See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labour we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.
‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify.
Today’s Old Testament and gospel readings are about judgement and justice – the coming of God’s kingdom of righteousness, and peace on earth as it is in heaven. They speak of the Day of the Lord – the critical moment, when it is too late to change your ways, to do all the things that you meant to do but never found time. That Day, says scripture, comes suddenly, without warning, like a thief in the night; so you’d better be ready! And until that Day, make sure you stand firm and steadfast, resisting evil as best you may.
This is the language of what today might be called crisis management, and it was very necessary for the prophet Malachi to use it at a time of change and upheaval, when the nation faced a stark choice: will you stay with, or will you abandon God? Dating the prophet Malachi is difficult (his name simply means 'my messenger'), but most would say that he seems to fall between the reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 516 BC and the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah half a century later. As one Jewish rabbi has put it, Malachi describes a priesthood that is forgetful of its duties, a Temple that is underfunded because the people have lost interest in it, and a society in which Jewish men divorce their Jewish wives to marry out of the faith. Today we would deplore the first two of these (a forgetful priesthood and an underfunded church) though we might be more ambivalent about the third (marrying out – there are some good stories to be told about so-called 'mixed marriages', between those of different faiths).
It was also very necessary for Luke and the other gospel writers to sound the same note, the note of crisis, when the first Christians faced persecution. We are keenly aware that Christians continue to face persecution in various parts of the world – it is one of the Archbishop of Canterbury's major themes. And the planet faces other crises, of which perhaps climate change, and political instability, are the most serious.
But because human history has rolled on for 2000 years since the time of the gospels, we find the idea of the Day of the Lord, God stepping into history to bring it to a catastrophic end, hard to make sense of. ‘Apocalypse now’ is the stuff of films rather than of real life.
What still comes through very powerfully to us from such passages of scripture, though, is the sense of God’s intense desire, and burning passion, to see justice prevail, and for God's salvation becoming a reality on earth. That means that the people of God must care passionately about justice, and be committed to the cause of peace, and seize the urgency of the times – for there is not a moment to lose.
But the net result of having the big picture set before us every night on our tv screens, the picture of global conflict, of global warming, of the globalisation of the world’s economies, is that we ordinary individuals are left feeling powerless to do anything. These are all things beyond our control, forces at work, for good or ill (mostly ill, it seems) which we can do nothing about. As one disaster follows another, compassion fatigue sets in, and we shrug our shoulders and get on with our mundane lives. Getting the washing machine fixed, paying our bills, worrying about how we’re going to do our Christmas shopping in time – these are the things that preoccupy us; and if we want a verse of scripture to justify it, we might say sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
And we're coming up to a general election again. Many say they will not bother voting, either because they have become completely disillusioned with the political process, or because they conclude that their individual vote will count for nothing – though this time round that won't be true in some of the 3- and 4-way marginals.
We need to remember that at the heart of the Christian story, for all the cosmic crises, the fate of the whole world hung on just one person, Jesus Christ, the single true and faithful remnant of Israel. All the powers of good and evil were concentrated, narrowed down, into his conflict in Jerusalem. The big picture focussed down on the cross where he suffered and died as the representative of all humanity, what Martin Luther’s hymn calls the ‘proper man’. And many shrugged their shoulders when he died. Those who were against him said, there goes another trouble-maker, another insignificant nobody. And even those who were for him said, well, he thought he could change the world, single-handedly taking on the powers of evil, but he was misguided. He has changed nothing.
On the third day they were all proved wrong. God vindicated him, justified him, by raising him from the dead. One by one his disciples came to know and believe that he was alive, that he had conquered the last and final enemy, and that he was with them. But this was far more than a personal victory, an individual’s triumph; it opened the gate of heaven to all believers. For since death came through a human being, says Paul, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. Because he is risen, we too are risen in him; the whole creation is made new, set free from its bondage to futility and decay. It is a cosmic as well as a personal victory. For you that fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.
That is why in Orthodox churches the icon of the resurrection shows, not Jesus being raised from the dead, but Jesus raising Adam and Eve at what we call the ‘general resurrection’ – the big picture, when Jesus hand over a whole new world to his Father. Of course, that general resurrection is still to come – the world is still full of sadness and wickedness. Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ, says Paul, and in 2 Timothy he warns about those who teach otherwise, and say the final resurrection has already happened. But his victory at the first Easter is not different from the victory on the last day; the new creation begins at Easter, and bit by bit we are inching our way towards its realisation, as we connect up our story with his story, and allow ourselves to become part of the big picture, the coming of his kingdom.