We know what to say about some scriptures. Love your neighbor, do justice, follow Jesus. There are words we write on our hearts. We are Anabaptists, after all, and we believe the Bible is an authority for our believing and our living. We believe it holds stories we can build our lives upon; it reveals a message that gives meaning to what it means to be human, a message that works into our bodies and souls that shows us the heart of life. Some passages in the Bible send us a message that stretches across time and space with obvious insight for our spiritual edification. And then there’s our gospel lesson for today.
“Then 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. Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
Perhaps as Mike and Weldon led us into the text you thought of the old Christian worship song from the 60s and 70s:
A man and wife asleep in bed, she hears a noise and turns her head, he’s gone
I wish we’d all been ready
Two men walking up a hill, one disappears and one’s left standing still
I wish we’d all been ready
There’s no time to change your mind, the Son has come and you’ve been left behind
Or maybe you thought of the popular Left Behind series, which first appeared in the mid-1990s and tells in dramatic fiction the story of the end of the world from a Christian dispensationalist point of view. If we want to get technical, we’d categorize this as pretribulation, premillennial apocalyptic eschatology. In fact, there’s a whole Christian sub-culture out there: music, books, churches, even institutions of higher education whose worldview is shaped by a very particular understanding of the second coming Jesus Christ.
We are living in the end times, they say. The wars, the nuclear threats, the global unrest have all been foreshadowed and God’s judgment is upon us. History is about to be transformed by cosmic, cataclysmic events so get ready because Jesus is coming.
Today is the first day of Advent, the first day of the liturgical year. We enter a season of waiting, hoping, preparing, praying for Jesus to come to us and for God’s kingdom to break into our lives. The sanctuary has been prepared. The first candle is lit. We are singing Advent hymns. Jesus is coming.
Our text today is all about Jesus coming but not in the way we might expect.
It’s an apocalyptic text, a style or genre that has to do with the ultimate destiny of the world, reminding us in clear and dualistic terms that good will come and triumph over the current reign of evil. Apocalyptic scriptures can be grandiose and unrestrained; they can hold cosmic, mysterious visions and often include the disputed cosmic figure, the Son of Man, who depending on the scripture, may or may not be Jesus. You’ll find similarities in all kinds of scripture: Daniel chapters 7-12, Joel, Revelation, lots of apocryphal and extrabiblical material.
Today’s specific apocalyptic gospel reading falls within what scholars call “The Judgment Discourse.” Matthew 23:1 to 25:46 is one long speech. Suddenly Jesus’ coming is with terrible woes and with judgment and wrath. It’s an uncomfortable picture, a far cry from the baby in a stable that most of us would rather hope for at Advent.
For the original community of Matthew, this would have been a wake up call. You see, they were urban, wealthy, comfortable. It had been more than forty years since Jesus’ death, and their initial fervor and faithful discipleship was waning. They had become complacent, lethargic, sleepy. And Matthew asks them to shape up, wake up, be alert. It may not feel urgent or immediate, but it is. Jesus is coming.
There’s a bumper sticker out there that says, “Warning, in case of rapture, the driver of this car will suddenly disappear.” Maybe you’ve seen it. And maybe you’ve seen the second generation of rapture bumper stickers: “When the rapture comes, can I have your car?” The one I like better though says, “Warning, in case of the rapture, the driver of this car will be pulled over rethinking his eschatology.” Let’s set aside the fact that rapture is not a word that even appears in the Bible. And let’s set aside the possible difference in our own eschatologies, in our own beliefs about the end times. Regardless of which bumper sticker would be on your car, we need to understand that the community that produced this text was vastly different from us.
Our post-Enlightenment worldview is pragmatic, informed by reason and the physical and social sciences. These days not many of us believe that a cosmic judge will suddenly appear from the heavens and separate the good from the evil. To put it plainly, we think about the world differently than Matthew’s community. So what are we to do when such a wild text confronts us?
But about the day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven nor the Son… Keep awake therefore for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming… Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
All the usual answers don’t quite fit. Do justice. Work for peace. Jesus loves me. The text doesn’t give us these kinds of instruction. Instead it says: no one knows. Keep awake. Be ready. Pay attention.
So how do we pay attention? How do we wake up?
As I was thinking about sleeping and waking, I thought of my partner Jamie who is a pastor at another church here in Seattle. Like her dad, Jamie struggles with falling asleep. She goes through occasional periods of insomnia, only getting two or three hours of sleep a night. Meanwhile, I average at least eight and a half hours. For Jamie, this can be frustrating. She’s tossing and turning or watching bad infomercials on television and I am resting peacefully.
Our scripture seems to encourage Jamie’s unfortunate pattern. If the owner of the house had known what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. But because I live with someone who has trouble sleeping, I know that too many nights of watchfulness can make a person frustrated and very, very tired. One can only remain alert for a short period of time. Our attention spans are not infinite, after all. One person can only be awake through the night every so often.
Our friends and members who sleep on the streets or at camps outside know this best. There comes a point in time when we simply cannot see everything alone and we need someone else to help us keep watch.
To see Jesus coming, we need each other.
Those of us who have secure jobs and homes need those experiencing homelessness to remind us that Jesus was homeless. And perhaps then we’ll see Jesus coming not in this sanctuary but in that one, out there beyond the doors.
Those of you who are straight need those of us who are gay, lesbian, transgender and queer to remind you that Jesus journeyed with a family of choice and that he didn’t fit into the normal patterns of family around him. And then perhaps we’ll see Jesus coming in loving relationships that have overcome many obstacles to thrive in an unfriendly world.
Those of us who have academic degrees and can fit in with the educated aristocracy of this country, need those with different kinds of education to remind us that our systems of making money and measuring worth are upside down. And then perhaps we’ll see Jesus who was born in a barn coming today in a place and an hour unexpected.
One time I took a group from another church to serve at a Friday evening community meal over in the University District. We spent the evening dishing up soup and visiting with the folks who came through the line. One particular youth who was there was a handful that evening. “Are we done yet? Can we go now?” He asked over and over. By all medical measurements, Bradley had an attention problem. He took medication for it, to regulate his moods and his ability to focus, but that evening he wasn’t behaving in the way that I might have hoped for him.
Later that night we all sat down around a table together and I asked the group a reflection question: “Where did you see God?” The oldest person with us was quick to answer. A wisened senior citizen said, “Oh I didn’t see God. But I’m glad we could do this good thing to help people in need.”
I was disappointed in the old man’s answer. I had hoped he’d be more of an example for the youth who were with us. I had hoped he’d have something more thoughtful to say, and then much to my surprise, Bradley, who I thought wasn’t even paying attention, said with quick enthusiasm, “Oh I saw Jesus. I saw Jesus…” Maybe Bradley’s attention span doesn’t work so well when it comes to getting things done or being in control. Maybe he is surprising, or unexpected? He went on to describe one particular person through whom he had encountered the light of Christ breaking into the world.
Today maybe not in cosmic glory with judgment and wrath. Maybe around a table in the U-District some Friday evening.
This is Good News, my friends. Wake up. Advent is here. Pay attention. Jesus is coming.