Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- With the start of a new Church Year and the coming of Advent, it is worth while exploring what this season is for. Our readings today are particularly helpful in this task, since they are all about people who got things wrong. Like us, they belong to those whom St Augustine would describe as the ‘not altogether bad’, the mediocre Christians, as opposed to Pelagius’ notion that Christian perfection was achievable in this life. Augustine viewed the Christian life as a hospital for the sick, or a convalescent period, a time in which with the right care, we will become fitted for God –with and by his grace.
Our reading from Jeremiah (Jer 33:14-16) is about a king, Zedekiah who spectacularly misread the situation at the time and brought about the exile and deportation of his nation to Babylon. His people had been vassals of the Babylonians until the king decided to rebel under the promise of help from Egypt. It proved illusory, despite Jeremiah’s attempts to intervene and argue for a wiser policy. Prophet’s, as we see here, do not gaze into the distant future, but are hands-on political commentators and advisers the powerful would do well to listen too. This is the ‘virtuous Branch’ that Jeremiah looks to, kings who will choose wisely and for the good and preservation of their people, as opposed to hot heads and the easily-led whose actions bring about the ruin of the nation. All the prophet can do is warn and it is from within this warning that our prophet could promise good times to Israel and of course he paid a high price for his counsel, narrowly escaping death in Jerusalem and playing the role of go-between between the defeated Israelites and the Babylonians.
It was in a rather different context that St Paul wrote to the tiny Christian community in Thessalonica (1 Thess 3:12-4:2). Now Thessalonica was a Roman city, albeit of Greek origin, and had become the capital city of Macedonia. It was rich, and its port Neapolis a major trading city of the Mediterranean. On the great road, the Via Egnatia leading back to Rome, it had huge clout and maintained great temples to the Roman gods and especially its emperors, as well as to those of the Eastern cults. Cosmopolitan and rich, Thessalonica’s way of life was thoroughly Roman, and Paul would have to battle for the hearts and minds of the Christians who lived there, constantly recalling them to the wholly different understanding of daily life that Christianity embodied. He does this first of all by praising the community, assuring them of God’s grace and their already given holiness which he had met in their reception of the faith and their generous hospitality, but also by pointing out that faith and its daily practice are a journey towards holiness in which they must work hard to actually live as icons of Christ. This would have been something which would have been enormously difficult amidst the bustle and coarseness of a Roman city, with its easy resort to other gods, the sacrifices frequently offered them, their Games and bawdy holidays, not to mention the easy access to prostitutes, public displays of violence, and law suits. We modern Christians too are continually beguiled by a different set of pagan attractions which distract us from our belief in Jesus and continually tempt us into unwise and unhelpful ways of living.
The message of our Gospel (Luke 21:25-28.34-36) seems to offer similar advice to the Christian. By this time in Luke’s gospel, Jesus was already in Jerusalem for his Passion, and speaks to warn his followers not to be thrown off course by coming events. They were a people who could easily misread situations, just like we do today. Think how easily we might take such bible readings and misinterpret the events of the last few weeks, over reacting and embarking on actions which might be regretted later. Jesus reminds his disciples that we are on the Christian journey to God for the long term, and that no instant solution to our or the world’s problems can easily be found. His advice is that we adopt a policy of continual watchfulness – and that of our own behaviour. We desperately need to do this, following the pattern of Jesus and, as Luke puts it, ‘Praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen’. The point of all this is not simply our survival, as we see, but rather affects our eternal relationship with the Father; so that we are able to “Stand with confidence before the Son of Man.” Jesus looks continually towards our eternal inheritance, and has confidence that we can make it by grace. Our wills need to be constantly prodded to conform with his.