Mal 3:19-20a = 4:1-2 (RSV)
2 Thes 3:7-12
It’s that wonderful time of year when the Official Holiday Season begins with a parade presided over by Mickey Mouse that celebrates the virtues of shopping, even on Thanksgiving Day itself. It’s also when the readings in the liturgy scare tend to hell out of us, or so it is to be hoped, with accounts of what we tend to think of as the end of the world. That’s a sure sign Advent is coming. This year things are a little different, because many people have already had the hell scared out of them, or into them, by the Sequester and the Shutdown. Environmental scientists are warning again that global climate change could spell the end of human civilization as we know it. For some years now, Doomsday preppers, including God-fearing Christians, are still squirreling away food and water supplies, converting their stocks and bonds into ready cash, and moving across the country to desert and mountain hideaways.
It’s not just global warming or the hurricanes and earthquakes or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or the civil war in Syria or the threat of an Al Qaeda attack on the Mall of America or the fall of the House of Lehman or J. P. Morgan Chase or the problem of signing up for the Affordable Care Act. It’s all of them. Although the stock market is edging warily upwards these days, we’re jittery. People are not shopping with the usual pre-holiday abandon that usually delights the fiscal hearts of Wal-Mart and Macy’s.
And perhaps we should be jittery, if only because of the huge mess we have made of things over the last fifty years or more. Our learning curve is pretty flat. But that’s really not what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel from Luke, or that passage from the book of Malachi, which — not coincidentally — is the last book of the Old Testament. People have been jittery for a long time. Check it out on the History Channel.
Jesus seems to have foreseen all that and actually warned us against getting too agitated about rumors of the End Times. In today’s reading, for instance, he says, “Take heed that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified; for this must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” (Luke 21: 8-9.) Not by a long shot.
St. Paul was no less opposed to the spiritual and social paralysis that comes in the wake of trying to pin-point the Parousia. He rebuked the fidgety folks in Thessalónika, many of whom had worked themselves into a stew expecting the Second Coming of Christ, “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 in quietness and to earn their own living.” (2 Thess 3:11-12)
So what are we supposed to do? Why does the Church schedule these readings every year just before Advent? By now, we have heard it all so often, we may be numb to the message. But dismissing the age-old Christian belief in the end of the world as just another outmoded myth misses the point just as much as overreacting to always-erroneous predictions of the day and the hour.
It’s a mistake, first of all, to think that Jesus was simply talking about history, about space and time and the stock market or even the stones of the Second Temple. What the prophet Malachi, Paul, and Jesus were all saying is that this world, with its governments, social systems, wealth, credit cards, poverty, misery, and suffering is not ultimate, not finally decisive. Money, power, and success are not what life is all about, despite what you see on television or read in the papers. Still, mighty nations succeed one another, corporations rise and fall, one form of currency replaces another, stock markets crash, and hurricanes come in tandem. Stars fall out of the sky, or seem to. Wars and rumors of war continue. The world remains very much with us.
But the message of today’s readings is that we are not to locate our hopes or our fears in the powers and structures of this world, which are not only fallible, but will inevitably fail us. Hope rests secure in God alone. But, on the other hand, as St. Paul insists, we may not resign our commission as members of our communities, but must remain attentive to the very real needs of those around us and the living planet as a whole. For the world is the scene of our activity as Christians, not in order to create some sort of perfect Christian super-state. Religious fanatics and political dictators have tried that many times in the past. And all they created in the long run were savage totalitarian regimes or doomed utopias that burned out or just faded into irrelevance.
It’s much simpler than that. We are called upon to build a human city, a humane habitat, a commonwealth of love and justice, of peace, truth and freedom. We are called to look to our neighbor in order to assist and protect, especially the poor, the oppressed, and defenseless. For all that, Jesus warns us, we should not count on being rewarded, honored, or even thanked. Expect, rather, to be misunderstood, opposed, and even persecuted. Simple does not mean easy.
It isn’t by chance that the word “justice” appears so strikingly in the first reading and the responsorial psalm. If you missed it, consider taking another look when you go home this morning or even better, before you go to bed tonight. Even St. Paul is thinking about justice when he reminds his first small church that no one should impose on anyone else, but everyone should contribute to the extent they can to the welfare of all.
Human beings may well be able to wreck the world, and we stand a good chance of doing so if we don’t change our way of living pretty soon — especially in this richest of all nations. But we can’t really save the world. In the end, God bestows the New Heaven and the New Earth. It will be a gift, not a credit-card purchase or some kind of spiritual dividend. But we’re not just marking time here. We are being prepared. And so when we say we believe that Jesus Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, we really should lift up our hearts. For the old world is coming to an end, with all its injustice and suffering and destruction. It has been ending all along in fact, ever since Christ rose from the dead. A new world is coming, just as surely, but it will get here in God’s good time. In the meantime, we have some important work to do. In a word, inserting into this teetering planet a healthy dose of peace, love, justice, and freedom.