A reflection on the readings for Proper 28C: Issiah 65:17-25; Malachi 3:13-4:2a,5-6; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19 by The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt
These lessons we read in the weeks before Advent are about a real paradigm shift: they are prophecies of the end times. We are getting ready to get ready, as it were, for the coming of the new reign of God.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
That’s Robert Frost’s apocalyptic vision. This end-time business is vividly evocative. People do fear and dread the end of times. And yet to the person of faith, to the prophets and writers of biblical texts, these terrible things are not they end; they only come before something very good: the establishment of the reign of God.
Will you be reading the prophecy of astounding hope in Isaiah? The story of the new heavens and the new earth, of prosperity and abundance, of peace and harmony on the holy mountain?
Or will you go with Malachi, and his prophecies of the dark, stormy, severe Second Coming: “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble ...” “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”
Facing into the End Time is serious business. The people have not been living up to God’s standards, and which tack will inspire us into action? Do we require the harshness of the prophet’s words to shock us into remembering just who God expects us to be? Do we serve God or do we not? Do we know what it means to be righteous, to be just? Do we stand for the poor and the persecuted? Do we need to be scared into this realization, or have we had enough weeping and distress, as Isaiah would tell us. God has better things in store for us, so let’s act now as though the Messiah had indeed come.
Even Malachi gives us a foretaste of better things. There was a little phrase of Christmas buried in this reading, a glimmer of hope that God not only expects better things from us, but that God believes we can truly be the people God will reward: “for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”
Being aware of the breaking in of something new is a good place to be as we look forward to the End Time and the New Time of the coming of Christ. We know what kind of people God expects us to be, and we know, in our souls, that God will give us the grace and strength to be those kind of people: to re-order the world so that the hungry are fed and the naked clothed and the poor given shelter and the lonely comforted. The wolves, lambs and lions among us will all live in peace.
The Gospel lessons, this week and next week, take us to Holy Week, to Jerusalem, to Jesus preparing for his passion and death. These are the readings where Jesus interprets what is to happen to him as a sign of the end time, and the advice he gives his disciples, and us, is harsh. What Jesus says will be overthrown is the current world order: the temple, its rulers, its privileged classes, the Roman Empire, its brutal taxes and its oppressive military. Not even familiar relationships will save you, Jesus tells his disciples. You can’t plan ahead for these terrible days; I will tell you what to say and what to do.
Jesus can scare us with these words because he knows the end of the story: he does rise with healing in his wings. We know the end of the story, too. We know that even if in this world institutions, powers and principalities crush and oppress, they will be torn down, and replaced with God’s commonwealth, of peace, of justice, of prosperity, of abundance.
But now, as we approach Advent, the church reminds us that most of what we are to do is to wait. Here in the northern hemisphere, the days are shorter and the world darker, and we wait for the earth to turn back to the sun, to warmth, to light. Just as we wait in the darkness of these end times for Jesus to come again and restore all things to God.
The collect for today was in the old English prayer book the collect for the second Sunday in Advent: “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.” That’s what we do while we wait.