December 3, 2016 Saturday after the First Sunday of Advent
1 Thessalonians 4.13–18
The text of the readings follows after the comments.
A naive understanding of prophecy assumes that it is always about the reader’s future, and that it is always fulfilled. In fact prophecy is sometimes fulfilled completely, sometimes not at all, sometimes partially, and sometimes in ways never expected. Prophecy is also recycled, so that something that referred to one situation is used to interpret another. Prophecy is fecund and can be read repeatedly in new contexts for new purposes. Not all these readings are legitimate, of course, and part of any reader’s challenge is to determine the criteria that make for a good reading.
The passage from Luke is a fulfilled prophecy. Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and by the time the author of the gospel put stylus to papyrus the Temple had been indeed destroyed in 70 AD, following the failed Jewish rebellion of 66-70 AD. Luke probably had the Gospel according to Mark in front of him, but he significantly rewrote Mark 13 in light of what had happened. Jesus speaks about other things that will happen – wars, insurrections, false messiahs – and none of these are signs that “the end” is near. Likewise famines and dread portents will happen around this time, “but the end will not follow immediately.” Persecution of Christians will also come, and Jesus encourages his followers to rely on him to provide words of defence. What is important to understand here is that the author is describing things that had already taken place or were taking place now. The end days were already here, and had been since the coming of Jesus; the culmination of these days was delayed, however.
This delay created a problem for the Thessalonians. This letter, written perhaps written as early as 41 AD (so little more than a decade after Jesus’ death and resurrection) is very much written in the context of the expectation of an imminent return of Jesus as the Son of Man in glory to judge “the quick and the dead”. In today’s reading Paul describes the return of Jesus and includes himself as “we who are alive, who are left,” who “will be caught up in the clouds together . . . to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.” But what about those followers of Jesus who had already died? Paul announces that they will be raised right at the time of the coming of Jesus; it sounds as though this is not the general resurrection of all humanity, but an anticipatory resurrection of those who died in Christ, and get a free pass on the judgment of the world. Clearly, this is a passage of unfulfilled passage, and we here we are twenty centuries later, still waiting. Paul in his later letters seems to have acknowledged that he would die before the second coming, and his themes in the letters are less eschatological.
The passage from Isaiah is both fulfilled and unfulfilled. I suspect this does go back to the 8th century BC, and the prophet is speaking of a time after great disaster comes to Judea and Jerusalem. A faithful remnant is left in Zion, and just as God dwelt among the people in the wilderness with “a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night” so it will be then. Well, the fulfilled part is that Jerusalem and Judea was conquered and the Temple destroyed in 586 BC, and it was probably this that the editors of Isaiah thought of when the book received its final form. Certainly Second Isaiah picks up on the hope of redemption from this earlier passage, and looks to the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon as the fulfillment. But it never quite happened. The Jewish priests and upper classes who had been exiled did more or less return, but they remained under foreign sovereignty, and were slow to rebuild the city and the Temple. Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66) seem to have been written in that time of disappointment, and looks to a more radical intervention of God.
Later Jewish authors, in the centuries immediately before Jesus, began to believe that this intervention would be in the form of the coming of the Son of Man, and that the dead would be raised and that they with the living would be judged, and that God would transform the world and invite the righteous to live and feast in a New Jerusalem. The resurrection was fundamentally an issue of God’s justice. A simple understanding of God’s justice was that in this world good things happen to good people, and that bad things happen to bad people. However, this understanding started to fray when the righteous often suffered oppression and death at the hands of the unrepentant heathen. Resurrection corrected that imbalance. The resurrection of the dead followed by judgment was the time when God would make things right, and those who had been arrogant would be pulled down and the humble would be exalted, and the hungry fed and the rich sent empty away (as the Magnificat puts it). The resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday inaugurates God’s recreation of the cosmos, and the making things right.
Every day when I recite the Apostle’s Creed I say that I believe that Jesus “will come again
to judge the living and the dead” and that “I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.” For me this means that I live knowing that I am in the end days, and that I seek re-creation and justice, and rely on God’s Spirit to strengthen me when times are hard. I try to live as though I am already in the New Jerusalem with the presence of God.
On that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel. Whoever is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, once the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgement and by a spirit of burning. Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over its places of assembly a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night. Indeed, over all the glory there will be a canopy. It will serve as a pavilion, a shade by day from the heat, and a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.
1 Thessalonians 4.13–18
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘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.’
They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he 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.
‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
‘But 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. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.