Mount Everest is one of the most fascinating places on earth. It’s the highest mountain in the world, whose summit stands at 29,029 feet above sea level. It sits along the border between China and Nepal, in the Himalayas, one of the roughest natural environments in the world. For decades, the mountain has called out to climbers all over the world. Some who answer its call are expert mountaineers; others are thrill-seeking novices with little background in climbing. Everyone who goes to the mountain knows full well the risks of summiting. Because of how high the mountain is above sea level, climbers must spend months of time in training and preparation at the base of the mountain. Their bodies have to grow accustomed to functioning at high altitudes. The difference in air pressure up on the mountain is drastic, and if the body isn’t well adjusted, it can cause loss of consciousness, sickness, or even death. And yet, knowing full well the risks of Everest, climbers of all stripes remain committed, making desperate, physically exhausting, nearly life-ending bids for the mountain’s summit. A recent report has said that only 1 out of 3 people who attempt to climb to the peak actually make it up and back down again. The mountain’s frigid temperatures, gusting winds, imposing rock walls, and narrow traverses make it one of the most dangerous places on the planet and one of the least conducive to human presence. To climb to the top and back down again requires training, endurance, and strength of mind sufficient for overcoming the worst things our world can throw at us.
When it comes to following God, I wonder if we truly prepare ourselves for what lies ahead, for the ups and downs, the narrow traverses, and the sheer rock walls we face. The soul’s journey into the life of God isn’t always easy. Jesus tells his disciples frequently throughout the gospel that before the end comes to pass, before the summit is reached, God’s people may be thrown into prison, tried by juries, and brought before tribunals. Consider the stark words of Luke 21:10-12: “Then he said to them: ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name.”
Followers of Jesus may be betrayed by loved ones; they may be mocked and despised for their loyalty to Jesus. But for all that, for all the obstacles that urge retreat back down the mountain, those who endure to the end will gain their soul. Even though the journey demands everything we have and everything we are, when we follow him, when we submit to his will by loving our neighbor as ourselves, we gain an intimacy with God which survives long after this world spins off into primitive nothingness.
In passages like this, Jesus’ words aren’t particularly warm. They don’t make you want to stand up and jump for joy at being his follower. They’re challenging: earthquakes, disasters, war. Air like Everest that feels too thin to breathe.
Loyalty to Christ endures hardships. It recognizes that the journey is long and winding, and that, despite the high cost, God promises everlasting rest in the arms of a Savior who goes ahead of us on this journey.
Along the way, it’s important for us to prepare our hearts for the reign of God and the pangs with which it’s given birth. We must be diligent and hard-working as we make our way along the mountain pass; we must allow God’s spirit to saturate ours with the Word and with his holiness, so that when the time comes and the air we breathe is thin and our minds and bodies are put to the test, we might endure the obstacles and complete our mission.
Second Thessalonians seems to echo this sentiment.
It reminds us that we’ve got a job to do, and if we’re not willing to put one foot in front of the other for the sake of the gospel, to climb toward the summit regardless of where the path leads along the way, then perhaps we’ve more to do to prepare him room in our hearts. The cross of Christ demands our whole self. Paul instructs his followers to keep alert and to overcome idleness. He tells us to guard against abusing the generosity and hospitality of others. His words of instruction are strict. If you’re unwilling to work for it, then you shouldn’t expect to reap the benefits. If you’re not willing to climb, don’t expect to make it to the summit. If you go idle along the route, don’t expect to make it to the top. Everyone must pitch in and work for the good of the God’s kingdom. To reach the summit, the team must pull together.
Now, just to be clear, this passage is not an indictment against the weak. When our neighbor is in trouble, we must serve him, just as Christ has done for each one of us. But Paul also tells us that we’re not to get run over by those who sense our willingness to serve and who would abuse it. We must not sit idle with those who do, especially when the weather is furious. We must keep moving together.
And this is where our focus should be as the body of Christ, pressing toward the summit. A faith that endures prepares itself through hardship. With respect to God’s coming kingdom, instead of worrying about when and how the last days will be manifested by which train of events, instead of trying to decipher the “signs of the times,” Scripture teaches us simply to live as if the end has already begun, and to actively wait for God’s plan to finally unfold by doing work and refusing to sit idle. We must work and serve together. We must find ways to contribute to and build up the body, as Paul instructs the Thessalonian church. As Christians, this should be our first response when disasters ravage homes and villages, when nation rises up against nation, when homelessness and joblessness and poverty start to devour the children of God across the world and in our cities, and when tyrants abuse power. Rather than seeing these as indicators of where history is headed and then worrying about when it will finally arrive there, God calls us to recognize the plight of the suffering, and we must serve them in whatever ways that we can.
I’ve sometimes heard the gospel presented like a system for improving one’s chances of success according to the world’s standards. “Ask Christ into your heart and he’ll make you whole, and everything in your life will start to improve. If you pray hard enough, God will hear you and honor you with material blessings and prosperity.” But this logic flies out the window with the life of our Lord, as understood and received through the apostle Paul in his advice to the Thessalonians. If his were a sales pitch to people looking for a religion that fit conveniently into their lives, it would fail miserably.
The apostle reminds us that trusting in God doesn’t lead to wealth or status; the kingdom of God is counterintuitive to conventional wisdom.
True faith requires endurance.
The invitation to Christian living is an invitation to come and die to self so that we might discover a new and better life in Christ, as we live and sacrifice together and press on toward the summit. Following Christ isn’t easy. It doesn’t promise prosperity or worldly glory, but for those who are transformed by the love of Jesus Christ to love and serve others, it gains us our soul and the promise of eternal relationship with God. As the people of God journey together, may Christ be our guide, who leads the way as we traverse treacherous pathways between now and kingdom come.