[Malachi 4:1-2; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19] I think it is true to say that there is quite a lot of anxiety around these days fueled partly by worries over climate change, the political and economic future of our country and other uncertainties magnified in our news bulletins as well as our more personal worries. Our readings today fit well with our prevailing concerns and cause us to consider what is actually temporary and where true permanence lies.
The week before last I went to Paris on my own for two days, or, to be precise 2 nights, one full day and two half days on either side. I have retained two main images from this visit which I hope will serve to illuminate today’s theme.
The visit was precipitated by the offer of cheap Eurostar tickets mid-week and I had been wanting to go for some time, to follow in the footsteps of my grandmother, who at the age of 21 in 1911, went to Paris as an art student. She wrote long letters home while she was there detailing almost every hour of every day! So I knew that she had visited the Musee de Luxembourg to see the painting of Whistler’s Mother. The museum is in one corner of the Jardin de Luxembourg so I made my way there at the end of the morning on my only full day. It turns out that there is no longer a permanent collection of paintings in this art gallery, only touring exhibitions. Whistler’s Mother has now moved to the Musee d’Orsay along the river.
The current exhibition showing at the Musee de Luxembourg is, believe it or not, is entitled ‘The Golden Age of English Painting from Reynolds to Turner’. It progresses from tranquil Capability Brown landscapes of the English countryside and aristocracy in the last quarter of the 18th century (at a time of great revolutionary unrest in France), to the rise of the middle classes, the growth of Romanticism and a new awareness and fascination with the wildness of Nature.
My first image comes from the end of the exhibition and is not by Turner but by an artist called John Martin. It takes one’s breath away as it is huge (1 and a half metres high and 2 and a half metres wide) and incredibly vibrant in colour. The small reprint does not do it justice at all. It is called ‘The Destruction of Pompeji and Herculaneum’, it was painted in 1822 and is usually in Tate Britain. The subject matter shows volcanic lava and fire raining down from Vesuvius on the inhabitants of the two cities in the bay of Naples in the year 79 of the Christian era and is based as accurately as possible on the eye witness account of the Roman writer Pliny the Younger. I find it interesting to speculate whether the writer of St Luke’s gospel heard about these terrible events as the gospel is probably dated from around 80. He would certainly have known about the destruction of Jerusalem ten years before.
Images of fire are not always negative and the prophecy of Malachi balances the terrifying destruction of the wicked with the healing experience of the sun’s warmth for the righteous. But the frightening footage of forest fires in California, Australia and the Amazon on our screens at the moment reflects the very strong apocalyptic imagery of Malachi in our first reading today. Not only fire but also flood and war reduce the seemingly permanent to the temporary. Our lives and our life on earth reveal a fragility that we do not like to contemplate.
The second image from my brief stay in Paris is of course Notre Dame. Apart from my metro journeys from and to the Gare du Nord I stayed on the left bank, in other words, south of the river Seine. But on my second evening I purposely walked down to the river and looked across for the first time at the devastation caused by the cathedral fire last April. It was a sad experience to be able to look through the cathedral from side to side where the stained glass had fallen from the windows in the heat of the blaze. Viewed more from the west end the two towers are still intact and standing, so remind the visitor of the former permanence of the edifice.
The disciples, standing in front of the Temple in Jerusalem, must have found it unsettling to hear Jesus describing such a seemingly permanent pile of sacred stone which had been more than a generation in the building as if it was a temporary structure which could easily be dismantled. In fact the Temple was totally destroyed in the year 70 by the Romans and never rebuilt, unlike Notre Dame which is to be restored exactly as it was. In Christian terms Jesus has replaced the Temple becoming the focal point for worship as the one true sacrifice. As I looked at Notre Dame on its island in the middle of the Seine, a little voice in my head did wonder what Jesus would have thought of the rebuilding plan costing millions; but that is what we tend to do with destroyed iconic buildings to regain a sense of permanence in our fragile world.
But where does permanence lie within our readings today which are so full of disaster and devastation? In Malachi permanence depends on our reverence for God and obedience to his laws. ‘Then the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.’ A beautiful image. In Paul’s 2nd letter to the Thessalonians in northern Greece the message is more mundane. As this young Christian group began to get used to the idea that Jesus was not necessarily returning any day soon it was important for them as a community to pull their weight, each and every one of them, to earn their living just as Paul had done when he was among them. So they are urged ‘in the Lord Jesus to do their work quietly and to earn their own living’. And not be weary in doing what is right.’
Jesus also urges his disciples and later followers and us to keep calm during times of war and disaster and persecution. Such calamitous times give us an opportunity to tell the good news of the gospel to people in their distress for it is in faith in Jesus Christ that true permanence lies. ’Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.’
So we cannot escape the worrying challenges of living in our modern society. ‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ We need to get on quietly with our lives, facing the challenges of life today, making ethical choices that are for the sake of the good of our planet and loving our neighbours as ourselves, and clinging to our faith in Jesus who will make all things new*.
*Revelation 21.5 ‘Behold I am making all things new’