People of faith hear about paradise or salvation on earth, but also about work and watchfulness before the great time.
(Alternate reading: Malachi 4:1-2a.) The prophetic reading proclaims God’s making new the world for God’s chosen and suffering remnant of faithful people. It begins with God’s own joy,
…for look, I am creating Jerusalem to be ‘Joy’
and my people to be ‘Gladness.’
I shall be joyful in Jerusalem
and I shall rejoice in my people.
(Verses 18-19, New Jerusalem Bible Version.)
Sharing in God’s joy, the fortunate faithful will find the world a restoration of paradise. Infant mortality will disappear and all will live to enjoy a blessed seniority, with life expectancy well over a hundred years. It will not be a world without work and constructive activity, but what is built will remain and be useful, what is planted will grow and be fully productive. No invaders will seize the goods and produce, no impersonal agencies will foreclose or repossess.
…[F]or the days of my people will be like the days of a tree, and my chosen ones will themselves use what they have made” (verse 22, NJBV).
The comparison of human life with the life of a tree is very favorable, for a tree can grow again from a stump. So the sages understood it:
There is always hope for a tree:
when felled, it can start its life again;
its shoots continue to sprout.
Its roots may have grown old in the earth,
its stump rotting in the ground,
but let it scent of water, and it buds,
and puts out branches like a plant newly set.
(Job 14:7-9; NJBV)
The Greek translators of Isaiah also saw hope in the comparison to the tree. They read the text as “for the days of my people will be like the days of _the tree of life_” – that is, like the tree of which the first couple could eat when they lived in God’s garden exempt from the power of death (Genesis 2:9).
The coming conditions of paradise will include blessings for future generations (verse 23), and even the animal world will become peaceful and no longer carnivorous—except for that wicked serpent who disrupted the first paradise; his diet will be dust (verse 25). Repeating words of an earlier prophecy of paradise, the vision here concludes in peace: “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord” (verse 25b, NRSV, quoting Isaiah 11:9).
Isaiah 12 (as a Psalm reading).
(Alternate Psalm: 98.) In place of a responding psalm, our readings have another prophetic passage. This Isaiah reading is a liturgy, with different voices complementing each other in a thanksgiving and hymning of salvation beheld.
In the first scene, a singular voice speaks (“Israel,” if the thought continues from chapter 11), expressing a straightforward thanksgiving:
Speaking to Yahweh:
I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
and you comforted me.
Speaking to the world:
Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
(Verses 1-2, NRSV.)
In the second scene (verses 3-5), a group is addressed and told that they will draw water with joy from the “wells of salvation”—plentiful water available, as if access to wells was possible after a siege. This group will joyfully call on others to thank God for the victory. “Give thanks [plural audience] to the Lord /… make known his deeds among the nations…” (verse 4).
Finally, the last word of the liturgy (verse 6) is addressed to the mother city (all imperatives and pronouns in this verse are feminine singular):
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
God is in your midst. This message provides a fitting climax to the joy of the victorious figure who gave thanks (verses 1-2) and of the grateful drawers of victory water (verses 3-5).
As a part of this set of readings, this psalm-like liturgy is a vision of salvation ahead—salvation of a people finding its joy in a delivered figure (king) and a holy city.
II Thessalonians 3:6-13
The Epistle reading brings to an end the selections from the smaller letters attributed to Paul read during this year’s long “ordinary time” since Pentecost. This reading is not directly about the coming salvation, but makes urgently clear what it is that people of faith should be doing while they await the glory. They should WORK. The apostle has learned that some folks at Thessalonica have been living in idleness, which he insists is quite unacceptable.
The context of the letter suggests that they do this because they expect the world to end any day and there is no need to exert lots of effort. Paul insists that they have had a different example set for them—by his own practice. “[W]ith toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you” (verse 8, NRSV). The apostle becomes a little stricter than we often find him to be. No work, no food. He insists that the rest of the community should make the idlers follow this principle, and “commands” (verse 6) them to shun these idlers until they straighten up.
The judgment of God may be at hand, but in the meantime the work goes on!
The Gospel reading introduces Luke’s version of Jesus’ last teaching in Jerusalem before the Passion. It is about the (final) judgment of God, though our selection deals only with the early stages of trouble and persecution. The climax of the Second Coming remains for other readings.
Early Christians had a central tradition that Jesus delivered a discourse about the end times to the disciples. This final “apocalyptic” discourse of Jesus, set just before the crucifixion, is itself an important part of the meaning of Jesus’ death as “King of the Jews.” It is also clear that Jesus’ teachings about the end things were not remembered and transmitted precisely the same in different groups of early Christians. Mark’s version of the apocalyptic discourse is probably the earliest we have. Matthew gave his own version of the discourse (Matthew 24) and further interpreted it by the addition of a group of parables about end times (Matthew 25). Luke also has the core of the Mark discourse, but has distributed it within his story of Jesus in his own way. (Luke has Jesus give part of the discourse while still on the “journey” toward Jerusalem, 17:20-37.)
Luke gives the end-times discourse a slightly different setting than does Mark. Mark has Jesus and four close disciples go across to the Mount of Olives and look back at the temple while Jesus predicts the last things (Mark 13:1-4). Luke, however, has Jesus still in the temple precincts during the whole speech, and it is not clear that only disciples are his audience (“some” were speaking, verse 5, and “they” asked him, verse 7). In Luke, this discourse about the end times is simply the last of the challenges and tests to which Jesus is put when he comes to the center of power and authority (Luke 20). It is the final dialogue or discourse vindicating his authority and office (here truly as a prophet).
The whole discourse (21:5-36) is followed immediately by the preparations for the Last Supper. Our reading, however, includes only the first two parts of the whole speech.
Watch out for false alarms. Jesus’ warnings to his followers (verses 8-11) are that there will be many alarming and false signs before the real show comes. Some will come who say, “I am he,” (literally “I am,” a possible mystery claim), and “the time is at hand,” which is virtually what Jesus himself says, according to Mark (1:15 ) and Matthew (4:17). These are deceivers or deceived; do not follow them. Uprisings and wars will come and go, but the faithful must wait. There will be many opportunities to misread the times, and this is part of the challenge of living in the latter days!
You will be persecuted. But even while all these false leads are appearing in the world, the followers will be abused and mistreated, because they are identified by Jesus’ name (verses 12-19). In the face of persecution, the followers can be assured that Jesus himself will give them speech and wisdom to respond well and give a good “witness.” This concern about “witness” or “testimony” by persecuted followers reflects the later setting in which the Gospel traditions were shaped. Witnessing to the name of Jesus was to become the primary mark of the faithful Jesus followers. (See especially the “Name” theology reflected in Acts 3-5.)
But they will survive! While “some” of them will be killed, not a hair of their heads will perish (verses 16 and 18)—a paradox possible if the lives “endure” into the (qualitatively different) age to come (the original meaning of the phrase usually translated “eternal life”; verse 19).
The judgment of God that was hidden from the peoples in the death of the criminal on the cross, will finally include victory over oppression and death, a great joy for all the peoples to see and sing about.