Sermon: The Humility of Thanksgiving

Preaching Text: “Look! He is coming with the clouds, every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.” (Revelation 1:7)

Last week I had the temerity to suggest that dogma (as well as doctrine and theology) is a good thing. But perhaps I should explain things further.

For one thing, dogma is not the life-negating straightjacket we’ve been led to believe it is. It’s really quite sensible, indeed necessary.

The genesis of all dogmatic assertions, as with ethical norms, is relationships. If I asked you to list on a piece of paper those thoughts, words, and deeds that typify a good, healthy relationship, you’d have no trouble.

So if biblical faith is premised on a good, healthy (and personal, as opposed to impersonal) relationship with our Creator, we should be able to write those things down as well.

For starters, we might write down how our relationship with God is characterized by love and forgiveness, and not hate and revenge. We then could take it from there. Some things, as we know, are simply beyond the pale, beyond that which truthfully describes our experience of God’s love.

The simple fact is that there is content to our relationships, both with God and with other human beings. There are things we know to be true about the beloved and things that are untrue. And, as I say, we could list them on a piece of paper. This descriptive list, simply put, constitutes dogmatic truth.

The same applies to ethics. We could list on that same piece of paper those things that strengthen and deepen our relationships and those that diminish and weaken them, the latter of which has the effect of separating us from the beloved. And sin, as you know, means separation from God and others, which produces inexorably ostracization and isolation.

But take the relational aspect away from these two lists (of dogmatic truths and ethical norms), and all you’re left with is the Law – a bunch of rules with no referent. Without the relationship, all such truths and rules function as arbitrary facts and obligations that require mere assent and joyless obedience.

What gets lost, in other words, is the reason we choose to live by these truths and norms – i.e. love. Rather than uplifting truths and beneficial guidelines for loving and living, they become life-negating demands from a capricious God who, we fear, will zap us if we deviate one jot from these arbitrary beliefs and norms.

Both dogma and ethics too often are reduced to a bad parody of their true purpose. In rightly rejecting this parody, we junket them as either bad or irrelevant, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The solution to bad dogma, however, is not no dogma, but good dogma. The solution to bad moralizing is not the absence of morals, but good morals. Somehow our world has taken hold of the strange and altogether nonsensical position of dispensing with two of the most essential elements of joyous and healthy living.

Having thus established the appropriateness and importance of dogma, I now find myself in the unenviable position of having to address the theme of Christ the King Sunday – the Second Coming of Christ!

One of the things I’m constantly harping about is the need to understand the internal logic of the Bible. Much of what we hear every Sunday makes absolutely no sense unless we know what the writers intended, what they were thinking, and what they believed to be the point of their faith.

As it relates to the Second Coming, all biblical writers believed in the Jewish notion of the Day of the Lord. This was necessitated by their belief that this “present age” was (and is) under the rule of Satan.

Though, it’s essential to note, all creation had been created good, humanity’s subsequent and willful rejection of God’s reign had allowed Satan to move in and take over. Reversing this catastrophe was beyond human capability. Only God could defeat Satan and reverse the ill effects wrought by his tyrannical governance.

The Jews came to believe that one day a great reversal would take place, a day when Jahweh would send a heavenly messiah to earth. Only then would all evil would be defeated and the world restored to its intended goodness, with God’s benevolent reign reestablished on earth forever.

The early Christians, as we know, believed Jesus to be this promised messiah, come into their very midst. In Jesus, God’s expectant new age had arrived, having broken into space and time.

But unlike Jewish expectation, the early church came to believe that there would be a time between Jesus’ resurrection (and the giving of the Holy Spirit) and the completion of the promised great reversal. There would be an in-between time, a time for the church, as the repository of the Holy Spirit, to go forth into ‘enemy’ territory, offering all peoples and nations preparation for the impending Day of the Lord, i.e. the Second Coming of Christ.

The church’s sole mission therefore was to move out from the narrow confines of Jerusalem where the Holy Spirit had alighted and missionize the whole world, again, in anticipation of the Second Coming. What they had to offer was salvation, a restored relationship with their Creator, the source of all life and goodness.

In this interim time the church was to exemplify, in thought, word, and deed, the new “kingdom” values ushered in by Christ and the Holy Spirit, a new and decidedly different way of living. But its main goal, as I said, was to get the Word out, posthaste! Why? Because Christ is coming again!

The modern-day Christian thus is left with three basic ways of understanding the Second Coming of Christ. The first is to take it literally, believing that history one day will conclude with Christ’s physical return.

Option two is to interpret it as a metaphor, perhaps relating to our own finitude, that one day earthly existence, for us, shall come to an end and that we shall meet our heavenly God face to face.

Lastly, we can disregard the idea altogether. The logic here would be to see the Second Coming as the product of a primitive, pre-scientific mind. Adding to this, we could argue that 2,000 years have passed and nothing of the sort has come about.

But before congratulating ourselves too heartily on this loftiest of judgments, we should consider the implications of holding such a view.

As we’ve said, both the ancient Jews and early Christians saw very real evil, pain, and suffering around them and concluded that a malevolent force was to blame, and that only God could remedy it.

Needless to say, we today are hardly strangers to this same sort of evil, pain, and suffering. Thus the question becomes: is evil, pain, and suffering simply a grim fact of life, or can something be done about it?

If we answer that, yes, something can be done about it, yet another question arises: who will rectify it? Will it be us, or will it be God?

Our modern world seems to think it’s up to us, to human beings. Which means we’re in control. We’re in charge.

As we approach Thanksgiving, it is important to speak of thanksgiving and humility in the same breath. For thanksgiving is, at root, a response to that which we’ve been given. We don’t thank ourselves, in other words. We thank God who is the author of all that is life-affirming and good.

The doctrine of the Second Coming, though hard for us moderns to conceptualize, nonetheless conveys the uniquely biblical truth that God is not only the author of all that is, but is the Redeemer of all that is. It is God, in other words, who is in control.

Knowing and accepting this requires humility. Only in humility does praise and thanksgiving properly come forth. Amen.