Toorak Uniting Church

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The caterpillar and the end of time

1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
9:00 am, 6 November 2005

What do a hungry caterpillar and the sound of God’s trumpet have in common?

At first sight: Nothing!

At second sight: Everything!

Well, at least that is what I believe.

As a twenty first century Christian I have trouble with God’s trumpet, and even more with people being caught up in the clouds and carried of the heaven, not to mention hundreds of thousands meeting the Lord somewhere in thin air.
It just does not correspond with the way I have been taught to look at the world and what I have been told in science lessons at school.

Some will tell me it’s just a matter of faith: leave your brains at home when you come to Church and believe that nothing is impossible for the Lord.
Others will tell me Paul had a very primitive view of the world and believed all sorts of weird and wonderful things we now no longer believe and that a lot of what was written in the Bible should therefore be ignored as misinformation and be explained away as lack of scientific insight and a fruitful imagination.

I don’t think either of those is fair.

There is abundant evidence in the letters of Paul and indeed in other parts of scripture that the writers were people of intelligence. The intricacy and carefulness with which arguments and stories are put together, the attention to detail and the beauty of language suggest a level of understanding that we can often not even start to phantom.
No, certainly not people who would want us to leave our brains at home when following their arguments or trying to discern the meaning of their storytelling.
And where there world view is concerned? They did not know the earth was round, although some Greek philosophers had speculated about it. They did not know about space, men on the moon, electricity, computers, aeroplanes etc. In that respect, yes, was their world view different to ours. But they did know, even if it was only from experience, the laws of gravity, they were familiar with the consistency of clouds and they did know that walking on air may have seemed like a very desirable thing to do, but was not something that was practically possible.

So what is going on when Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians suddenly engages in such flowery, imaginary language and imagery as archangel’s calls and the sounding of trumpets, people caught up in clouds and meeting Christ in thin air?

The rest of the letter is after all very down to earth and concrete. Why suddenly this change of gear? After gratitude and compliments and exhortations and admonitions about faith, and Christian love and hope, about how to live a life pleasing to God and urging them to keep up the good work and stay the exemplary Christians we are suddenly confronted with this language and imagery concerning the end of times. Language and imagery we don’t quite know how to deal with because it is alien to our culture and to us.

After two thousand years we have stopped speculating about the end of times and is it, for most of us, something that we do not expect ourselves to be dealing with in the very near future. Most of us will have some vague ideas about the second coming but not be terribly concerned or alarmed at what might be coming.

The first Christians were. They expected the return of Christ to be imminent and to have an enormous impact on the world. The expected sudden and total change to happen within their lifetimes with Christ coming down from heaven and the Kingdom of God taking over the world. An event that was written about with colourful and highly symbolic language, apocalyptic language, poetic and invented to describe what they all full well knew could not be described: The end of time.
And now some of them have started to die. It is taking longer than they thought. Things are turning out different to what they expected. What now?
Paul uses the same poetic, apocalyptic language to console and encourage them. Did he, or did the Thessalonians for that matter, ever imagine it would happen exactly like he describes it in this letter? I don’t think so. A couple of verses further on and he tells the Thessalonians that nobody knows when or how this will happen. That the only important thing is to believe that it will. In other letters, in other parts of scripture, even outside scripture, the same imagery is used, to conjure up a terrifyingly different mind boggling world altering event that was to be expected. An event where everything would be turned upside down and none of the old as we know it would stay as it was. An event that asked for flowery, extravagant completely over the top imagery and language to express just how different and how mind boggling this would be.

It is the language of faith talking about a faith event. Something outside reason, sure, but not something where you’d have to leave your brains behind. Something stemming from another world view, but not a more primitive one of the past, more one that is still waiting to happen, in the future.

Sure, people have died, sure it is taking a bit longer than we thought, sure we wonder sometimes will it ever happen, sure with the Church in demise some of us are starting to despair: another couple of years and there may not be anybody left!

Nothing much has changed since the days of Paul. We still live in the same world with the same fears. Will Christ come? Will God abandon us? What does the future hold?

Paul’s answer to that is: Christ will come God promised. God will not abandon us, like he never abandoned Christ, even in death. Our future is with God, it is in his hands, no matter what is going on or how bleak things may look from our perspective. A cry, a call, the sound of a trumpet is all it takes. And we will be with God and God will be with us, even where death has occurred.

How, when, what exactly? We don’t know. For the moment we are like the caterpillar, transforming. None of us know what butterfly will eventually emerge or when it will. We can only be sure that it will. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2005

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