Sermon for Yr. C Advent – 2.
(Malachi 4, 1-2a; 2 Thess. 3, 6-13; Luke 21, 5-19)
Some time ago, I found a leaflet on the mat. It is entitled “All suffering soon to end” and is published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. My first reaction was relief that I’d been out when the Witnesses called – because although I try to be polite when I have conversations with them, we start from such very different approaches to the Bible and theology, that meaningful dialogue is almost impossible.
My second reaction was to throw it in the bin – because unlike Jehovah’s Witnesses, I do not belong to a Christian tradition that is obsessed with trying to predict the exact time of the Second Coming of Christ, or trying to recognise the events that will herald the End Times.
But I didn’t throw it in the bin – because it is relevant to the readings we have heard from Malachi, and particularly from 2 Thessalonians and Luke, all of which are concerned in some way with the End Times or the Last Judgement, or the Second Coming of Christ, or the Parousia – or what Marcus Borg & Dominic Crossan call ‘The Great Divine Clean Up of the World’ Like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who wrote the leaflet, the communities for whom these passages were written hoped for the end of the world as we know it to happen very soon, perhaps in their own lifetimes.
Like the writers of the leaflet, the New Testament communities saw the disasters of the natural world, the constant conflict, and the persecution of God’s people as signs that Christ’s return was near. Different people in the New Testament communities reacted in different ways to this expectation; our readings are part of the guidance from the leaders of the community about how people should live their lives as they waited for Christ to come again.
How relevant is this for us in the 21st century? I don’t think many of us spent much time thinking about the end of the world – except perhaps in the cinema when we’re watching one of those disaster movies about an asteroid hitting the planet, or some other catastrophe. We are much more concerned with how to live a Christian life in the world today, But because, as the New Testament frequently tells us, we don’t know either the time or the place when the world will end or we will face judgement, we have to live all our life as if it is imminent. So, passages such as those we have just heard are still relevant to us, especially as we prepare for another Advent, when the liturgy directs our thoughts to both the First and the Second Comings of Christ.
We know from 1 and 2 Thessalonians that the community at Thessalonika was very concerned about when Christ would return, and increasingly anxious about why it was so long delayed. 1 Thessalonians deals with questions about what happens to those who died before the return; would they be part of the resurrection of the righteous or not? From 2 Thessalonians it seems that some in the community had decided that if the second coming was imminent, there was no point in them continuing to work. They simply lived off the food supplied by other believers, and spent their time being irresponsible ‘busybodies’ – interfering in the concerns of the rest of the community, while doing nothing to contribute to its welfare.
The advice in 2 Thess. repeats that given in 1 Thess. Christians should not alter their normal way of life while they wait for the End Times. They should continue to work in a calm and quiet manner, as the tradition taught them to; church leaders should work to support themselves, following Paul’s example; and anyone from among the community who rebelled against this should not expect to eat with the others – perhaps they would be barred from the Communion or the Agape meal.
I don’t think there are any Christians in our time who would expect to sit around, have no employment, and be fed by the Church. But there are those who expect the Church to come up with the answers to their problems when they have made no attempt to solve them themselves. There are those who expect to be prayed for, but don’t pray for others. There are those who expect their faith explain everything, without them having to think things through. There are those who expect everyone to accept their point of view, without being prepared to do the painful work of study, discussion and listening. True faith does not wait for someone else to work, or think or pray; it gets on quietly with living this life to the full, while being committed to the hope that this life is not the whole story.
The passage from Luke is a ‘little apocalypse’ so called because it shares many of the themes of the Book of Revelation. There are almost identical passages in the other synoptic gospels, Mark and Matthew. Sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses spend a great deal of time analysing the events described to try to work out exactly when the End Time will come – but a common sense view will see that wars, plagues, earthquakes and conflict are a constant feature of life on earth – so what these passages are really saying is “We don’t know when.”
More important to the writers of the apocalypses was to prepare the members of the church for the persecution they were bound to face before Christ’s coming. When the persecution came, they were to be ‘martyros’ – a Greek word which means witnesses, and from which our word ‘martyr’ comes.
The ultimate witness which the early Christians faced was death – what later became known as ‘red martyrdom’. Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, however, there were fewer opportunities for this sort of martyrdom (though every time missionaries took the faith beyond the limits Christendom, ‘red’ martyrdom became a possibility again.)
One replacement for ‘red martyrdom” was the renunciation of worldly pleasures – entry into a monastery or nunnery, and taking vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. This became known as ‘white martyrdom’. However, as religious foundations grew richer on the gifts of the faithful, the life of the ‘white martyrs’ grew easier, and its witness did not always remain true to the Gospel.
The early Christian Celts sought to escape the harmful effects of routine and comfort by adopting a form of witness they knew as ‘green martyrdom”.
This involved leaving (perhaps physically, perhaps spiritually) all that was familiar and routine, the support of known and loved companions, even their usual religious community, in order to wrestle daily with the bad habits and selfish instincts that separated them from God. For many of them, this meant living on the margins of society, in lives of relative obscurity. They taught by example, shedding all that was false within themselves, struggling through prayer and particularly, through service to others, to become the people God wanted them to be.
There are not many opportunities for ‘red martyrdom’ in our society; and only certain people are called to the sort of religious life involved in ‘white martyrdom’. But we can all try to follow the path of ‘green martyrdom’ and be witnesses to a world where few acknowledge God’s sovereignty.
Our ‘green martyrdom’ might not involve us in physically leaving home. But it should prompt us to leave our religious ‘comfort zone’, to explore how and where we can witness more effectively to the world through our worship and service. It might mean living, working and co-operating with those whose beliefs are different from ours, without trying to convert them. It will certainly involve us in sacrificial service to those who are on the margins of our society, or who are victims of the economic crisis we are going through, or of climate change or unfair trade rules. As Archbishop Justin said at the Church Urban Fund Conference this week:
“keep on responding to the challenge that God has been giving us, his people, for thousands of years: seek the blessing of the city, seek justice.
Do this by making it possible for the Church to do something transformative in a thousand different places across the country. Build your networks and your relationships so that they weave together our Church and our communities. So that together we develop a new vision of the common good – of the welfare we share – that grows from the practical action of people. And that we don’t just let it stand as a vision, but we begin the process, little by little, of making it real.Of delivery, not just declaration. Because that is our calling”
If this involves us in doing things which go against our own tastes and preferences, if it means feeling insecure and uncertain about the future, this is a sign that we are likely to be following God’s vision, rather than our own. In this form of witness, we each have to work out, in quiet prayer and contemplation, how our green martyrdom is to be expressed. And Thessalonians assures us that if the ‘busybodies’ tell us we are not doing enough to witness to the faith as they understand it, we are probably the ones who have got it right.
Some people believe that a physical ‘end of the world’ and return of Christ, precipitated by events outside history, will happen at some time. Others believe in what is known as ‘realized eschatology’ or ‘participatory eschatology’: that judgement and the reign of Christ began with the life and ministry of Jesus, and is in the process of ‘becoming’ as Christians follow Christ’s example, and witness to him through service to others. Whichever picture of ‘The End Times’ you believe in, when the road seems hard, and the opposition overwhelming, and the world situation too complicated for our small quiet witness to make much difference, the Gospel strengthens us with the Easter hope that tells us, that, though we may not know when, God will have the ultimate victory.