Sermon #160 St. James the Less #67 12/1/19
Jesus said to the disciples, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 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, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 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. 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.” Matthew 24:36-44
Well, here we are at the beginning of a new year, which may come as a surprise to you. But the first Sunday of Advent marks the start of the new year in the church calendar. All of last year we read from the Gospel of Luke and now we have closed Luke and open up Matthew, and we will journey with Matthew for the next twelve months.
But it does seem a little odd as we begin the season of Advent, and open up the Gospel of Matthew, that we should turn all the way to chapter 24. Wouldn’t chapter one be a little more appropriate?
And of all things, why is it talking about the end times? It just seems a little out of place as we begin this exciting season leading up to Christmas.
If anything, our passage makes me think about the Left Behind series. I don’t know how many of you remember that book series which came out in the late 90s and early 2000s. It was a huge hit in some Christian circles. And I think a good amount of interest circulated around the series as we got closer to the year 2000. There was anxiety and questions about the new millennia, and people seriously wondered if Jesus was coming back.
The Left Behind series really grabbed hold of these questions and uncertainties and filled in the answer with their own version of an apocalyptic narrative set in modern times. It talked about the Antichrist, who was smooth-talking Romanian. The poor Romanians, I don’t know how they got stuck with that.
But it also vividly described the rapture, which was loosely (and I mean loosely) based on our passage from Matthew this morning. In wild scenes it showed some being left and the others taken, kind of like Avengers Infinity War-people would just disappear. It had everything it needed to be a bestselling biblical thriller.
The trouble is I don’t know how much good it actually did for people’s spiritual life, or if they even went back to read the passages that the series was based off of, like our gospel today.
It likely caused more nightmares for both children and adults than it resolved questions about Jesus’ second coming, at least I know it gave me nightmares reading it. And unfortunately, it played on people’s anxieties at the time which led not only to one book being made, but 16 books and four movies!
So why do we hear about the end times at the beginning of Advent? It just really dampens the holiday mood, with our peppermint mochas and Christmas sweaters, to even think about something as strange as the rapture.
The answer, at least partially, is that Advent is all about waiting. The word Advent actually comes from the Latin word “adventus” that means “coming.” In the early church Advent was a season of preparation for baptism which would happen at the Feast of the Epiphany in early January. It was a time of prayer and fasting before being baptized.
But by the 6th century Advent shifted from being a time of preparation for baptism, and instead it was a season marked by preparation for Jesus’ coming. Yet the focus wasn’t on celebrating Jesus’ coming at Christmas as much as it was a time of thinking about Jesus’ second coming.
Advent really has this dual purpose when we talk about preparation and waiting. Yes, we spend four weeks waiting to celebrate Christmas, but we also reflect on what it means to be a people waiting for Jesus’ return. He’s come once, but he has promised to come again.
And that’s why we turn to Matthew 24 this Sunday instead of Matthew 1. Before we can think sweetly about the babe in the manger, we must realize that his return could be at any moment.
Many people were oblivious that Jesus had come the first time, and his warning is that his followers should not be surprised when he comes again. They shouldn’t be caught off guard. Though we don’t know the day or hour, Jesus calls us to be watchful and alert.
And that’s how he sums it all up at the end of our passage, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” If Jesus was from Tennessee, he’d say something like, “Be on the lookout and stay awake, cause you got no idea when I’m showin’ up.”
Jesus’ details about how he will return are limited and varied according to the gospels, but they all point to the unexpected nature of his arrival.
When I was living in Jerusalem, I became friends with a couple named Owen and Geraldine Hoskin. They were an older couple from New Zealand who had come to teach in the Anglican school in Jerusalem. Owen had spent all of his life in education and had recently been ordained a deacon.
They had decided to spend their retirement years travelling and doing new things. By the time I met them they had been in Jerusalem for over two years.
One night I had dinner at their quaint apartment not too far from the school. While sharing stories around the table, Geraldine told me about a unique tradition they have in their family. They have three grown children spread around the globe. One in Seattle, one in London, and the other in New Zealand. Literally spread around the world. And get this, it is there custom to show up at one another’s home unannounced.
It’s as crazy as it sounds, the doorbell rings, they open it, and to their great surprise it’s one of their son’s and his family. But they’ll also do it to their son’s. You just never know who’s going to show up and when. It’s one thing for me to show up unannounced at my parent’s house in Murfreesboro, it’s a whole other thing to travel around the globe and randomly show up.
I think it is one of the greatest family traditions I’ve ever heard of. When they were telling it, they had huge smiles on their faces. There is nothing like a great surprise.
But I asked them what if they had things going on that week, what if they were really busy, and one of their sons shows up? With a straight face they said, “We just drop what we’re doing. They came from the other side of the world to see us, and they do the same for us when we come to visit. They become our priority.”
Wow. Beautiful isn’t it?
I wonder if that is at least some of what Jesus is trying to convey in our reading this morning. We never know when that doorbell will ring, or when we open that door and are surprised at who we see.
For Owen and Geraldine, they don’t sit by their door waiting and waiting for one of their sons to show up, and their sons aren’t waiting for them to show up. They could be waiting months at a time.
Instead they live their lives to the fullest, staying active in their work and continuing to live life one day at a time. But they never know if tonight’s the night that their doorbell will ring. They don’t obsessively think about it. Rather their lives are marked by actively waiting…and doing it with joy and purpose.
And when that doorbell does ring and their loved one stands on the other side of that door, they drop everything, and their priorities are then centered on the one who stands at the door.
“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Advent is a time to think a little more closely about how we wait for Jesus, or better yet, how can we wait like Owen and Geraldine.
Though we are living in-between Jesus’ first and second advent, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a sense of urgency and attentiveness in our actions. If anything, Jesus seems to be indicating that hearers of his word must react as if the time is now.
History is moving towards Jesus’ second coming, but what do we do in the meantime?
Are we passively waiting for his return, or are we taking an active role in his kingdom which is here, and yet, not fully here until he returns with power and great glory?
And so we wait, but we wait with purpose and with a mission. Don’t let Advent pass you by. The next 24 days have a particular purpose and a gift. We can’t just blow through this holy season and go straight to Christmas. We’d be missing the point.
We patiently wait for four short weeks as a testament of how we wait for our Lord and Savior’s ultimate return. So, be attentive and yet active. Be ever-watchful and yet working. Be patient and yet always moving forward knowing that the doorbell could ring at any time.
Advent 1. Year A. Matthew 24:36-44.