Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Jesus sat and spoke to the disciples. He is somewhere on the Mount of Olives across the Kidron valley from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The time and manner of his coronation as Lord and King remain unimaginable to his little band of followers. They still don’t know what’s about to hit them though Jesus had told them on three separate occasions.
That moment of surprise eventually comes for us all. The Day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night. We are thrust to the forefront. We are called upon to bear the weight of discipleship. The kingdom arrives like the floodwaters that bore up Noah’s ark (Matthew 24: 38, 43). The moment of decision confronts us with the challenge to wage the faith with our own words and actions. Advent—this discipline of waiting, of watching, of expecting God’s liberating grace to break in upon our short and shallow lives—shocks us from complacency. Advent counsels us to expect the unexpected.
Of course, when that Kairos moment arrives, filled to overflowing with the bounteous possibility and potential of God’s redeeming grace, most often, we fumble the hand-off, or manage to appreciate the graciousness of the moment only with the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps it is cold comfort. The moments we choose to act selfishly, or greedily, or jealously, or with vengeance pile up and compound our loss, shame, guilt and regret, but Jesus does not use our failures of omission or commission to kick us off his team.
“Eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” (Mt. 24:38) as they did in the days of Noah will not put you in the goat line as opposed to the sheep line on the day of Christ. The people who lived in the days of Noah or the unlucky person whose house was about to be robbed are not singled out by Jesus in our gospel today because they were more sinful than any others. Instead, their mess up was a failure of imagination. They were unprepared for grace when it came because they thought nothing could or would ever change. They were too cynical for faith to get ahold of them.
Cynicism may appear fashionable, or make you seem smarter or more cosmopolitan, but cynicism has deathly consequences. We risk accepting politics as usual, or accepting lies as the truth, or becoming complacent in the face of injustice, or fearfully assigning blame to victims and outsiders, and thinking too small. We risk being obtuse and unaware as the wonder and beauty of grace play around us.
This season of Advent is a call to wake from weak resignation to the status quo. Advent is strong gospel medicine to open our eyes, our heart, our mouth, and our hands to the surprising in-breaking presence of God here, now, in our midst today—and all our future todays—and at upon the moment of our death, until the end of time. Christ is the alpha and omega. Everything comes from Christ and is going to Christ.
Little by little and all at once today’s gospel trains us to expect the unexpected just as Joseph did in responding to the Angel Gabriel’s assurances to reconcile with Mary—and just as Noah did before the rains came—and as the disciples did in following Jesus after the resurrection. Advent breaks open our imagination to follow the winds of the Spirit moving now in unexpected ways in your life and in mine, and in our life together, to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace.
My sincere wish for this Advent gospel is that it breaks through what we think we know about the bible that distorts our understanding of its message. Since about the fifth or sixth century, Christians in the West began to wear spectacles with a Greek and Roman philosophical lens. This Greco-Roman lens distorts and obscurs the gospel witness, including our understanding of texts like ours from Matthew today. Wearing these spectacles Christians began seeing things in the bible narrative that aren’t there.
Through centuries, this distorted view compounded until the biblical narrative we inherited, and literally everyone already knows by heart, is a story line in six parts which, goes something like this: 1) the perfection of God’s Eden was; 2) followed by the human fall into Sin; 3) so the condemnation under which we are all now living; 4) must be followed, upon our death; 5) either by life in heaven or; 6) eternal, conscious torment in hell.
Sound familiar? The art, literature, and theology of Western civilization overflows with reflection and/or rejection of these themes by which all history, and all human experience, and all our own experience is assessed. (Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, pp. 33-62)
When we remove our Greco-Roman-colored glasses the message of the Torah, the prophets, Jesus, and the first disciples’ changes. We are blessed with scholarship which has begun to let us see behind the Greek and Roman lens our theological forebears laid over it. A new kind of Christianity has come into view that is actually very, very old. The familiar six-step story line of the bible collapses into three: 1) God’s good, evolving world is marred by human evil and sin; 2) rather than reject us God works to liberate and reform us along with the rest of creation; and 3) God calls us to inhabit the sacred dream of the peaceable kingdom like we read about today in Isaiah here on earth as in heaven. (McLaren)
Creation. Exodus/Liberation. The Peaceable Kingdom. That’s it. That’s the story. Even now, God’s wisdom draws nations up to a higher level of relating, so disputes are settled nonviolently, wisely, and peacefully. God gets involved in human suffering and injustice to pull us out of it. Perhaps what is most shocking and unexpected for us this Advent is that the Day of the Lord comes –not in the sky but here on earth; not merely upon our death but also now, today; not outside of history for all eternity, but happening now within it; not for humanity alone but for all life to thrive.
Our ancestors in faith spent two generations crossing the desert to get to the promised land overflowing with milk and honey. Today, we are called to journey by faith, not to a place, but to a day when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4b). In Advent, we await Jesus’ birth. We await the coming of the savior. We look for the kingdom to come. We search for these gifts of God which are already here, and also, very far away. We live by faith and not by sight. We are people who imagine how the world can be different, who dare to dream the impossible dream and to live it. By this faithful work we have glimpsed the peaceable kingdom, we have seen a living sanctuary of hope and grace take shape among us.
This kind of Advent is not about rapture but rupture. The rapture is not a biblical idea. On the cross Jesus himself ultimately became the one left behind. When all others got swept up in the spirit of violence against him Jesus was the only one not caught up in it. There was no rapture to save Jesus from the cross but resurrection, like that which we are offered by the Word, and in the font, and at the table. God’s rupture brings transformation and change. (Paul Nuechterlein, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, Advent 1A)
Advent wants to shake us out of our complacency, out of our cynicism, out of our prejudice, out of what we think we already know, out of our ideologies and learned expectations—all the things that keep us from seeing the abundant grace God pours out new and fresh into each moment. See, now is the time to wake from sleep. The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…” (Romans 13:11-12a).