I heard a story from a man who had been on a mission trip to an isolated tribe that had never before been evangelized. Their preaching had been so "successful" that they found themselves with a problem: the people lost their motivation to live their daily lives. Instead, they sat around and waited for Jesus to return.
That's the problem that Paul was addressing in his letter to the Thessalonians. Some of the community members were no longer working and looking after themselves; instead, they lived in idleness, anticipating the return of Christ.
It's an old problem and still a problem today. I've experienced myself the allure of preoccupation with "end times" at various points in my life.
Sometimes it was getting caught up in novels that portrayed the Rapture or spiritual battles in the last days. Sometimes it was the prophecies both old and modern that pointed to signs that the end is near.
'Beware that you are not led astray.'
There is a certain excitement that comes with that focus, waiting for this important event, waiting to be proven right to the rest of the world, anticipating the end of daily struggle, waiting for the high drama of great things happening.
There are still Christians, both within and on the periphery of the Church, whose voices warn of the end to come and who are preoccupied with what might happen in the future.
The readings this Sunday, however, give some clear direction for how we are to view this, how we are to respond.
On the one hand, we are told that there is an end, and that it will be a time of great difficulty that requires our persevering faithfulness.
On the other hand, Paul tells the people of Thessalonika that they are not to be waiting in idleness for that day, looking to other people to support them while they talk and dream of the end that is to come. Rather they are to live today, quietly working, supporting themselves and their families.
Jesus' words are even stronger. He says, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, . . . 'The time is near!' Do not go after them."
Why would Jesus speak in that way, warning us to not follow after those who are themselves preoccupied with the signs of the end times?
My own experience in entertaining that distraction shows me how easy it is to become like the people in the isolated tribe, or the people of Thessalonika, not engaged in the real lives that have been given to us, not operating in the real arena of human existence that is the place where we become fully human, fully disciples.
The end will indeed come, and we are to be ready for it. But our preparation does not consist in reading into world events looking for signs of impending destruction.
Rather our preparation is in listening to the real prophets within our Church, the leaders that call us to justice, holiness, humility and compassion.
(Kathleen Giffin firstname.lastname@example.org)