Thursday, July 12, 2012

Thursday in Pentecost 9: The cross and the mission of God

Opening Sentence
Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling. Psalm 43:3

Commemoration: Nathan Söderblom
Almighty God, who gave to your servant Nathan Söderblom a special concern for the unity of your Church and the welfare of your people: grant that by the power of your Holy Spirit we may be moved to seek an end to the barriers that divide Christian from Christian, and may show forth your love to all the world in deeds of generosity, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Psalter: Psalm 18:21-50

Lessons: Deuteronomy 3:18-28Romans 9:19-33Matthew 24:1-14

The occasion for Jesus’ prophecy on Olivet is yet another moment of weakness on the part of his disciples. Leaving the Temple, they become overly impressed with its magnificence. In response, Jesus makes a solemn declaration, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2). This prompts the disciples to ask of Jesus, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Matthew 24:3).

What, then, did the disciples expect “the close of the age” to be and in what way did they see it as being connected with (a) the fall of the Temple and (b) the coming of Christ in glory as the vindicated Son of Man, King of kings and Lord of lords? Moreover, what “age” were they expecting to come to a “close” and within what time frame?

Jesus has previously spoken of “the close of the age” in two parables. In explaining the symbols used in the parable of the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), Jesus says, “The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:39b-43). Similarly, in the parable of the net, Jesus says, “So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:49-50).

Jesus uses similar language in the Olivet Discourse. “And he [the Son of Man] will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:31). This is, manifestly, not a reference to the regathering of the Jews to Israel. The “elect” here are the totality of God’s chosen people, “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). There is a seemingly simultaneous action taking place: the sending out of the “angels” and the gathering of the “elect.” Also, from the similar references in the previous parables, there will be a “gathering” of the wicked and the “law-breakers” for the purpose of separating them from the righteous and “throw[ing] them into the fiery furnace. The “angels,” in this instance, may not refer to celestial beings, but simply to “messengers” sent out into the world to proclaim the Gospel. Elsewhere in the Olivet Discourse, Jesus says, “And this gospel of the kindgom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).

It is impossible to understand the events foretold in the Olivet Discourse in any context which divorces them from the events surrounding Jesus’ ordeal of suffering, death, and resurrection. Indeed, the most far-fetched interpretations of Jesus’ words are precisely those which have him describing events so far off in the future as to have no significance whatsoever to his original hearers. On three occasions leading up to Olivet, Jesus has told his disciples emphatically that death awaits him in Jerusalem (Matthew 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:17-19). Immediately after his words on Olivet, he makes clear to his disciples that the time for his death is near. “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified” (Matthew 26:2).

The cross stands at the very center of the eschatological mission of God to “gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” John concurs when he reports that Caiaphas, the High Priest, “prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:52).

Thus, we understand “the close of the age” to be a time of separation and judgment. The righteous will be vindicated and gathered into the kingdom; the wicked will be punished and cast out. This is consistent with the prophecy of Daniel 12:2-3, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever.”

For Jesus’ disciples, “the close of the age” would mean their vindication. As followers of Israel’s Messiah, “the end” would bring for them a sharing in his victory. Up until this time, however, they have not fully understood the manner in which that victory will, first, be won by Jesus; second, be shared with Jesus by them; and, third, be implemented throughout the whole creation. After all, they are still enthralled by the aesthetic beauty of the Temple. But, as Jesus makes emphatically clear, the Temple (the one standing at that time, not some future edifice) and all that it stands for are about to become obsolete. In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus explains in no uncertain terms the connection between his own impending ordeal of suffering, death, and resurrection and the disciples’ subsequent ordeal of proclaiming the gospel in the midst of great tribulation as the inaugural events of the reign of the Messiah and, further, the implications of that reign on the whole of human history.

The ordeal which the disciples will endure is part and parcel to their mission of continuing the incarnational ministry which Jesus himself began. As he is about to suffer, die, and rise again, so those who would share with him in his victory must also endure hardship, tribulation, and even death for his sake. “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). Those who persevere under trial, who remain faithful even to the point of death, will share with Jesus in the vindication which is and shall be the resurrection from the dead. No amount of tribulation, not even the most severe form of punishment the world can mete out, will prevent the coming of the kingdom of God. To proclaim the Gospel, in word and deed, in the midst of suffering and persecution, is to bear witness to the fact that this kingdom is already advancing on the kingdom of this world. “The end” will bear out this truth, and all creation will stand in awe at the glory of the God who spoke it all into being.


Sing Your Praise to the Lord