2nd Sunday before Advent

10 November 2016

Malachi 4.1-2a; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13; Luke 21.5-19

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Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son was revealed to destroy the works of the devil and to make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life: grant that we, having this hope, may purify ourselves even as he is pure; that when he shall appear in power and great glory we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

THE meditation on time which runs through the four Sundays before Advent now finds itself between urgency and endurance. On the one hand, as Malachi warns a nation that seems not to have reformed its ways after the exiles had returned from Babylon and a new Temple had been dedicated (516 BC), the Lord is about to take decisive action, and there is little time for a radical review of religious practice (Malachi 4.1).

On the other hand, the Second Letter to the Thessalonians and the Gospel of Luke are addressed to people who expected a quick and sudden ending to the present age, and must instead wait for the Lord’s coming, leading purposeful lives until it happens (2 Thessalonians 2.1-12, 3.6-13; Luke 21.7-19).

Malachi’s identity is obscure: some commentators guess that he was possibly both priest and prophet. His name has a generic character, meaning “messenger”, and has perhaps lost the suffix yah that would designate him the messenger of Yahweh. His subject-matter — laxity in the priesthood, offerings of blemished animals, foreign marriages, skimping on tithes — shares the preoccupations of the other writers of the fifth century BC, Ezra and Nehemiah.

These concerns are sharpened by the imminent coming of the Lord’s messenger, announcing judgement on those who have repeatedly turned away from God and come back in penitence (Malachi 3.1-7). It is a wake-up call for everyone, even if only “those who revered the Lord” paid attention (Malachi 3.16). The prophet’s good news is that the Lord has attended to them, and that the dreadful destruction to be visited on the negligent will pass them by (Malachi 4.1-2a).

The dramatic description of the “messenger of the covenant” (Malachi 3.1-4), and the promise that Elijah will return (Malachi 4.5-6), taken as portraits of John the Baptist, the last of the prophets, have given this book a special claim in Christian biblical interpretation. It is a position supported by the canonical arrangement of Old Testament books in the Bibles used by the Western Churches, which ends with Malachi, as if awaiting John’s early arrival in the Gospels.

Luke’s angel even quotes the prophecy to Zechariah in laying out the destiny of his son (Luke 1.16-17). The Christian imagination has been further captured by the image of the “Sun of Righteousness”, who will “rise with healing in his wings”, as quick reference to Charles Wesley’s “Christ, whose glory fills the skies” and “Hark! the herald angels sing” will confirm.

Time is longer for the recipients of the Second Letter to the Thessalonians, in contrast to the warnings of an imminent Second Coming in 1 Thessalonians. The writer’s identity is debated, and it is thus difficult to attach a precise date to the work. What is important is that, until Christ comes, the life of a young Christian community must continue to be an exemplary combination of prayerfulness, despite persecution (2 Thessalonians 1.3-4), and honest hard work that ensures financial independence (2 Thessalonians 3.10-12).

The writer disapproves of idleness in general, but particularly deplores “busybodies” — a term that has survived from Tyndale, who also spoke of “those who walk among you inordinately” (2 Thessalonians 3.11). This is the wrong sort of interest and concern, and an uncomfortably recognisable reminder of the ease with which good time can be wasted under the pretence of looking busy.

Luke recounts Jesus’s warnings of the destruction of the Temple, and the afflictions that await his followers, very much as Mark does (Mark 13.1-3). Both versions are preceded by the vignette of the widow, putting the tiny amount of money she has to live on into the treasury (Mark 12.41-44; Luke 21.1-4). This can be read either as a model of faithfulness unrivalled by the Scribes and Pharisees, or as the clinching piece of evidence that people like her continue to be ground down by those who should protect them (Brendan Byrne, The Hospitality of God, Liturgical Press, 2000).

Both Mark and Luke grant Jesus insight into historical events which clearly come after the crucifixion and resurrection: the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, and the arrest, torture, and death of a number of his followers. Scholars explain this as a necessary adjustment of perspective, by writers who realised, in recording the gospel of Jesus for transmission, that the expected end of all things in his glorious return as judge was not going to happen in their lifetimes.

The important task, under those conditions, is to show that Jesus is in control of the present and of the future. That theme will be triumphantly resumed next week, as the Church celebrates Christ the King.

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