33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Preached at Immaculate Heart of Mary, Sedro Woolley (5:00pm), Sacred Heart, La Conner (9:30am), and St. Charles, Burlington (11:15am)https://www.podbean.com/media/player/7c9xx-9fdc51?from=yiiadmin&download=1&version=1
These readings make me question how much I love Jesus.
The first reading and the Gospel today are talking about the end of the world. And the earliest Christians prayed all the time for the return of the Lord and the end of the world. Maranatha, they would say. Come, Lord. They longed for his return, they yearned for it, they centered their hopes and their worship around it. It was the greatest desire of their hearts to see Jesus again and to have him inaugurate the recreation of the heavens and the earth.
But man, the end of the world does not sound very pleasant. “…it shall be a time unsurpassed in distress since nations began until that time.” “…the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” So, you know, I cannot say that I am really longing for Jesus to return. Which makes me think that I do not love him as much as the early Christians did.
So it might be good to ask ourselves some questions. First, why did the ancient Christians desire the end of the world so much? Second, why must the end of the world be so violent? And third, why do we not desire the end of the world anymore?
First, why did the ancient Christians desire the end of the world so much?
One reason is because they ardently and deeply desired to see Jesus again. The earliest Christians knew Jesus, or knew someone who knew Jesus. He was incredibly real to them, incredibly present. Jesus was not an abstraction; Jesus had not faded into history. Jesus was a friend, a person, a leader who had only recently ascended into heaven and whom they wanted to see again.
Another reason the early Christians desired the end of the world so much is because they knew that Jesus had not completed his mission. The mission of the messiah was to restore all things, a mission that was initially interpreted as the restoration of Israel, but which was quickly realized to be the restoration of all creation. Imagine: a world without war, without strife, without disease, where all people are in perfect relationship with God and with each other. The early Christians knew that this mission of restoration and recreation would only be completed when the messiah came back. So of course they wanted Jesus to return. Who wouldn’t want a world made permanently perfected by the Lord of the universe?
Now, follow up question: If the Lord ardently desires to return and to recreate the world according to his original plan, and if we ardently desire this as well, why does it have to be so violent? Why all the tribulation? Why not just do it overnight, like a surgery with plenty of anesthesia?
The reason is because we live in a war zone. The Earth as we know it is torn between good and evil, and it has been since the fall of Adam and Eve. War is violent, it is horrific, it destroys whatever lies in its path. When the final days come upon us, evil will not go quietly, because it believes that it owns this world and it will not give it up without a fight. And this will be the ugly kind of war. Door to door, block by block, evil will have to be hunted down and eradicated slowly and deliberately.
God could, of course, do this with a snap of his fingers, but he chooses not to. Why? Because the trenches of this war run right down the center of each of our hearts. God cannot nuke the enemy because the collateral damage would be absolute. And so the world will be thrown into tribulation when Jesus returns because we ourselves will be thrown into tribulation. And, as the earthquake and eclipse showed us at the crucifixion, the natural world has a penchant for making tangible the great spiritual realities that remain unseen.
So in a sense, we have to decide whether we are willing to pay the price. If we want the world to be restored to harmony and perfection, and we willing to endure the tribulation that is required to get there?
Which brings us to our final question. Why don’t we pray for Jesus to return any more?
I mean, I suppose we technically still do. If you listen closely to the prayers of the Mass, we pray about Jesus’ return in the Creed and in a few of the Eucharistic prayers. The priest also prays about it after the Our Father: “Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” In Christian liturgy, we have never stopped praying for the return of the Lord.
But why have we, personally, stopped praying for Jesus to come back?
I think one reason is that we have become too enamored with this world. Even with all of its suffering and sin, we do not actually want this world to go away. We like it. We like being stuck between sin and salvation. We like having a divided heart. We also have a stupid and inaccurate view of heaven as being filled with clouds and cherubs and harps, and no one in their right mind would desire that. And so, instead of praying that Jesus might return and a new world be inaugurated, we instead pray for marginal changes in the world we have. It is like settling for a paint job on a dilapidated house when we could have a billionaire’s mansion instead.
This, my friends, is spiritual Stockholm Syndrome. We have fallen in love with our captor and believe that it wants what is best for us. And we reject our actual savior. But how many times does Jesus tell us that this world will hate us because it has hated him? This world is in, fact, under the domain of the evil one. We should pray for its destruction, so that the Kingdom of God can reign in its place.
Maybe a second reason we do not pray for Jesus’ return is because we are not confident that we would be on the right side in the battle. The threat of the first reading is very real: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake: some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.” If we are not sure which category is ours, it makes sense that we would want Jesus to wait awhile. (Though, if we are honest, when we ask Jesus to delay, we rarely actually make the changes necessary to be more confident in our category.)
Finally, we may not pray for Jesus’ return because we do not actually trust him. We do not trust that he will actually make things better, that his presence and return are a force for good, that anyone or anything, including Jesus, has the power to conquer the evil of this world. Our faith is weak, so our desire for Jesus becomes weak as well.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, it is a central tenet of our faith that Jesus will return and that upon his return the final battle will be fought and the world will be recreated. It does not matter whether we want it to happen or not, or whether we pray for it to happen or not.
So, if it is inescapable, I hope that we can find a way to anticipate it, as the early Christians did, with a deep desire and yearning. A yearning born from the fact that Jesus is the center of our lives and the center of our hearts whom we desire more than anything else in this life. A yearning born from our dissatisfaction with an imperfect and difficult world of pain and sadness. A yearning born of a hatred for sin and a desire to see it overthrown. Yes, the end of the world will be violent. But it will be violent like a fever is violent: we will be cleansed of all that wishes to harm us. And afterwards, we and the entire universe will be restored to perfection and united utterly to our God. This is everything God wishes for us and, I hope, everything we can learn to hope for ourselves.
May we all learn to pray: Come, Lord Jesus. Maranatha.