First Sunday of Advent (Year A)
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Preached by Anna C. Haugen
Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Happy New Year! Did you know that today is the first day of the church’s year? That’s right, the church year starts with Advent, the season that leads up to Christmas. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, so today is the first day of the new year. There’s an irony in the readings assigned for Advent: it’s the beginning of the year, and yet most of the things we read in church are apocalypse texts, dealing with the end times, the time when Christ the Son of Man will come again. And here’s why: Advent is a time for preparing for the coming of Christ. Both Christ’s coming 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, but also his coming again. Advent isn’t just a historical remembrance, it’s also a time of preparation for what is to come. And what is to come is Christ. So it is that here, at the beginning, we celebrate the end.
There’s another irony in today’s Gospel lesson. The irony lies in how this particular reading is sometimes used. How many of you are familiar with the idea of the Rapture? The Rapture is one particular interpretation of the apocalyptic texts of the Bible that has become very popular over the last couple of decades. Today’s Gospel reading from the 24th chapter of Matthew, speaking as it does of people disappearing at the end times, is one of the central texts lifted up to support it. A belief in the Rapture is also often connected with a belief that the Rapture is coming soon—that we are living on the eve of the end times, that Christ will come again within this very generation. That’s the whole premise of the popular Left Behind series of books. It’s easy to point out all the trials and tribulations the world is going through right now, from the hunger crisis to climate change, to war in the Holy Land. Surely, these must be the birth pangs of which Christ spoke. Surely, Christ must be coming soon, because we need him. Rapture—where the chosen people of God pass directly to Heaven without having to live through the final struggles—sounds really appealing when things seem to be going wrong.
And then I go back to today’s Gospel reading, and am struck with irony. Did you hear it? Jesus said, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” And then he tells us we need to be ready (including the bit about people being taken). This portion of the Gospel concludes with Jesus telling us, again, that the end times will come “at an unexpected hour.” This piece of scripture that we use to figure out what the end times will be like and when they will happen is sandwiched between Jesus telling us—twice!—that we don’t and can’t know what’s going to happen and we particularly can’t know when it’s going to happen.
Wait a minute, here. Wait a minute! Jesus is saying that even he doesn’t know when he’ll be coming again? Surely, that can’t be what he means. He is God, after all, just as the Father and the Holy Spirit are God. How can one person of the Triune God know something that another person doesn’t? How can there be anything that Jesus doesn’t know? And yet, that seems to be what Jesus is saying. And how can he tell us to be ready when we don’t know what we’re getting ready for or when we need to be ready by? What the heck is up with that? I want to follow Jesus’ commands, but in this case, it’s kind of difficult to know what that means. So why is Jesus being so cryptic? It’s not just here, it’s everywhere Jesus talks about the end times. He was a lot clearer when he talked about his crucifixion, for example.
Let’s back up a bit, get some background. Jesus is part of a larger tradition. He wasn’t the first to speak of the end times; the prophets of the Old Testament did as well, including Isaiah as in today’s first lesson and (particularly) Daniel. When things seemed to be falling apart, when God’s chosen people had fallen short of God’s calling for them, and when they were under attack or held captives, prophets used their visions of God’s heavenly kingdom to encourage their people. Visions of the future that God would bring reminded them that hope was not lost, because true hope rested in God, not in the actions of humans, and that peace and justice were possible with God’s help. Then came John the Baptist, and Jesus himself, preaching that people should turn to God, for God’s reign was coming and it was going to break the chains of the old ways of life. Paul spent most of his time writing about how Christians were to believe and behave in the current world, but he was also convinced (as we read in today’s second lesson) that Christ would come again within the lifetime of his generation. For Paul, doing God’s work and acting as God’s people here-and-now was intimately connected with Christ’s return. And then there’s the book of Revelation, a whole book about an apocalyptic vision, written partly in code and partly in insider references to the current events of that time. Revelation was written to encourage a people being persecuted, to remind them that ultimate power was in God’s hands, not the hands of the society that was turning against them.
Personally, I like the idea of knowing what’s coming: I don’t like surprises or uncertainty. Having things neatly laid out is comforting, particularly when I’m stressed out. Having a clear road map of the future—that would be awesome. But that’s not what these texts are really about. All these different visions and situations have a common message: that God is in charge, no matter what it looks like now, and God will come and establish a better world than the one we now live in. The point of apocalyptic visions is not to give us a road map or calendar of the end times. Instead, these visions of what is to come are meant to give us heart, and encourage us in faith, so that no matter what happens we know that God is with us and that this life is not the end, nor is this life the goal of Christian life.
Living with that uncertainty isn’t easy, particularly when so much else seems shaky. Almost every generation that has been through times of trouble or uncertainty has believed that the end times are coming soon, and that they could predict exactly what that would mean and what will happen. Sometimes people used the Biblical texts, piecing together the fragments and myriad of references in a manner that makes sense to them. Sometimes people go to other sources, such as Nostradamus or the Mayan calendar. Almost everyone throughout history who has been fascinated by the Second Coming has tried to calculate and figure out when their vision of the apocalypse would be fulfilled. And so far, everyone has been wrong, about the timing if nothing else. (After all, we’re still here, and it hasn’t happened yet.) As Jesus said, we do not know on what day our Lord is coming. And yet, we keep trying to figure out how to figure out exactly when Christ will come again.
It’s not just the timing that we don’t know, either. What, exactly, will happen? What will God’s reign look like? There are several competing theories of interpretation that are Biblically and theologically sound, of which the popular idea of the Rapture is only one. There are too many different apocalyptic visions in the Bible to narrow things down to one right interpretation of exactly what will happen. A friend of mine from seminary made a flow chart, recently, that started with a few of the more common mindsets people use when they read the Bible, and how each point of view results in a different understanding of what’s going to happen when Christ comes again. Which one is right? Are any of our interpretations right? Or will God do something beyond our petty human imagining? As Jesus said, there’s just no way to know.
But Jesus also said we are to keep ready. If we don’t know what’s going to happen or when it’s going to happen, how can we possibly be ready for it? That’s the paradox of Advent. We know that Christ has come already, on that first Christmas so long ago. We know that Christ is coming again, and that when Christ comes again all things will be made new, including us. We know that this whole world, including us, desperately needs Christ’s redeeming power. We know that we need to get ready. And yet we also know that we don’t know when or how Christ’s reign on earth will come.
And that’s another reason for putting these texts at the beginning of the year. A new year is a time of new beginnings, of looking back at the old and forward to the new. We make resolutions to do better, to be better in the coming year, some of which will fail and some of which will succeed. We walk forward always into an uncertain future. And yet, we walk forward knowing that Christ is our guide, and that the Holy Spirit is ever with us. We walk forward knowing that we are the beloved children of God, and that he will never forsake us. We walk forward knowing that no matter how hard things get, no matter how lost we feel, no matter what happens to us, in the end we will be with God, and Christ will come again, and we know that when Christ comes again everything will change.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the cares of life that we forget about God. Every Youth Group meeting, I ask the youth for “God moments” they’ve had, times when they’ve seen God’s presence in their life and the lives of the people around them. As we begin a new church year, I challenge you to do the same: at the end of each day, when you say your prayers, take a few minutes and think about where you’ve seen God around you that day. It could be something big, something extraordinary, or it could be something as small as a smile from a stranger when you were feeling down, or a call from a friend when you needed to talk to someone.
This is how we prepare, when we don’t know what exactly we’re preparing for or when it will happen: we put our trust in God. We trust God to know what’s going on and what we need even when we don’t. We trust God to guide our interpretation of Scripture, and to forgive us when we get it wrong. We put aside works of darkness, and walk as children of the light. We look for the signs of Christ’s coming, and the Holy Spirit’s presence with us even now. We look for the kingdom to come, when all peoples will walk in God’s paths, when the peace of Christ shall reign, even knowing that it will come when and how we least expect it. We remember what God has done for us and what God will do for us. We remember that we are in this world, but we are also citizens of God’s holy kingdom. We acknowledge that we are captives to sin, and that we can’t free ourselves but must depend on God’s mercy and grace. We look for Christ to come again.
Amen, come Lord Jesus.