Thirty-Third Sunday: With Empty Hands

My apologies for posting this so late.

In the liturgical year, November is a time of dying: the end of the Church year, which rebegins in Advent, as we prepare for the new birth of Christmas; the death we experience in the natural world as the cold sets in; and the end of our in-order reading of the year’s Gospel, as it approaches Jesus’s death, and Jesus talks about the end times.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus responds to people’s admiration of the “costly stones and votive offerings” at the Temple by saying, “there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”  All things end, now fades all earthly splendor.

Our first reading, from the prophet Malachi, is nicely paired: “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven.”  The “blazing oven,” in Hebrew, is more literally a “gleaming flame.”  So when the reading goes on to say that just as those who fear God will experience “the sun of justice with its healing rays,” we realize that the same fire—the fire of death and the fire of God—is destruction for some, and healing for others, depending how we relate to God.

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In this week’s Gospel, after he tells them that the costly stones of the Temple will be thrown down, they ask Jesus about the end of time.  His answer isn’t nice.

Terrifying things will come—and false Christ’s will claim to save us.  But neither of those things are the end.  He doesn’t say, “when something scary happens, that must be the end.”  He says, “Lots of scary things will happen—long before you even get to the end.”

“Nation will rise against nation,” “earthquakes, famines, and plagues”: these aren’t the things of the end, these are situation normal.  It’s a real danger of our rich American society that we imagine that we can escape from bad things.  Of course we do our best—but the world is a scary place.  And that’s not even the end.

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But even worse than the temptation of false Christ’s (and false predictions of the end), and even worse than the external threats (earthquakes, famines and plagues), the worst suffering will be on account of our faith.  How’s that for a Savior?  This one says, “If you follow me, you will get hurt.”

“They will seize and persecute you . . . because of my name.”  Following Jesus is not supposed to make life easy.  He says it will make life hard. 

Then he explains how to respond: “You are not to prepare your defense beforehand.”  It’s tempting to think the threat of persecution means we need to defend ourselves.  Jesus sends us in barehanded—just as he went to his own death.

Part of our defenselessness is that Jesus promises that even our families and friends will turn again us, “and they will put some of you to death.”  There is no one we can trust.

Or rather, we go not empty-handed, but armed by him alone, trusting in him alone: “I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking.”  Our strength will not prevail.  We need to renounce our strength.  But his strength is sufficient: “a wisdom . . . that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.”

It’s worth noting that death itself will be like this: we will stand alone and defenseless.  The only one who can save us is the one who conquered death on the Cross.

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Real Christianity is scary; it involves a kind of hopelessness.  “I do not promise to make you happy on earth,” Mary told Bernadette—and Jesus tells us over and over in the Gospel.  If you’re looking for a God who will make things easy and nice, the Gospel is the wrong place to look.

And yet there is hope beyond the hopelessness, blessed joy in our sorrows and sufferings, Resurrection on the other side of the Cross.  If we call to Jesus, he will sustain us.

***

Our second reading adds a funny little angle.  The Lectionary is perhaps less successful than usual in its deployment of Second Thessalonians.  It’s hard to capture the genius of this little letter. 

This reading doesn’t give us the central topic of the letter, I suppose because that topic is summarized in the other readings: “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him,” it says, and like our other two readings, it predicts the calamities we have to look forward to.

But then it makes a funny turn, and this is what the Lectionary gives us: “In toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you.”  “We instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food.” 

The genius of Second Thessalonians is to say our response to all these dire predictions is not to stockpile water and weapons, not to gossip about when or how we think the end will come—but to put our head down and trudge along. 

As Jesus says at the end of our Gospel: “By your perseverence you will secure your lives.”  The real excitement is to abandon ourselves to him. 

Are you ready to meet Jesus?

eric.m.johnston

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