Thursday, 30 July 2009

Luke and the Day of the Lord

There is always a great deal of emotion in anticipation of “the big day,” whether that’s a wedding day, the first day of a long anticipated holiday (Mark’s just come back from Cyprus), the first day at a new job, my first sermon here, perhaps - or whatever. In such cases, we don’t just enjoy the day for itself; it also promises many more such days.

On the other hand, there are some days that strike fear and dread in our hearts, such as the day we lose our job, the day of the death of a loved one or the day our country goes to war. These days thrust us into sadness and struggle with little or no light at the end of the tunnel.

Today’s readings, which deal with the big day: The Day of The Lord, fall into that second category I think, and these readings leave many Christians ill at ease and puzzled. Partly, I suspect, because the interpretations we hear most loudly are the voices of fundamentalist evangelists shouting their version of the coming of the end of the world.

Malachi thought that the day of the Lord was coming, and it did not come; Jesus said that “this generation will not pass away” until all the predictions about the return of the Son of Man were fulfilled, and Paul expected still to be alive at the return of Jesus. None of these expectations would be fulfilled, and ever since then even the most fanatical predictors of the Last Times have regularly had to revise their timetables.

Now, for the Jews, the Day of the Lord was always a day of anticipation, originally perceived as a day of fulfilment. It was that moment in history when all of the promises of God would come to completion and the people of God would enjoy them forever: promises of peace and prosperity, of contentment and harmony. Many of the prophets looked forward to that time and Jesus claimed that this long-awaited day was dawning as he inaugurated the reign of God.

A lovely picture, but sadly not that simple.

You see the sinfulness of the people required that there be a period of purging before that fulfilment could come to pass. For this reason, some of the prophets warned that the Day of the Lord would first be a day of suffering. They even compared that suffering to the pangs that preceded childbirth: a symbol of new life coming out of suffering - and today’s readings focus on the painful aspects of “that day.”

Our Gospel passage begins with a prediction of destruction: the temple renowned in the ancient world for its beauty would be destroyed. Now for Luke’s hearers Jesus’ prediction about the destruction of the temple had already become a reality; in addition they had already experienced the death of the first Apostles, and even betrayal by loved ones.

So the only possible sense that could be made of that destruction and persecution was that in some way God's will was being accomplished, and most importantly, God's people would have the opportunity to witness to their faith because Luke’s Jesus promises that their perseverance will sustain and save them.

This sort of apocalyptic language is most often seen in the Bible in times of national crisis and often among persecuted people. Its purpose was never to foster speculation about when God would intervene, but to encourage dispirited people by proclaiming that God is in control of history and that punishment of the wicked will come about by God’s doing.

Of all the Evangelists, Luke grappled most with the tradition of an imminent Second Coming. But as this expectation began to wane, he developed instead a growing sense that discipleship would be played out over the long course of history and, of course, that includes us today. In Luke the Spirit will guide the church during the time of Jesus’ absence but it is Jesus remembered and Jesus present by his Spirit, rather than Jesus expected, which began shape their communities as it should ours today.

O.K: enough context.

What does it all mean for us today? Because unless it has some relevance its nothing but a bit of specialist history for University Challenge. It needs to have the power to touch us and make a difference to us. How can we apply this passage?
First of all, I think, we need to consider whether we are suffering in any sense in the language of these passages? And I would venture to suggest that we are not.
So how does one preach apocalyptic literature to people who are not suffering? If this type of passage was written during periods of great persecution and suffering to encourage the believers to remain faithful through the ordeal, can it speak to comfortable people like us today?

That assumes, of course, that we are still able to be totally comfortable after earthquake, tsunami, war, car bombs and our continuing struggle against terrorism? Could such evil be a sign of the end times?

Well, Luke links past sufferings and prospective sufferings together. Together they generate the cry: how long? When will deliverance come? People today who are pushed to the extremes of despair are perhaps best able to connect with our passage. We need to walk in their shoes. Burma - how long Lord? Zimbabwe – how long Lord? Darfur – how long Lord?

So, during this Advent perhaps more than many in recent history, Jesus’ predictions of the destruction of the Temple, war and natural disaster—all bringing persecution in their wake—seem hauntingly contemporary.

Coming so early in this new millennium - following the events of September 11th in New York, July 7th in London, the South East Asian Tsunami, the attempt to blow up Glasgow airport, runs on banks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - the bright skies of our consciousness have been darkened with threatening thunderclouds. A culture of fear pervades, heightened by round-the-clock media saturation and rampant Islamaphobia.

The point Luke is making is that we should not be panicked by such events: the time of our text has always been present. When haven't we heard of wars and insurrections somewhere in the world? When haven't nations and kingdoms fought against other nations and kingdoms? When haven't there been great earthquakes and famines and plagues on earth? The same danger exists today except that the reports come via the media and are sometimes packaged by the media for good viewing and interpreted by following someone’s editorial agenda. The panic whipped up is highly volatile and has the potential to ignite and explode into irrationalities, religious and otherwise. The casualty is usually truth as racist and other generalised claims are made and people drive themselves into doomsday fantasies and conspiracy theories.
Perhaps we need to recognise this more, and that it is most likely that we live between the times, not in anticipation of the end of time. T. S. Eliot may better express our thoughts: The way the world ends (for us is most likely to be) not with a bang but a whimper.

In the same way that Luke gave words of wisdom to his community, the church is summoned at this critical time to find words of hope for the future and a wisdom that will guide our lives. And that wisdom comes from God’s Spirit. It is a way of saying: let your responses to the hype and horror of accumulating disasters not be determined by the one-liners of media editors or by slick religious leaders, but by the same Spirit who is now the centre of our lives.

Trust in God has profoundly personal implications. It also has important political, social and religious ramifications. Luke still wept for Jerusalem and longed for its liberation. He was prepared to tackle the madness of fear and hate and the fanatical theologies it also generated. He keeps our feet on the ground about abuse and oppression. He stands in a tradition which tackles enmity in a way that is not distracted by hate or fear, but informed by the stillness and wisdom of the Spirit. The shift is then away from pointless discussions about the quantity of time left before the End Times to the quality of being in whatever time is left.

Today’s psalm response yearns for a God who will govern the world with justice and equity. Human suffering and even human sin can offer a privileged time for renewal, reflection and new directions that may give birth to the hope that in Malachi’s words “there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays”.

Terrorism, war, natural disasters and financial instability should give us the opportunity to reappraise where we are as individual disciples and as a world-wide Christian community.

So, to conclude: as we face the wars, the hurricanes and the revolutions, and as we fear the end times, we can give into those fears, follow leaders who promise us safety when there is none, or we can trust this person who is called Jesus who, as God's gift, came to help us understand that God has never deserted us, will never leave us, even when death comes close. He confronted all of that. He has destroyed death and he has said that we should trust him and him alone.

It is Luke’s reminder to live lives of trust in God because our future is in God’s hands whatever that might mean in reality, but ultimately we do believe it means that we will be taken into the heart of the God of Jesus, the God who loves and, therefore, even in the worst adversity, we can set our faith in Him.


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