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First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.
Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking
If there was ever a time in history that the world needs Advent it is now. The world seems to be on a collision course with rattling wars all over the globe; with division in our national and international political scene; with unbridled anger over the soundwaves and on the streets. There is the general sense that we are spinning out of control.
And if there was ever a time in the days of our own lives that we need Advent it is now! The landscape of our relationships may also mirror the unsettled, upsetting world’s theater. Trust broken in intimate relationships with violence or disrespect shocking even the most together of us; addiction, mental illness, worry about our health, financial impropriety . . . OK, you know what I am talking about!
And so a little dose of beauty, a little respite from the cover stories, a dawning light flickering at the edges of the deep darkness would bring an extra measure of balm to our weary, worn spirits.
Yet as we step into the Gospel reading for today, instead of Christmas cheer and calm, we are plunged into a sense of foreboding. Jesus is the speaker, and his message to the disciples is: “But of that day and hour no one knows.” What is he talking about?
We need a context, of course, to make sense of this. In the chapters leading up to this particular passage, Matthew’s Jesus has been leveling a view of the days that are about to take place after he departs from the disciples. Earlier in chapter 24 Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives, looking over Jerusalem, and in near sobs expresses grief over the city.
He says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning them.” Then with longing he says, “I want to sweep you into my fold as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, . . . but you won’t let me!” In a few more verses he walks past the temple with his disciples in tow and tells of its impending destruction—all a rubble heap, not a stone atop another.
And so it should be no surprise that the disciples come to him, sensing the end, wanting to know what is coming. “Tell us when will this be and what will be the signs.” And Jesus launches into upsetting, creepy, nightmarish scenes about tribulation, hate, and even death, earthquakes, nations rising up against nations, false prophets who pretend to be Christ, and shortened days. He tells of the moon not giving light and stars falling from the sky, but then he proclaims that all who mourn will see him come on a cloud from heaven. And the trumpet shall send out the angels and gather the elect from the four corners of the world.
Jesus is speaking to a depleted, anxious, worried circle of disciples who have good reason to wonder what the future will hold. And, of course, the early disciples reading the Gospel of Matthew were reading these words after the temple had been destroyed, when they were living under the thumb of Roman rule, when they feared for their lives if they professed faith in the risen Christ. And so the question “When will you come again?” addressed to Jesus is a hinge between their daily lot and the promised future. Today’s reading picks up on this with Jesus’ pronouncement that no one knows the time or place when he will come again.
A question that you may be asking is why do we plunge into these unsettling, anxiety-producing, even upsetting readings in this season leading to Christmas? I have to be honest. When I knew I would be preaching from this passage of Matthew’s Gospel, I found myself wondering about what good news I might bring to you. It didn’t help that one of the commentaries I use stated that “upon noticing the Gospel reading assigned for this Sunday, more than one preacher may wince, if not grimace with pain.” The writer of the commentary said that it is tough to bring such Advent messages of an apocalyptic day with an unknown future to a community ready for Christmas!
It is hard to imagine that these texts are grounded as much in the promises of Christian faith as are the birth narratives we read at Christmas. It seems that the prevailing tone of these texts with their hard hitting honesty plunges the night-blinded pilgrim into deeper darkness. And then Matthew’s references to Noah’s day and the flood that swept away those who were not tuned in and also the story of the thief breaking into the house without the security system installed stirs up anxiety. Indeed, the signs mentioned earlier—in the sun, the moon, the stars; distress among nations confused by tsunami-type forces; gripping fear—it is all enough to get even the calmest among us in high anxiety mode because we see it all around us: the distress, the fear, the signs.
On the one hand we await the birth that brings such hope, such joy, such shimmering. But this message from today’s reading focused on Christ’s coming again is something that either strikes us as a snappy metaphor or as outlandish. As a matter of fact, I think for many of us there is no part of the New Testament faith that is more alien to mainline Protestants than the doctrine of the second coming.
There seem to be two reactions among Christians to Jesus’ Parousia or second coming. One is what theologian David Bartlett states as much ado about nothing. He says we endure the apocalyptic texts with perpetual apathy. Indeed, we reasonable, very twenty-first-century Presbyterian Christians certainly cannot believe that Jesus will come down from a cloud, as he indicated, and take up the elect. And for those who think this, it is a ridiculous thought and one that is better left behind!
The other reaction among Christians are those who think the second coming is at the heart of the gospel. Picking up the newspaper or going on their favorite newsfeed, the world’s problems are the beginning of the great ending—wars and rumors of war, signs in the skies, those who claim to be the messiah all lead to a view that we are living in the end times—and we ridicule the millennial sects climbing to the tops of hills in their white robes to wait for the end of the world that never comes. (Frederick Buechner, Hungering Dark). By contrast to perpetual apathy of those who endure these texts, many of these folks live in a state of perpetual anxiety, not unlike the disciples who waited with bated breath for the return of Jesus.
But I think there is another perspective. What is core to this reading is simply we cannot know. Jesus is asking us to trust that what is coming is rooted in memory and grounded in God’s amazing surprise. He is crystalizing the entire sweep of history in the absolutely astonishing promise that he is coming again to bring the world into God’s aligning love. And what is even more astonishing about this kind of waiting and watching is that Jesus talks about ordinary daily activities as the advent of God’s arrival.
It breaks into the ordinary daily life: two farmers are in their field, and one is taken. Sure, some might say raptured, but others might say enraptured, taken with the power of God’s light and equipping love. It comes to the two women grinding wheat for the daily bread. One is taken, yes, seeing the day of God’s reign right there with the blossoming of wheat to flour to whole loaf.
This is about today, about our lives, where we are perplexed by whether God has given up and moved on; where we are perplexed by how we can live lives of faith when we are baffled by what may seem like silence or glib answers. And Jesus comes to us this day, in our perplexed state, at Fourth Presbyterian Church with the message that we live in between times, of what has been born—that is God emptying God’s self as a human, coming to us as a fragile, helpless child—and what is still to come—that Christ will come again as judge of the world and of all the world’s thrones and pretenders, sovereignties and dominions, presidencies and regimes.
Indeed, Jesus has an eye on what is going to happen in the future and keeps attention focused on the present day, the needs of the hour. This is Advent. It is about waiting and watching, with an understanding that the extraordinary arises from the ordinary, and it can only be seen with Advent eyes. And it is even more fully seen in the chapters following today’s text, when Jesus goes into the full-blown vision of God’s planetary arrival.
“When the Son of Humanity comes in glory and all the nations are before him,” what is the vision: a very hungry, thirsty, outsider, prisoner, sick, naked person, whom Jesus names as himself, arriving at the threshold of our lives and simply meeting their needs. We offer our lives to the ones who are vulnerable, because with all that arises from our own lives, we know we also are vulnerable. But it is even more than our individual efforts. We may come to understand that God’s second coming in Jesus is the promise of fullness of life for this planet and for our overly anxious selves. When we take seriously the high-pitched and awakening reality of God, we also may not only be surprised but stunned by what can be afoot on this planet.
Thirty years ago this month something unimaginable occurred in Europe. Since 1961 the division between East and West Germany was symbolized by the divided city of Berlin with a wall that enclosed West Berlin. From 1961 until 1989 checkpoints were in force, dogs and guards were to keep people in the Eastern bloc. It was difficult and dangerous to cross. And then came the stunning moment. “On November 9, 1989, a botched announcement about travel led some to believe that the border was freely open. Overwhelmed by large crowds, the guards started letting people through. Thousands of East Berliners entered West Berlin, celebrating their newfound freedom and opportunity. Some began to chip away at the wall, an activity that continued for some months until the wall was formally demolished.” Less than a year later East and West Germany were reunified. The fall of the wall not only was a symbol of unification but, for many, was the end of the Cold War. Who would have ever seen this coming? And who knows what else might show up for you in your individual life or us in our collective one.
Over and over again in today’s text the words “you do not know” are spoken. I think this is at the heart of Advent hope. You never know the time or the place for the coming of Christ, for the truest and most extraordinary liberation of our lives to take place. But the call of Advent hope is that we pay attention, watching and waiting for the remarkable gift of God’s ordinary blessings that give rise to the fantastical, awakening, courageous hope of Advent people. This message is a world-shaping, consciousness-shattering claim. And so Christ’s call is to watch, to stand vigilant, because come hell or high water, the light has dawned and will dawn once more. Thanks be to God! Amen.