First Sunday of Advent, Year A, Matthew 24:36-44
Many of us are probably getting tired of hearing about the end times. Today we start a new church year yet the readings are still about fire and brimstone so-to-speak With all these readings about the eschaton I wonder if we may either end up with PTSD worrying about this future time or that others of us may fall into apathy because we find it extremely doubtful that this will ever happen. It is likely that we are either anxious or apathetic already and it has nothing to do with the lectionary cycle. This passage is really about increasing our faith or inspiring us with hope, not about creating fear or anxiety.
Our world is full of people with apathy or anxiety. We can look at politics. This year we had a 20 year low in voter turnout; apathy. The divisive nature of many who were interested in this election was a sign of anxiety. Within our community there are people who don’t want to get involved and we have others who are worried about life, such as crime or the economy. Again, apathy or anxiety.
Our Gospel tells us to wait, to be watchful and ready. We cannot be anxious because we do not know when the time will come. The Gospel also says while we cannot be anxious, we cannot be apathetic, because we need to be ready for when it does come. The entirety of the Gospels brings us great hope and this passage is no exception. Christ gives us an example of Noah and the flood. In part, this story shows us how we need to be prepared. But the story is also an example of how we find the great hope of salvation out of destruction. In this example Christ uses the flood but he could have just as easily used other biblical examples such as the parting of the Red Sea. Many of us have personal examples of how good comes from seemingly bad situations. For me, I was laid off of a job. It was devastating at the time. I worked hard; helped build the company to what it was. The company was sold, put under new management and I was laid off. Several months later after finding a new job and moving to a new town, I found Amy, my wife. Something unforeseeable, something great came out of a terrible time. Christ was with me, and I knew this, as one part of my life ended and another began.
I know this example is obviously not on the cosmic scale of the eschaton, but even the end times can bring us great hope. Will Willimon, a Methodist minister and professor at Duke Divinity School, tells a story about a group of people he was speaking with. They were going around the room and telling about their favorite bible passages. Most the people were citing uplifting passages. A woman in the group from Honduras, speaking through an interpreter, mentioned her favorite passage. It was a passage that was similar to today’s, about God destroying everything. The lady went on to say this passage brought her great comfort. Willimon questioned the interpreter, “the word comfort, are you sure that you interpreted that correctly? How does a passage of such destruction bring comfort?” The interpreter said, “I was speaking with her earlier today. She had five children, and three of them died of malnutrition before the age of three.” For this lady the passage is good news. Willimon goes on to say that the difference between good news and bad news is a matter of where you happen to be standing. It’s a matter of perspective. If we perceive that in the end times all we have is to lose, than to us this message does seem to be bad news. As where if in the end time all you have is something to gain; than this is good news.
The Gospel is Good News because faithful Christians have nothing to lose. The things we have, we cannot take with us. We should not be worrying about acquiring for the future, for our comfort, for our children, or even grandchildren. This is not what truly matters in life. What matters is our relationship with God and with each other. I’m not saying that providing for our family is bad. But we need to look at the whole picture. Where is our primary attention? Is it on our family or is it on God and neighbor. We may be looking out for our personal interests above the interests of God.
When we look at Advent, meaning preparation, outside our traditional thoughts of Wisemen and a star, we may find that this passage of the end times is very appropriate. Advent is about being ready, preparedness or expectation. And just because we are prepared or expecting doesn’t mean that we cannot also be surprised. As one commentator writes, when referring to a pregnant woman we often say, “She is expecting, [for] indeed she is.”[i] When a mother is expecting a child, she prepares by; creating a nursery, receiving gifts from a baby shower such as; diapers, car seats, clothing, a stroller, etc. There is no secret that a baby is arriving. The whole world could know this if they were paying attention. Even with all this knowledge and preparation by the mother, family and friends; surprises still happen.
From my personal experience I know how surprised I was when it was time to go to the hospital with our first. We had a bag packed and tucked away under the bed just waiting for the time. We had a list of things to bring. Everything was ready to go and in easy reach, but at the actual moment I was surprised, and full of excitement.
It is not uncommon to hear stories of babies being born at inconvenient times. My mother tells the story of my birth. My father was out of town at a ditch meeting when her water broke. She had to call the nearest neighbor who, in rural Wyoming, lived about two miles down the road. He rushed over but grandma was still putting on her makeup. Everyone was nervous because once in the car they still had a 45 minute drive to the nearest hospital in Craig Colorado. They were obviously in a hurry, but as my mom tells the story, they had to dodge deer around every bend of the road while speeding down the highway. If the trip took just a few minutes longer, I likely would have been born in the car. Obviously this experience is full of surprise and excitement. None of us in these stories expected it to happen just then or in just this way. Even when we know what is coming we can still be surprised.
This is what Jesus means when he says, so it will be when the Son of Man returns. As Christian we should not be surprised by end times. But it also doesn’t mean that we won’t be startled by how or when it happens. We cannot be apathetic and we need not anxious, for much like the birth of a child it is Good News full of excitement and joy. And likewise we need to be prepared, ready and expecting; faithful and full of hope.
[i] Ron Allen, “Commentary on Matthew 24:36-44,” from www.workingpreacher.org