Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay
December 2, 2007
Matthew 24:36-44 Isaiah 2:1-5
This is the first year I’ve preached during Advent, and I’ve got to tell you that I’m paying a whole lot more attention to the lectionary texts than I used to. And boy, these texts sure don’t seem very Christmas-y, do they? They’re all about the end time, the last days … the second coming. The Isaiah passage says that in that time, the Lord’s house will be established as the highest of the mountains—the meeting point between heaven and earth. And that people from all over will want to learn God’s ways so they can follow God. And nations will turn their implements of war into tools for farming the land.
Well, that sounds pretty good, sure. But then we get to this text from Matthew, and instead of getting ready for the birth of a baby, this is Jesus in his last days talking about the second coming. And about how we’re not going to know when it’s coming and we should keep awake. And what the heck are we supposed to do with that?
Well, first, we need to get past the idea that we can or will know when that day and hour are going to be. Of course, the folks who do think they know—well, we laugh at them, don’t we.
But along with not knowing when, we also don’t know how and why. Why is one taken from the field and the other left; why is one woman grinding meal taken and the other left? We don’t know.
It seems to me that there are a couple of responses possible to this kind of not-knowing. One possible response is to come up with guidelines and reasons. One field worker is taken—taken up into the air to meet with Christ, we assume—because he has followed the Law. One meal grinder is taken up because she has, uh, prayed five times every day. And if we believe that, then we can have control. We can follow the Law; we can pray; we can be good Christians … so that whenever it happens, hey, we’ll be ready.
But this scripture doesn’t support that understanding. There’s nothing in there to indicate that one person is better in any way than the other. It’s a mystery. It’s very clearly beyond our human understanding. It’s not something we can control.
The second response to this lack of knowing is to say, “Why worry? Let’s just put it out of our minds, because there’s nothing we can do about it, and besides, we’ve got enough to do in the here and now.” Psychologists would tell us, I think, that this is an emotionally healthy response to something over which we have no control … something that may or may not happen. I’m reminded of the story of the young mother who was so afraid that something might fall on her young baby—the light fixture, a suddenly loose piece of sheetrock, a meteor, maybe—that when the child started to crawl, the mother crawled on top of her, just in case. It wouldn’t take a psychologist to tell that young mother to make sure the chandelier was sturdy and that none of the plaster was loose, and then let the baby explore on her own. We can’t control everything, right? And that certainly includes the second coming.
But still, the scripture says, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
There must be something more here that we need to be ready for.
And this, I think, is when we get into the now/not now business of the scriptures. One of the paradoxes of our faith. The already and the not-yet. On the one hand we believe that in the end, God will rule—that God’s love and God’s grace and God’s judgment will be as dominant in the end as in the beginning. “The mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains … all the nations shall stream to it,” as Isaiah says.
But we cannot live our lives just hanging around and waiting for all that to happen, for we don’t know when … and a life lived “in the meantime” while waiting for something good to happen, well, that’s not much of a life. You know what I mean about “in the meantime,” don’t you? As if your life won’t really start until, what, you finish school … or you find someone to marry … or you get your dream job … or you can move to the place you really want to live. As if our lives now don’t count because God’s kingdom hasn’t come yet.
And that’s not the life God calls us to. God is calling us to be ready now, to be living now as if God’s kingdom was already here. We are called to live as if the fullness of time has already arrived, even though we can have no idea when that will actually happen. Refusing to do so keeps us living “in the meantime,” as if God is not already here building a kingdom through us. Refusing to live into the fullness of time condemns us to trivial lives.
It condemns us in the season of Advent to preparing only for the expected. We’ll do all the things that are on our calendars in the “preparing for Christmas” category, and when Christmas comes we’ll get the expected warm glow courtesy of the familiar carols, the candles, the children’s voices, the baby in a manger.
But what about preparing for the unexpected? for the
What would it be like if the
All of that is possible, here and now – and not-here and not-now at the same time.
I heard an interview with Jim Wallis this morning. Wallis is the head of Sojourners/Call to Renewal, and he is a progressive evangelical who has gone from being a “radical on the fringe” to someone who has the ear of leaders around the world. He talked about politicians and how they operate. They lick their fingers, he said, and hold them up to see which way the wind is blowing, and then they act. Our role is not to change one wet-fingered politician at a time but to change the wind.
Hm. Wind. The Hebrews called it ruach, the Greeks pneuma. Also known as the Holy Spirit. We are called to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and to blow with the Spirit to change the world—to be God’s people in God’s kingdom. Now. And not-now. Here.
This morning we turn to our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which is a remembrance of Jesus’s last supper AND a thanksgiving for God’s work in the world AND a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Here and now. There and not-now.
And we dedicate our pledge cards for the coming year. A pledge of living here and now as if the