Proper 28c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; … but for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise.
Today’s Scripture passages give us stern warnings about violent days ahead, from Malachi for the people of Israel, and from Jesus for the faithful disciples. But while Malachi urgently prophecies that the day is coming soon, Jesus warns against jumping to conclusions. Jesus speaks of wars and insurrections, of disasters and plagues and famines, not as signs of the end-times, but as things that happen all the time.
And isn’t that the case! It has been estimated that in all of human history there has only been one short spell of about forty years when there hasn’t been a war going on somewhere on this good green earth of ours. Of course, war comes in all shapes and sizes — there are hot wars, with bombs falling and guns blazing; and there are cold wars, where weapons are not used except as rattled sabers to threaten mutually assured destruction, or the major powers act out their conflicts through surrogates — getting smaller countries to do the fighting with each other, backed by the major powers and the arms dealers.
And as anyone who has ever served in the military can tell you, there is also a great deal of inaction. Even the hottest war is often marked by long stretches of inactivity, punctuated by violent action. In World War II this gave rise to the expression, “Hurry up and wait.” In fact, there was one stretch early in that war, from late 1939 to early 1940, when the Western front was so quiet that people spoke of “the phony war,” or — making a pun the on the German Blitzkrieg (lightning war) — they called it a Sitzkrieg (sitting war). Of course, at that time in Eastern Europe, in Poland, the war was ravaging the countryside; it was Blitzkrieg pure and simple, and no one living in Poland had any doubt that war in its most terrible form, had arrived.
+ + +
So, in spite of the urgency of Malachi, Jesus seems to offer exactly the advice that mirrors the experience of many soldiers: hurry up and wait. When we turn to the Second Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, it looks like Paul is once again having to have it both ways. Someone, once again, has misunderstood what kind of waiting Paul intended. As I noted last week, Paul seems to have a particular communication problem with the folks in Thessalonica, and he finds it necessary to refine or walk back or redefine something he has said before. Here he says, “We hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.” It appears that some decided that since Paul has told them that the day of the Lord will be coming any day — as he said in his First Letter — if that was the case then early retirement might be in order. Why work and save for tomorrow when tomorrow may be the end of all things?
And so Paul has to get on their case and remind them that the kind of waiting Jesus spoke of — and that he himself had counseled — is not just sitting around on your assets, but continuing to work and above all to remain watchful, to be alert, to stay awake.
And so it is that the waiting to which Jesus and Paul call them, and us, is not a waiting of inactivity but a waiting of watchfulness and preparation — watchful waiting. To put it back in military terms, we are not called to be like a soldier on leave or on R&R, or a sailor asleep in a hammock; but rather we are called to be like a sentry on watch, or a sailor high in the crow’s nest with an eye on the horizon keeping his eye peeled for any sign of the enemy, or like a radar operator bent over the screen, watching, keeping his eyes glued for sign of any impending attack. This kind of watchful waiting can be even more stressful than the heat of battle — it is no easy or relaxing thing to be prepared for battle but to have to wait watchfully — to wait for the blast of the trumpet to advance, or the whistle-blow to go over the top, either to death, or to glory.
+ + +
There is also, in Jesus’ charge to his disciples, a commandment to discern and to trust. He charges the disciples to test the waters: “Beware that you are not led astray,” he warns. Not everyone who appears in his name in fact bears his authority; there are wolves dressed as sheep — and shepherds; and many even among the faithful have been misled by false prophets, out to feather their own nest at the expense of the flock.
But having tested all who purport to speak in his name, Jesus also counsels the disciples to trust in the power of the spirit to give them the strength to persevere and to offer their defense— as he promises they will need to offer a defense, when the time of struggle comes, and they are brought before synagogues or put in prison. This passage must have been a great comfort to Christians in the time of persecution that did come upon them — initially from some in the Jewish community who saw them as a threat to their own faith, and brought them before the synagogue. Such a one was Paul himself, who in his early days, as we heard in the readings last month, was a terror to the church, a murderer and a persecutor. Before long the early Christians would run afoul of the Romans as well, as indeed Paul managed to do, when they refused to worship the emperor as god.
In later days the pagans of Scandinavia ravaged Christian lands; and in our own time — as recently as just a month or so ago, extremists have bombed Christian churches in Pakistan and the Middle East.
So these words of Jesus were — are, and will continue to be — a great comfort to those suffering persecution for their faith. For with these warnings comes a promise that Jesus gives the faithful: that words and wisdom will be given to them to stand up to those who persecute them. And the history of the church even up to now shows this to be true. God did give to some of those early martyrs a word and a wisdom that has endured to this day; whose words are still read, whose wisdom still inspires — and perhaps more importantly, whose witness is still honored, whose memory still encourages.
This week will see the feast days of two such early martyrs to the faith, one of them was an English king, the other was a Roman noblewoman. Both stood firm for their Christian faith, and in their trust in God. Edmund was a ninth century king of what later would become part of England. The armies of the pagan Danes had invaded across the North Sea, pillaging and ransacking the countryside with much loss of English life. Edmund’s bishops — even those shepherds — counseled him to give up and to accept the Danish bargain to let him remain as their puppet, figurehead king on the condition that he forsake and outlaw the Christian faith — all to keep the peace. (These were the bishops, mind you.) Edmund refused to forsake the faith, was defeated in battle, tortured and beheaded. That might have been the end of it all, but his example lived on — and the shrine of Bury St. Edmunds stands to this day as a testimony to his unwillingness to give up, to give in. He kept the faith.
The other martyr whose feast day falls this week is closer to home, though much further back in time, back to Rome of the third century — but there she is in a stained-glass window in our church. (And I put her picture on the back of the bulletin so you don’t have to crane your necks to turn around to see her!) Legend says that she was discovered as a Christian when burying her husband and brother-in-law, who had become Christians through her example. There she is: Saint Cecilia, honored throughout the world as the patron saint of music. The Romans wanted to make an example of her, an example of a different sort — getting her, as a leading citizen, a matron; they wanted to get her to forsake her faith publicly, thereby indicating to others that it was O.K. to worship the emperor. She refused to give in or give up, in spite of horrible tortures. And in case you are wondering why she is the patron saint of music, she fought back by singing — she sang, even while they tried to burn her alive, to steam her to death, to beat her to death. She kept singing the Psalms with all her heart, until finally a blow crushed out her life. And yet, as with Edmund, she is remembered to this day throughout the world as an example of endurance even in the midst of terrible suffering. And how the wounded heart can sing when God gives it word and wisdom to carry it through those terrible times!
+ + +
Terrible times, my friends, such as I pray we are not likely to see; we are not likely to suffer such persecution, such as they or our fellow-believers even today in Pakistan or Egypt — at most we are likely to suffer minor annoyances. Yet even so we can remain patient in the midst of those little annoyances — I mean, if we can’t even put up with the little annoyances, how in the world will we ever put up with the great ones. Maybe we can show our faith by our patience with those little things, because the great ones, if they come, will test even more sorely. If we can remain faithful, watching with our eyes and our hearts open to the coming of our Lord and God, we can receive those same words and wisdom that our Lord has promised he would give — who if he comes while we are alive, or comes after we have died, that for those who revere his Name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in his wings.+