First Sunday of Advent
- Matthew 24:36-44
- Isaiah 21:1-5
It is the beginning of Advent. The beginning of holiday parties and carol sing-alongs. And yet we are also confronted in this season but some very difficult and perplexing scripture.
It is extremely difficult for me to read the sayings of Jesus that predict the end times. I don’t want to hear words of judgment and rejection from the mouth of Jesus. I don’t want to think that some might not be let in. Don’t want to think that I might be one of those left behind. I have friends for whom the series Left Behind was used as a scare tactic to frighten them into living Christian lives; Christ might at any moment return and reclaim the true Christians. Don’t be the one left behind. In other words, shape up, live right. I would rather be motivated by the words of the Sermon on the Mount or by Jesus’ interactions with lepers and tax collectors and other marginalized people.
I reject this kind of guilt inspiring theology but I cannot deny that the Gospels record Jesus as saying that “two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.
Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” And these words come in the context of (if it’s possible) even more unsettling apocalyptic parables and sayings from Jesus. You probably know them: the separation of Sheep and Goats, God casting some into the fire, the refusal by the ‘Bridegroom’ of the unprepared bridesmaids and others.
Matthew was writing his Gospel to a church that was starting to become disillusioned, tired, impatient. They expected Jesus to have returned, for the Kingdom of God to have come in its fullness. They had expected to be with Christ in heaven and yet instead they’d seen only the destruction of their temple, the images of worldly leaders erected in their holy places, oppression, grief…
And if they are disillusioned and fading in their expectation, how much more are we? Almost 20 centuries later and still there are wars, violence, destruction, separation, disease. This time that we inhabit is no kingdom of God and we absolutely do not expect the Reign of God to descend on the earth today or tomorrow or any time that we can anticipate.
Thomas Long who wrote the Westminster Bible Commentary on Matthew says of the passage that we heard:
When the church no longer anticipates God at any minute, when the church no longer expects to have its work validated by the advent of the kingdom, then it ceases to be a kingdom community and becomes a self-contained institution living only for today and competing within itself for power and status. When the church no longer saves a place at the table for the coming messiah, then it ceases to feed others and simply begins to gorge itself.
On Thursday night I went to the VS house to sing carols and I arrived early, just after 7:00 and we were to begin at 8:00. I arrived just before the were about to eat as it happens. I am not by any means comparing myself to the Messiah, but I was unexpected and intrusive. And I was invited graciously, set a place and welcomed. Even though I was a surprise, Meryl had prepared with enough for everyone.
Matthew wants to remind his impatient and jaded church that it is not in the human timetable that God will bring the fullness of the Reign. Not even Jesus knew the time for his return but only God. It is into the ordinariness of life that God will come as we are going about our daily lives – making supper, getting ready for bed, . And yet we are not invited to idleness but to alert preparation.
Just as I would never presume to compare myself to Messiah, it is disconcerting to here Jesus compare himself to a thief.
Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour
This is a violent and jarring picture, particularly if you have had the experience of a break-in and theft in your own home, which I know that some of you have.
In my first year out of college and my first time off away from the relative safety of a college campus, my house was robbed in the night when my roommates and I were sleeping in the house. I woke in the morning to see the window screen in the kitchen slit, cd’s strewn through the yard and some pieces of stereo equipment of my roommates missing. We didn’t have much to lose, but the idea that someone had been in our house while we were upstairs asleep was frightening. What might we have done differently if we’d known to be more alert? After that we installed motion lights and our landlord installed windows that had better locks.
But we weren’t paying attention. And just like that everything changed. It took me weeks to be comfortable alone in the house, maybe months at night. Jesus’ return will be just that unexpected and jarring and surprising. If we had been awake with the lights on, we would have seen the person perhaps, or it never would have occurred at all. Jesus is calling us to vigilance and readiness in the face of his sudden presence.
What vigilance and readiness means is that the church must always be about the mission of Jesus in the world, preaching and teaching the gospel, showing mercy, working for justice, laboring for righteousness, never relaxing its intent to work toward God’s coming victory. This is difficult to do under any circumstances, but it is especially hard when day after day passes and nothing happens. A bumper sticker reads, “Jesus is coming soon. Look busy!” It is one thing to be “busy” about God’s work if Jesus is indeed coming soon, if tomorrow the Son of Man will arrive to say cheerfully, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” But when tomorrow is just more of today and all labors of love seem poured into a bottomless pit of human suffering, indifference, and cynicism, then it is hard to march out the front door to be a disciple.
What motivates our own discipleship? It should be the desire to live in and create a world that God imagines and will bring in fullness. The prophets continue to speak to the way that God imagines the world to be. Isaiah offers the imagery for the reign of God that humans can live and strive toward. The text from Isaiah 2 offers a counter point to the starkness of Jesus we hear this morning. We hear words of Isaiah about the days to come – also dramatic and astonishing – in which people from all nations will stream to the Lord’s house, will walk in God’s light and will forge their weapons into tools of peace, abandoning the study of war. How on earth do these two passages fit together?
In the face of the crushing needs of the world, the only way to preserve hope, the only way to maintain a willing sense of discipleship, is to trust that at any moment we may be surprised by the sudden presence of God. As we journey down the long and seemingly endless path of discipleship, we never know when we may encounter the living God waiting for us around the next bend. Indeed, each unexpected meeting, each moment of holy surprise, is but an anticipation of the great climax of all human history and longing, when the world, seemingly spinning along in ceaseless tedium, will find itself gathered into the extravagant mercy of God. “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matt. 24:44).
Jesus uses these stark and exaggerated images in line with Daniel and other apocalyptic literature to jolt the listeners into paying attention. Indeed this season of advent we need a jolt – “Get ready!” our theme material calls us. Get ready to do the work of the kingdom. Get ready to plant the seeds of God’s reign. Get ready to welcome the nations to God’s holy mountain, to beat swords into plowshares, to put on the armor of light as Paul calls us to. Not necessarily welcome imagery for we peace-loving people. But I like the idea of reclaiming armor for what will bear us up for the work of the kingdom – another way of making a tool of war into an instrument of peace.
What this short passage from Matthew emphasizes more than anything is the ordinariness of what will be happening when the Son of God returns. Life will go on. Although when you think of the story of Noah and the people drowned, you might, like me thing immediately of the description of their wickedness. But that’s not what Jesus is warning of. He is using them as an example of how they were caught off guard while they were doing everyday thing. Milling grain, working in the field, sleeping at night, eating and drinking, celebrating and getting married.
But about that day and that hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, not the Son, but only the father. It is unknowable, so in amongst the ordinary events we can strive to create windows where the kingdom can be seen. With Jesus we saw it break through. In our efforts for peace and justice we create the apertures for it to be further seen. We are not to predict or assign dates or make assumptions, we are only to be expectant and to go about the work of ministry.
Jesus words in the Sermon on the mount and his life of radical loving ministry that I, and that we all look to for our inspiration and direction are no less important than this apocalyptic text. In fact they are crucial because like the prophets before him Jesus shows glimpses of the what the Kingdom in its fullness will be like. He offers a way forward to catch those Kingdom glimpses that break the ‘ceaseless tedium.’
But still, the good news for Christians is not that Jesus lived but that Jesus lives. Now in this season of advent we can be renewed in our hope because Jesus who lived and who was incarnate in a baby, in a human who knows the tedium and everyday-ness of life, is still present. The Reign of God is real and we will be justified in our hope.
I invite you spend some moments in silence, examination of where your hope is found, where God is at work breaking in, and ways that