1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
“The end is music,” a theologian once wrote. He meant that that the end is the chorus of the Holy Trinity, the heavenly hosts, and all the saints singing sweetly to one another. He didn’t mean the kind of thing that Huck Finn hated, betogaed cherubs with lyres and trilling voices, but the song of a great congregation really letting it out. He was quoting in that moment that great American theologian, Jonathan Edwards, who himself perhaps was thinking of congregational singing. I don’t know if you’ve ever come to the Christmas Festival here at OSA, but I’ve seen tears at it. I don’t think I will ever get over congregational singing, because it doesn’t matter if you can hold a tune. Your voice, no matter how untrained, makes a difference, because it lends power to the song, and the body of Christ holds you in the song as you sing. I think congregational singing is part of the foretaste of the feast of heaven, and when we all hit it sweetly, there’s nothing better. Clare and I, back when we were young and just married, went to see Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Helmuth Rilling. We got rush tickets, and we sat right by the chorus. Not the best seat if you want to hear everything precisely, but we could feel the rush of the wind as the chorus stood to sing, and we could hear the chorus hit the ‘k’ of the kyrie, and we felt, almost, like we were singing with them. It was like the charge of the Light Brigade, or surfing. The music just rushed right through us. But congregational singing is even better than that. This theologian said that God is a fugue, because there is nothing so capacious as a fugue. The end, he said, is music.
I have been mentioning that some of the passages are passages of terror for some of us here. Some of us grew up in traditions that really harped on these things—the Rapture, the judgment, condemnation to hell, the tribulations, interpreting the signs, moons of blood, and so on. Jesus says “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world…” That is terrifying, if you think about it. And yet, he says, “Now when these things take place, stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing near.”
This Gospel reading is divided into three parts, all essentially the same: a warning followed by an exhortation. First, signs in the sky and the command to stand and raise our heads. Second, the parable of the fig tree, with the same idea, and then the exhortation: the kingdom of God is drawing near… heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Third, the warning—don’t be weighed down with the worries of this life and the escape from the worries the world provides, because while we’re worrying or wallowing, the kingdom comes. And the exhortation: be alert, and stand before the Son of Man. We know this kind of advice—I remember it first when I was six or so, and I had a deep sliver. My dad and another man decided to remove the sliver with a knife. And the man took out his knife and he said, “This will hurt. But be brave.” It did, and I was, and it felt good to have the sliver out. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if the man hadn’t said both things—it’ll hurt. Be brave. I knew I could be brave, and so I was. So Jesus says to us, stand up, and we know we can.
That’s the good news for the day: we can stand. We can raise our heads. We can live in hope in times of despair precisely because Christ is coming. And indeed, Christ is already here. This world is a bewildering place, and we can never be too confident about what we know for sure, or what could possibly happen. Our lives are made of moments mundane and strange, and there are times we don’t fully understand things until decades later, until we see them with the eyes of faith.
Climate change, economic and political oligarchy, voter suppression, the commodification of every aspect of our lives, social media, the scourge of opiates, trade wars, high rent and low wages, the froth and frenzy of the talking heads and political hacks, celebrity idol worship, our relentless consumption of every kind of junk and gadgetry—are these the leaves of the fig tree sprouting? Have you ever wondered if your life has meaning, of if what you do matters? Where’s God in all this mess?
Another theologian said, “We actually do not know where and how God is active in the present ferment of religion and secularism, but that is what the underrated category of faith is supposed to be for. With primary reference to Scripture, and with celebration of the sacraments as tokens of God’s presence and purpose, historic Christianity engages with the present reality without claiming tools to discern the will of God in history other than to identify what is holy, good and loving (McGowan, Failing and Flourishing, JAS).” I think that’s a beautiful way of expressing the work of the church—holding on to God’s presence and purpose in turmoil, and identifying what is holy, good, and loving. Because despite the chaos of life, the beauty of God’s presence remains.
Jesus says, “you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Holy Scripture, our corporate worship and service, the sacraments, help us identify what is holy, good, and loving. Scripture gives us a language to speak about the world and to name the good and the loving. Our corporate, congregational life, grounds us in authentic community with real, flawed people, joined together by the forgiveness of sins and the hope of salvation. The sacraments are the signs we look for that show us the presence of Christ, who promises to be there for us in the bread and the wine. Nothing is sweeter than the congregation coming together to praise and love our Lord. What else could make something out all of us misshapen parts but the hand of the master craftsman himself, our God? The times come unexpectedly upon us, but the Holy Spirit always gathers to the church together to unveil the holiness of the world and the people in it, made holy the breath and power of the Spirit.
We could read this passage and believe that God is distant, across a chasm, waiting for us at the end of disaster. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus wants to tell us. Rather Jesus is telling us that God is present and near to us right now and guides us through the trials and times. What is holy and good and loving? Where are these things to be found? Find them where the people of God are singing sweetly to one another, all of them notes in the great fugue of God. Nothing is as capacious as a fugue.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack