It is almost nine o’clock on Monday morning. I’ve been in the office for nearly 90 minutes now. My vacation week is over, but my brain doesn’t seem to know it yet. I’ve done my usual Monday stuff. I’ve sorted emails. I’ve checked the week’s calendar. I’ve read over the lessons for Sunday. After a week away, I should be ready to pound out a decent Monday morning blog post, but the haze – that ungodly fog of vacation mixed with a case of the Mondays and another year of preaching “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” – just won’t go away.
To make matters worse, we’ve moved into Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians for this week and the RCL powers-that-be have once been forced to make an interesting breaking point. “For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead– Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.” The Word of the Lord!?!
With Nicolas Cage’s mug all over the place, selling the latest in the terrible “Left Behind” series of movies, the idea of our being rescued from “the wrath that is coming” takes on added baggage these days. And to end the lesson that way, even if it is the end of the chapter, well that is just odd. What wrath? Coming when? Let’s make one thing clear. Paul does not have a pre-tribulation Rapture in mind as he writes this letter. The Rapture is a theology that came into fashion in the early 19th century and continues to plague the world with bad movies starring Nicolas Cage and Kirk Cameron to this day. We’ll deal with 1 Thessalonians 4:16, the Rapture verse, more when it comes up in the lectionary in a few weeks.
What Paul probably did have in mind, here in the oldest known New Testament text, is what we call “immanent eschatology.” The early Christians believed, rather strongly, that Jesus was coming back quickly. The end of this world and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God were expected within just a few years. So, as Paul writes, he believes that Jesus is coming to judge the world sooner rather than later. The wrath that will fall upon those who do not believe that Jesus is Lord is coming, but thankfully, the Christians in Thessalonica have believed and are being saved through Christ. Despite the confusing way in which it comes to us in this lesson, that really is good news. We who follow in the footsteps of the Thessalonians, while probably not thinking Jesus is coming back tomorrow, know that when the final judgment comes for the whole world, we who serve the one, true, and living God, rejoice in our salvation. Thanks be to God.