Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- Human history, and the story of each and every human being, is the story of change. It is inevitable and, of course, deeply disturbing for most of us. As one gets older even the prospect of potentially nice things, like going on holiday, can be quite challenging as we determine what of our increasingly large cache of medication needs to be taken with us. For those in countries at war, life itself is continually subjected to the fragility of the changing moment and those things and people we love may, in an instant, be wiped off the map. We all like to wrap Jesus in a ‘bubble’ of holiness which exempts him from everyday, human reality. By way of contrast, we have to realise that Jesus was immersed in the dirty business of human living and never shirked that encounter. His earliest moments were shot through with the dangerous and messy business of human life.
In our Gospel (Luke 21:5-19) we meet him in Jerusalem very shortly before his arrest and passion. We are given a picture of someone fully conversant with the difficulties of being human, and the necessity that we confront and come to terms with the changes which will affect our lives. Jesus wants his disciples to be people who will be able to cope with death, destruction and trauma, people who can read the signs of the times; so that when some of these difficult things happen they will not be completely bowled over by them, but rather be equipped with the means to cope. Jesus would, like any Jew, have been fully aware of the history of his nation, not the least its geographical vulnerability to invasion and defeat, positioned as it was between Egypt and the super-powers of the Fertile Crescent. Psalms and Prophets spoke volumes of the fragility of his nation and their frequent enslavement to foreigners. He lived in a country dominated by the Romans since 70 BCE and would have been increasingly aware that the tensions in his country would ultimately erupt in civil war and the savage reprisals of the Romans, which would inevitably have been focussed on Jerusalem and its temple. Like the earlier prophets, he did not have to gaze into a crystal ball to predict the future, nor have any supposed ‘hot-line’ to God; it would have been glaringly obvious.
Jesus was however at pains to get his followers to think and understand rationally. Clearly he thought that the destruction of the Temple – the result of rebellion against the Romans – which could have happened in his lifetime, but actually came some 30 years later, might be seen by his followers as the work of God in support of his Son and the Christian mission; indeed even mistaken as divine retribution for the killing of Jesus. Jesus knew this would be nothing of the kind, and warned his followers against such a fatal misinterpretation and the possibility of fake ‘returned’ messiahs. ‘No’, he said, ‘wars and revolutions and their aftermath are simply a by-product of being human, no more, no less’. He went on to put before them what he saw as the true reality for Christians at the time, which would be persecution; and instructed them as to how to prepare for such an event in their own lives. As Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, creator and sustainer of the universe, Jesus was the end in his own being so that our ‘end’ is simply to be in him, and so he quite specifically instructed his disciples to be wary of those false teachers who would appear and claim to be bringing in the end (the teleios in Greek) – with lots of loud bangs and dramatic events. He was fully aware of the natural end towards which creation was slowly wending its way according to the divine plan, but he knew that this was quite different from the scare stories men might put about for their own glorification. What the Christian has to do is live out his/her life in God amidst the difficulties of the world as it is, and within that, be a faithful exemplar of the path laid out by Jesus himself, whether as White Helmets’ in East Aleppo or in Mosul, or in the bustle of London or the quiet of a rural landscape, or even amidst the hostility of an American Presidential election.
This is precisely why Paul instructs the Christians of Thessalonica (2 Thess 3:7-12) to ‘Go on quietly working and earning the food that they eat.’ It appears there were those who mistook the disturbed times in which they were living for the end of the world; for 2 Thessalonians is full of warnings and anxieties about the times. Clearly different groups opted for different behavioural solutions, some continuing as normal and praying whilst others collapsed under duress, and yet others who misinterpreted Paul’s teaching on the Christians already being ‘in Christ’ as an excuse simply to sit back and expect others to do all the work as they awaited the eschaton. His brusque ‘Don’t feed them’ is a salutary solution to such elevated nonsense. We are children of Christ’s incarnation and therefore hallow all creation as the place of His self-offering for the redemption of the world, we can no more deny this world than we can give up breathing.
Diligent attention to the actual conditions of the time can always be a problem, as we discover in our reading from Malachi (3:19-20). Malachi appears to have been written during the Post Exilic period, that is, from the time after the Jews were allowed to return to Palestine under the Persians, around 515 BCE. Books like Ezra and Nehemiah are full of the struggle to rebuild the temple and the care put into the work. By the time of our prophet, what one commentator has described as the ‘casual insouciance’ of the established has come about; and it is against this laziness and corruption that our man thunders. Each of us is gifted with the time we are born into and we cannot escape it. For every Christian believer our time is a sacred trust. We can bury it in the sand, as did the man with the single talent, or grasp it and let it come to fruition in and with us. For those who follow Jesus it is a wildly exhilarating venture, as it was for him. We cannot refuse to go on this journey.