Times Change, Our Calling Doesn’t
Over and over in 2020, I’ve heard folks reference an old curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Most say it’s an ancient Chinese curse. In reality, the earliest known version is from a British politician in 1936, who said it in reference to the Great Depression… not knowing that WWII lurked around the corner. Oops. “May you live in interesting times.” This has sure been an interesting year, no? Covid-19 has shut down schools, sent workers home, and kept us isolating to avoid infecting others. Americans have been more divided than ever, to the point it seems like they experience two separate realities, two separate Americas. I’ve seen those divisions split social groups, siblings, or even spouses who now find themselves at a loss over how to communicate, how to navigate a world each sees so differently. And over the last decade, conspiracy theories alleging a flat earth or shadowy cabals of lizard people got more popular, but they truly blossomed during pandemic shutdown, with each theory claiming to hold secret clues on how the world really works, who’s really to blame, and how it’ll all get solved. Add to that the usual things we worry about: mourning the passing of old friends, fears over job security, medical problems, bills to pay, kids growing up. We live in interesting times… unfortunately.
Reflecting on these interesting times, I remembered Paul’s words here. “Now concerning the times and seasons, sisters and brothers, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” The first Christians who read this letter were grieving the deaths of friends and wondering when at last Jesus would return in glory to bring forth our final resurrection. It’d been a few decades since that first Easter, and they were losing heart. The Roman Empire wasn’t always the easiest place to be a Christian. The times were too interesting. The Thessalonians wanted Jesus to just return, wrap things up, and be done with it. Thus, Paul tells them in essence, “Hey! You and I cannot possibly know the day or time Jesus will return. We do not know the exact timing of the Day of the Lord. But it won’t surprise us and won’t catch us off guard… because, whenever it comes, we will be ready.” It’s an odd distinction. You don’t know when this day will arrive. Yet it won’t surprise you. How does that work? Well, imagine a baseball pitcher and catcher. The catcher doesn’t know exactly when the pitcher will throw the ball. But he is not surprised that the ball comes his way, and he knows whether to expect a fastball, a curveball or whatever. The catcher doesn’t know when it’ll arrive, but he’s not surprised by the pitch. It’s the same with you and I and the Day of the Lord. The times may be interesting. But we keep our eyes on the ball.
But what does it mean for us to keep our eyes on the ball? What does Paul want us to do when the times get interesting and we just want things to get over with already? He writes, “Let us keep awake and be sober… and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” So we know that Jesus is coming, just not when. Therefore, Paul wants us awake and sober, figuratively speaking. He means we can’t let ourselves get distracted from what really matters, and we shouldn’t treat spiritual and moral realities lightly. More to the point, Paul is saying that when times get tough… focus on the three most essential Christian virtues: faith, love, and hope. Faith: your relationship with God. Love: how you treat every other human being. And Hope: the knowledge that there is more to this world than this life alone, that God does indeed rescue us from evil. When the times get interesting, when the world falls apart… rely on your faith, continue to love others, and hold onto hope that a better world is coming.
So those are our three ideals, our three ethical and spiritual goals as Christians when we endure hard times. But how do we live them? How does that rubber meet the road? Paul thus goes on to explain: “Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up.” The times are interesting: therefore, love one another and strengthen your spiritual community. Yes, faith alone saves, but a person all alone loses faith fast. “Respect those who labor among you, have charge of you in the Lord, and admonish you.” Uh, he means me there. But also your session, deacons, your spiritual mentors, anyone who pours faith into you. Learn from them. Work alongside them. Don’t grumble too much when they push back. Ideally, their goal is to strengthen our collective faiths and ministries. “Be at peace among yourselves.” Don’t let gossip, fear, or bitterness ruin your Christian bonds or demean your faith. “Admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.” Some may struggle in faith or life because they are idle and sluggish, sure. But others may falter because they’ve been ground down and grow faint, and others may be simply weak in spirit or heart or body. In all cases, we Christians are to help them and display patience in doing so. “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.” Not only do you endure and forgive evil. You actively work to do good for other believers… and to nonbelievers as well. “Always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” This means look for God at work in your midst, to notice those moments when the Holy Spirit works through you, to keep going back to God in joyful prayer. And finally, “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything. Hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every evil.” That is to say, be open to new insights about God and God’s will… but don’t be a fool. If someone makes outlandish claims in the name of God, you don’t have to take their word. Without disrespecting that person, test their words to see if they’re true, and hold fast to what you know to be good. Altogether, this list is how you live a life of faith, love, and hope in interesting times.
Now I don’t know about you, but that’s a big list. But these practices aren’t going to earn you an express pass into heaven. Rather, their goal is to train you like a gym routine… so that you excel in those three Christian virtues of faith, love, and hope… so that you can be found awake when Jesus returns, be found still doing God’s work in all you say, do, and are. But that’s still a big calling, no? That’s why Paul ends his letter in this way. “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely. And may your spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” This is to say… your ability to do all these things, to live up to this calling… it doesn’t come from you. God will give you the strength you need to forgive others, the courage to love those it’s hard to love, the patience to endure. God will give you the resources you need to live up to this calling, that within you might blossom that faith, love, and hope we all are meant to have. Even the great Apostle Paul needed God’s help, which is why he too asks his readers to pray for him, for he also needs God’s grace to grow into those Christian virtues.
So things are a little unusual right now, between the recent election, ongoing disease, discord in our nation, and all the routine life ups and downs we all have. I won’t deny the times are interesting. But reading these words from Paul, I’m reminded that as Christians, whether times are calm or interesting, whatever comes our way… our job does not change. We are to have faith in God. We are to love fellow Christians and love our neighbors. And we are to hold onto hope for salvation, that a better world is coming. And we live out those three virtues in all the ways Paul listed: in building each other up, in prayer and worship, in testing what we are told to make sure it comes from God, in helping the weak and fainthearted. And we can indeed do those things because God will give us the ability, since we have been redeemed by God’s grace through Jesus. So yes, times are interesting. But our Christian calling remains the same. So have faith. Show love. Hold onto hope. Because Jesus is indeed coming back, and Jesus has given you the faith, love, and hope you need to do all these things and more. Praise be to God. Amen.