Fourth Sunday before Advent

02 November 2017

Micah 3.5-12; Psalm 43; 1 Thessalonians 2.9-13; Matthew 24.1-14

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Almighty and eternal God, you have kindled the flame of love in the hearts of the saints: grant to us the same faith and power of love, that, as we rejoice in their triumphs, we may be sustained by their example and fellowship; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

THE collect on Sunday performs two tasks: it reminds us that we are in the octave of the feast of All Saints; and it modulates the mood of joy in being part of that “communion and fellowship” that God has “knit together” (collect for All Saints’ Day) into a reminder about endurance. The distance between the present and the vision of the Church united beyond the boundaries of time remains indeterminate.

While the situation of contemporary Christians, especially in the West, is obviously different from the setting in which Matthew’s Gospel was written, the gap between the here and now and the uncertain end of all things is a common thread.

Commentators point to Mark 13 as a source for the prophecy of Matthew 24, though noting some strategic changes. Mark’s Jesus is addressing four disciples (Mark 13.4), whereas Matthew does not distinguish individuals (Matthew 24.1-3). Mark 13.10 promises that the gospel will be preached “to all nations”. Matthew has expanded this, and also made it more indefinite, by assuring the audience that the gospel will be proclaimed “throughout the world”.

Alongside this dependence on an outside source, there is an internal symmetry in the Gospel between the predictions of apocalyptic end-time events in Matthew 24 and the commissioning of the disciples as they are sent out with the good news in Matthew 10.

The structural similarities are easy to identify: family members will betray each other; nation will make war against nation (Matthew 10.21-22, 34-35; 24.7-8); the disciples are not to be afraid (Matthew 10.31; 24.6); those ready to lose their lives will find life, and those who hold out to the end will be saved (Matthew 10.39; 24.13-14); and the gospel will be proclaimed to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10.7) and, finally, “throughout the earth” (Matthew 24.14).

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Even more interesting than these similarities, however, are the differences. Where chapter 10 deals with the domestic — a particular group of disciples, the house of Israel, and the bonds within families — chapter 24 shifts to a cosmic scale.

Graham Stanton writes that, when Matthew’s Jesus addresses the disciples, “he is often speaking not only to his followers in Galilee or Judaea, but also to Christians in the Evangelist’s own day” (A Gospel for a New People: Studies in Matthew, Westminster John Knox Press, 1993). Scholarly views differ over when precisely that day was, and it is not possible to say definitely whether the events described precede or follow the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.

If anything, that absence of certainty adds to the demand of faith which links the two pictures: those who have chosen to follow Jesus must hold out to the end, trusting that his promises will be fulfilled (Matthew 10.22b; 24.13).

Micah writes after the destruction of Jerusalem and the removal of some of the Judaean population to Babylon, but speaks as if these events are still to come. His prophecy takes the hearers through an exercise in interpretation and reflection. As he confronts the people with the consequences of being led astray by false prophets, his own voice gives way to the voice of God.

Although the guilt for the wreckage of Jerusalem and its Temple is laid firmly on these prophets, and on a corrupt priesthood, the people are not exculpated. Their complacency in assuming that the Lord’s presence rendered them immune from disaster has contributed to their humiliation (Micah 3.5-12).

Paul makes little reference to past experience when he writes to encourage the Thessalonian Christians to continue to live lives that testify to their commitment to Christ. Daniel Patte shows how Paul draws on his observation of their present exemplary conduct to demonstrate the integrity of their faith (Paul’s Faith and the Power of the Gospel, Wipf & Stock, 2016). They have received the good news “not as a human word but as . . . God’s word, which is also at work in you believers”.

By virtue of the difficulties created for them as Christians by their fellow-citizens, they have earned the distinction of becoming “imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judaea” (1 Thessalonians 2.13-14).

The Judaean Christian communities were suffering persecution at the hands of Jewish neighbours. Paul makes considerable capital out of this, saying that the same persecutors “killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets” and impeded his own proclamation of the gospel by driving him out (1 Thessalonians 2.14-16).

This goes further than a simple comparison between the conditions in which two early groups of believers were practising their faith. Paul undoubtedly had personal injuries of which to complain, but his more general condemnation of the Jews seems a less constructive element in his message to Thessalonica.

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