But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
The passage above would make a fantastic movie- in fact I would like to see it on the big screen- the IMAX- in fact I would want to see it in 3D! It describes a futuristic event, better known as “the rapture.”
If you have been paying the least bit of attention to the news over the past few weeks, and even signs and billboards along the highway, you had to notice at least the words “Judgment Day” and the date, “May 21, 2011.” It was predicted by televangelist Harold Camping, who meticulously researched and figured and calculated through the scriptures that, taking the Bible in its most literal form, the rapture was due to happen yesterday. He used numerology, bible codes, and his own interpretation of scripture to come up with the date, and time (6PM to be exact) that the rapture would take place.
Now before we go farther, let’s clear things up… what exactly is the rapture and what was supposed to happen yesterday? In Christian eschatology, the Rapture is a reference to the being caught up referred to in the Biblical passage 1 Thess 4:17 when in the End Times the Christians will be gathered together in the air to meet Christ.[i]There are other verses that support and/or add to the story. The rapture starts off a period of suffering for those left behind; (and according to Camping that is about 97% of the world’s population). This period of suffering is called the great tribulation and it will last a number of years. And then as the story goes, at the end of this period will be one final battle of good and evil, and then the world will end. (This is the very, very short version- for more information on the specifics, you can see me, or you can Google it or pick up one of the Left Behind series of books- the information is abundant.)Why is all of this important for us today? Well, because as Christians, we believe in the resurrection, and in eternal life. We read in the Bible about the second coming of Christ and we, like the early Christians, wonder about when and how that will happen. We also live in an age of technology where we are pummeled with information at every turn. We also have so much technology at our fingertips, much of what we are sent and what we hear isn’t newsworthy at all- but unfortunately, our spam filters are all quite overloaded.
We’ve talked before about fear- how much of the information we take in, even involuntarily, is fear based. We search for things to bring us comfort- and for many, our faith serves as a comfort in times of fear. (And so it should) So when we flip on the television and we see a nice elderly gentleman sitting in a worn leather chair in front of a fireplace talking about the Bible, and sounding so patient and knowledgeable to folks calling in, we bend our ear in hope to hear such a message.
The problem is, that much of what we hear from Christian broadcasters and televangelists, has very little to do with comfort. Folks have managed to take the greatest and most comforting event in history, the salvation of the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and add to it an equal mix of fear and trembling. The message we hear most on TV is that you better get your act together and get "saved" before it’s too late, otherwise- this same Jesus that was willing to die for you because he loves you so much… might just cast you in to hell for all eternity.
In fact as I was listening to what was to be Mr. Camping’s final television broadcast, he was answering a call from a young father, concerned about the eternal life of his two year old son. He wondered what happens to infants during the rapture. Camping calmly explained that God makes it very clear in the scriptures that we are born wicked, and that although his baby looked very cute and cuddly, he possessed the mind of evil- , there was no assurance Camping could give that the “saved” father and his child would be in heaven together after 6 pm yesterday.
Now I don’t know about you, but to me that is scary stuff! We’re not talking about people who aren’t “deserving” of heaven because of their evil ways, or because of refusing to believe and rejecting Christ… those we can almost understand… but a baby?
And if you are thinking right about now-come on Pastor, no one takes this stuff seriously- here’s an excerpt from an article that was printed in the LA Times this morning.
“On Saturday morning, Sue Espinoza, 60, received a phone call from her father, Harold Camping, the 89-year-old Oakland preacher who has spent some $100 million — and countless hours on his radio and TV show — announcing May 21 as Judgment Day. "He just said, 'I'm a little bewildered that it didn't happen, but it's still May 21 [in the United States],'" Espinoza said... Keith Bauer, a 38-year-old tractor-trailer driver from Westminster, Md., took last week off from work, packed his wife, young son and a relative in their SUV and crossed the country. With maxed-out credit cards and a growing mountain of bills, he said, the rapture would have been a relief. Others had risked a lot more on Camping's prediction, quitting jobs, abandoning relationships, volunteering months of their time to spread the word. Matt Tuter, the longtime producer of Camping's radio and television call-in show, said Saturday that he expected there to be "a lot of angry people" as reality proved Camping wrong. Tuter said Family Radio's AM station in Sacramento had been "severely vandalized" Friday night or Saturday morning, with air conditioning units yanked out and $25,000 worth of copper stripped from the equipment.”
So much for people not buying in…
And unfortunately, Mr. Camping isn’t the only one out there who sells religion and fear as a package deal and who also have large followings! He is also far from alone in predicting the end of the world, the rapture, and the age of tribulation or a host of other apocalyptic prophecies that are said to be right around the corner, some as close as 2012.
And when beliefs are backed up primarily with this passage of scripture, it’s worth taking a look at. So what was going on in the church at Thessalonica that Paul was writing about?
First of all, Paul and other early believers who lived so close to the time of Christ had heard of or seen first hand, Christ leave the earth. The word on the street (and later on in scripture) was the Jesus had said he was coming back. The early believers took that to mean that Jesus was coming back soon; within their lifetime. So they waited, and they watched, and they encouraged each other to be on guard.
The problem was, that some of their friends and family who were also members of their churches, were dying. And they were concerned about what was going to happen to them when Christ returned… would they be 'in' on eternal life since they were already dead? Understand that the early church, and especially the ones who were formerly Jews, like Paul, had no experience with believing in an afterlife. This was a brand new thought to them; there was even such a thing as life after death, resurrection, or eternal life. For them, death had no hope, and since their friends had died as believers in Christ, they asked legitimate questions. And Paul, in this letter, was giving them an answer.
Remember also, that Paul’s letters were originally meant to be heard- they would be read out loud by a messenger. SO no doubt he wanted to use lots of images that would stick with them after the letter was read. And Paul does it really well- he assures the Christians of Thessolonica, 'We don’t live like those who have no hope'! “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” (v.14) In other words… Don’t worry about your friends who have died… when Jesus comes back, they are 'in' on it too…
“15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.” (we’re all going together, and here’s how it happens… “16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”
And Jesus would come back the same way they had seen him disappear- with clouds (which was also quite common throughout the OT and other NT scriptures for Gods to come in or on clouds) and Jesus will be shouting (all will hear it) and there will be a trumpet (also an announcement of royalty). And, if you happened somehow to have been oblivious to all of that, Paul says, you still don’t have to worry. Because Jesus will take everyone, the dead and the living, right off the ground to meet him! And everyone will be with the God forever. Paul uses this beautiful, loud imagery, not as a fear factor to get folks to believe, but as a reassurance that everyone will be taken care of; the living and the dead. That when Jesus is ready to come back, God will redefine time as we know it and redefine life as we understand it.
In fact the rest of the letter talks about how we won’t know when Jesus is coming back, (in fact, when Jesus himself was asked when the end of the world was, he said HE didn’t even know- he said that is something that only the Father knew) but that Jesus’ return is not something to fear!
But Paul does say that we are to live, not in fear like people in the dark; groping and wondering and unsure- but as children of light. In other words, we can live every day like it’s the day that Jesus might come back- sure ourselves of God’s love… sure that nothing can separate us from that love… we can reassure others, love others, encourage others. In fact Paul tells us to encourage each other with these words.
That we can live out what God has for our lives; period- that we don’t have to do anything extra to prepare; we don’t have to be frightened by folks who are trying to convince us that the end is near… we don’t max out cards or sell all our stuff, or say last minute begging prayers in the hopes that we or our loved ones won’t be condemned to hell. Jesus didn’t come for us to live in a spirit of fear- he never motivated by fear- but he did come to bring , and he left us with peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27 NIV)
God loves you. God loves you. God loves you. And the only thing that you have to do, is to try to internalize that one truth. And when you “get it” it will change the way you think, change the way you live, and it has the power to change the world. We’re still here… we can begin this minute- loving and encouraging and caring for each other because of God’s great love for us. We’re still here, children of light… Let’s change the world!