Below is a somewhat edited version of a sermon I preached for the first Sunday of Advent. Please excuse any spacing issues, blogger was misbehaving. :)
No one knows that day and that hour – not the angels of heaven, nor even the Only Begotten – only Abba God. The coming of the Promised One will be just like Noah’s time. In the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, having relationships and getting married, right up to the day Noah entered the ark. They were totally unconcerned until the flood came and destroyed them. So it will be at the coming of the Promised One. Two people will be out in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two people will be grinding meal; one will be taken and one will be left. Therefore be vigilant! For you don’t know the day your Saviour is coming. No one knows that day and that hour, not even the only Begotten. In Noah’s time, people were eating and drinking, having relationships and getting married, they were totally unconcerned (Matthew 24:36-42, the Inclusive Bible).
They didn’t know the day their Saviour would come.
We don’t know.
For many people this text is a clear call to panic. Panic, because we can’t know? Panic because Christ is coming? Panic because we might be caught unaware? Panic because we might be left behind? Left Behind. There’s a whole series of books dedicated to feeding this type of apocalyptic panic. This is a type of frantic preparedness for the coming of Christ, who will take some and who will leave others, who will bring destruction as in the time of Noah.
I was reminded a couple of weeks ago of how often this text, and others like it, particularly those from the book of Revelation, are read with apocalyptic fear and panic when I saw a video by the Mennonite storyteller and actor, Ted Schwartz in which he presents a humorous infomercial trying to convince consumers that they need to buy the “Hold Crap, Angry Jesus is coming back survival pack.” 7 years of food and supplies in “28 durable God-given plastic buckets”, because my friend, “it’s never too early to be afraid of fire, pestilence, earthquakes, or simply the return of our Lord and saviour.” The video is hilarious, if you don’t embrace a theology that focuses on fear of imminent judgement and earthly destruction.
For many our text from Matthew is indeed a call to panic and fear, but for others, our text is one that is easily ignored. It’s simply one of those texts that we can’t possibly understand so why bother. Let’s just get on to more relevant Advent stories like John the Baptist or better yet, Mary and Joseph. We would rather this text was simply, “left behind,” entirely.
So on the one hand we have anxiety and on the other hand apathy. Neither of which give us the opportunity to consider the gifts that might actually be offered here. The thing is, those who read this text as a view to the second coming aren’t wrong. This text is set in the middle of a whole series of parables on watchfulness and judgment, the signs of the end and this text is speaking to a time in which the Promised One will come. And those who say, we can’t possibly fully understand, aren’t wrong either. Texts that attempt to tell us about last things are shrouded in mystery. But so are past things and present things.
I think the beauty of this text is that it looks back, and it looks forward and at the same time, it’s planted firmly in the present. The author is speaking to a people who remember God dwelling among them in the past, who are looking forward to God dwelling among them in the future and in the present are struggling to figure out how God dwells with them between the times. The author is speaking to that struggle as much as to past and future events. The struggle of God's people now, and the struggle of God's people in the first century is essentially the same. In every time and place, we must do the work of naming God's activity and discerning how we can be a part of it, of figuring out what it means to be the people of God and followers of Christ in a particular time and place.
And in that context the author says, that in Noah’s time, people were just living their lives, going about their own business, eating and drinking and marrying, totally unconcerned with what was to come. Most often when we speak of Noah’s contemporaries we speak of their wickedness, but here what seems to matter more is their lack of awareness. They were totally unconcerned with God, with God’s dwelling among them, with the activity of God in their midst. They were oblivious to the mystery of God’s dwelling in their present.
And so it will be in the future. People will be going about their everyday tasks of working in the fields and grinding meal and then…God will make Godself known.
We don’t know where or when or how the Promised One will come, will dwell among us. We never have, and we never will. And the text doesn’t tell us that we should go about figuring this out. This is not a call to solving the mystery of God’s dwelling among us. What we have is a call to watchfulness, to awareness, to attention. We aren’t being called to solve the mystery, we are being called to attend to it.
And while this text seems to speak more to the second coming of the Promised One, it speaks equally well to the first, and to every other inbreaking of Light ever since. The Light enters into our midst when we least expect it. Surely God’s words to Noah were unexpected. Surely the angel who appeared to Mary was unexpected. Surely the infant in a manger was unexpected. They did not know the when or the where, the what or the how. And what I notice the most about the inbreaking of God in our midst is that we don’t have to know ahead of time, or understand in the midst of it, or even be able to explain it after the fact. All we have to do is attend, to be present to the mystery of God that is right in front of us. And yes, at some point there might also be a call to respond or engage, but in the moment, the call is to attend.
And in order to attend, we have to be prepared. This text calls us to be a people ready for the mystery, ready to receive the Promised One. A people shaped and formed to attend to the mystery of God’s dwelling among us.
So how do we do that? How do we prepare ourselves, shape ourselves so that we actually see the light in our midst?
Honestly, I don’t know. I think this is one of those things, like most things in the journey of faith that defies formula, or easy steps. I think it’s one of those things that will be completely different for each community, for each household, for each individual.
Many who read this text see it as a call to repentance, and perhaps that is the case for you. Maybe preparation means repenting of the actions that have been blinding you to God’s love.
But maybe preparation means learning to breathe deeply, attending to the breath of God within so you can come to notice the breath of God without.
Maybe preparation means joining a group for prayer, or discovering new prayer practices on your own.
Maybe preparation means making space each day to simply notice, to do nothing or even to do only one thing at a time!
Maybe preparation means uncluttering. Uncluttering space, uncluttering schedules.
Maybe preparation means placing yourself in new spaces where God’s mystery might be visible in new and different ways, like volunteering in a soup kitchen.
Maybe preparation means a new relationship, a spiritual friendship in which you can cultivate attentiveness.
Maybe preparation means starting to voice where you see injustice, creating cracks for God’s light to break through.
Maybe preparation is something as small as a giving project, or maybe it’s as large as selling your house and downsizing.
Preparation might mean action, or it might mean ceasing to act.
We are in the season of Advent. In the Christian year it’s a time of waiting and preparation, waiting to receive the Promised One. And perhaps that sounds like a holy and completely unattainable goal in the midst of all of the things we should do or be or feel in the month of December. However, let us remember that God does not require perfection and that whatever preparation looks like for each of us, I believe it will shape us to see the light when it comes, it will prepare us to stop. To sit. To listen. To be, in the presence of the Promised One, to attend to the mystery of God’s dwelling among us.