A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va. November 10, 2013.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

Have you ever had a time when you were totally gripped by panic and fear?  I remember when I was six years old, my Dad, my uncle and I were taking the Star Ferry from the island of Hong Kong to go back home to Kowloon on the Chinese mainland.  In the jostling of people as we waited for our ferry, somehow I lost track of my dad and uncle.  As I frantically looked for my dad, all I could see was a jumbled forest of legs and unfamiliar faces.  And then I heard the announcement that the ferry to Kowloon was about to leave and everyone should come aboard.  But I still couldn’t find my dad and uncle, and I was so scared that they would board the ferry without me.  Fear turned into panic, and panic turned into tears. And the harder I tried to find my dad, the more confused I became. I was about to miss the boat and I wondered if my dad and uncle would miss me.  I finally gave up and just cried, and my stomach had that terrible empty feeling terrorized by the thought that I was abandoned and would never see my family again.  Thankfully, a gentle hand took hold of my hand, and through my tear-stained eyes, I looked up to see the familiar face of my uncle. He led me to my dad, and my dad scooped me up into his arms, and everything was all right again.

This is the closest personal experience that I’ve had that might approximate what those early Christians felt in Thessalonica when this letter was written to them.  For you see, in that church, there was an expectation that Jesus was coming back very, very soon.  And whether through a false prophet, or a report or a letter—somehow word got around that Jesus had already returned, that the day of the Lord had come and gone, and they had missed the boat.  Understandably, those Christians panicked, and this letter was sent to them to correct misunderstandings.  The letter contained good news and bad news.  The good news was that Jesus had not returned yet.  The bad news was that the day of Jesus’ return was not coming until things in the world got bad, until rebellion occurred and a “man of lawlessness” was revealed. 

Scholars throughout the ages have debated on exactly what the rebellion was and who the “man of lawlessness” or literally, the “man of sin” or “the son of destruction” was as mentioned in verse three.  Some think it might refer to the Roman emperor Caligula, who in 40 A.D. tried to set up a statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem to assert his divinity.  Perhaps it might have been the Roman general Pompey who, in 63 A.D. entered the Most Holy of Holies in the Temple.[1]  This figure has also been linked to the Antichrist described in the first two letters of John.  Similarly, in recent history, we’ve had some Christians eagerly identify some enemy of the U.S.—whether it be Adolph Hitler, Nikita Khrushchev, Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden—to be that “man of lawlessness” or Antichrist.  But no matter who this person was, is, or will be, it is clear that the writer of this letter believed that before the Son of God comes, a “son of destruction” would arise to try to usurp God’s rightful rule in the world and to proclaim himself to be God.  Before the day of the Lord comes, continues the letter, there will be a time of severe testing and trials for the people of God. 

I’m not smart enough to know the identity of this “man of lawlessness.”  But I can say we all have experienced events of lawlessness and destruction that have shaken us to the core of our being.  There may be a few of us here who remember World War I and the Great Depression.  There is a generation still here that lived through Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust and the atomic bomb.  For many here, it was 9-11 that brought terrorism to our shores.  We were all shaken by events such as the shooting at Virginia Tech and Sandy Creek, and the bombing during the Boston Marathon.  We grieve over the persecution of Christians abroad, and at home, we might feel like we struggle in a culture that is more antagonistic toward traditional Christianity.  As a result, we are much more fearful, much more anxious and much more easily panicked.

In addition to these events, we face individual trials.  Just this week, I’m aware of members struggling with unemployment and underemployment, struggling with cancer, depression, and addiction.  This week, we also have members struggling with caring for aging parents, struggling with the hecticness of raising children, worrying about the health of loved ones, feeling the stress at work, at home and in relationships.  Others are dealing with loneliness as a middle schooler trying to gain acceptance among his or her peers, or as a single adult surrounded by married friends, or as widows or widowers left behind in the twilight of their lives. 

We are also aware of others in our community who face trials daily struggling to make ends meet, trying to find or maintain affordable housing, being forced to decide whether to go hungry or go without electricity, having limited job opportunities because of disabilities or lack of training. 

All these situations are examples of the fallen nature of our lives and the lives of others, of the brokenness of our world, of powers and principalities other than God’s Kingdom seemingly having the upper hand.  Like the church in Thessalonica, we too are faced with the fact that the world is not the way that God intended it, and that Christians will go through periods of testing. 

So what do we do?  The writer of this letter first advises the church to not become easily unsettled or alarmed, to not get anxious and panic.  In other words, the church was advised to keep calm.   Keep calm because the church is loved by the Lord.  Keep calm because Christians are chosen by God to be firstfruits, to be the first signs and harbingers of God’s kingdom and rule, even in the midst of a fallen world of trials and destruction.   Keep calm because God will not abandon God’s chosen ones.  God’s Holy Spirit will be with us to keep us holy and hold us in the truth.  The good news is that God’s Spirit will be with us to work within us so that we may share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

When we keep calm and stay secure in God’s faithfulness to us, then we’re able to stand firm in the midst of trials and tribulations.  Verse 15 says: “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you.”  The Greek word for “stand firm” is a word which may have been used in the context of military battles referring to “soldiers who determinedly refuse to leave their posts irrespective of how severely the battle rages.”[2]  The same word was used by Paul in Philippians 1:27: “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.”  This passage evokes an image of a line of soldiers standing side-by-side with their full armor on, their shields overlapping as they stand their ground to repel an enemy’s charge.  In the heat of the battle, these soldiers stand resolute and do not panic.  They trust their training and their trainer, and they fight together as one.  Whether they can stand firm and fight as one can make a difference between victory and defeat.  

With the onset of World War II, our whole nation stood firm in one spirit, and almost every citizen joined in the war effort as the government rationed food, clothing, shoes, coffee, gasoline, tires, and fuel oil.  People used their cars less, anyone with a patch of dirt grew a Victory Garden, women entered the workforce in record numbers to do their share, and some communities – like nearby Bedford – gave much more than their share in terms of the young men who served their country, even unto death.  While life during the war meant daily sacrifice, few complained because they knew it was the men and women in uniform who were making the greater sacrifice.[3]  At the same time, across the Atlantic, Great Britain also stood firm in one spirit, rationed food and grew Victory Gardens as part of a united war effort.  The British government also produced a motivational poster intended to raise the morale of the British public in the aftermath of widely predicted mass air attacks on major cities.  The poster said: “Keep Calm and Carry On.”  In the past year, this poster has grown in popularity in various media, spawning parodies and imitations.  This Sunday, indulge me in yet another imitation, as I summarize this sermon with the message, “Keep Calm and Stand Firm.” 

Keep Calm and Stand Firm in the midst of a war that the apostle Paul talks about elsewhere in Scripture, where we do not fight against flesh and blood, but we war against principalities and powers.  In other words, we war against spiritual forces that seek to destroy God’s intentions and will for our lives.  We war against lust and greed.  We might war against pride or slothfulness.  In the midst of this war, we can keep calm because Christ’s death on the cross has broken the chains of these powers in our lives.  We can keep calm because God’s Spirit will not abandon us; instead, God’s Spirit will dwell within us to fight against these powers so that we may become more and more conformed to the image of Christ.  We can keep calm because God promises to provide for us.  We can keep calm in light of God’s love and grace, and we can receive encouragement from the hope and strength that Christ provides for us. 

As a result of Christ’s work and the Spirit’s presence, we can also stand firm with one another in one spirit, so that every member contribute in the effort to spread the good news of God’s victory over all powers that attempt to bind and enslave us.  During this stewardship emphasis season, we can stand firm in our commitment to minister to children and youth, college students, young adults and couples, median and senior adults.  We can stand firm in our commitment to grow disciples of Jesus, and to offer our best in our worship and music ministry.  I think it would be amazing and inspiring if every member turned in a pledge card next Sunday as an expression of UBC standing firm together.  You may not be able to pledge a monetary amount, but just turning in your card to say that you’ll give faithfully (whatever that might be) is already an act of solidarity that will encourage us all. 

Finally, we can also stand firm in our commitment to serve our community through every good deed and word that speaks of God’s love.  Serving others is how we strive as one body to join Christ in fighting against the powers of this world that cause poverty, hunger, homelessness, and injustice in our world.  We stand firm side-by-side with other organizations in our community which are already leading in the fight, organizations like Love in the Name of Christ, the Alliance of Interfaith Ministries, Habitat for Humanity, Hope House, and the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.  Representatives from those organizations, and others, will be in our Fellowship Hall after worship to participate in our Missions and Community Outreach Fair.  I invite you to visit the fair after worship today to learn more about the work of these organizations.  I encourage you to choose one of these organizations to support through your time, talents, and your finances. 

Yes, we live in a fallen and broken world, full of challenges, struggles and anxieties.  But because of what Christ has already done for us through His crucifixion and resurrection, let us keep calm and stand firm for the truth of the gospel and the power of God’s Kingdom.  As we do so, may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.  Amen.

[1] Jeffrey Weima, “2 Thessalonians,” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Vol. 3, p. 437.

[2] Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 43, ed. Ralph P. Martin (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 56.  Cited in http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=1434#P526_161644.

[3] http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1674.html.

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