Thursday, December 17, 2015

Advent Week Three: Hope

Hope is one of the critical words that define our faith.  We are a people who have hope, not just in the sense of the eternal, but as life unfolds, we hold hope near and dear to our hearts.  But this hope (that we often take for granted) was not always so easy to come by.  

So let me speak about hope with regards to death.

In the first letter to the Thessaloniki people, Paul is addressing a group of people who apparently weren't sure about dying and who weren't endowed with an overabundance of hope.  That comes from the concern brought on by the fact that some of the community have died and Christ has not returned.  The fear is that those who died before the return of Christ will miss out on the resurrection.  The people are apparently asking, "What happens to those who aren’t here?  Have they just missed out on the hope of the resurrection?"

The letter of 1st Thessalonians is largely concerned with answering those questions. 

In the face of death, Paul writes gently but emboldened.  He writes to offer hope and to bring light to the darkness.
And to really hear what he has to say, we need to know the culture to which he wrote.  His statement in 4:13 is critical:  “So that you grieve not like others who have no hope.”

In his book Themes in Greek and Latin Epistles, Richard Lattimore details the fact that in that day and age, "Faith in any kind of afterlife is neither clear nor strong."  He then sets out to describe three common tombstone inscriptions:

“I was not. I came into existence. I will not be in the future.  Such is life.” 

A Latin tombstone:  “Suns set and are able to rise.  But our brief light, when it goes under, night is perpetual.  One sleep.”

The second most frequent Greek phrase on tombstones: "Even Hercules Died."  In light of the fact that this was a popular phrase on tombstones, hear carefully what Paul is saying in 4:14:  if we believe that ‘even’ Jesus died AND ROSE.

From the beginning of the letter, Paul has been echoing the cultural norms.  The revolution of hope comes from this one verse.

The “caught up” phrase is taken from Greek culture and tombstones which is a euphemism for death.  Paul turns that back on the people saying that we will be ‘caught up’ not to death, but ‘caught up’ to life.  The hope is for our being with that is the source of our consolation.  Tombs represented a moment of separation.  Paul is talking about death being a moment of joining.  So shall we always be with the Lord.  God is with us.

It is our hope.  It is our faith, and to those first communities of faith, it was light in the darkness.  It is what enables us to gather today and echo the words of the hymn, “O blest communion, fellowship divine!  We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.  Alleluia.” 

It is a season of beginnings, and it is our faith, our hope, and the light in the darkness. 

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