18 Nov 2018
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
There used to be a sign by the highway. It was about the size of a card table, painted white, really simple. And there were big black letters on it that read: “Prepare! The Kingdom of God is at hand!” And after about five years, the paint was starting to peel (I suppose from sitting out in the hot sun all day). And then after about seven years, it started to tilt, and you could see the wood underneath the paint; it was already gray from the weather.
And then, finally, after about ten years, it fell over in the ditch. The mud and the rain finished it off. So much for: “Prepare! The Kingdom of God is at hand!” I guess it wasn’t as “close at hand” as they thought. Scripture reminds us today of the closeness of the coming of Jesus, and of all the earthly and cosmic events that will happen when he comes.
But, at the same time, these Scriptures today can be a bit like that sign by the highway. Thousands of years have gone by from the time Mark’s Gospel was written, and another six hundred years beyond that since the Book of Daniel was written. It’s a long time for Scripture to be standing there by the highway, proclaiming its urgent message that Jesus is coming. And, of course, for a lot of people, that message is worn and irrelevant, just like that sign by the highway. You can only wait so long, and then you stop paying attention.
But, really, the wait isn’t that long. Christians have long believed in what’s called the “general resurrection” when, at the end of time, what Jesus says will come to pass. “They will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky” [Mark 13:26-27]. That’s the “general resurrection.” And, while we don’t when that will happen, we can probably guess it’s not going to be for awhile (based on our already 2,000+ year wait).
But Christians have also long believed in what might be called the “individual resurrection,” or “individual judgment,” which we experience at the time of our death. We hear in the Gospel of Luke: “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side” (16:22). And later at the crucifixion scene, Jesus tells the repentant thief: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (23:43). So, really, the wait isn’t that long.
For myself, I expect in the next forty years or so, “the Kingdom of God will be at hand” for me. But, of course, I don’t know; none of us does. But we do know that, sooner or later, “the Kingdom of God will be at hand” for each of us; at some point we have to die. These bodies of ours aren’t made to last forever...even if our souls are. And that’s not a reason to be afraid.
How many times does Jesus say, “Be not afraid, be not afraid, I am with you always.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am going to prepare a place for you, and then I will come back to take you with me, so that where I am you also may be.” And, really, for a people of faith, for people who trust in God, who adore God, who open themselves up to him and his grace, Christs promise is a wonderful thing to hear and to cherish: “I will come back to take you with me; be not afraid, I am with you always.”
It’s an image of the Bridegroom embracing his Beloved, his Bride. But that only happens through what we talked about last weekend; namely, sacrifice.
It’s similar, maybe, to the relationship we have to the earth. The earth gives and gives. And we are the happy recipients of all that earth offers us: food, water, shelter, star-filled nights, sunny days, heat, and cold, and so on. The earth gives and gives...for our benefit. And we receive everything the earth gives. We take that food and water and warmth, and it becomes part of our lives.
But, then, at some point, we give ourselves to the earth, and the earth receives us. Of course, that’s what cemeteries symbolize and remind us of: the give-and-take relationship between ourselves and the earth. And if cemeteries remind us of that, then churches (and what we do here at Mass) remind us of the give-and-take relationship between ourselves and our God. God gives and gives: love, guidance, forgiveness, hope, faith, truth, wisdom, and so on. God gives and gives. And we (try to) receive all that.
But, then, we give ourselves to God, and God receives us. God takes us to himself, so that, as Jesus says, “where I am you also may be;” not in the dark of the grave, but enjoying the “splendor of God’s Kingdom” in spirit and in truth. But that give-and-take relationship with God requires sacrifice...from both parties: God and us.
But by really trying to live a life of sacrifice—a life of self-offering and self-gift to God and to others—we realize that “the Kingdom of God is at hand;” not only at the end of the world, not only at the time of our individual passing from this life, but also right here in life. The Kingdom of God is at hand; it’s here for the taking. Just like an apple tree that’s ready for the harvest. And the tree says, “Come, enjoy my fruit!” So the Kingdom of God is always ripe, always ready for the taking.
And we do take—not in guilt, but with thanksgiving. At the Last Supper, Jesus broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and said, "Take this, all of you, and eat of it.” Take it, eat it. It’s given up...”for you.” There’s no guilt involved, just thanksgiving. And the same thing with the chalice: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it.” Take it, drink from it. It’s poured out...”for you.” The Kingdom of God is at hand. There’s nothing to be afraid of; just enjoy the fruits of God, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, just as much as we enjoy the fruits of the earth.
But, in return, what do we give to the Lord? What do we give to the earth in return? We care for it as responsible workers in “the vineyard of the Lord.” We love the earth by caring for it. And how do we love the Lord? Through sacrifice...primarily, a sacrifice of thanksgiving, worship, and adoration. Ultimately, though, we love the Lord by dying into his hands, with trust, and with hope and peace. We love him by giving ourselves back to him—each and every day in spirit, and then, someday, we give our frail bodies back to him.
So, the Kingdom of God is, truly, at hand. Right now the grace of God is ready for the taking. And there’s plenty to go around. And the more we enjoy that grace today, the more we enjoy and develop our friendship with Christ today, the more we’ll look forward to that day; that day when God will say, “Come, it’s time. Be not afraid...the Kingdom of God is hand...for you.”