Sermons That Work

Let’s Get Our Priorities Straight, Proper 28 (C) – 2001

November 18, 2001

“Let’s get our priorities straight!” seems to be the message of this morning’s readings from Scripture. With the liturgical year coming to a close, the church turns its attention to the “End Times,” thus framing the Christian year with apocalyptic images. The challenge to Christians is how to incorporate the sense of urgency contained in these passages into our modern spirituality.

In the readings from Malachi and Luke, the message of “ the great and terrible day of the Lord” is clearly spelled out. It is depicted as a time of destruction. In Malachi, the wicked will be burned as stubble in the field. In Luke, we are given an image of tremendous upheaval: “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and signs from heaven.”

It sounds pretty modern, yet the sad thing is that it has sounded so to every age that has heard these words. For those who decided that their age was the last age, and went up to mountain tops to greet the Lord, having given up homes and property and even their own families, disappointment has always been their reward. The world never ends when we think it will!

Concluding that these words are not a clue to the process of history, especially the end of the world, many readers have tended to disregard them altogether. Scriptural threats against sinners that never pan out begin to sound like the old story of the little boy who cried wolf too many times; people stop listening….

What might be a way to enrich our spirituality with the kind of readings from Scripture we have been given today? St. Paul gives a helpful insight in his second letter to the Thessalonians. If you read both of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians you learn that today’s passage is part of a bigger picture in which Paul also wrote compellingly about the Second Coming of Christ and the final judgment of the world.

In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul wrote: “I don’t need to write you about the time or date when all this will happen. You surely know that the Lord’s return will be as a thief coming at night. People will think they are safe and secure. But destruction will suddenly strike them like the pains of a woman about to give birth. And they won’t escape.”(1Thessalonians 5:1-3). Apparently people reacted to this message thinking the imminence of the Lord’s return excused them from doing any work at all. They became, as Paul describes them in today’s passage : “mere busybodies; not doing any work.” It was obviously a misunderstanding of Paul’s way of thinking. Rather than do nothing and sit around waiting for the final judgement, Paul offers the example of his own life and ministry.

Paul himself worked hard for the spread of the Gospel and established many churches, supporting himself as he went about teaching and preaching. Every convert was a challenge to the status quo. It appears that the best way to prepare for upheaval and judgment is to hurry the process along. Building up the kingdom of God challenged the dominance of the earthly kingdoms. Paul was agitating for a renewed vision of humanity, “a way of inviting you to share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 2:14). Central to the glory of Jesus Christ is that it does not share in the glory of any earthly kingdom, and to claim Jesus as Lord questioned the lordship of the earthly emperor. Paul seems to be working to equip the people of his generation to stand over against the arrogant claims of earthly rulers, to claim citizenship in a larger, all- encompassing realm of God’s love.

To be different in the world, Paul taught, means that we must cultivate what is truly important. Paul stresses not giving up on normal life even when one is not sure about the future. It is this very sense of being uncertain that can help us figure out what is most important, and gives us a sense of urgency that informs the way we sort out our true and deep spiritual needs.

What is unnecessary or trivial? What is essential or important? Christian spirituality, it has been said, is about prioritizing our loves. Love of God, love of neighbor and self, love of our enemies. The demands of love require our attention, especially when many others, people and institutions, clamor for our attention and allegiance.

None of this is easy. Christians have been lulled into complacency in modern times just as they were in the first century. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Germany’s Third Reich, for instance, built on the church’s basic teaching of obedience. Many of the people of Germany in that era stopped being able to discern the difference between Good and Evil. Paul warned against this spiritual lassitude as a response to trying times. “Brothers and sisters, do not weary of doing what is right.”

We live in very distressing times. The Scripture for today reminds us to attend to the important things of life, remembering the demands of justice and the invitation of a radical Love. None of this is to say that we cannot take care of ourselves, too. We must take time to rest, to pray (for these things are also “right”), in order to keep our hearts soft and alive to the God-presence. In this way we can live without anxiety but with confidence, trusting that our words and actions will be the necessary ones for today’s strife-torn world.

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Christopher Sikkema


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