The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28C)
November 17, 2019
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy scripture to be written for our learning: Grant is so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Malachi 3:13-4:2a, 5-6
2 Thessalonians 3:6-12
Over the past three years you have, from time to time, heard specific reference to the moral crisis facing our nation and stemming from the corruption and venality of the president and those who support him. More often, you have heard a more general message contrasting how the people of this age understand power to the way in which power is viewed from the perspective of the Kingdom of God. In this year of reading Luke’s Gospel, now drawing to a close, we have held up the values of the Kingdom of God rather than those of the powers of this world, noting especially that when tempted, Jesus specifically rejected dominion over the kingdoms of the known world of his day, of the Roman Empire itself.
This week, however, I have been struck perhaps with greater clarity than ever before by the erosion in the belief that those who exercise the trust to lead the nations of the world should act in the best interests of the people of God and of creation, in the interest, moreover, of the Kingdom of God, rather than in the service of self-interest. Just in the last few days, we have witnessed not only the pardoning of war criminals, but the abandonment of any sense of decency and honour on the part of many elected officials, signalling the increasingly blithe acceptance of bribery and self-dealing as the normal course of public business. We are witnessing the loss of trust in the idea that public service is a noble calling.
It would be easy for us, like the people of Malachi’s day to say,
It is vain to serve God. What is the good of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? Henceforth we deem the arrogant blessed; evildoers not only prosper but when they put God to the test they escape.
This is, indeed, what many around us do seem to be saying. Equally easy would be for the Christian to turn from the public square and deny any responsibility for current events, throw up our hands, and rely on the misplaced notion that what really matters lies beyond our present moment, beyond time and space.
Yet, we must all remember that it was into the physical world of time and space that Our Lord became incarnate. In and through that event, God sanctified time and matter, proclaiming that what happens here is supremely important, that what we do in the here and now has significance, significance to the life of God. The Word became flesh as a great world-empire was rising and Jesus offered an alternate view of what power and authority can and must look like, for it is here and now that the Kingdom of God is unfolding.
As the Prayer Book teaches, we as Christians therefore, are called pray that God may “Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of [God’s] holy Name.” Today’s Gospel is a reminder, however, that we have been here before. Indeed, times have been worse, much worse, and these can serve as an example for us to persevere in the face of whatever we encounter.
Luke was writing in the aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the utter desolation of the Roman province of Judea. He was writing at a time when the Romans had erased as many traces as possible of the world that Jesus knew, and paved over Jerusalem, turning it into an inconspicuous garrison town. The new Roman Empire exercised authority brutally and with its own interests of dominion, social and political control, and expansion in view. Jesus spoke of a time when
Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake.
And the people who read this story on the scrolls of Luke’s Gospel would have seen this come to pass, would have known exactly what this looked like. They would have seen the day “when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” This is what Christians face in the world.
Jesus says that when these things come to pass, his followers, we, are called to act, not retreat:
This will be a time for you to bear testimony. Settle it therefore in your minds, not to meditate beforehand how to answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.
He is clear that it will not be easy; far from it: “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death; you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” The engagement in these moments of crisis to which we are called are costly. I was reminded recently that Henry V’s call “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;” is tempered by the caveat “Or close the wall up with our English dead.” It is easy to be bullied into believing that it is not worth the cost, that honour and courage are not worth the price. Yet, in the moments that test us, test our trust in the overriding power of the love that brings Christ back from the dead, we are called to act bravely and decisively. We are called to trust that we are loved ourselves and supported, trust, as Jesus reminds his hearers, “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” This is the essence of faith.
Malachi puts it this way, “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” Such action, action in response to all God has done for us in sending the prophets, in sending Jesus to destroy the powers of death, will, in the fullness of time allow us
once more [to] distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. For behold, the day comes, 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.
Our engagement in the immanent life of the world, the place into which the transcendent God has intervened so that all creation might be one with creator, will help show forth the dominion of God and reveal the pettiness and insignificance of those who seek their own interests over those of the Kingdom of God. This is the true meaning of what it means to be in the world but not of the world.
As we move towards the beginning of a new liturgical year and the season of Advent, we take on a sense that the Kingdom of God is quickening. In these days we must remain steadfast for, as Jesus reminds us,
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.
In these days many people claim to speak the mind of God, but in truth only express their own selfish desires. In these days we are seeing and hearing many distressing things. We must remember, however, that this is not the end. We have been here before and God’s message to us is the same. Remain steadfast in the faith of Christ, trust in the work of God, align your words and actions with God’s justice and God’s love. Malachi makes it clear:
for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.
In and through all the challenges of the present moment, God protects us and leads us on the path through our lives that is ever wending its course towards the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God, “where the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Margaret, Queen of Scotland, 16 November 2019
© 2019 Andrew Charles Blume