Harrowing Of Hell
November 15, 2020

Ready at a Moment’s Notice

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

The apostle Paul has given us such interesting imagery in his first letter to the Thessalonians today. I love the start, it’s as if he is speaking to you and me, right now. He begins, “Now concerning these times and seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need anything written to you.” He is looking at them, and us, in the eyes, and making the claim that we know who we are, we know how we are made, and we know what we are called to do… and by whom we are called to do it. 

They were the Christians, and we are the Christians… They were students of Jesus; we are students of Jesus. They sought the peace of God which surpasses all understanding. We, too, seek that peace.

Then Paul starts in with his metaphors.  Clearly, he did not have Mrs. Van Zant for AP English, because he crashes his metaphors into one another like the Fords and Chevys I used to watch at the stockcar races at the Olmsted County fairgrounds.

There is a thief in the night. There is a pregnant woman. There is a claim that all is well, when really, it is not; because the peace and security that the woman is trusting in, unbeknownst to her, is being provided by the thief. That is the claim Paul is making here, and it is a shot across the bow of the Roman Empire. That thief in the night is Caesar Tiberius, Emperor of Rome.

And so, you might be wondering: What do you mean (preach) that Paul is confronting Caesar? (with mixed metaphors?) And more importantly: why should I care? That is the critical question to ask: why should I care? It gets to the root of why we are here, and what I, as your priest, am called by you, the church, to do…And what I am called to do is to enable you to live better lives: that means, teaching a way of thinking and acting that aligns with the design of this world we call the Kingdom of God.

That is what Paul is doing here as well, incidentally. He is calling us to live within the design mechanisms of the Kingdom of God. He starts with misplaced security, and then, as he moves through the metaphors we arrive at the true peace and security of faith, hope, and love. We’ll get to how these three things provide peace and security later in the sermon…but, first, to the people in Thessalonica and Paul’s warning to The Christians who lived under the false peace and security of the Roman Empire. 

There was an unspoken covenant between Caesar and those who lived under his rule, that there would be peace and security for all, as long as they did what he said and followed his rules. There was even a PR slogan that went with this: Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome. But Pax Romana was nothing more than a protection racket, and it is a poor one at that, because the point wasn’t to protect the people, the point was to steal from them… like a thief in the night.

And while there was wealth and waterways and grand cities in the Empire, there was also constant war, mass killings, and death on a cross. The Emperor sought total control and called it peace and security.

But Paul writes, “When they (that is Caesar ) say there is peace and security,” then sudden destruction comes. If you believe them when they say there is peace and security, Paul claims, then you have had placed your faith and hope in the wrong ruler. Caesar is a fraud. At best he is a bully. Caesar is not King, nor is he Lord. And he certainly is not God!

No, there is only one King, one Lord, and his peace is the greatest peace of all. It is the peace of Christ, which surpasses all understanding; and upon this peace is built the well-ordered life, the life of meaning the good life, or at least a life that seeks to get better and better.

Paul knew this, and he taught it to the Thessalonians.  They were the Christians, and we are the Christians… They were students of Jesus; we are students of Jesus. They sought the peace of Christ as do we as well.

This peace of Christ, after all, is the point, but to live into it and out of it requires knowledge of the patterns of the world as God designed it; and this knowledge instructs toward action that works within these patterns and not at odds with them; and then, finally, turning these actions into habits that we exercise unconsciously. 

Are  you with me? Knowledge of the patterns of the Kingdom of God; that teach actions that work with and not against these patterns; that lead to actions repeated so often that they become habits that enable us to unconsciously live into and out of the peace of Christ. Anything less is putting our peace and security into the hands of a thief.

That thief Paul is talking about is Caesar…which is good news for us because Caesar is no longer around. Caesar is a metaphor for the idols I was talking about last Sunday. Caesar is that thing that you believe if it came to fruition, or if you possessed it, the world would work just as you want it to, and you would be safe and at peace. 

Paul rejects this way of thinking saying that even the strongest ruler in the world cannot offer true peace and security. Anything less than the peace of Christ is a thief posing as the security guard, who is actually a kidnapper that is keeping you from the life of freedom that God wants for you. It is as if you have Stockholm syndrome and are falling in love with the thing that denies you your freedom. That is what idols do.

Paul’s response to this is for us to put on the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of hope. We do this by studying the patterns of the Kingdom of God; and turning this knowledge into action; and, with practice, this action into habits; and then we feel a little bit safer and a little bit more at peace. 

I’ll give you an example of a thief verses a pattern in the Kingdom of God. On the one side there is: “The customer is always right.” And on the other side there is: “Relationship is primary.” I know of what I speak because our heater went out last Friday. I called a heater guy.  He came and jiggled some stuff, and the heater worked. He said if it stops working it is because the condensation pump is broken. He gave me a quote for what it would cost to fix this if it stopped working again. 

Twenty-four hours later… it stopped working. So, I got online to see what a condensation pump would cost, and it was $100. That was about $1000 less than if I had the furnace guy come back… and it was a fix that was as hard as plugging in a fan. Honestly. 

So, I bought it, plugged it in, and guess what?  It didn’t work; which told me one of two things: I didn’t know what I was doing or the diagnosis was wrong. So, I called them back and told them what I did, and here is where the short story starts to get long.

I found myself in a protracted conversation with multiple people within that organization, where they, ultimately, blamed me for the furnace being broken because my I plugged in a new condensation pump, and that it would cost me another $500 for them to even look at it again… and that didn’t include any fix. 

And here is when my idols started popping. Money, pride, logic, winning… a cold house. And yet I kept the Kingdom of God design in mind, I kept Jesus in the dialogue… relationship being primary (x3)

And sometimes God honors this way of life. I got home one evening and the heat was on. I asked Margaret (my 21 year old) what had happened, and she said she decided to take a look at the thermostat, and saw it need to be changed from snowflake symbol to flame symbol. The heat jumped on. I called, and canceled future work, but not before hearing a bit of the life story of one of my new friends at the furnace company. That was the reward.

The Jesus way of life is the better way of life. It is the life where we comfortably wear the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of hope. And it is here we find true peace and security.

So now we’ll take a look at the actions; faith, hope and love and how to practice them so they become everyday habits.

Let’s start with faith. Faith is about risk tolerance. It is about stepping into discomfort. It is about showing up into circumstances of uncertainty, and giving it a go. It is the willingness to chase away a thief in the night; or the willingness to deliver a baby because you happen to be there. 

Those might seem extreme metaphors so how about the risk to have a tough conversation; or the risk of being vulnerable and honest; or the risk of swallowing your pride to stay in the dialogue.

Here is why we practice risk as a means of increasing our faith… the more we risk, the more often we find that we are OK; and that God has been faithfully with us in whatever circumstances we found ourselves in. And the more we experience this “with God world,” the more we trust God and our faith increases. Pretty soon others perceive us as having this peace and stability and equinity in situations that seem risky and fraught. But we don’t see it like that because we are wearing the breastplate of faith.

And it is this faith that creates in us deep reservoirs of hope. Paul uses the labor pains metaphor to make the point. Labor, I have been told is horrible, but it is pain infused with hope for the new life that is coming into being. Hope is always knowing that good comes from difficulty. Or as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “Suffering produced endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope will not disappoint us” (Rom 5:4).

Hope is the optimism that comes from knowing that God has your back, and that God will ultimately use human error or even malice for divine insight and future blessing. This is the helmet of hope that we wear.

And so, we have the faith to risk, the hope to endure, and finally, love to change the world. Love is a deep breath. Love is saying, “Tell me more.”

Love is putting down the posture of defensiveness, and listening, and seeking understanding. Love is giving up the win-lose paradigm, and imaging that the other, whoever the other is, has something to say; something that is real, and valuable, and insightful, and, indeed, earnest. Love is the language that puts us in the mindset of the patterns of the Kingdom of God, because love is the language of our Trinitarian God.

Now none of us are yet masters of faith, hope, and love, they are aspirational; and yet, they are possible, because we have been placed in the Kingdom of God as children of God, and heirs of God’s kingdom. So, we have every reason to be confident in our ability to wear comfortably the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of hope.

Our knowledge of faith, hope, and love leads to actions of faith, hope, and love, that become habits of faith, hope, and love, that make our lives much, much better; and through them we find the singularity of peace and security that comes from living into and out of the peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding.