Sermon from August 15: Jesus Our Rescuer

Jesus Our Rescuer
Pentecost XII; August 15, 2021
I Thessalonians 1

As I walked into my Rotary meeting the other day, I greeted a fellow Rotarian and we walked in together. He said to me, “The world is going crazy.” I wondered if the world was indeed any crazier than it’s ever been, or if it simply seems that way because there are so many more of us. A retired physician who thinks scientifically while also a faithful Presbyterian, my friend said that with so many of us we are killing the Earth’s lungs by destroying the tropical rain forests. He said that our forests here in the North stop breathing during the winter, we rely on the rain forests, and we’re killing them.

And then the program that day was about a project to try to restore civility to our common life, a project undertaken by some students from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. That got me thinking about something that happened to another friend. He was distraught because a long-time friend of his, someone with whom he has had a great relationship, was threatening to cut him out of her life because they didn’t share the same political convictions. He didn’t want to talk politics with her; he wanted to share pictures from an art exhibit.

It does feel as though everything’s falling apart, both the ability of the planet to sustain our life and the ability of our social institutions to sustain our community. The latter is not new: human societies have always been fragile and they have all fallen into confusion from time to time. But the possibility that our own planet may try to kill us is indeed new.

It is tempting, then, to trot out a simplistic, “Trust in Jesus, and everything will be alright.” But those of us who are reading the whole Bible this year just finished the Book of Job, and part of the point of Job is that reality is never that simple. Yet I do want to explore briefly Paul’s statement that Jesus is the one who rescues us from the wrath that is coming. The words seem timely, however you think about “the wrath that is coming.” Whether you fear the possibility of civil war, which the White Nationalists have promised, or the increasing extreme weather events, which climate scientists forecast, it does feel as though wrath is coming.

When Paul wrote those words to the Christians in Thessalonica, I believe he was thinking about impending global catastrophe, the end of the world. Jesus had said he would return, and he talked about it in terms that sounded like the end of the world, and many of the followers of Jesus believed it would be soon. Apparently some of the people of Thessalonica, for example, even quit their jobs in order to wait for it! You and I have seen that happen in our society, too; every time the world is supposed to end or “the Storm” is supposed to come, people expect it. Yet we get through the day and the next day dawns and things are as they were. The “wrath that is coming” didn’t come when the people of Thessalonica apparently expected it to.

In a sense, though, it did come eventually, in that their society did collapse, things did fall apart, and they experienced the social wrath that many of us fear. It wasn’t in the lifetime of the people who first got this letter; it was some centuries later. But it came. And the promise that Jesus would rescue them from the wrath that is coming kept them going through the collapse. Christian faith flourished and grew deeper, even though Jesus didn’t swoop down on the clouds and snatch his people away. They weren’t raptured. The Emperor didn’t return to power to make everything alright. Everything fell apart, but they kept faith in Christ, who they believed in as their Rescuer.

Jesus confirmed for them the promise of God that God was for them. Even when things are relatively easy – no pandemic, no fear of climate change, a quiet society – life is difficult. You may struggle with your sense of self, when folks around you demand that you be something you are not. You may deal with difficult relationships. You may deal with ill health. Life is difficult. Jesus rescues us from having to do it on our own; even if the Church isn’t perfect, there will always be siblings in Christ who will love you and encourage you to be you. And when you stop and ponder the reality of Jesus’ gift of himself on the Cross, I hope that rescues you from fear of the wrath that is coming.

Jesus rescues us from that fear by being the one stable thing in our lives. We are living in a time of great uncertainty. To be honest, every day is uncertain; no matter what plans we make, we cannot guarantee that they will unfold as anticipated. Yet right now seems especially so. What will become of Afghanistan? The people there live with enormous uncertainty in the face of the Taliban takeover. Closer to home, right here in our church: we are laying plans for events in September and October, but it is possible that they will not happen. The latest resurgence of COVID-19 may cause us to cancel all we are planning.

In this reading, Paul says that the people of Thessalonica had turned from idols to the living God. If we rely on anything to be certain and stable, it will disappoint us and prove to be an idol. Government, family, work, even the Church: all is uncertain. But I have found that I can count on Jesus, on the love of God made known in Jesus. So he is Rescuer in times of uncertainty.

Paul mentions a couple of times in what we read the influence of the “word of the Lord” among the people of Thessalonica. That was something that kept them going in the face of the coming wrath and in just getting through their days: they relied on the word of the Lord. One prayer we sometimes use before reading Scripture says, “Silence in us any voice but your own.” How many voices do we have battering at us? The news. A disapproving parent. A judgmental preacher. Negative self-talk. A toxic co-worker. Social media. TV and movies. Can you still your mind, quiet your heart, and listen for the word of the Lord through all that noise? The presence of Jesus rescues you and me from the noise, speaking clearly to us the word of the Lord.

The big thing, of course, is the promise of resurrection. Whether Paul was thinking of that or not, that is certainly the cornerstone of our hope. We wake up each day with the confidence that even if it is our last, it is not the end of us. Whatever happens, whatever wrath overtakes us, the One who was raised from the dead is the promise that we too shall be raised; the One who feeds our spirits in the Sacrament of his body and blood is the assurance that we shall be rescued from any wrath that threatens to overwhelm, from extreme weather events to a pandemic to the collapse of the Empire.

As Paul emphasizes not only here but in the rest of this letter and the one that follows it, the effect of this confidence should not be to sit back on our butts and wait for things to happen. The effect is to face each day with hope, faithful to the word of the Lord. He warned those people of Thessalonica who had quit their jobs to get back to work (I Thess. 4:11; II Thess. 3:6-13). As we read to you, Paul celebrated that the confidence the Thessalonians had in the word of the Lord was so strong that people talked about it in Macedonia and Achaia and all over the place.

Would that not be a great reputation for us to have? That we have such confidence in the word of the Lord? It will show by how we live and by what we say. If we face a changing climate with the determination to do what we can to help, confident in the love of God for God’s creation; if we meet times of uncertainty with calm, seeking to do our best even not knowing what the next day may bring; if we respond to incivility by being ourselves persons of grace and kindness, especially to those who differ from us politically; that is, if we live as followers of Jesus the Rescuer, then we will gain such a reputation. Wrath is coming; wrath is always coming, although it does seem closer now. Rather than give in to it, we can be the people who follow the Rescuer.

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