The Mystery of Lawlessness
| 2 Thessalonians 2
||Sun, November 11, 2001
Rev. Ed Searcy
|As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is what is concerning the little church in Thessalonika. This 1st Century congregation is alarmed at mysterious reports that Jesus has returned, that the Kingdom has come, that their sufferings are over. Letters saying so have arrived bearing Paul's forged signature. Yet, instead of the arrival of Christ in their midst, the little congregation sees the world around it growing darker and more violent with each passing day. Paul urges them "not to be shaken in mind or alarmed." It is hard to imagine what this peculiar 1st Century correspondence has to do with us. We are hardly preoccupied with the second coming of Jesus Christ. And we certainly aren't tempted by news that he has returned in glory to bring in his kingdom come. Not these days. Far from it. Instead, we are caught up in the struggle of trying to discern how to live in this time of war that is unlike any war we have known before. Never mind the end of history ... we wonder how to live to the end of the week, the end of the month, the end of the year in a way that is pleasing to God when there seems little sign of Christ's imminent return.
To be fair, we turn to texts that speak of Christ's return today because we are but a fortnight from the end of the Christian Year. As we near the conclusion of the story that is told by our unique way of marking time we pay closer and closer attention to the goal of history. When the Christian Year draws to an end we look to the ultimate end of life ... and of our lives ... Jesus Christ. Today that focus is particularly fitting. Gathered here, eighty-three years after the Armistice Day that marked the final, merciful end of the deathly trenches of the "War to End all Wars", we find ourselves part of a culture that is "shaken in mind and alarmed." With our nation we stop everything in silent remembrance ... remembering the heroic acts of courageous boys lying, even now, in Flander=s Field ... remembering all of the scarred soldiers who returned home with battlefield memories that they could never forget. But, this Fall ... post September 11th, post October 7th ... our memories are tinged with alarm.
In the light of sudden terror close to home ... and of carpet-bombing runs far from home ... we remember that our once rosy hopes for the inevitable progress of civilization have been dashed. Once upon a time, at the beginning of the last century, our grandparents could dare to believe that everything was getting better, that the world was progressing, improving, become more sane, less violent, more compassionate, less greedy. Then it seemed possible to believe that education and democracy, science and technology, capital and innovation would surely lead to a bright future for the earth. But that was before the refined and civilized nations of Europe became bogged down in the prehistoric trenches of France ... and before a civilized Christian nation crucified six million Jews ... and before we used our God-given creative ingenuity to devise atomic devastation of satanic proportions ... and before our insatiable demand for oil revealed that we are not the progressive, civilized people we had imagined but a modern tribe protecting its interests. We had imagined that the old tribal warfare had been civilized out of us. But the 20th Century - the most brutal century in history - has disabused us of that fantasy. Lest we forget.
Now Paul's overlooked 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians looks different somehow ... not as odd as it did when things were brighter and sunnier. Look at Paul struggling to put words to the growing trouble: "that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed ... for the mystery of lawlessness is already at work ... then the lawless one will be revealed." The little church at Thessalonika is trying to keep hope alive in the face of growing thunderclouds of trouble in the world. They had imagined that God=s kingdom would unfold day by day. Paul calls such vain hopes "deception" and "falsehood". The truth of the matter is, he says, that God must first contend with "the lawless one".
To be honest, we in the liberal protestant church have worked hard to mute talk of "the lawless one". We have worked diligently to silence the Bible's talk of an evil one. Our rational, empirical age has not looked favourably upon this strange speech. So we have stayed far away from texts like II Thessalonians with its embarrassing talk about "the mystery of lawlessness" and the "working of Satan". Until lawlessness breaks out on the earth. From where we sit, Osama bin Laden personifies the "lawless one". From where other sit, George Bush is "the great Satan". Evil is suddenly back in our vocabulary. Of course, according to the rules of Biblical grammar "the lawless one" is not any one person ... or nation ... or movement. This satanic force "takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God". This "lawless one" claims to replace God ... claims to be God. This is one who "uses all power, signs, lying wonder, and every kind of wicked deception" in order to contend with God for the allegiance of the earth.
It seems so utterly fantastic to talk in these terms. We are so accustomed to a domesticated narrative in which there is just God and us. We can barely imagine God contending with a force that has broken the laws of the universe. But then we find ourselves contending with our own inclinations to violence and revenge. We suppose that we can actually defeat evil by waging a war ... even as we remember, lest we forget, that the offspring of war has never been peace - at least not the peace of Christ. Even a 1st year history student can tell you that the child of war has always, inevitably, eventually been another war. Which is not to suggest for a moment that there is some easy way out of this evil conundrum. As followers of Jesus we find ourselves living in a world that seems condemned to serve the delusions of lawlessness, endlessly believing in the wisdom of domination and the necessity of control. The dilemmas of lawlessness facing modern states are just that - dilemmas, quandaries, riddles that even the greatest minds have been unable to solve. There is no pure life with which to carry out one's responsibility as a citizen. Even pacifists rely on the police to restrain criminal violence. At the same time, no Christian who justifies war can claim innocence when face to face with the disarmed, nonviolent One dying - at the hands of the Imperial Army - on a cross. All of us are implicated in the apparently necessary, everyday violence that is sure evidence of the strength of the "lawless one" on the earth.
Faced with such insidious evil - our body politic diagnosed with this deadly virus - the temptation to despair is huge. The deeply troubling power of "the lawless one" cannot be laughed off as a one-night "trick or treat" charade. Taken seriously, this dark satanic reality in human affairs overturns our too-simple optimisms and naive dreams of the inevitability of human progress. We know this after two thousand years of Christian struggles to live the new life in Christ in a brutal, old world. But they knew it in Thessalonika even then, a mere twenty years after the Messiah's dying and rising. Paul dictates these earliest writings in the New Testament in reply to the question that haunts all followers of Christ from the first days to our times: "In what shall we hope?"
Already, with Christianity a mere two decades old, Paul can write: "Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us". Hold fast to the traditions. What traditions? Well, it is clear from this letter itself that the traditions include stories of much trouble and many dark days before Christ=s return ... before the dawn of the kingdom come. The early traditions are all about hoping against hope in the face of mounting evidence that God is gone. Paul reminds his little band of hopers that "the Lord Jesus will destroy the lawless one with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming". All it will take, says Paul, to destroy the violent death-dealer who is playing god is a single breath from the Prince of Peace ... a single breath of God inspiring new life into creation. This is intentionally poetic language. How else does one speak of cosmic powers that are nearly beyond the range of human speech and thought? Faced with a world that organizes its life in servitude to "the lawless one", Paul encourages his little bands of hopers to keep alive an alternate vision of hope in Jesus, the "lawful one", whose merciful justice will, finally, be done and whose compassionate kingdom will, surely, come.
And Paul glimpses the first signs of that kingdom come, that divine will being done, in these very communities of determined hopers. He "gives thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth." Paul gives thanks for you ... because you hope that, in Jesus Christ, God is saving the world from lawlessness ... and because you are trusting your life together to this living hope and truth. Looking at a world predominated by lawlessness, Paul sees that little communities of hope like this one are the "first fruits" of God's salvation. This is the budding evidence that God's kingdom intentions for earth are bearing fruit. This is the reason that the church is so critical in these troubled times ... it is critical because communities that hope in the power of God to overcome the lawlessness are, themselves, evidence that God is up to something profoundly good ... something worth hoping for and trusting in. As the Roman Empire slowly crumbled in the face of "the lawless one" - within and without its borders - these little communities of Christians testified to their living hope in the God of history ... and their witness bore fruit. As the American Empire to which we belong faces the dark temptations of lawlessness - from without and within - we are called in our own dark time to "stand firm and hold fast to the traditions" of hope in Christ that we have been taught.
It would all be such a daunting prospect if we were alone in all of this. But we are not alone. This is precisely the source of our hope ... and of our joy ... in the face of "the lawless one". Even our standing firmly in the way of Christ is not our own doing. Even our holding fast to the traditions of hope in God comes not from our own strength. This standing firm and holding fast is itself the work of God in Christ whose Spirit surprises our despair with comfort and hope and strength. Paul's benediction to the Thessalonians is not wishful thinking ... it is a blessing with power to transform and make new all who dream of withstanding the seductions of "the lawless one" ... even you: "Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort our hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word." Now may it be so. Amen.