~ Matthew 24:36-44 / Isaiah 2:1-5 ~
It was my first job assignment on my first real job. 1972. Having just graduated from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Linda and I and son, Aaron, moved to Denver. I was recruited to work for a youth ministry, Denver Youth for Christ, in the Youth Guidance program working with delinquent youth in Denver’s housing projects. But my first job assignment had nothing to do with juvenile delinquents. No, it was to drive a van load of important board members to Utah for a river rafting trip on the Green River. The way it worked was we left at midnight so we could be at the river first thing in the morning to get on the rafts. The board members got to sleep on the way; my job was to drive – all night!
So there we are on I-70 going over the Continental Divide, a couple of hours into the trip. As the snoring in the back drones on, I’m getting really tired. I fight to keep my eyes open. I’m afraid to turn up the radio because I’ll wake my passengers. As the yellow road stripes disappear under the van I shake my head, change positions, stuff my mouth with food – but to no avail. I’m losing the battle. But I keep on, of course. I know I can get through this…
The van jerks! My eyes pop open! Everyone in back sits up! And I am thoroughly embarrassed. Horrified, I realize that I have just narrowly averted killing me and everyone else in that van. I don’t know how long I was asleep, probably just a few seconds. Yet that’s all it took to put us all in serious danger. But, one thing was for sure: I was now wide awake, as clearly alert as one could ever be, shaken out of my drowsiness. Fortunately, we got to the river several hours later, safe and sound.
Well every year this first Sunday of Advent is sort of like being jerked awake as you drive the midnight highway. It’ a wake-up call. Be ready, be looking, be prepared, keep a watchful eye, don’t go to sleep, for Christ is coming. And every year there is this odd juxtaposition of Biblical events. We deal with texts that appear to be speaking to a second coming of Jesus while we look forward to celebrating his first coming. We look at Old Testament passages that in the Christian tradition speak to the events of Christmas and New Testament passages where Jesus, obviously already born, speaks of cataclysmic events yet to be. What are we to be on the lookout for? What are we preparing for? What are we to be awake to? The coming of the Son of Man at the end of the world? Aren’t we supposed to be getting ready for Christmas?
Well, I suppose one way to look at it all is that there really isn’t that much to watch for, to be alert for. In practice advent is merely a time to get ready for Christmas. You know, it’s December now; we need to prepare for Christmas. While our consumer society spends December gearing up for the buying and selling of stuff, which is its definition of Christmas, we Christians put a religious face on December and call it Advent. In this sense the coming of the Christ is sort of a sentimental re-enactment of his first coming. We, through our Christian traditions, try to vicariously place ourselves in pre-Christmas Palestine pretending that the baby Jesus hasn’t come yet but we’re looking for him to be born. We are on this Advent spiritual journey that culminates in Christmas morning. So, yes, that’s one way to look at this call to be alert. But that doesn’t seem very urgent to me.
Another way to look at it, I suppose, is that we really are looking forward to his second coming when we talk about Advent. Just as Israel was to be looking for his first coming so we are to be looking for Christ’s second coming. And certainly this Matthew text lends itself to such an understanding. Indeed, the rapture-ists have so taken over this text that it is hard to see it any other way. “One will be taken and another left”—lends itself to the dramatic scene of the non-Christian passenger left inside a careening car as the Christian driver is suddenly raptured away. Crash! Poor non-Christian passenger—too late for him. And then there is “the thief in the night” theme which, ironically, was the name of a movie I saw many times in my youth designed to scare people into the kingdom of heaven. But that is not the meaning of this passage. One being taken while the other is left is not about a supposed “rapture.” Sadly, this passage has been much abused by the rapture-obsessed.
But even if you don’t buy into the rapture idea, it would seem we are talking about the second coming, aren’t we? I mean, there is all this “coming” talk. It says, “For the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” But how do we watch for that? For what are we to stay awake? Does it really matter if we are awake or not? Christ comes—he comes. Does it matter really if I’ve dozed off or not?
Well, frankly, I don’t know what to make of the future tense of Jesus’ words. Because it seems there is a very present tense in his talk as well. Indeed, the present tense and the future tense sort of conflate together into one. Now there are some scholars who believe that everything Jesus is talking about here really culminates in the passion story, his death and resurrection. And that could very well be true. But what does that mean to us?
What we have here in these future-tense words is an elaborate metaphor. I think the chronological time line here—this will happen and then this will happen—is a literary device to make us wake up to the fact that now is the time. Jesus’ coming is always happening. The Kingdom of God is a past event and a present event and a future event all at once. It is always happening. And we are always being called to engage with it. Stay alert, keep awake, because the Son of Man is present now. Indeed the word used for “coming” in our text also means “presence” or “arrival.” Christ is “present” not absent. Christ has arrived; welcome him now. Christ is come; respond now!
The real purpose of speaking about the last days is to affect the present days. Be awake, look reality in the eye and then act. Or to put it another way, today’s gospel story calls us to do two things that can be very hard to hold together: To be realistic about how the world is going and at the same time not to lose hope in the future. In other words, given the advent candle theme of the day, I believe we are to be on the lookout for hope. Be alert for hope. It is there to be discovered; it is there to be seen and embraced.
Isaiah’s imagery comes to mind. Do we dare hope for a world without war, where swords and spears aren’t needed anymore and we can turn them into more productive instruments, where nations don’t need to learn war anymore? Granted as we look at the reality of our world we can hardly imagine such a thing. But that is Isaiah’s hope, that is Christ’s hope and that is to be our hope.
We are called to live that future hope now, to live towards the vision of God’s new kingdom, of God’s new creation. Yes, the idea of putting an end to war is rather daunting and probably beyond our means. But we can act and speak to God’s agenda of peace whenever the occasion warrants. And we can act and speak the hope of peace in less dramatic ways. When we practice hospitality to the stranger or offer sanctuary to the refuge, we are living towards that vision of God’s kingdom. Indeed, even in such “trivial” acts as taking the time to listen to others could be considered living towards that vision. In other words, we can be alert to the possibilities of living out the presence of Christ’s coming here and now.
So the message is: Wake up and act. Even though the purple colors we have out for Advent suggest “a time of preparation,” there is no preparing to be done. Christ is breaking into our lives this very moment. The Kingdom of God is crashing in around us. There are swords to beat into plowshares; there are spears to be made into pruning hooks after all. We just need to wake up to that reality. The time is “now.” May we be on the alert for hope in our midst.