13 November 2016

The Sun also Rises: A Sermon for Proper 28 (33) C

It's been a heck of a week, hasn't it? The election in the States has rattled people all over the world, not just Americans. The Globe and the Star have been giving it extensive coverage. An acquaintance went so far as to tweet that maybe the Second Coming would happen before Inauguration Day in January. I am not sure that he was entirely joking. Closer to home, the news that Leonard Cohen had died and been laid to rest in Montréal while the media were consumed with their endless election post-mortems shook all of us for whom his music has been part of the soundtrack of our lives. To many people, it seems like a moment of reckoning has arrived, an almost apocalyptic moment. And after hearing these readings, we might well think that an awareness of the end-times has seeped into our lectionary for today.

Those readings lead me to a serious question: What would you do if you really thought that the End was Near? If you really thought you were living in the end-times and the Second Coming was going to happen, not necessarily tomorrow, or next week, but in your lifetime? The earliest followers of Jesus seem to have thought that. Some Christians think they have a timetable, worked out from passages in the prophets, the gospels, and the Book of Revelation. I used to listen to a radio preacher late at night when I was in Junior High and High School who was convinced that the End was Nigh. From the foundation of the state of Israel to squirrels with bubonic plague in the Rockies, he had identified the signs of the times and was happy to tell us all about it. I would sit close to the radio listening by the light of glowing vacuum tubes, fascinated by his programme, but the point was I didn't really believe it. It was like watching a scary movie or listening to a ghost story by candlelight: fun to be scared.

But apparently our foremothers and forefathers in the faith weren't just funning. They really thought something final and unequivocal was going to happen soon. As we shall see, the Thessalonians especially got into it, alarming Paul by their reactions. As the Event seems to recede (or perhaps I should say, to advance) farther into the future, it's hard for us as a church to cultivate an attitude of expectant waiting.

That is, however, what we are called upon to do, and never more so than at this time of the liturgical year. The old year (at the moment Year C) is waning: next Sunday is the Reign of Christ, the last Sunday of the year. Directly after that a new liturgical year begins on the First Sunday of Advent. And in our readings today we get a preview of one of Advent's themes: that we are waiting not just for the blessed birth of the baby in a manger with ox and ass and a tabby cat but for the coming day of the Lord in fiery judgement. Not exactly a welcome or a happy prospect! Still, we wait.

Today's readings focus particularly on that waiting: how do we do it? Should we wait in fear and trembling for the Day of the Lord? Not exactly. Although that Day is often portrayed as a terrible event, the Old Testament reading makes a clear distinction between two groups of people who will witness and experience the Day. On the one hand are the arrogant and evildoers and on the other are those who revere the Lord's name. I don't actually think we have to read the whole rest of the passage to guess that these two groups will experience that Day differently or to see which group we want to be part of! Malachi says that the Day that is coming will be like a burning oven to the arrogant and the evildoers. They are like the stubble in the field after harvest which burn up in an oven along with the chaff. A terrible picture, but not a universal one. Malachi balances the picture of a burning oven with another image: for those who revere the Lord's name, the Day brings not a burning fire but a rising sun: the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. He encourages us to look for warmth and healing at the Lord's coming - whenever that Day comes - by revering the Lord's name. The previous verses (which are not included in the reading for today) tell us more about the ones who revere the Lord's name: they speak about the Lord with one another, they think about the Lord, and they serve God. That is the group we should try to join if we want to experience warmth and healing at the Day of the Lord and I think those who want to be part of such a community can find a good example here at Redeemer: for all our inevitable failings, we continue to speak about the Lord, think about the Lord, strive to serve the Lord.

In the Gospel Jesus speaks about the apocalyptic events that will precede the actual Day of the Lord, the End. In answering remarks about the Temple and its architectural beauties, Jesus suddenly segues into a time in which the Temple itself will be rubble, when there will be wars and plagues, portents and signs from heaven, and persecution for his followers. It must have been in one sense a real disconnect for the disciples who were enjoying their chance to see the grandeur of the Temple, but Jesus, working in the language of prophets and apocalyptic writers from Israel's past, is speaking to them about a familiar future, a future in which God will assert God's authority over events. We begin to see that here, because Jesus describes the events of the future as though they are somehow in his control, or his Father's. In their troubles, he will give his disciples the words and wisdom to speak in their defence, words that none of their opponents "will be able to withstand or contradict". So what is to be our reaction to the troubles when they come? Are we to seek some safe haven? Run for the hills? No. We are to “shelter in place” and await the coming events. If arrest or persecution come, Jesus himself will show us how to answer all charges. Like the ones who revere the Lord awaiting the sunrise of righteousness, we are to wait with patience and endurance. Jesus promises, "By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

We are getting a sort of checklist for how to live in in expectant waiting. From the prophet we learn to wait on the sunrise of righteousness while revering the Lord by our actions and words, by striving to be the Lord's people. From Jesus we learn to expect troubles at the same time as we learn that he will provide for us in those very troubles. Our job is to stay the course with trust.

When we turn to the epistle, however, we get a bit of a shock. Toward the conclusion of a pair of letters that spend a lot of time focussing on the coming Day of the Lord, suddenly Paul turns into an employment counselor. Get a job, don't be idle, work quietly and earn your living! What's all that about? Apparently, it goes back to the question I began with. What would you do if you really truly thought it would all be over in a few months or years? That you would actually see the Day of the Lord come. I personally would be scared silly. I don't find expectant waiting on the Lord to come in God's good time easy, but I would find an actual timetable for the event that ended in my lifetime even worse! Many of the Thessalonians seem to have reacted by just throwing up their hands, stopping work, downing tools, and waiting around for the day to dawn. And these 'idlers' are overwhelming the resources of the community. Those who choose not to support themselves are living off the rest of the community, which must have put considerable strain on the resources of the wealthier members and the ones who continued to work. The Thessalonians didn't want to turn anyone away. But Paul wants to make a distinction between those who can't work, for whatever reason, and those who voluntarily live in idleness, the "mere busybodies" as he calls them. No drop-in centre for busybodies! They are to work quietly and earn their own living. And Paul wraps up with a word of encouragement for the whole community that we can add to our checklist: "Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right".

It's one of four verses that I think leap out at us as the takeaways from these admittedly difficult readings. We can't let ourselves get caught up in questions about the timing or exact details of the Day of the Lord. But we need to learn how to live in expectant waiting for both the Lord's comings in the Advent season now so rapidly approaching. So what words should we remember if nothing else sticks?

First of all, Malachi's word: "But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings." A beautiful and evocative image, that inspired Charles Wesley in writing the third verse of his beloved Christmas carol, "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing", it reminds us that whatever comes should hold no terrors for us but only the comforting warmth of sunrise on a frosty morning.

Second, a word from the Psalm for today, "The Lord has remembered his steadfast love and patience to the house of Israel." We are part of that house if we revere the Lord: if we trust in the Lord's promises like Abraham, then we are among his spiritual descendants as Paul taught. The Lord will remember and show steadfast love, covenant love, to us as to all the rest of the house of Israel. That covenant love will rise upon us with healing like the sunrise of righteousness.

Third, Jesus' promise from our gospel reading: "By your endurance you will gain your souls." More practical than the sunrise of righteousness and equally if not more comforting in the times when we need to be reminded to hang in there.

Finally Paul's exhortation to the Thessalonians:"Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right." We can't spend this period of expectant waiting twiddling our thumbs and doing nothing, or we will get no good from it.

Which brings up a question, in my mind at least. In the face of all these promises that the Day of the Lord is coming, I think I might be excused for asking, "What's taking so long?" Let's get the second act on the road already! But this only serves to show that I haven't learned the hows and whys of expectant waiting. The mistake of my radio preacher, the mistake of some of the Thessalonians, is to think there's a timetable, that the Lord is going to act according to some set of our expectations. That's my mistake too when I am impatient for the Lord to act. As these texts preach patience and endurance with a mind focussed on doing what is right and looking for the rim of the sun of righteousness to begin to show over the eastern horizon, let us pray to be among those who revere the Lord on that Day! Amen.