2 Thessalonians 3.6-13;
THERE IS generally a queue outside the church of S Maria in Cosmedin, in the Forum Boarium, in Rome. It is made up of tourists, many of them Japanese. They are not waiting to go to mass: they want to see the Bocca della Verità, the “mouth of truth”, in the church’s portico.
This relic, famous from the film Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, was originally a cover for the drains of Rome. The medieval superstition is that anyone would be stung who put a hand into the opening of the marble disk and then told a lie. The leering mouth, wide open eyes and flaring nostrils do indeed induce a certain sort of alarm. I have to confess it is the same kind of alarm that I sense when reading the apocalyptic passages that are presented to us today.
There is something faintly improbable and perhaps unattractive about the language of burning the arrogant and evildoers, or of dreadful portents and great signs in heaven. This is the material used by people who shout at us from street corners, such as the man with the megaphone in the centre of Oxford.
Prophecy, of the kind we hear in Sunday’s Gospel, was highly respected and widely practiced in the various civilizations that form the context of Old and New Testaments and span more than 1000 years. We catch a glimpse of this in Egypt (Exodus 7.11-13) and in Babylon (Daniel 5.5-12). It is reflected in the selection of five Sibyls, women prophets from classical antiquity, whom Michelangelo includes in the decoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling because it was thought they foretold the coming of Jesus.
Luke Timothy Johnson, a New Testament scholar, identifies the interest in prophecy that predicts the future as an important cultural backdrop to the writing of Luke’s Gospel. Johnson believes that St Luke presents Jesus as a prophet because that description will begin to attract both Jewish and Gentile hearers of the Gospel to a deeper exploration of who Jesus is.
For Luke, however, Jesus is a prophet who does more than unfold the future. Jesus provides a commentary on the destruction of Jerusalem, something that the hearers of the Gospel probably know has already happened. He then goes on to speak of the approach of the world’s redemption, when the Son of Man is seen in a cloud, with power and great glory (Luke 21.27).
It is generally agreed that Luke’s Gospel was written after 70 AD, the year in which the Romans destroyed the Temple and levelled Jerusalem. It seems very likely that Luke has this destruction of Jerusalem in mind when he uses the phrase “Nation will rise against nation” (Luke 21.10).
The reference to “dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” is almost a convention for describing an assault against the Temple. The Jewish historian Josephus uses a similar description, as does the second book of Maccabees when it describes the earlier pillaging of the second Temple in 169 BC.
“But before all this occurs,” Luke records, in a distinctive phrase (Luke 21.12), there will be a persecution of the Church. Luke will narrate this in Acts. The martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7.58-8.1) and sending of Paul, persecutor turned apostle, to Rome for trial (Acts 25.1-12), are obvious examples that fulfil this prophecy.
In Sunday’s Gospel, Luke presents Jesus as someone whose prophetic character will attract popular attention. Using a contemporary reference, this would be a bit like describing him as the true inventor of Facebook. But the significance of his identity goes deeper than social networking. Jesus confronts all destruction, whether on a cosmic, social, or personal scale, and draws it into the orbit of divine redemption.
The scale of this work is truly terrific. It demands extreme language, of a kind Jesus has used already, when he said: “I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven. See, I have given you authority . . . over all the powers of the enemy and nothing will hurt you” (Luke 10.18-19). The prophetic Jesus that Luke presents does more than tell the future: he shapes its redemption.
The chill from the language of destruction, evil, and suffering that Jesus uses in this Gospel will confront us in other vivid ways, as we stop to remember those from our own time, our own land, and perhaps our own family and neighbourhood, who have died in the context of war. We shall gather at war memorials, stand in silence, and confront our own need for the hope and vision of peace.
Remembrance Sunday is not the moment to attempt a prophecy about the future, or apportion blame for the past. Rather, it is the opportunity to be silent and to reflect on the sum of wartime grief and loss, military and civilian, knowing that of ourselves we cannot restore life that has been lost: that belongs to God.
But we can commit ourselves to shaping a world of justice and of peace. And if the words we speak in making that solemn commitment do not have the whole truth within them, may the memorials to our dead sting us into shame and repentance.
1See, 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. 2But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.
2 Thessalonians 3.6-13
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, labouring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busy-bodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right.
5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, 6‘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.’ 7They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ 8And Jesus 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. 9When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ 10Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12But 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. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.’