Sun, Nov 10, 2019

Hope in the present


Thirty years ago, yesterday––

on the evening of the ninth of November, nineteen eighty-nine–– 

the Berlin Wall fell.

Ever since, debate has raged:

was the fall of the Wall simply “an accident of history”—

the result of a misunderstanding on the part of the East German leadership…

in response to events that “caught them flat-footed”…

and the product of a “slip of the tongue”;

or was it a calculated move on the part of a leadership who knew the end had come?


Three months before the Wall fell…

East Germans had been escaping to the west via Hungary and Czechoslovakia––

who were turning a blind eye to it.

Two months before the Wall fell…

hundreds of thousands of East Germans took to the streets in protest…

demanding the right to leave. 

So, the East German leadership met.

They decided to relax travel laws a little––

the plan being to allow “controlled departures with a mandatory visa”…

while still maintaining the border infrastructure.

The new measures were intended to go into effect the next day…

the tenth of November.

But, at the end of the press conference announcing the new travel freedoms…

when a journalist asked him when they would come into effect…

the Politburo’s spokesman scratched his head…

and hesitatingly replied, “As far as I know… as of now”.

Thousands immediately descended upon the Wall––

and the rest is history.


The East German leader at the time––

Egon Krenz––

blamed the spokesman for the demise of East Germany…

because he diverged from script and announced an immediate travel relaxation.

The spokesman, himself––

later, not long before his death––

claimed, “No one could have stopped the movement that was touched off by my announcement”––

and tried to make himself out as an ‘active’ reformer.

But, the former speaker of the united German parliament maintains, “I don’t think he knew what was going to happen”.


It’s so often true, isn’t it…

that when people are under pressure…

mistakes and misunderstandings often result…

and can have far reaching consequences?


The document that we know as the Second Letter to the Thessalonians––

despite what it claims––

was not written by Paul.

It clearly comes from a much later time––

perhaps a generation or so after Paul lived.

It borrows extensively from what we know as the First Letter to the Thessalonians––

which was written by Paul––

but it reflects a different situation…

at a much later time.

First Thessalonians is the earliest of Paul’s letters…

probably written in the late forties.

It was written to a small church that was under pressure.

Its members were suffering because of their decision to follow Christ…

and to turn their backs on the gods of their city and Empire.

As a means of coping with the stress and suffering that they were experiencing, they had latched onto the idea––

which Paul had taught them––

that Jesus would return to vindicate them and to set things right.

But, then, some of the church members died––

although not, it seems, directly because of the oppression.

Anyway, those deaths rocked them.

They had expected that Jesus would return soon––

during their lifetimes.

Paul expected that too.

And, in his letter, he tries to reassure them…

not to give up…

not to lose hope…

because Jesus will return.

But, in so doing, he was also trying to shift the focus of their hope.

Rather than hoping for something––

and something specific––

he encouraged them to hope in something––

namely, to hope in God––

the God for whom death is not the end…

and for whom death does not have the last word;

to hope in the God who imagines a future and a world of which we can scarcely dream.


At the time that our author was writing ‘Second Thessalonians’ things were different.

They were still experiencing stress and suffering…

because of their decision to follow Christ.

They were still expecting Jesus to return…

to gather all his faithful people together…

to vindicate them and set all things right––

but there seems to be more of an element of fire-and-brimstone in their attitude to their oppressors…

including from the author himself.

But, what was different for this community…

is that some had come to believe that Jesus had already returned.

Now, why they thought that––

and what, exactly, they meant by that––

isn’t clear.

We don’t know if they were worried because it might mean they had been left behind;

or, conversely, that they had already passed judgment…

and were free to live accordingly.

We don’t know.

But what our author does is to reassure them that Jesus has not returned...

but that he will.

He suggests something of a timetable or a roadmap––

which is quite at odds, for example, with what we see placed on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels.

But it was the author’s attempt to shift their focus…

from a troubled and troubling present…

onto a hopeful future.

And yet…

in so doing…

even though he seems to reinforce more of a hope for something––

and a hope for something quite specific––

perhaps more subtly than did Paul…

he still ends by redirecting them towards their hope in God.

Thus, at the end of our reading this morning, he prays for his readers:

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 your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” 

Stand firm.

Hold fast to your hope in God––

a God who imagines a future and a world of which we can scarcely dream.

And, significantly, keep working to see that realised.


Now, granted, we live in a very different world than they did.

And, it goes without saying, we have a very different world-view.

We do not expect Jesus to return in the way that they did.

And we don’t experience stress and suffering from the community around us…

because of our faith in Jesus Christ––

unless we do something to deserve it.

So, on one level, our reading doesn’t seem to connect to us, and to our experience, directly.

And yet, this is a community under some pressure and stress.

You are in a position of having to make decisions in the present about an uncertain future.

And in that stress and struggle…

in the need to make important decisions about this Church’s future… 

there has been a good deal of misunderstanding…

and mishearing…

and misinterpretation.

Some of you are very focussed on the grim realities of the present.

And some of you are thinking about the possibilities and the ‘what-ifs’ of the future.

But, like the author of Second Thessalonians––

and even Paul before him––

what I want to say to you, today, is:

our call to be the people of God in this place…

is not a call to cling to what has been; 

nor to hopes of what we imagine might be…

or of what could have been.

Our calling is not to hope for something––

certainly not something specific.

Our call is to be the people of God.

Our call is to be the people who put their hope and faith in God;

paradoxically, to focus neither on the present nor the future…

but on the unfolding fulfilment of God’s purposes in Jesus Christ…

and the role that we have to play in it.

May that be at the centre and heart of all that we do.


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