Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Unexpected Hour: A Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44

“The Unexpected Hour”
Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44
December 2, 2007

Imagine another time, another era in humanity’s sojourn upon this earth. In ancient days, before the dawn of Jesus Christ, people noted, as we do, the turning of the seasons. As winter came on, and the days grew shorter, a fear and dread fell upon the ancients that the sun was going away, never to return. They determined to woo the gods by turning all their attention to the shortening days and slowing down, ceasing their work, and allowing daily activities to come to a standstill. They took the wheels off their carts and adorned them with greenery and candles, and brought them indoors. As the solstice passed and days began to grow longer again, they held festivals, celebrations to mark the triumph of the sun over the threatening darkness.[i]

No one knows: neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Keep awake: you don’t know on what day the Lord is coming. Be ready: the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. No one knows. Keep awake. Be ready.

We can hear the anxiety in these words. The writer of this gospel, the gospel of Matthew, has Jesus speaking words of urgency, dire warnings. He might be one of those ancients, warning us about the departing sun. Matthew—of all the New Testament writers, the one most concerned to connect the story of Jesus to its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures—tells us again the story of Noah… by his lights, a story of inattention, carelessness, misplaced priorities. We can almost see Matthew shaking his head. We can almost hear him murmuring, “They should have been ready.”

In a season in which the populace of the United States is in a veritable maelstrom of preparation for Christmas, we can be reasonably sure Matthew isn’t worried about our decorations, our baking, our gift purchasing or wrapping. Christmas paraphernalia having been evident in retail establishments for upwards of two months, we can’t say we weren’t warned. We are comfortably sure: this can’t be what Matthew is warning us about.

Despite the classic explanation of Advent as a time to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we can also be reasonably sure that Matthew is probably not referring to that observance, either. Matthew is not one for the picture-postcard view of Christmas; he’s not the angels and shepherds and glowing babe type. Matthew’s the one whose Christmas story includes Joseph giving serious consideration to the idea of bailing out before it’s too late. He’s the gospel writer who caps the whole thing off with a dreadful mass killing, and the Holy Family turned into undocumented immigrants in Egypt. We can be comfortably sure: this can’t be what Matthew is warning us about.

“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…” Now that rings a bell. Most anyone who reads these phrases recognizes that something else is going on here. Some of our Christian brothers and sisters have staked a claim to a very specific meaning in these verses. The “Left Behind” juggernaut, through the canny marketing of novels, DVD’s, video games, audio books and comic books, has brought its creators a figure in excess of $1 billion. They’ve successfully planted a particular belief in popular consciousness, so successful that many believe it’s THE Christian belief. It’s tempting to say, “Ah. The rapture! That’s what Matthew wants us to be ready for.” There’s a problem with that reading, however: this whole concept wasn’t even born until about 160 years ago. The idea that Christ would return at the head of an army, ushering in Armageddon, and that true believers would be spared the final tribulations by being whisked off to heaven, was the brainstorm of a 19th century English curate, John Nelson Darby. In the 1800 years of Christian theology before that, no one had ever held that position. Presbyterians don’t hold that position today.

Ironically, it’s probably a similar movement—folks with a particular, specific theology that could predict the date and circumstances of Jesus’ return—that’s probably exactly Matthew is trying to combat in this passage. How many times does he say, “No one knows? Not even Jesus? Not even the angels?” In every generation there have been folks who managed to profit from trying to play prophet in this regard. Matthew is sternly warning against it. He reminds me of the old country preacher who said, “Beware of anyone who claims to be able to tell you the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell.”

No one knows. Keep awake. Be ready. But for what? What vigilance is Matthew summoning us to?

One writer I read this week, commenting on this passage, said this:

This is not the second coming of Christ. We call that one "Easter." It's not the third coming we're looking for either. Wherever two or three have gathered in Jesus' name since Easter, Jesus has come among them, so we must be on about the umpteen kajillionth coming. The coming, or "advent," we look forward to in this season is, in a sense, as mundane and as special as all of those other "advents" have been. It's all of those other "advents," all comings of Christ from the Incarnation up to this Sunday morning, that inform us about what the final Advent…really means. [ii]

So, we look forward, with Matthew, to the umpteen kajillionth coming of Christ. We look forward, with the entire church, the cloud of witnesses past, present and future, to his reign of justice and peace. And we are back with those ancients, gazing anxiously at the darkening skies and wondering, worrying, asking: Has peace gone for good? Is justice a thing of the past, or a thing of the imagination? We kindle our wheels of fire and find ourselves longing for an Advent unlike any other. We wonder when the Lord will be coming to set things right. We wonder how we can be ready, what exactly we need to be ready for. We wonder if we dare to hope.

What we might not even dare to hope in the silence of our hearts rings out loudly in Isaiah’s passage. In his description of the coming of God to judge the nations, he speaks of the time when people, at last, lay down their arms. He speaks of people doing outlandish things, like the musician in Colombia who turns AK-47 assault rifles into guitars[iii], or the artist in Seattle who creates a peace installation from the fins of decommissioned nuclear submarines.[iv] He speaks of people like the inventor from Ethiopia who takes burnt out mortar shells and creates, of all things, coffee makers: swords into plowshares becoming mortars into Frappuccinos.[v] In the unexpected hour all manner of men and women and children have the capacity to envision the reign of Christ in ways that that kindle real hope for the return of the departed Son. In the unexpected hour, we meet Christ in all this creativity and radical, unreasonable hopefulness.

No one knows. Keep awake. Be ready. Christ may just turn up in a church like ours, on a morning like this. He may turn up on Notorious Street with the drug dealers and the gangbangers No one knows, this may be the hour, when our great Judge and Redeemer decides to pull up a chair to this, our table, to roll up his sleeves and dine with us. No one knows. Keep awake. No dulling our senses with our addictive substances, no numbing out through shopping, no sleepwalking by staying busy. Keep awake. We need to be ready. We need to be ready to see Christ in the least of our sisters and brothers… in the homeless person asking for change, in the skateboarder who almost knocked us down, in the prisoner for whom we might buy a toothbrush. We need to be ready to see the face of Jesus in the one person in the world who drives us the most crazy, makes us the most angry, has hurt us the most deeply. We need to be ready to greet him in a tense committee meeting or at the bedside of a beloved friend or peering at us over the morning paper. We need to be ready. This is the unexpected hour. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Gertrud Mueller Nelson, To Dance With God.
[ii] Sarah Dylan Breuer, “First Sunday of Advent, Year A,”

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