Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sunday 17 November 2013 Ordinary 33

Theme(s): Faithfulness / Persistence / Working for food / Endurance / God's future

Sentence: Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right. (2 Thessalonians 3:13)


God our ruler and guide,
when we come to the place where the road divides,
keep us true to the way of Christ,
alive to present opportunities,
and confident of eternal life.

Readings, related:

Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19


Malachi 4:1-2a

There will be a day of judgment. This is a persistent, recurring theme in the Old Testament. Here Malachi announces this day with fiery symbolism. Just as an oven in his day needed fuel for burning to heat the oven, so the day of judgment will be a day which burns up 'all the arrogant and all evildoers.' By contrast, those who 'revere' the Lord's name will be healed, not destroyed. A different kind of fire, 'the sun of righteousness' will rise. Not to burn the righteous who revere his name but to heal them.

Psalm 98

This psalm fits perfectly with the gospel reading. The Lord will be victorious. Challengers to the might of the Lord, brought against his people Israel will be beaten off. The psalm celebrates this anticipated victory. The Lord will be judge. On the day of judgment, this awesome event should be celebrated by nature itself giving applause (vss. 7-9). The gospel reading looks ahead to the great day of Christ's return. It forecasts many challenges and trials before that day. The psalm offers encouragement. The Lord will be victorious. Judgment will come. All will be well.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

How does or should a Christian live? Some answers come through the teaching of Jesus (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount). Other answers are found in the second half of Paul's epistles (which generally follow a pattern of Theology then Application). This passage is a perfect example of Paul offering not just 'guidance' but a 'command' about practical Christian living. Probably this command is sparked by knowledge of an unhappy local situation in Thessalonika.

In this case idle Christians and worse, idle-and-busybody Christians seem to have been disrupting church life. (Possibly their belief in the second coming of Jesus led them to believe that they now did not have to work for a living). Paul makes his case for each Christian working hard so as not to be a burden to other members of the fellowship. His case includes both what he had previously taught the Thessalonians (v. 6) and the example of Paul and his companions when they stayed for a while in Thessalonika (v. 7-9).

We may presume that Paul is NOT dealing with the situation in which someone wishes to work but cannot. Welfare should be shared with such members of our community. But Paul is valuing the dignity of work (a value which goes back to the creation story itself in the first chapters of Genesis) and offering a simple economic formula for community well-being: the provision of food for all to live requires that those who eat contribute to the community through their work.

Verse 13 repays careful reflection. Being a Christian involves doing what is right. Not in order to earn God's favour but in order both to express our new life as recipients of God's grace and to live out the divine life working within us as the Spirit of God fills us. Physically, doing right is wearying. Going the extra mile is more strenuous than stopping after one mile! Baking an extra cake to give to a new family in the district is more effort than catering for our own family. We can be tempted to allow weariness in doing right to lead us to give up doing right.

Do not do so says Paul. Find new joy in service of God and others (seems to be implied here).

Luke 21:5-19 

Jesus looks ahead and sees many challenges. The context for his words are the temple in Jerusalem and the time is the last few days of his life. The temple was an extraordinary architectural feat (v. 5) but Jesus could see ahead a day when it would be destroyed (v. 6), as it was in 70 AD by the Romans (and to this day, not rebuilt).

Naturally the interest of his disciples as piqued, so they ask the same question we would ask, 'when will this be?'

Jesus then offers (as also recorded in parallels in Matthew and Mark) some remarks about signs to look out for and signs to carefully understand and not misinterpret. These remarks remain challenging to us. One challenge is that they clearly indicate a general state of affairs in which, so to speak, things will get worse before they get better. Another challenge is the possibility of false Christs appearing who beguile us into thinking that the true Christ has returned. But the sharpest challenge is Jesus' conviction that 'before all this occurs' (v. 12), his followers will be arrested, persecuted, betrayed, even killed and 'hated by all because of my name' (v. 17).

Many years later we see some hyperbole at work in this passage. Specifically, not all Christians have been persecuted (and, if we want to be picky, it is not clear that even all of the Twelve were persecuted). Conversely, looking at v. 18, some Christians have had their hair destroyed through persecution (e.g. being burnt at the stake). Nevertheless Jesus rightly foresaw that faithfulness to him and to his gospel message would lead to trouble with religious and state authorities. This occurred in both the immediate growth of the Jesus' movement (see stories in Acts, and references in epistles), through many subsequent periods and continues to this day (e.g. recent bombings of Christian churches in countries such as Pakistan).

For ourselves, whether we face intense persecution or a low level of disapproval from fellow workers and citizens, two points from the passage encourage us. First, the promise of Jesus that he will give us the words and wisdom we need when we explain ourselves to others (v. 15). Secondly, the encouragement to 'endure' (v. 19). Unspoken by Jesus at this point is that he himself will provide the outstanding example of endurance in the face of persecution, betrayal and execution in a few days time.

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