The state of the world is rarely a matter for peace of mind. Advances in one area seem to bring setbacks in another. We rejoiced when the Arab seemed to empower people calling for democracy and freedom. Yet Egypt has lapsed back into military dictatorship, Libya is sundered by faction fighting and Syria is exhausted by insurrection and oppression. There is an uncertainty about our times, a sense of grappling with new issues, of asking questions without answers. We wonder where it will all end, and we feel uneasy.
At such times we must remember that God is our Creator. Our Creator not only though calling into life everything that exists, but in the sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit, active in our world, working with human frailties, inspiring and challenging, judging and confronting. This does not guarantee that our world will be free from disaster brought on by human arrogance, nor does it mean that hatred will always be thwarted. It does mean that God has not abandoned us, even if we sometimes make the world seem a godless place. It also means that God can work surprising reversals, even when the world least expects it.
Take the example of Cyrus in today's first reading (Isaiah 45.1, 4-6). The people of Judah were in exile in Babylon. Jerusalem had been in ruins for 60 years. The Babylonians seemed to have an iron grip on everyone everywhere. Then in 539 BC the Persian king Cyrus defeated the Babylonians. He listened to the Jews he found in Babylon, and understood their longing to return. Not only did he encourage them to go back and rebuild Jerusalem: he even restored to them the sacred vessels which had been taken from the Temple. No wonder the prophet saw the hand of God in this. This was only seen in retrospect, after the event. In the here and now we have to be careful not to identify secular power with the will of God. Even so: sometimes we glimpse the hand of God at work in the restless turmoil of the world around us.
Jesus, too, had to exercise discernment about the worldly powers. In today’s gospel the spies of the ruling elite in Palestine sought to trap him. If he said he was against Roman taxation, he would be condemned as a subversive. If he said that he had no problem with the Romans, he would lose the trust of those who sometimes felt the lash of Roman rule. His reply (Matt. 22.21) left his enemies floundering. The words of Jesus tell us that we are neither to be subversive of society, nor are we to follow every whim of those in power. Rather, we have to try to discern, again and again, what the will of God is for our times and our country.
Empires rise and fall, but another city grows quietly, and it is the City of God. In good times and in bad, in peace and in strife, the followers of Jesus are building bridges and nurturing hope. Salonika today is a busy seaport in northeastern Greece. It was the same when Paul encouraged the fledgling Christian community there two millennia ago. There, in an ordinary bustling city, the Church was growing. It must have seemed a tiny, uncertain seed that he had sown. Yet these new Christians grew until nearly the whole city was Christian. Paul gives thanks that these first Christians were showing faith, love and hope in action, (1 Thess. 1.3, our second reading today). Faith, hope, love - these build the invisible kingdom where no storm can reach.