So, when was the last time you read a police report of a thief that called a home and asked them to disable their alarm because he was going to be breaking in later that night when he got off of work?
What? Never? Yes, same here.* It is simply not the nature of 'theft' for one to call ahead and make arrangements. What makes the thief effective is the unexpectancy: That "Just when you least expect it..." sort of feeling.
So, why would Paul refer to the second coming at one time as a thief in the night and at another time as an event that has is preceded by evident signs? I'm thinking particularly of Paul's first letter to the church in Thessalonica, I Thessalonians 5:1-11, which contains "For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night." And I'm thinking of the second letter, specifically II Thessalonians 2:1-11, which contains "Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction." What I am suggesting is that there is some tension between the metaphor of the thief in the night in the first letter and the scenario where a rebellion happens and a lawless one is revealed in the second letter. Both letters, in fact, refer to what Paul had originally taught the Thessalonians when he was with them personally, so there is some 'back story' assumed in both of these letters to which we are not privy.
What do we do with this change in emphasis from the suddenness of a sneak-thief to the emergence of an unfolding scenario? I think the question becomes even more acute for those of us who are almost 2,000 years removed from this letter. On the one hand, the "It's gonna happen any second now!" language loses its mojo over 2,000 years. On the other hand, that's just the kind of admission that tortures us- we feel like unless we keep that edge sharp and keep expecting 'any second now' then we are exactly the kind of people who are going to be "caught unawares" and not "ready" when this whole thing goes down.
The result tends to be people who can't really live as if this is going to happen any second now, but who feel terminally guilty because of it.
Quick story: I remember well in 1977 how an evangelist came to our church and told us that Jesus would be coming that year, when all of the planets lined up for the first time in I-forget-how-many-years. Oh, he said, even a NASA scientist had verified that when this celestial ordering took place the effects on the earth would be exactly the kind of cosmic destruction that the prophet Joel had predicted, yada, yada. Well, of course, 1977 turned into 1978 without the aforetold coming of Christ or cataclysmic effects.
Now, do you think it was an open discussion in that church to talk about how the evangelist had been wrong? No! We couldn't go there because then we would be sowing doubt in our hearts about the coming rapture. We could, perhaps, say that the evangelist's specific timing was wrong, but, I was told, that's because we cannot know the times or the seasons of the second coming- only that it's going to happen soon.
However, the next time an evangelist came along and started making specific predictions, do you think anyone stood up and said, "But, sir, we can't know the specific time so perhaps you ought to be a bit more humble in making your predictions"? Heck no! That too would have been sowing seeds of doubt about the coming rapture.
Do you see? Do you see how maddening this whole framework is?
Somehow or another we have to pry Paul's words open a bit more and consider them a little differently than the typical end-time preachers consider them. Why? Because if nothing else we know that Paul thought he was writing 'encouraging' words, not words that were made to scare the bejezers out of us or to hang the burden of believing every predicitive word that comes along for fear that we might not be prepared if we don't. Twice in the first letter, Paul says, "Encourage one another with these words." I can't remember any point at which he say, "Boo!"
So, here's my first general rule: Unless the theology and preaching that we derive from Paul's words are truly 'encouraging,' then we ought to be highly suspicious and keep trying.
We'll pick it up there next time...
* I know there is a "reality" t.v. show that has some professional thieves breaking into people's houses and violating their space in order to show how deficient their alarm systems are. But, like with most reality shows, I'm a little suspicious of this whole thing, so we'll just leave that show aside for now and deal with real reality, okay?