This reflection refers to the readings for Sunday, November 17, 2013. For last week’s readings, click here.
Continuing the end-of-year theme we discussed last week, this Sunday’s readings take a scary turn deeper into the dreadful judgment at the end of the world. Their final teaching, however, is that we should approach this reality of the Christian faith not by stockpiling canned food, but by living simple, upright lives.
The first reading, from the Prophet Malachi, is exquisite – though at first glance it just looks terrifying. “The day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble” – that is, highly flammable dried out dead plants – “and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch.” “That day” – the liturgy has fun just calling it “that day” – sounds pretty frightening.
But then Malachi completes the metaphor, and it is deeper than we expect: “But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.” On first glance, if we do not attend to the metaphor, we just say, “’that day’ will be good for some people, really bad for others.”
But the key words are “the sun of justice.” On the one hand, “the sun.” Is the sun a good thing or a bad thing? Well, over all, it is a good thing. But see, it is the same sun that burns the dry weeds and brings life to all things. In other words, it is not so much that the wicked and the good will be treated differently. Rather, they will be treated the same – the warmth of the sun will shine on them – and they will receive it differently.
Or, as the prophet Zechariah says, “they will look on him whom they have pierced,” and it will mean different things for different people. For those who hate him – and who have hated the poor ones, with whom he has associated himself – his appearing will be agony. For those who love him, joy.
One might almost say that heaven and hell are not so much two different places as two different ways of experiencing the presence of God. For the damned, heaven itself is hell: an eternity of looking on the one they despise.
But how does Malachi describe the sun? “The sun of justice.” The prophets put this in various ways, but this is nice. When God’s justice appears – the God who is just, and treats people right – it will not so much be God who punishes the wicked, as the wicked who hate his justice. For those who spend their lives treating people wrongly, the final justice of ‘that day’ will be horrible. For those who try to treat people right – and who sometimes suffer for it – that justice will be sheer joy.
Our two New Testament readings are both parts of discussions of ‘that day,’ but they both advise us that the way to prepare for it is just to be good. Second Thessalonians contains some of Paul’s wildest, scariest images of the Last Day: “flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
But this Sunday’s reading from Second Thessalonians contains the most humdrum advice of the whole Bible: work, earn the bread you eat, and mind your own business: “we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food.” The point is, though the Last Day may be exciting, we don’t prepare for it in exciting ways. No guns, no basements full of bottled water. Justice, charity, peace. Because the key point about what’s coming is not the excitement, but the just, charitable, peaceful God who will appear.
Our gospel reading is from the end of Luke. People are talking about wild excitement at the last day. Jesus says, oh, there will be plenty of excitement – though notice he doesn’t say “at the last day.” Just in general: “There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” As indeed there have been, and will be – and yes, maybe it will get more exciting yet.
But is he saying we should watch carefully so we can figure out when ‘that day’ is coming? No.
Even when there are persecutions – which there have been, and will be again – “you are not to prepare your defense beforehand.” Rather “by your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
In other words: put your head down, trust in God, be good: that is the only way to prepare for the last day.
Does the thought of Jesus’s coming add luster to your ordinary life? How?