Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
We have now passed Thanksgiving, and so begin our headlong rush toward Christmas. For me, it always feels like a frenzy! As a child I remember December being the longest month; all of the anticipation of Christmas made it endless! But as I have grown older, it all seems to go too fast. I work to settle into a thoughtful anticipation of Christmas, and not simply careen headlong toward December 25, but it is very hard to do.
In the church we try to slow down this all-out run with the season of Advent. But in many ways we have simply made Advent into a Christmas prelude—we are completely focused on the beautiful story of a babe born in a stable, with angels and shepherds and wise men and all. We would do well to remember that the themes of Advent go far beyond the anticipation of a romantic birth narrative. It’s not all starlight and newborn babes. One commentator has said that “the beginning of the liturgical year is anything but sweet.”[i] So what is Advent supposed to be about, anyway?
The first clue that that there is more to the season than just anticipation of the anniversary of Christ’s birth is the fact that we begin Advent each year with one of the eschatological discourses in the gospels. Eschatology, as you may know, is the “part of theology concerned with the final events of history, or ultimate destiny of humanity” – the end times.[ii]
This morning we read from Matthew, which will be our focus for this new church year, begun today. You will recall we just completed an Adult Bible Study course on the Gospel of Matthew, where we worked at understanding the Gospel’s context and characteristics. We learned that the Gospel has much in common with Greek heroic biographical forms; that it can be read as an apologetic, or explanation of Christian belief; and that it was written for a very specific audience of Jewish followers in Antioch who were trying to make sense of this Messiah and this new faith that had captivated them.
Matthew’s gospel follows a distinct pattern: there are five teaching discourses, which alternate with the chronological story of Jesus’ teaching and ministry. Each of these teaching discourses reads almost like a sermon, with a specific topic. Today’s gospel reading comes from the last of these five discourses, which deals with the Kingdom to come—the end times. It includes four parables that illustrate various aspects of the apocalyptic theology. And this morning’s reading is sort of the thesis statement for this section. It compares the Parousia, or Second Coming of Christ, to the story of Noah and the flood. And while we know that the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) share a lot of content in common, it is interesting to note that this way of describing Christ’s second coming is unique to Matthew. He uses this familiar story of the flood, where most of humanity is swept away by the unexpected deluge, as a way to illustrate the need for these early Christians to be ready for Christ’s return to earth.
We must remember that, for those in the first centuries after Jesus’s life on earth, it seemed the Second Coming of Christ was likely to happen at any time. But for us who know that almost 2,000 years have transpired without Christ’s return, that return of Christ to earth seems unlikely to happen in our lifetime. Seminary Professor David Bartlett has said, “Some Christians think that the whole emphasis on Christ’s Parousia is much ado about nothing, or at least much ado about nothing believable. If they are faithful churchgoers, they endure the annual Advent apocalyptic texts and look forward to next week, when John the Baptist, that tangible historical figure, helps us look forward to Jesus.”[iii] Bartlett goes on to note that there are also Christians who believe the second coming is at the heart of the gospel, and so, instead of responding with apathy, they hear this passage and are anxious. Bartlett says this passage, “encourages faith rather than apathy and hope rather than anxiety.”[iv]
But why this focus on the apocalypse? For early Christians there was a clear understanding that the first coming of Christ was the beginning of the end times. Matthew is reminding us of the unique place we find ourselves in salvation history: the already/not yet. Already Christ has come to earth for the sake of humanity, but the true end of God’s plan for us has not yet occurred. As another commentator has said, “Living faithfully in the already-not yet of Christian discipleship does not mean that we can rest on God’s grace. It means that God gives us all the more responsibility for doing God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven.”[v]
In other words, as we begin the new church year, we are immediately reminded of the coming end of the story. It is tempting to think of the birth of Christ as the beginning and his resurrection as the end; but in fact, the arc is much longer, and not yet complete.
Now, I have to say I am not sure I’m really comfortable being in that place. If I spend much time at all thinking about what is required of me as a resident of the already/not yet time, it feels like a burden: I feel like I have too much responsibility for my own and the world’s salvation. And the not knowing of “not-yet” feels a little threatening.
What if, instead, we thought of living in this in-between time as a gift? We have been given a firsthand glimpse of the glory of God and God’s unending love for us, in God’s incarnation as Jesus Christ. We know what it means to have God come to earth and be one of us—and to dwell with God. Now we have the opportunity to embody the love that we have received. We can bring justice and equality where it is needed; we can feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty; we can treat God’s good green earth with a respect that of late has been missing; we can value all life and work to protect it.
That’s what it means to live in joyful expectation of the second coming of Christ. To be witnesses to the wonder of our God and to joyfully participate with God in the salvation of creation. To know that just as God came to earth in the form of a babe, so God has been present to us faithfully through every moment since and will continue to be until the mysterious moments of the Parousia which are promised, even if we can’t imagine or comprehend them.
Just like the child who is transfixed by all the Christmas lights, and the red bows, and the heartfelt carols, we too know that Christmas is coming. Can we hold on to the joy of that anticipation and not just rush for the conclusion? Can we simply dwell in the already/not yet for the days of December, knowing that while we wait, not only for this Christmas but for the second coming, we have the privilege of being the embodiment of Christ for those we encounter every day? Let that be our task this Advent. Amen.
[i] Allen, Jr., O. Wesley. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4302, accessed 11/29/19.
[iii] Bartlett, David. L. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 20.
[v] Allen, op cit.