December 1, 2013
First Sunday of Advent
There is a story, perhaps more legend than story, about Beethoven at the end of his life. Supposedly the great composer looked toward the heavens and said, “I need more time. I need more time!”
If the story is true, perhaps Beethoven wanted more time to finish his last great symphony. Or maybe he had more music inside him that he had yet to compose, yet to express. Whatever the reason, Beethoven wanted more time on this earth to accomplish more than he’d already accomplished.
Isn’t Beethoven’s desire for more time something all of us might ask for? If only we knew how much time we actually have, we might not squander the time we’ve been given now. In response to this longing for more time, Scientists – and I’ll be honest, I don’t know who these scientists are, or if they’re really even scientists – created what is called a death clock.
With this clock, you can input your age and your gender, factors that can affect your health such as your BMI, exposure to smoke, where you live, etc. Using standard mortality tables, it calculates the approximate number of hours, minutes and seconds you have left to live.
That’s quite a clock, huh?
When I read about this clock, I sat and thought for a while about whether or not I’d want to try it. At first it sounded like a good idea. I’d have a timeline to work with. Say it told me I’d live till I was 82. Okay, that means that I have thirty plus years left to work with. I should be able to accomplish a whole lot of things in that timeframe. That would be great information to have, wouldn’t it? Or would it?
Instead of motivating me to get more and more done, to fulfill more and more of my bucket list, I wonder if it would have the opposite effect. What if the number 82 becomes like an albatross around my neck? What if all I can do is mark off the days until my 82nd birthday? Knowing me, I’ll more likely worry myself to a much earlier death than I would if I didn’t know at all. When it comes right down to it, I don’t think I want to know exactly when I’m going to die. I’m not sure that would be a liberating number to learn.
Not knowing is critical to our understanding of our passage from Matthew’s gospel. In the first verse we read, verse 36, Jesus tells the disciples that no one knows about the day or the hour. The angels of heaven do not know. The Son does not know. Only the Father knows. Jesus is referring to the end times, the last days. As is true every Advent, the gospel lesson on the first Sunday of this season focuses on an apocalyptic or eschatological theme. Jesus is speaking of when the end of this age will come. But he does not know an exact date, day or time. He has no divine calendar, and unlike the death clock, Jesus does not have a countdown running in his head. He does not know. Only the Father knows, and because of that, the rest of us are called to be watchful, awake, and to prepare for an unexpected arrival.
Jesus calls on the disciples to remember their history. Remember Noah. In those days before the flood, the people were eating and drinking. They were marrying and giving in marriage. They were doing all these things until Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and swept them all away. That’s what’s going to happen with the coming of the Son of Man.
Then Jesus goes on to tell them that when the Son of Man comes it will be like two men working in the field. One will be taken. One will be left behind. Again, the coming of that day will be like two women working at the mill, grinding meal together. One will be taken. One will be left behind.
So what do you do to be prepared for this coming? You stay watchful. You stay awake. If the owner of the house knows the exact time that the thief will come, the owner is going to stay awake, isn’t he? He’s not going to fall asleep and let his home be robbed and his family be put in danger. So we have to be watchful. We have to wake from sleep. We have to stay awake.
This passage in Matthew’s gospel is the left behind passage. It’s referring to what we understand to be the rapture. When the second coming of Christ happens, those who are God’s elect will be raptured to heaven. Those who aren’t will be left behind. That will be the judgment. Certainly that is what Matthew’s passage seems to be referring to.
But I think we have to dig deeper than this initial interpretation. To do that, we have to understand a little more about Matthew and the context that he was writing in. It’s believed by scholars that Matthew was living and writing his gospel in the city of Antioch. Matthew wrote in approximately 80 or 85 c.e. At that time the Jewish people were well into the diaspora; they were scattered far and wide around the Hellenistic world. The rallying cry for Jews living at this time would have been “Next year in Jerusalem.” Going to Jerusalem was stating that one day all Jews would be gathered back together in their spiritual and ethnic home. Because of this scattering of the people, the temple in Jerusalem would have been as important to them as Mecca is to Islam today. It was the seat of all their belief and culture. When the temple was destroyed in about 70 c.e., it was a spiritual and existential crisis for the Jewish people.
Because of the destruction of the temple, Judaism moved from a temple orientation to a synagogue orientation. It’s believed that in the synagogue in Antioch, the people were on a collision course. Some people believed that the messiah was still to come. But others believed that the messiah had been fulfilled in a young man named Jeshua, Jesus, from Nazareth. Now those Jesus believers were either kicked out of the synagogue in Antioch or they walked out. But either way, Matthew is writing this gospel in the language of one who is addressing a church fight. Matthew wants to the people to remember their past, their heritage, even as they incorporate that heritage into this new thing that their faith has become – their faith in Jesus as the Son of God.
So Matthew is intense. If you were to read the gospel of Matthew side by side with any of the other ones, Matthew often comes across as the mean one. He was the finger shaker of all the gospel writers. He does not believe that the culture around the believers is benign or harmless. To be a Christian in the midst of this culture of others is to follow a narrow and dangerous path. Matthew is deeply concerned about the potential peril of the people he is addressing in his gospel. Preacher and scholar Tom Long compares Matthew to a parent sending his or her teenage driver out in a car, alone, for the first time. As I come closer to being a parent of a teenage driver, I know that I’m going to warn said teenager about every possible danger I can think of. I’m not going to let that teenage driver out on the road without these kinds of warnings because I want my driver to be careful and cautious. I know the kind of danger she's going into, and I want her to do everything she can to be safe.
So we come to this passage. As I said, Matthew is intense. His writing reflects that intensity. He wants his readers to understand how important it is for them to be aware of God’s impending kingdom in each and every moment. Matthew, like Jesus, wants those who will listen to wake from sleep. Stay awake! Be prepared for an unexpected arrival.
If we were to read this passage in the Greek, we might also understand a little more about the point that Jesus is making to his disciples. We hear, “For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.” To my ears it’s always sounded like they were in the midst of a special celebration. I hear Jesus’ words about eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage in a lilting, happy cadence. But the tone of the Greek is monotone. Eating and drinking, marrying and giving marriage. As if Jesus is also saying, yada, yada, yada. What does "yada, yada, yada" mean? It means whatever. It is rote, it’s routine. I get up. I eat breakfast. I go to work, yada, yada, yada.
So the people in Noah’s time were just going about their everyday lives. They were eating. They were drinking. They were marrying. There was nothing new. There was nothing to anticipate. Technically, they were awake. But they were really asleep; asleep to the movement of God in their world, asleep to coming judgment in their world. Once again, Tom Long says that our everyday living too often numbs our expectation of Advent. It’s the first Sunday of Advent, sure, but really it’s almost Christmas. We have presents to buy. Decorating to do. Parties to attend. Food to eat. Yada, yada, yada.
But this passage from Matthew breaks into our everyday routines. It shocks us out of thinking that Advent is only a season of sweetness and light. Advent is our time to prepare, yes, but it’s not just about the Christ child being born in a stable, it’s about the coming of the Lord. It’s about the extraordinary breaking into the ordinary. It’s about God’s love and God’s grace breaking into our lives of eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.
Some of you may take this passage from Matthew literally. Maybe when the Son of Man comes, there will be a rapture, where some are taken and some are left behind. But I think it goes deeper than we can possibly understand. Matthew and the other gospel writers were trying to put into words what cannot possibly be said within the limits of our language. They were trying to describe events that were beyond our wildest imaginings.
Jesus tells the disciples that when the Son of Man comes nothing will ever be the same. So we have to wake from our sleep. We have to be watchful. We must expect the unexpected.
It would be easy to interpret this passage as a call to anxiety about this tremendous future event. When will the Son of Man come? When will the dramatic end times finally occur? But I don’t think Jesus is calling us to be anxious. He’s trying to shake us up out of our apathy. Even the most faithful of us can get overwhelmed when we try to imagine the future. What will the world be like? Not just for me, but for my kids? What opportunities will they have? What if the Son of Man comes and I’m not ready? When I go on like this for too long, I just have to shut myself off from thinking about it at all. And when that happens, I become apathetic.
So we’re not being called to anxiety, and we’re being shaken out of our apathy. What’s left? Between anxiety and apathy, there’s hope. Jesus tells the disciples about the end times, not so they’ll worry and fret, but so they’ll get busy paying attention to this moment, now. Wake up to what is happening now. Go on about your everyday lives, doing your everyday work, but wake from the sleep you spend your days in. Be present in each moment. See God’s glory in each moment. Be aware that even in the most mundane of tasks, God is there with you. And hope in the future, because the future is God’s. This is why we hope. The past, the present and the future belong to God. And God shows us again and again and again that he is faithful and true. Hope in the future because the future belongs to God. And we belong to God. God is with us. Hope is ours. Wake. Watch. Expect the Unexpected. Let all God's children say, "Alleluia! Amen."