Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019
One thing we know about our spiritual ancestors who lived in ancient Palestine is that they lived for the present moment; they lived in the present moment and gave very little thought to the future. In this regard, they were very un-American. Ours is a culture that tends to look to the near future – not the distant future – but the near future. Thus, some can purchase funeral plans long before they are needed. Those with sufficient financial resources can begin saving for an infant’s college education before the child can even walk or utter a word. Some people can place their names on a waiting list for a retirement community apartment. We can buy life insurance for that unknown date of our demise. But for our ancestors in the faith, thinking about the future was thought to be blasphemous – for only God, the creator of time and space, could know the future.
What we hear in the gospel on this first Sunday of Advent is a departure from that common experience of living only in the present moment. Indeed, we know or should know that Jesus frequently proposed behaviors at odds with the cultural practices of his time. Indeed, his behaviors, his practices, were frequently at odds with what most people considered “normal” practices; indeed, no one is ever criticized, as was Jesus, for their conformity to “good” or socially acceptable behavior. He was, to use a relatively new term, transgressive; he engaged in transgressions. “About that day and hour no one knows,” says Matthew’s Jesus, “neither the angels, nor the Son himself, but only the God of Israel.” So, we rightly ask: if his cultural contemporaries were hesitant to think about or plan for the future, why does he caution his listeners to stay awake, to be alert as they look to the future, as if a thief were coming under cover of night?
And so I ask: might this call to be alert have something to do with the Christian community to whom Matthew addresses his gospel some fifty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus? Might it have to do with their question: How long must we wait for the advent, the arrival, of the risen Christ? And might it have something to do with their impatience, but perhaps more importantly with their anxiety? After all, they made the claim to others and confessed in their worship that Christ would return and yet – and yet – they were ridiculed by members of the dominant culture who said: “You say he is coming in this generation when everyone will see the truth of your faith and your Christ – but he is not here and you have been deceived.” What, then, is Matthew’s advice for this community that wants to know their faith in God and the good works done for their neighbors are not in vain? What, then, is Matthew’s word for this community that longs to experience the presence of Christ in the present moment? Here, I think he offers two words of advice.
First, don’t become ignorant of the world in which you live and your participation in the values of that world, he says. The problem with those who lived in the time of Noah and the flood was their inability to recognize their complacency in the presence of violence and how that complacency only produced more abuse and violence. Those who claim the name of Jesus, who claim to be his followers, are called to be alert to the core values of the Kingdom of God and let those convictions inform and guide their practice. The exercise of abuse or violence against others, especially those who are most vulnerable in society or in one’s home, is not a core value of living in the Reign of God. Thus, to dehumanize those without housing or those who are refugees, in order to criminalize them is a participation in abusive violence. Or this: don’t be distracted by rumors, gossip, or petty conflicts. Matthew’s Jesus seems to ask: Are you too easily focused on the petty skirmishes and injuries of daily life to the point that you miss your higher calling to be vigilant in your living the forgiveness and peace of Christ in daily life? Do not be distracted by the pitiful bickering of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, the bombast and ridiculing tweets of the nation’s president, or the petty jealousies that so easily emerge in life. Like the farmer working in the field or the baker woman grinding grain, be focused in your labor to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Thus, we find in this gospel the tension that exists in the lives of Christians. On the one hand, Jesus makes it quite clear that no one – no one – knows the day and hour when the Reign of God will fully flower on earth. With all other Christians, you and I are called to be alert and to be vigilant in our participation with God’s work to establish love and forgiveness, justice and peace on earth, on earth – as it is in heaven. Why else would we pray, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done”? And, at the same time, as Matthew points out so clearly, the risen Christ, Emmanuel, is already with you and me, inviting us to his table, giving himself to us in the most intimate manner possible, feeding us with his death-defying body and nourishing us with his energizing drink, his precious blood. The only question is this: having encountered the risen Christ in this sacrament of grace, will we be more alert to where he says he will be found in the present: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the vulnerable among us and in our world?
Will it be Yes or will it be No?
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.”