Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Lectionary Year C

Time is just like money- it’s so annoying to be standing at the end of the week or month and be forced to say, “Now, where did it all go?” Let me use my work as an example. One practice I’ve picked up recently is taking a pro-active approach with my scheduling. It’s amazing the difference I notice in how I feel about my workload when I take steps to curb distraction. Time is just like money– think about what any financial adviser will tell you about budgeting. Mapping out where it will go at the beginning of the month is the best thing. I’m discovering this principle translates very well into my time. But we are human, and we’re going down this line of thought because, left to ourselves, distraction usually creeps in.

I’m sure you can relate to this experience somehow. Distraction. Even you Type A personalities out there. I mean, do you really always manage to filter out distraction? Raise your hand if so… Ok, no one? Because I was going to offer to let you preach instead of me. We all find ourselves asking where it all went, don’t we?

Time at work… I’ve already covered that one. Time on the weekend… what about that? Who has projects around the house that sneak under the radar Saturday after Saturday because Engineer Mountain’s wildflowers are in bloom right now, or the Denver Broncos are playing right now, or because that storm just dumped up fresh snow on Purgatory this morning, or because Russell needs your help in the youth ministry right now? Yes, we know how to play in this town, and it’s a huge battle for time.

I mentioned money earlier. Maybe your day-planner is tighter than a tourniquet, but your budget has a couple holes. Anina and I are pretty good with this, but we do have a month now and then where we look back and say “We spent THAT MUCH on the pets?!?” And I was utterly horrible at this concept when I first started managing my own money. How many of you students sometimes feel this way with your allowances?

Or here’s one: energy. Spending all your relational energy at work, and when you get home, it’s your spouse or your kids asking “You had a bad day, didn’t you?” When in fact, this may not really be the case, but instead you simply didn’t have anything left to give them when you got home.

Or who’s familiar with this scenario? A loved one passes away. In that quiet, solitary moment after you first find out, or while standing around talking with others at the wake, you ask yourself “Why didn’t I call them more often?” I didn’t deal with the passing of my mother’s mom very much at all, and this is one question that I really prefer not to confront.

All of these situations, and many others, have roots in our living of distracted lives.

I have good news for you: God knows.

And he used a stout and cantankerous but obedient man named Paul to give us some direction. Let’s pray, and then dig into today’s text.

Haggai 2

1On the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: 2“Speak to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people. Ask them, 3‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? 4But now be strong, O Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 5‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’

6“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. 7I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. 8‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 9‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

II Thessalonians 2

1Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, 2not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. 3Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. 4He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.

5Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? 6And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. 7For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. 8And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. 9The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, 10and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 1 1For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie 12and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.

13But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

16May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

Brothers and sisters, the Word of the Lord.

“Eschatalogical” is the big word for how to classify this Thessalonian passage. In layman’s terms, it’s “dealing with the last things.” Here, we see the Apostle Paul going to great lengths to dispel any false or misleading news about the eagerly expected return of Jesus Christ. Let’s look at a couple significant details about the text.

The first thing that helped this passage resonate in my heart and mind was learning a little bit about Thessalonica. It was a booming seaport.[1] As with most centers of trade and communication, it was probably very cosmopolitan… a wide exchange of ideas and cultures going on. The largest city in the Greek province of Macedonia, Thessalonica’s population was probably in the neighborhood of 200,000.[2] If you’ve seen the real San Francisco, like my high school students have, think about that, and you’ve basically got Thessalonica. What this means is that the message of this new blossoming faith called Christianity was not necessarily the dominant voice in culture.

The seventeenth chapter of the Book of Acts tells us about the roots of the Thessalonian church. Paul and Silas spent three weeks there making the Jewish leaders angry, reasoning in the synagogues about their resurrected Christ. The text tells us they won over a few Jews, many God-fearing Greeks, and several prominent women from the community. The jealous Jews incited up a mob to find Paul and Silas, but without any success. The Thessalonian church had a tumultuous beginning, but grew into an outstanding faith community, much like Philippi.[3]

Paul loved these Thessalonian believers. In the tone of his phrasing, I hear the voice of a father correcting his children, which is how we all should deal with each other when we’re caught up in error. Gently and affectionately. Both of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonian church are pretty eschatological. I interpret the existence of this second one as Paul having good reason to believe they hadn’t gotten right the first time. But where’s the impatience or the condescension? Not here. I would do well to follow suit when I encounter conflict, especially serving in a pastoral role.

On to the “last things.” First, I’d like to share with you a poem that sparked the idea for the sermon title:

“The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Can you hear the worry in the speaker’s voice? It’s ominous. It’s chilling. And its sentiment still lingers today. The foreboding surrounding the last days is only matched by their mystery, and that’s an intimidating combination. I clearly remember the first time I read “The Second Coming.” AP English, senior year of high school. We discussed in groups the connections between this poem and the Bible. A classmate asked, “Why do scary writings like this exist? Is God supposed to be scary? Are we supposed to be scared into believing in Him?”

While this question is both easy and hard to answer, I find comfort in Paul’s words.

First, in verse 3, he says, “Don’t forget that two very important things have to happen!” He refers to something called “the rebellion.” Where total opposition to the things of God is the agenda of those in power. Now this is very up to interpretation. Some may say that we’re there now. Personally, as bad as things may seem, I think it has to get a lot worse before we’re dealing with what Paul was talking about. See? This is hard to concretely interpret. And I’m ok with that. In fact, I’m cautious when I hear anyone proclaim that they do have it all mapped out. The second necessary occurrence Paul mentions is the rise of the Antichrist. Now again, at this point it’s hard to know if this being is among us now. Maybe… maybe not. This lack of clear determining criteria regarding the signposts is a clue to a bigger idea.

Verse 7 says ” the secret power of lawlessness is already at work.” Yes, the enemy is on the prowl, and we’re probably well on our way to those two signposts. But that’s about as much as I’m willing to say. And that would be a disappointing conclusion if it weren’t for Paul’s closing exhortations.

In Verse 13 we hear Paul resume his paternal and assuring language. “But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord.” This is simple: You are God’s beloved!

On to Verse 15… In light of this, stand firm! Don’t slouch in your faith! Remember what you have learned! Don’t get distracted!

Paul’s words connect so seamlessly with the Haggai text. Verses 4 through 9 are so powerful to me. I would like to read this chunk as translated in The Message:

4“‘So get to work, Zerubbabel!’-GOD is speaking.

“‘Get to work, Joshua son of Jehozadak-high priest!’

“‘Get to work, all you people!’-GOD is speaking.

“‘Yes, get to work! For I am with you.’ The GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies is speaking! 5‘Put into action the word I covenanted with you when you left Egypt. I’m living and breathing among you right now. Don’t be timid. Don’t hold back.’ 6“This is what GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies said: ‘Before you know it, I will shake up sky and earth, ocean and fields. 7And I’ll shake down all the godless nations. They’ll bring bushels of wealth and I will fill this Temple with splendor.’ GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies says so.

8‘I own the silver, I own the gold.’ Decree of GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies. 9“‘This Temple is going to end up far better than it started out, a glorious beginning but an even more glorious finish: a place in which I will hand out wholeness and holiness.’ Decree of GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies.”

Overall, this is what I hear in today’s text: “Don’t get bogged down in the details!,” Paul cheers us on, “You remember the big idea, right? Now stay alert for those two can’t-miss-it signs, but stop worrying about everything else and get out there to carry the Kingdom to every corner of the earth!”

So, in practical terms, what do we do with this nugget of encouragement buried in ominous end-times language? Well, let’s think back to the tension we discussed earlier. Distraction. And that’s exactly what the Thessalonians were dealing with. They had become distracted. We Christians have had problems with theological distraction from the moment Christ left us.

Remember when He returned to heaven, and the remaining disciples were asking, “So, you’re gonna be back down in 5 minutes to usher in the new age, right? Right, Jesus?” Yeah, we still do this. Maybe not in word, but in deed. We get distracted by taking our eyes off the glorious work Christ has left for us to do. But Haggai and Paul both tell us to get to work!

I’m not asking you to make a life-changing commitment here. Let’s try something for a week. Let’s leave potentially distracting theological or doctrinal concerns out of our thoughts, and instead simply let Christ into every interaction. When you come across someone this week, ask yourself, “What can I do right now to bring the Kingdom of God into this person’s life?” What do I mean by that? Well, what is the Kingdom? It’s where God is the ruler. And God’s only rule is love. Don’t get distracted with whether or not they’re Presbyterian, or which presidential candidate they’re leaning toward, or how their salary compares to yours, or anything. The opposite of distraction is focus. Focus on bringing the Kingdom of God right here, right now. Let’s work so hard to make earth resemble heaven that Father God and his enemy Satan have to step up their timeline for all these “last things” to happen.

No distraction.

Focus on love.

Do it!

I know this looks different for each of us. And I’m not here to give you a checklist. If you are a checklist person, the thirteenth chapter of 1st Corinthians is a great place to start. But really, this is where you engage. Stop and think… who around you needs God’s love injected into their life? [stop, allow for thinking]. Ok, do it this week. And pray for more opportunities to build the Kingdom in your spheres of interaction.

An author that I’m interested in but have never actually gotten around to reading is Brian McLaren. Let me share an excerpt with you from one of his books, The Secret Message of Jesus:

If you get a glimpse of soldiers in camouflage sneaking through the forest, if you notice planes from an enemy country flying high above us, if key political leaders in your country disappear or are mysteriously assassinated, then you might suspect that an invasion is coming. If bullets start flying and bomb sirens start going off, your suspicions will be fulfilled. Another nation, let’s call it a kingdom, is preparing to invade and conquer your kingdom.

But what if the kingdom that is invading is a kingdom of a very different sort? What if the invasion is one of kindness and compassion rather than force or aggression? What if sick people start getting well suddenly and inexplicably? What if rumors spread of storms being calmed and insane people becoming sane again, hungry people being fed and dead people rising alive from the grave? Couldn’t this be the sign of a very different kind of invasion … the coming of a different kind of kingdom?

This is how I’ve come to understand the signs and wonders of Jesus Christ. They are dramatic enactments of his message – the message of the kingdom spread in a media beyond words that combine to signify that the impossible is about to become possible, the kingdom of God with its peace, healing, sanity, empowerment and freedom is available to all here and now. Signs and wonders unbolt the mechanisms that tell us what is mathematically and practically possible and impossible. They make way for faith that is something new, unprecedented and previously impossible is now on the move. They tell us that we are being invaded by a force of hope, of group of undercover agents planting goodness.


Last Friday, I was thinking about how send us out from here, and came across Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac daily podcast. The day’s particular poem really resonated with me, so if you’ll allow me to use someone else’s words for a benediction, here is “The Minor Prophets”, by Michael Lind:

None of the minor prophets
knew that he was minor, of course. Habakkuk, I imagine,
thought that his visions earned him
standing as Ezekiel’s peer, if not indeed Elijah’s.
Then there was Obadiah,
who could be forgiven if he thought he might be a Moses.
How they would be remembered
Providence concealed from them all, though they could see the future.

Maybe it doesn’t matter.
If you’re on a mission from God, sent to rebuke a city
or to redeem a nation,
where by canon-makers you’re ranked may be inconsequential.
Nor is the voice within you
any less authentic for not having a distant echo.
Seers of the world, be heartened.
Even minor prophets can have genuine revelations.

Now go. Take the grace of Christ into the world. Peace be with you.

[1] “Thessalonica: The City and the Church.” NIV Study Bible, 10th Anniversary Edition. Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Corporation, 1995. Page 1821.[2] Ibid[3] “I and II Thessalonians.” W. Neil. Peake’s Commentary on the Bible. Camden: Thomas Nelson & Sons LTD, 1962. Page 996.

2 responses to “Slouching Towards Bethlehem

  1. What a wonderful reading of Yeats and of the Biblical context presented to help illuminate Yeats. Sounds like a great service, and stirring moment.

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