1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
“Then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and glory.”
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For at least a couple hundred years, American religiosity has been fascinated, even obsessed, with apocalyptic literature, writings about the end time, speculations about God’s plans for the future; this curiosity runs deep in our culture. It may be intensifying. The fastest growing churches are typically non-denominational bible churches, and many of them emphasize the near-ness of the Second Coming and stoke an expectancy of intense tribulation and punishment before Jesus returns. The fastest growing Christian denomination in the U.S. is the Seventh Day Adventists. They emphasize the imminence of the Second Advent, that we’re on the cusp of the Second Coming of Jesus and living in the end times.
Our culture deeply influences the way we hear things. So when I read in today’s gospel of Jesus talking about signs in the sun and moon and stars, saying that there’ll be great distress and panic, roaring seas and chaos, my instinct is to assume Jesus is talking about the end times, when history will end. In my experience, that’s what most people assume.
Today we heard Jesus speak of the Son of Man, a phrase he often uses to refer to himself. He said that the Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and glory. It’s typically understood to be a portent of the Second Coming of Jesus, and of divine judgment, separating sheep and goats, punishment and fury.
Today, Jesus also said that just as we can discern the season by observing the leaves on a fig tree. By looking at signs, we can tell when the end is near. And millions of Christians speculate and consider this question closely, expending much energy, and since we’re supposed to be able to tell by signs around us, many even come up with dates on which the end will arrive, except that no one has ever got it right. That is our first clue that Jesus is not talking about fire and brimstone, God’s wrath unleashed. He’s not talking about the end of time or his Second Coming.
It’s possible to find in today’s gospel passage and others like it all kinds of reasons to be afraid and to despair. Perhaps, if I were feeling crankier and grumpier today, if I didn’t have an exercise machine to metabolize my anger, if I felt upset about myself, I would be warning of impending judgment and punishment. I’d engage in some fear-mongering, warning that we’d all better get our act together if we didn’t want to be left behind, abandoned, suffering, cast into Hell.
When we read scripture, we have some control over how we understand it, whether we want to find any hope, consolation, and encouragement, or whether we want to find darkness, trembling, and vengeance. What we choose to find tells us a lot about ourselves and about what God is for us, and what other people choose to find tells us a lot about them.
We could choose to see today’s gospel as predicting the collapse of the created, physical world as we know it. It could mean to us that Jesus will return on a cloud in power and glory to judge the world, and especially our enemies. It is ignorant literalism, but we could choose it, and many fine people do. The problem: it’s not at all what Jesus meant.
When we read scripture, the context, the setting, is vital to understand the meaning of what’s being said. Imagine someone saying, “It’s going to rain.” What does that mean to you? To me, I have pleasant associations of listening to rain fall on the roof and enjoying the greenness it brings. But rain also gives me a bit of headache, worrying about leaks and flooding. So it depends.
If I were planning on going to a picnic, rain would annoy me. But if I were living in drought stricken East Africa, I’d welcome it, celebrate it, dance to it – I’m going to eat. If it were October and I were in Nicaragua, I’d think, “Of course, it’s going to rain. That is what happens every day.” If I had told you last Sunday that it was going to rain today, and you doubted it, but it rained today, then I would be vindicated. I could say, “I told you so.”
In the Bible, when it rained during Noah’s day, rain showed God’s anger and punishment. (Genesis 6:5-8:22) Likewise, one of the plagues God sent upon Egypt and Pharaoh was hail and pounding rain. (Exodus 9:13-35) But when Elijah went up Mount Carmel and it rained, it showed that the Lord was the true God who ruled the heavens and that Baal was a false god. Here rain was not punishment, but vindication. (1 Kings 18:41-46)
The context for what Jesus said matters. Today, Jesus was teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem. The day before he had cleansed it and had called it corrupt. But today he was back in the Temple and had just predicted its destruction. It was two days before his last supper. He was about to be killed. Remember he had repeatedly told his disciples that he was going to suffer and be killed and be raised again, and his disciples didn’t understand. So if his disciples haven’t understood his prediction of his suffering, death, and resurrection, to me, it’s absurd to conclude that Jesus was now talking about his return from heaven after his resurrection.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus never talked about his return to earth, about his Second Coming. He didn’t predict the destruction of the physical, time-space world as we know it. Two points:
First, the image of the Son of Man coming on a cloud comes from the seventh chapter of Daniel, an Old Testament prophet. In the first six chapters of Daniel, pagan rulers challenged Jews to compromise their faith. Despite persecution and suffering, the Jews rejected this temptation and remained true to God. To Jews living in the first century, the Son of man coming on a cloud was an image describing Israel’s vindication after suffering at the hands of pagans. It was a colorful metaphor to describe God’s care for Israel in history; it symbolized Israel’s victory over its enemies. When the Jews had suffered oppression and persecution, God had been faithful to them.
Jesus borrowed this imagery of vindication and exaltation. It describes what is going to happen to Jesus in the coming days. He is about to suffer and die, but he will stay true to God and he will be vindicated and exalted. The image, the metaphor, of the Son of man coming on a cloud points to Resurrection, not to a Second Coming.
One more point about this image, this vision, of Daniel. In Daniel the Son of Man rose up into the heavenly court, moving from earth to heaven. Jesus associated himself with Daniel’s Son of Man going up into heaven. The Second Coming folks, those all hot and bothered about the destruction of the world, describe the Son of Man as going down, moving from heaven to earth. They’re going the wrong direction. They’re confused, not knowing whether they’re coming or going.
Second, thy Kingdom come, the coming of the Kingdom of God, the consummation of history, does not mean the world will be utterly destroyed. Jews did not believe that. Some Greeks did. The Stoics thought the world would come to a fiery, dramatic end. For Jews, the hope was the restoration of their land, their Temple, their law. They hoped for peace, justice, and prosperity. They did not look for God to wreck his creation. He had declared his creation to be good, very good. They didn’t expect him to demolish it; they didn’t long to escape from this world; they did not want to be separated from their earthly bodies and to live as ethereal spirits. That’s NOT biblical hope. They hoped for the end of suffering and defeat.
Jesus spoke days before his suffering and death, and Jesus spoke about the Son of man coming on clouds to refer to his vindication after suffering. He was telling the disciples that they could hang in there with him because later events would vindicate him. He would be raised from the dead. The Temple would be razed to the ground. The religious establishment which had opposed him would lose. After the Resurrection, again like Daniel’s Son of Man, Jesus rose up into heaven on a cloud. That’s the way Luke described the Ascension. (Acts 1:9)
In today’s gospel, Jesus predicted the end of the world order, the end of the Temple and the power of the Jewish authorities. He did not predict, and never did predict, the end of the created world. The world would not be destroyed, but transformed, healed, renewed. Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruit, the first new fig leaf of a new season of renewal.
God’s judgment is not to cast people away from him, not to destroy his creatures or his creation, but to set things right, to fill us with life and love. It’s about joy and completion and wholeness. Today’s gospel is not a message to provoke fear in us about God’s wrath, but to give us strength and hope in God’s love for us. What awaits us is not punishment, but greater intimacy, closeness with God.
The good news is that this glorious and splendid future is already beginning to become present and to take shape in the world. Jesus’ resurrection is the 8th day of creation, the beginning of renewed life. Eventually heaven and earth will come together as part of God’s creative process. It’s what happens at the Eucharist, the coming together of heaven and earth, God entering the world, spiritual and material coming together: some now, everything later. It started on Easter. Resurrection is the sprouting of the fig leaf.
Jesus will return. There will be some kind of Second Coming. But the bigger, more immediate truth is that Jesus is coming to us now and always, be it from the pulpit or the altar, in the love of family and friends, in prayer and music and dance, in the poor and friendless. It’s not the fullness that will be, but God is breaking in now and transforming you, me, the person next to you. He is bringing life and light and trampling on death and darkness. God is becoming all in all.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 “The American obsession … with the second coming of Jesus,” N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, HarperCollins (2008), p. 119. I read much of pp. 117-145 and relied upon it for this sermon.
 N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Fortress Press (1996), p. 198
 N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 125.
 N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Fortress Press (1992), pp. 291-93. I read much of pp. 180-199 and relied upon it for this sermon.
 Ibid., pp. 285-86.