Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sermon for 33rd Sunday Ordinary Time

A couple of years ago, in the fall, I was driving a high school team to a meet at a distant city. Suddenly one of the coaches called out, "look at that big cloud of smoke rising into the sky over to the east" We all wondered what was burning and why. Within a few days I got the answer when I talked with an eye witness of the fire.

That day a farmer had been harvesting a field. When they finished he and his crew took a short break to look over their completed work and discuss where they would go next. While they were talking one unit of their equipment over heated causing a fire to start in the stubble that remained in the field.

They made an attempt to extinguish the flame but the wind that day moved the fire beyond their reach in a matter of seconds. Soon the whole field was engulfed in flame causing the plume of smoke that rose several hundred feet into the air, which we had seen from our bus several miles to the west. I recalled this event when I read our Old Testament passage which uses the image of burning stubble to make a point.

Our first reading today, taken from the book of Malachi, was written about 450 years before the birth of Jesus. Israel had been set free from its captivity in Babylon less than 100 years before and had returned to Jerusalem with great Joy and renewed fervor for their God. But now the people have grown cold towards God and Israel is once again becoming weak and vulnerable.

God loves the people of Israel but many no longer return that love. Taking advantage of the negligent attitude of the priests, they withhold tithes and Temple donations and cheat God by providing defective goods for sacrifice . People divorce their spouses and marry worshipers of other gods. Sorcerers, adulterers, perjurers, and people who take advantage of workers while unemployment and homelessness are rising.

Priests, who could strengthen the community by their instruction instead connive with the people, telling them what they want to hear. Underlying all this is a weary attitude, a cynical notion that nothing is to be gained by doing what God wants.

God condemns the wrongdoing and the underlying attitude, issuing a call for immediate reform, but also announcing a general reckoning at a future time. Our reading today, from the Old Testament, is about that future reckoning.1

On That Day, the stubble will be set on fire and consumed! He means that the evil doers will be left nothing on the day of reckoning. However those who remain faithful to the covenant will be rewarded with new life and healing in the presence of the sun of Justice.

The image of fire is used often in the Bible. This is one of the verses that leads us and artists to depict hell as a place of fire. Earlier in the Book of Malachi, however, the image of fire is used in a different way.

"But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand firm when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire, like fullers’ lye.

He will sit refining and purifying silver, and he will purify the Levites, Refining them like gold or silver, that they may bring offerings to the LORD in righteousness." (Malachi 3:2-3) 
Here, fire is used to communicate that, on the day of reckoning, those that have been faithful will be prepared for new life in Heaven through a process like a refiner’s fire purifies gold and silver. Unlike the fire that will leave the evil ones with nothing, this fire will purify and ready God’s faithful for new life. (This is one of the Biblical references for the Church’s teaching about Purgatory, that final preparation for entering God’s presence after our death.)

The use of "fire" in so many ways might be confusing if you are one of those that takes everything literally. But even in our everyday language we use words like "fire", that have known physical meaning, as metaphors to explain some non physical thing.

We might say thing like:

I’m on fire with love for Susy.
Pete is on fire with his faith.
Mother Teresa’s concern for the poor was like a raging fire.
King So-and-So burned through his country’s wealth in less than a decade.

Do we mean these literally?

    Is our Romeo actually giving off flames and smoke?
    Do we bar Pete from entering the church lest his fire burn the place down?
    Did the poor flee from Mother Teresa so not to be scorched by her presence?
    King so-and-so actually pile up money, stock certificates and burn them?

No, we are using something physical to describe something intangible. Things like love, charity, faith, greed, pride.

In our Gospel reading, today, we find Jesus using the Temple and its destruction as a way to talk to his followers about persecution. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was a historical fact at the time Jesus was speaking. The old Temple had been destroyed in 600BC by the Babylonians. It was rebuilt about 500BC. This rebuilt temple was the very place in which Jesus was teaching.
If you take his words purely literally you conclude that he is predicting the destruction of the temple again. In fact the Romans did destroy the temple again in 70AD. What he is telling us, his followers, that just as worldly powers have and will attack the physical places of worship they will also attack you and I who have the mark and presence of God within us.

His warning is starkly realistic.

"They will seize you and persecute you, ... They will have you led before King and Governors because of my name." (Luke 21:12)


And again:
"You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated .. Because of my name ... ."  (Luke 21:16-17)
In our own time many have experienced such things because they are followers of Christ Jesus, Christians. In between these two warnings we find an important promise. He says that, when they put you or I on trial for being His follower, He Himself will give us the wisdom needed for our testimony.
How, then, do we prepare for persecution?
At one point in my business career I was on a list of technical experts that might be called upon to testify at Administrative Law hearings in Washington, DC. While some direct testimony was allowed it was the questioning by the lawyers and judges that was critical. How does one prepare for testimony when you don’t have any idea what questions will be asked or how antagonistic you cross examiner might be?
My best preparation was to know my field of expertise thoroughly so that no matter what the question I could respond calmly and accurately. This leads me to paraphrase Jesus' advice this way:
Your best preparation for persecution is to know your faith thoroughly and live your faith with fire in your heart! Then when they question you about your faith the Holy Spirit will be with you and give you the strength to calmly and lovingly give your testimony.
May the flame of our faith burn brightly in your life and in my life.

  1. The above four paragraphs are a paraphrase of the introduction to Malachi found in NAB.

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Joseph E. Hilber
P.O. Box 501
Pelican Rapids, MN 56572-0501

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