Sunday, December 1, 2019 – Advent 1
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
“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.
A few Sundays ago, I spoke about the technical meaning of the word “Apocalypse:” which is a revealing or an uncovering. But today, I want to use that word in its more common usage, as in “the end of the world as we know it.” And more specifically, about “the end of the world” as the Bible is said to predict it.
We don’t really talk much about the end of the world in churches like ours. But in the church of my childhood, it seemed that we spoke of little else. And all of that “end of the world talk” used to scare me to death. It was so depressing for a young person who had his whole life in front of him.
Even at church camp, riding horses and learning archery, I could not escape all of that Apocalyptic talk. I remember one summer being forced to watch a film entitled: “A Thief in the Night.” Its basic premise was one I had been raised with: that Christ would come again when we least expected him, that he would rapture or take away all of the righteous ones. But the rest – the vast majority of the people left on this earth, who did not have the right kind of theology – would suffer something called the Great Tribulation. That film depicted all of this in great detail and gave me nightmares for years. How is it, I used to wonder, that God would so blithely abandon so many of his children just when we needed God the most?
This theology, in addition to literally scaring the hell out of me, had some other very negative results. It set up an “us versus them” approach to everything. It divided the world between the saved and the unsaved. And because we were so fixated on being saved, we had little time to serve our neighbors or to care for the earth or to simply enjoy this incredible blessing we call “being alive.”
The passage we just heard Pastor Alison read, was one of our primary texts in this apocalyptic theology. It seemed to describe the very things we had been warned about – this idea that the good would be rescued but that the bad would be left on their own. Matthew describes it like this: two would be in a field. One would be taken. The other left behind. Two women would be working together. One would be taken. The other left behind. The passage ends with this ominous warning: “Therefore you must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
In the church of my childhood, we were convinced that this passage was all about us. We were convinced that we were the one living at the end of time. We never considered that those passages must have also meant something to the people who first heard them. Those words had to have resonance in the first century as well as our own. Because the truth of the matter is that the earliest Christians were convinced that they were the ones living at the end of time. They could have never imagined that 2000 years later, the church would still be waiting on the Second Coming of Jesus.
In fact, in verse 34 of this same chapter of Matthew, Jesus makes this prediction to the people listening to him speak: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” One of my seminary professors called this the Bible’s most disturbing verse, because, he said, it seems to not have been true at all. That generation did pass away, and still Christ has not returned. This so disturbed the second and the third generation that they had a crisis of faith. We see that in some of St. Paul’s epistles. They wondered where Christ was. And so to address this concern, the church changed its theology and its expectations about what it meant to wait for the coming of Jesus.
Now, you might be wondering why we’re are talking about such things as we gear up for Christmas. You might be wondering why I’m preaching on such a dour text when you feel ready to sing “Joy to the World.” Well, for one thing, the lectionary texts were already chosen for me. And besides that, it might do us all well, in this season of giddy hedonism and consumerism run amok, to think about what it means to wait for Jesus in our day. And it might do us well, in this season of waiting, to see the first and the second coming of Jesus not as two distinct things, but as one continuous event. And if we can do that, then this season of Advent, with its repentance and silence and preparation actually starts to make sense. We need this time to make our hearts ready to actually see Christ each time he returns.
Seeing Jesus has always required preparation. The first time he came, Wise Men, first studied the stars and then traveled a great distance to find him. The first time he came, shepherds came in from their fields and scoured the streets to find him. No one was exactly sure who they were looking for. Most folks, even when they saw him, had a hard time believing God would come to us in poverty and amongst the animals.
But 2000 years later, we’re so familiar with the story that there is no surprise left in it for us. We know the setting and all the characters. We know story and how it ends. But what we do not know, and what should keep us on our toes, is a Christ who didn’t just come at Bethlehem, but comes again and again and again and again. Christ keeps coming, and always in brilliant disguises. And always, as Matthew says, “at an unexpected hour.”
I read this passage now with very different eyes than I did as a child. I read it conscious of the fact that it had to have resonance with its first hearers, as well as Christians in every age. I read it and see in these words the promise that Christ will come again, and again, and again. Therefore, Matthew says to us, “Keep awake!”
A few weeks ago, we had a presentation here at church about the humanitarian crisis at our southern border. This presentation was not about the politics of how to handle immigration. It was simply about the human need already present in that place and what people might be able to do to alleviate the suffering.
One of the slides we saw was of a drawing by a little girl attempting to demonstrate the journey that she and her family had made from Guatemala to northern Mexico where they wait in an asylum-seeking process. The little girl had drawn the footsteps of her journey between the two places. She had thrown in some flowers and butterflies to signify the beauty she saw along the way. And then across the top, in her child-like handwriting, she had written: “Todo lo puedo en Cristo que me fortalece.” Which translates, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
And in that electric moment, Christ came to me just as surely as he did 2000 years ago. In that moment, Christ was absolutely present. And my eyes suddenly filled with tears as I realized, once again, that this ever-elusive Christ will come again and again and again when we least expect him and when we most need him.
Advent is meant to prepare us for the very coming of Christ into this world. And so I ask you: how will you prepare? How will you make your heart ready to receive him? How will you open your eyes to behold him? For in the faces of the poor and dispossessed, Christ comes. In the dehumanized and the ill, Christ comes. In the lonely and the forgotten and the hated and the misunderstood, Christ comes again and again and again. Are we ready? Are we watching? Are we waiting?
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”