Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 17 November 2013
Malachi 3:19-20a (4:1-2a); Psalm 98:5-9; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12; Luke 21:5-19
(Find the readings here)
“The Lord comes to rule the earth with justice” ….. Our faith affirms that, even when our present reality does not demonstrate it to be true. It is precisely when it looks like God is not in control that we most need to be assured that God’s way will ultimately triumph. If our hopes and expectations are shaped by the vision of hymns like Psalm 98 in the ordinary times, we may find courage to endure and hang on in times of extreme crisis.
Old Testament prophets like Malachi expressed their hope for the future in terms of the Day of the Lord, a time when God would be seen to intervene in judgement and salvation. When that Day came God would break into history, acting in a way that was evident to more than the eyes of faith. The evildoers would get their comeuppance and God’s people would be vindicated and rewarded for their faithfulness. In the Christian faith this hope lives on, not only in expectations for the afterlife, but also in the conviction that the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord, to borrow a phrase from the Apocalypse of John. It is this world and not some spiritual alternative reality that is brought into being and sustained by the Lord, and so it is here that the Lord of justice comes. I find it hard to wrap my imagination around what exactly it entails to believe and hope for this Coming, but I stubbornly hope for it nonetheless.
A good deal of Paul’s correspondence with the Thessalonian believers dealt with their confusions and misunderstandings around the Second Coming of Christ. It is in this light that we can look at his stern admonitions against laziness. Some believers were so confident about the Lord’s imminent return that they saw no need to continue working. That led to all kinds of problems as they sponged off the rest of the church. Belief in the Lord’s Coming must never be used as an excuse to opt out of life’s responsibilities now. I doubt many Christians would put their misguided hope into practice quite so literally (although it has happened). A more subtle but even more damaging outworking of this same attitude can be seen in some Christians’ lack of concern with environmental issues. These Christians refuse to take seriously the need to address our irresponsible use of the earth and her resources because they believe that Jesus’ return will solve everything.
The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem referred to in the Gospel reading would have been an end-of-the-world experience. So much more than just a physical space for Jewish worship, the temple was the symbolic centre of the universe for God’s people. In addition to the death and suffering that the Roman retaliation against Jerusalem’s rebellion brought, the people would have to cope with the destruction of meaning in their lives. Natural and human disasters like war and genocide, drought, earthquakes and systemic economic failure are all experienced as the collapse of the world and a descent into chaos. And even in the between-times there is opposition and hardship to be faced, such as the persecution faced by the early Christians. But Jesus makes it clear how one is to live in the shadow of catastrophe: not like the lazy Thessalonians, nor paralysed with fear, but enduring with the confidence that people like Peter and Paul showed as they bore witness to Christ. Jesus states paradoxically: “they will put some of you to death … but not a hair of your head will be destroyed.” Here again is the resurrection faith. Even when the world as we know it is swallowed up in darkness (and death is the ultimate ending of a world for each of us), the sun of justice will arise. The Lord WILL come.
[I originally posted this in November 2010].