Isaiah 2:1-5 & Matthew 24:36-44
November 27th, 2016
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It may seem strange to us that here on the first Sunday of Advent, preparing for the first arrival of the Christ, the lectionary focuses on a passage about the second coming of Christ. The late, great preacher Dr. Fred Craddock used to say, “Many people are obsessed with the second coming because, deep down, they were really disappointed in the first one.” It was Fred’s inimitable way of saying that so many want a savior who will do the saving, who will fix the problems, who will make it all better and kiss us on the cheek and tuck us into bed. But when Jesus lives and dies and is resurrected and yet the world still motors on…when the disciples speak of a great reversal of life and yet 2000 years we still wait…when the fragile fantasies of hope and the seemingly paltry promises of compassion are met with the cruelty and meanness that the world has in unending supply many of us say – come again, Jesus, only this time finish the job! I mean, how do we keep preaching these texts of impending transformation, 2000 years later?
For many of us, these “apocalyptic” texts are seen only through the lens of the “Left Behind” storyline, where the “good” Christians get torn from their homes, warped up into heaven and the rest of us…yes, I’m sure I’m in the “rest of us” category in this theology…stay behind to fiery destruction. It’s the same way we run campaigns – scare the fool out of someone with horrific imagery and impending doom and then offer them the only solution, just sign on the dotted line.
But let’s read the text. Funny what happens when you actually do that. The Noah and the flood reference? The people who are swept away and taken who are the ones on the “outside”, not the ones “in the club.” And in the metaphor of the thief, the thief comes to take someone away. It’s a kidnapping story, not a “Beam me up, Scotty” story. The hope comes for those who are ready, whose doors are locked. Their “saving” comes by staying put, right where they are…even in the midst of struggle or suffering. The “coming of Jesus” happens at home and it happens in a way that no one can predict, or expect, or anticipate…all they can do is wait.
So, here we are in Advent, the season of waiting. If you are like me, and I’m sure you are, Advent couldn’t come quickly enough this year. I need some Jesus. I need the story of the baby born to save us because I feel like things are headed south in a hurry. Times like these I lean on the term “savior”, because I don’t think I have any control over what is happening around me. I need someone to save me.
Maybe it is the election that causes us distress right now, but the unpredictable chaos that can enter our lives might come from a tornado or an earthquake, or something more private, like a miscarriage, a lost job, heart attack, death of a loved one, or so many other personal and unanticipated set backs which can threaten any illusion of order we’d created for ourselves. Being alive is scary and we all have moments where we cry out to the heavens for some saving grace. Or perhaps we cling to a dream – a dream like Isaiah’s, where God’s will becomes reality, where peace and hope comes home…swords into plowshares, nations not learning war any more…I wonder how this passage sounds to a Blue Star Mother, ready for her child to return from the complicated relationship we have with combat, just as I wonder how that passage from Matthew sounds to a person who has been told their whole life that they’re a miserable sinner.
A savior is coming, Advent sings to us once more this year. But, this savior will teach us that saving is not a spectator sport. This stands quite against other messages we get this time of year, for wrapped in the chaos that is “Black Friday” and the madness that forces Christmas into our consciousness – first before Thanksgiving, then before Halloween, now even earlier (I’m waiting on Christmas decorations being set out on Labor Day) – there is a feeling of something coming to rescue us. Save us Santa! We still hope at some level that we can consume ourselves out of a crisis, just read the latest economic theories, or eat ourselves into comfort, or decorate ourselves into peace, as if the outside packaging can magically transform the anxiety inside.
The good news is that a child is born…or soon will be. Not quite as “Good News”is that this is a different kind of saving this “savior” is up to. For much as we try to make him superman, or the shining knight on the white horse…heck, even our scriptures try to do this…he defies our anticipation. He asks his disciples who they think he is and they say, “the Messiah”. He tells them to lock that stuff down…”ixnay on the essiahmay”…keep that nonsense to yourselves. Paul writes about a Christ who has all the power of a superhero, God in the flesh, but who:
“…though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.”
Even in the book of Revelation, the writer we call “John of Patmos” tells of a Jesus riding a white horse and leading angel armies against “the beast”, but the end of that story has a triumph unlike any we are familiar with…the vanquished foes are welcomed into the house of God, which now resides right here on earth, God’s loving presence available to everyone. We are home.
The words of the prophets Isaiah and Jesus serve to remind us that the future is now, the path is set and the instruction has been provided. Why do we celebrate again – 2000 + years in a row and counting – the “arrival” of a baby who has already arrived? In part so that we may remind ourselves that the “second coming” has already happened – it was Easter. This isn’t the third, either, for the promise was that wherever two or more were gathered in his name there would Christ be also. So this is arrival number “eight-jillion-kabillion” or something like that. We await the arrival of Jesus again because Jesus keeps showing up. Our destination, we slowly discover, isn’t far away, nor is our home. Both are right here, right where we are, and the story of Jesus born in the manger is the story of God-in-the-flesh, the divine setting up shop with us, here and now, in our world, on this earth, in our home.
This apocalyptic passage, so often pulled out of context, comes to us as part of chapter 24 of Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 23 setting it up with a denouncement of the religious authorities of the time, who “do not practice what they teach”, who lay heavy burdens “on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them”, who “do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long” and “love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues”, choosing exultation instead of humility.
Jesus calls them out for their greed and self-indulgence, their tithing of materials but lack of justice and mercy. He says they look like “whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” He tells them that they have no idea what love looks like.
And in the next chapter of Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus tells several parables, the most telling of which often called the “Parable of the Talents” but which might be better described as the “Parable of the Ruthless Master” for it illustrates how power gets abused by the masters of this world, making the rich richer, and the poor suffer even more. These, Jesus reminds us, are not the values of the kin-dom, no matter how often they get enshrined in political platforms, ignored by the people who are supposed to uphold them or forgotten by the people who must remember.
This Advent a lot of people think, or even despair that things will never change, that the Ruthless Masters of this world have won and will have the last word. And, like seeing that sign shift over to “delayed” at the airport, we might be resigned to do what the others who served the Ruthless Master did: Keep our heads down. Keep quiet and to yourself. Build our bubbles.
Yet here is the Good News for God’s people. The Ruthless Masters do NOT have the last word; Jesus does. The completion of Jesus’ vision for the world, in which “the least of these” and those who worked for justice for them are finally vindicated, is coming! The signs are all around us, though some people still don’t recognize love any more than the “powers that be” recognized the Christ when he was a baby, or a convict on a cross. The signs are found as people flock to North Dakota to stand with native peoples for the protection of the earth, as Jews and Christians and Hindus and atheists and the “spiritual but not religious” pledge to be the first to register on any Muslim watch list…the signs are found as we pledge ourselves to more diverse alliances, knowing that a different kind of unity is needed now, and as we train ourselves to listen to one another’s stories and as we organize.
Advent is not just about waiting…it is about waiting with a purpose. It is not about looking for a savior, but understanding what saves. It is not about the second coming of Jesus, but the “eight-jillion-kabillionth” coming, right here, at HOME, as we get back to the serious and sincere practice of what we know the Gospel produces – compassion, hope, trust, resistance, solidarity, and, yes, joy. So stay woke, people. The kin-dom is now.