Known & Unknown

A Sermon for 1 December 2019 – 1st Advent

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 24:3-5, 32-44. Listen for God’s word to us.

“When Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray. . . . 32 From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 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, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 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. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

Today we enter again into this four-week season of Advent. The church year begins with Advent as a time to return to waiting. A time to prepare. A time to get back in touch with our ancestors in the faith who watched and hoped and anticipated with great joy the day when God would bring peace on all the earth! When at last, the prophesy of old would be fulfilled. For a child would be born! A new kind of king who would reign over all. Establishing peace through justice. Ushering in a new day. The favor of the LORD, the Sovereign of the heavens and the earth, resting on the Anointed One so that no more would oppressive empires rule over the people. No more would distress cover the land. No more would despair break backs; but the dawn of the Light would rise for love, joy, peace, hope to rule in every heart! Advent is the season that returns us to God’s promise as we join ancient echoes to come, Come Lord Jesus! Dwell among us. Be for us the Way!

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. And the gospel of Matthew turns us almost to the end of the story. To a day – shortly before the crucifixion – when Jesus sat among his disciples in the Temple. Teaching them to guard themselves. Though the establishment stood powerfully in their midst; no matter what happened, Jesus did not want his followers to be led astray. For the path of the Anointed was not streets paved in gold. But the way of the cross. A giving of Life for True Life to flourish. Jesus might as well have recited the words of the Psalmist: “Put not your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. For when their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish” (Psalm 146:3-4). Rather, the Psalmist would say – and Christ Jesus would display it throughout his life: Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free, the Psalmist and prophets and Jesus would proclaim. The LORD opens the eyes of the blind and lifts up those who are bowed down. The LORD loves the righteous and watches over the strangers. God upholds the orphan and the widow and will reign forever. Halleluiah! Halleluiah! Amen! (paraphrase of Psalm 146:5-10).

Some look upon the 24 chapter of Matthew’s gospel and read it literally. Using the catastrophic images to search the skies. To seek to read the times. The verses of this part of the gospel are how we get things like ideas of an eventual rapture – when some (the faithful) will be taken. And others will be left behind. Texts like Matthew 24 are one way we’ve historically gotten elaborate notions of what’s called Millennialism – Post and Pre, which has nothing at all to do with the youngsters running around today as a generation o so very different from the ones that have come before. Millennialism is a religious belief – especially popular among American Evangelicals – that is dependent upon a literal understanding of a Second Coming of Jesus that includes a final tribulation-like judgement – with a golden age before or after it, depending on which religious flavor you ask. That will lead to a world yet to come. This is how we get things like a biblical proof-texting, literal-seeking left behind idea. Torment for some. Release for a handful. The kind of Christianity that turns a lot of people away today as it’s based on eschatological ideas that fail to read the gospels in context to see how the second and final destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE dramatically influenced the way early Christian writers told the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the one we call the Christ.

One biblical commentator calls us to another way of mining the wisdom from Jesus’ words in the portion of the gospel before us in this season of Advent. The commentator writes: “What we might focus on here . . . quite apart from the end of the world, is Jesus’ depiction of normal human life. Forget for now,” the commentator encourages, “about the end of time. Forget about the return of Christ, whatever that might mean. What we have here is a picture of the world as it is, all too familiar to us” (Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Vol. 2. Lance Stone, p. 245). A world of knowns and unknowns which Jesus wants to make sure his followers understand. The commentator explains that “There are things in the world, Jesus says, that are known and that can be anticipated. Look at the fig tree” (Ibid.). Which Jesus points out to his followers in another portion of this lengthy lesson that Jesus was giving when his disciples were terrified and wanted to hold some certainty that would allow them to be prepared. Fig trees reminds us: winter gives way to spring. Summer sunshine ripens the fruit on the branch which brings about the harvest of autumn. The earth’s bountiful yield. All of nature reminds us what the commentator states: “there is a pattern and order and regularity in the world, the very basis of science and technology, and it means that we have a measure of control, without which life would not be viable” (Ibid.). The very world around us teaches that there are some things upon which we typically can rely. At the same time, the words of Jesus also offer the other half of that lesson. Something wise ones never take for granted – not so we live with a sense of dread about the other shoe always about to drop. But so we do not find ourselves feeling robbed by life – or worse yet, blaming such troubles upon ourselves or God or others when in fact difficulties arise in life. For, as that same biblical commentator reminds: life is ordered and reliable AND it is precarious. Unpredictable. “However much we may feel in control, we always are vulnerable. We know that we always are susceptible to the unexpected and the unplanned that suddenly throws our routine lives into turmoil and confusion” (Ibid.).

Does it seem like good news? Maybe not if you’re riding on top of a beautiful wave. Feeling all-powerful and totally in charge. But remember the setting of this gospel. Likely written shortly after the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed forever – all but that still-standing Western Wall. It is good news to hear from the Anointed – the One crucified, yet resurrected. It is good news to hear that sometimes life will feel like the thief in the night. The mysterious disappearance while harvesting the fields. The random occurrence of one seemingly being struck by lightning while the next is left totally fine. The truth is: life – like God – is knowns and unknows. The agency of our own life control. And the inexplicable action of other forces upon us. In the season of Advent, our surest comfort is to remember the story of the God who lives among us. Born a vulnerable baby. Hell-bent on loving us that our own flesh and blood would become the instruments through which God chooses to work. In all of life’s knowns. In all the unknowns, may we trust in full in that!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

 

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

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