‘The day of the Lord is at hand’, asserted the Old Testament prophet Zephaniah, and if you glance through it, you’ll notice that in the New Testament Epistle offered for today, St. Paul, writing to Thessalonian Christians, holds pretty much the same view: ‘the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night’. We hear quite a lot of this ‘day of the Lord’ in our readings in church at this time of year. Arising, as our faith did, from Judaism, it was natural that the first Christians should take on and adapt their inherited Hebrew ‘eschatology’ – the thinking and writing about ‘the last things’. The Biblical scholar William Barclay wrote that for 1st century Jews,
‘….all time was divided into two ages. There was the present age, which was wholly and incurably bad. There was the age to come, which would be the golden age of God. In between, there was the day of the Lord, which would be a terrible day. It would be a day in which one world was shattered and another was born….the New Testament writers to all intents and purposes identified the day of the Lord with the day of the second coming of Jesus Christ.’
Persecution and hardships experienced by both overlapping faiths at this time often stimulated some of the most graphic and vengeful apocalyptic texts, right up to the Book of Revelation and beyond. We perhaps get a glimpse of that at the end of our Gospel today, where the ‘unprofitable servant’ is cast into ‘outer darkness’, accompanied by Matthew’s almost trade-mark ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’! So, what do we make of all this, two thousand years on?
Speaking personally, these words stimulate two reactions. The first is a certain embarrassment at the archaic world-view they represent, and an intention not to let their hateful images detract from the revolutionary love and generosity of Jesus himself, and his radical way of being – which even the church has been slow to realise and catch up with. It has always been too easy (and more convenient) for the church at various times to ‘weaponise’ apocalytic texts like these to scare people into dull conformity, rather than facing up to the dynamic implications of the kingdom of God that Jesus actually preached. That is to be no better than the terrorist extremists who use their vengeful religious writings to justify violence and killing. Some so-called Christians manage to sabotage the true Gospel, even to this day. But just look at the main thrust of Jesus’ teaching this morning – from which we realise, by the way, the origin of the sense we often give to the word ‘talent’ now, and in which he illustrates the real call of the kingdom of heaven. Those words, ‘unto everyone that hath shall be given, and ye shall have abundance : but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath’, may sound at first harsh and callous. But they should not be understood as some manifesto for the ‘prosperity Gospel’ blasphemously purveyed by certain mega-church organisations. They are really expressing the simple blessedness and the continuing fertility of maximising our gifts and our abilities in the service of God and of others, and not wasting them only on ourselves.
At the same time, though, my second reaction to Biblical Eschatology is to find in it so much contemporary resonance. So many of the scenes which our news bulletins currently bombard us with – whether of the destruction and killing of war, or the devastation of extreme weather patterns brought on by climate change – are rightly described as nothing short of apocalyptic. They seem to embody Paul’s words: ‘For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them’. We are seeming to find in these biblical scenarios less about future judgement, and more increasingly a description of the horrific lived-reality of numerous peoples in the world here and now. We may well be justified in reinterpreting the ‘day of the Lord’ – as indeed the Jewish prophets did throughout biblical revelation, when in their own changing circumstances they described it variously in terms of comfort and assurance rather than threat.
I acknowledged just now the part that extreme religious writings are playing in world conflicts. But in a recent book, ‘The Imaginations we live by’, James Walters – Professor in Practice at the Department of International Relations at the L.S.E, and an Anglican Priest – makes the point that a variety of imaginative frameworks shape all our thoughts and attitudes. One of these frameworks, he says, can be ‘an over-optimistic imagination of social progress and of the ability of science and technology to eliminate human want and suffering on their own’, whereas religious imagination, properly shaped by scriptural texts, patterns of prayer and collective worship can build up a measured picture of the world and of our place within it. However, he admits that this positive influence of faith is sidelined in ‘the modern Western-European understanding of religion as an essentially private matter – personal rather than social, spiritual rather than political, supplementary rather than fundamental to everyday life’. But, however the world may trivialise the place of faith, we who follow Christ know that his way is concerned with the ultimate, transcendent realities, and gives answer to those who shrug and say indifferently, ‘the Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil’, to quote Zephaniah. His way gives answer to humanity’s persistence in continuing old acquisitive patterns of behaviour, in planning which exploits the earth and fellow humans, when increasingly ‘they shall… build houses, but not inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, but not drink the wine thereof’, ‘when neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them’. Christ’s answer is for us to follow the gentle rule of his Kingdom, expressed by Paul in his encouragement to the Thessalonians:
‘putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.’