Frances writes on this weekends readings :- Jesus warns his followers, and those who heard him immediately before his passion, (Luke 21:5-19) not to put their faith in earthly, material things. So many in Judaism were expecting and eagerly awaiting the coming of the Messiah. They believed that this figure, sent from God, would wipe the occupying Romans off the map; that he would be a warrior of colossal power and bring peace and above all world domination to Jews; to those so long abused and repressed by invaders. For them the Temple in Jerusalem would be the centre of the world and everyone would come to worship there. Small wonder then, that some around Jesus were full of admiration for the gold covered building and the costly votive offerings the wealthy had attached to it. Jesus stunningly wipes the floor on all these values with his terrible picture of the utter destruction of all they held most holy and significant. He speaks of a time of international war and the chaos that often followed such events, with the dreaded plague rife among the peoples. He speaks too, of Christians being blamed for the disasters that are to follow, and the loss of trust even among closest relative and friends; in short, of a world in turmoil. Little wonder then, that his message proved so unpalatable to the authorities, who became rich on the temple takings; or to the crowds eagerly looking for the warrior messiah and revenge on their enemies; or even to his own, for whom his vision of the future promised pain and suffering, betrayal and loss.
Yet Christianity has never promised a world triumph with all going well. Rather, it predicts a future of struggle and turmoil in which the believer is at the centre of the struggle, working to alleviate the pain of others. And we do this because we are the people of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Assuredly, Jesus, like any thoughtful man of his age could have predicted the eventual revolt of the Jewish people and the likely reprisals which would follow. This in fact came some 30 years after his passion, and it would have been wholly unrealistic to suppose that this would bring about the triumph of world Jewry, although this was what many hoped for. We have to remember that Jewish history had always affirmed that it was through suffering that the Jewish people discovered God and grew ever closer to him; and Jesus insisted that this age old story had not changed, but that through his unique suffering the path to a wholly new encounter with God was opened.
In the Jewish past it was common to expect the Day of the Lord of Hosts to come as the day of retribution upon enemies, as we see in Malachi (3:19-20). “The day that is coming is going to burn them up, says the Lord of Hosts, leaving them neither root nor stalk….But for you who hear my name, the sun of righteousness will shine out with healing in its rays.” But this is quite simply not our human experience, is it? Of a certainty, those who have died, or lost homes and families and possessions in the Philippines recently were largely devout Catholics; just as many Coptic Christians in Egypt are persecuted and the 48 women per hour who are raped in the terrible war in the Congo are devout believers. No, the message of Christ is one of realism in this life, which is precisely why the promise of life eternal with God is so compelling. It is from within the pain and suffering of this world that we, like ancient Jewry, explore and discover God and find his life, – kingdom life – even now in the goodness and love of others amidst struggle, depravity and uncertainty.
This may be a grim message, but it is a vigorously realistic one and Jesus was never one for sugary sentimentality. We who are relatively safe in the West, unlike our own forebears, or the millions in the third world today, need to grasp the inescapable reality of evil, for it is very apparent in those places. We cannot shelter ourselves and our families from the pain of the fallen world. The whole point of the Incarnation, in which Jesus’ takes on our human nature with all its terrible capacity for evil, and of his dying precisely in that marred human flesh, was to confront the power of evil, and we must recognise its reality and respond to it. The story of his life is all about his confronting evil and his small victories against it, just as our acts of kindness to others make the world fractionally better. We have to remember that Jesus did not triumph against his enemies; he died the most terrible death at the hands of wicked, ill-informed and unlovely people; thereby redeeming not just the good and deserving, but those who murdered him; those who have perpetrated other and similar atrocities ever since. Jesus died not to make this world and creation just a bit nicer; he died to remake a fallen creation and bring it new and perfect to God his Father. This is the stunning, even terrifying fact of the Incarnation and here and now you and I are part of that cosmic drama.
Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians (2 Thess 3:7-12) directs the thoughts and actions of all of us as we await this great divine act of redemption. Put simply, he advises us, just as he did two thousand years ago to the Christian people of Thessalonika, to work; to participate in our communities, working and earning our livings and not becoming a burden to others. There were clearly in the city those who believed themselves already redeemed by the blood of Christ who just sat back and waited. Paul reserves his strictest condemnation for them. We all have our part to play in the life of our community now as we await our final and assured meeting with God.