now it raises questions for me, including these. “Your faith is growing abundantly.” What is the measure of that? I know how to measure whether the value of my mutual funds is growing abundantly. I know how to measure whether attendance at worship is growing abundantly. How do I measure if my faith is growing abundantly? Or: “the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing.” How do we know that? How do we know if our love is increasing, decreasing, or staying the same?

I don’t know definitively, because we can’t know exactly what the social circumstances were, because we don’t know exactly when the letter was written. But here’s my suspicion. Things were getting harder for them, and they persevered. They were having more troubles, and they looked after each other. When things get harder, what do you do? You give up, or you get tougher. When people around you are more troubled, what do you do? You hide, or you work harder at loving them.

Things were tough and the people of the Church in Thessalonica were not giving up. They were continuing to get together for worship, even though it could get them arrested or at least spat upon. They were looking after one another, even though folks had more troubles. I don’t know that, but that is what I suspect, and that is how Paul could measure their faith and love and say that they were growing. You put an egg in hot water and what happens? It gets harder. If you leave it in long enough, you’ll have a tasty hard-boiled egg that you can take with you on a picnic. Faith under oppression either gets stronger or it withers. Paul writes here that the endurance of the people of Thessalonica during their time of suffering is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that God judged well in choosing them, and that God is making them worthy of the Kingdom of God.

That’s another troubling word: “worthy.” How can we be worthy of the Kingdom of God? Or, as he writes later in the chapter, how can we be worthy of God’s call (v. 11)? Most of us humbly acknowledge that we are not worthy, that it is the gift of God through Jesus Christ to call us and include us in the Kingdom of God. That said, Paul wrote this, so I’m going to suggest an answer. What does God do to make us worthy of God’s call, so that – to continue with Paul’s thought – the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in us?

God prompts us to keep showing up. Here’s a line you may have heard; Marshall Brickman and Woody Allen cowrote the screenplay for the 1977 movie Annie Hall. During an interview with journalist Susan Braudy, Marshall said, “I have learned one thing. As Woody says, ‘Showing up is 80 percent of life.’ Sometimes it’s easier to hide home in bed. I’ve done both.” Woody later said that his actual remark was that showing up is 80% of success. Either way, simply being present is most of what is needed for any endeavor, including becoming worthy of the call of God.

For the last eighteen months everything has been topsy-turvy in the life of the Church. You have continued to show up. When we resumed in-person worship, you started coming back to the church-house, and some started coming for the first time. When we were webcast-only, you tuned in. You didn’t gripe, “I don’t know how to do that;” you learned. You didn’t say, “I don’t think it’s real worship,” you did it anyway. You showed up. And whether you are here in person or are continuing to tune in to our webcast, you continue to show up.

The economy was uncertain; for some of you, your income was uncertain. You continued to show up as a disciple financially as well. You continued to give. We finished 2020 strong financially; we’re struggling this year, but because of your faithfulness we have good reason to hope that we’ll end this year well, also. You show up; you give as you are able. You don’t give more than you can and you don’t give less than you can. You show up.

When the Mission Committee puts out a call for people to bring supplies, to give money, to walk, to wield a hammer or paintbrush, you show up. You showed up for the Pride Parade and for the Pride Festival at Baxter Arena. You show up to serve meals at Siena Francis House. You show up to bring food for the families at Rainbow House. When the Board of Deacons makes Care bags to be delivered to folks, you show up at their door with a Care bag.

I know that you’re tired of all this, especially since it has gone on for so much longer than we anticipated. I can’t tell you how tired I am, so I understand. But you who cling to hope in Jesus Christ continue to show up for Jesus. On Judgment Day, I pray that that is what the Lord Jesus will remember: not our sins and failings, not what and whom we neglected, but that when things were tough you showed up. And I join Paul in praying that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska