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First Sunday of Advent
Pastor Anke Deibler
- Isaiah 2:1-5
- Psalm 122
- Romans 13:11-14
- Matthew 24:36-44
Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Usually, when we compare the old and the new Testament, we describe the Old Testament as gloomy with a judgmental God and the New Testament as hopeful with a loving God. Today, however, our readings from the prophet Isaiah and from the Gospel according to Matthew seem to be the exact opposite.
Isaiah is describing a beautiful vision of all the nations streaming to the mountain of the Lord. There, in the presence of God, they will learn to live in justice and peace and to walk in the ways of the Lord. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks because they will no longer needs weapons of war.
Come, the message ends, come and join us as we walk to this mountain of peace, this mountain where God is present. And we want to respond, “Yes, I would love to go! That sounds awesome! How I wish I was there!”
The gospel text is totally different. A day will come, we learn, when the Son of Man will come. Whoever isn’t ready will be swept away like the people in Noah’s day were swept away in the flood. Two men will be working in the field, and suddenly one will be swept away and the other will remain. Two women will be grinding meal side by side, and one of them will the swept away and the other remain.
All this will happen suddenly and swiftly and unexpectedly, stealing into this world like a thief steals unexpectedly into your house during the night. So be ready, the gospel message ends, be alert or else.
This is not exactly the kind of message we would expect on the first Sunday of Advent. The sanctuary is decorated, we lit the first candle on the Advent wreath, and we sing beloved songs that remind us that baby Jesus is coming soon.
This is not the message we want to hear when we bring our children for baptism. We would rather hear of a loving God who will be our baby’s good shepherd.
This is not the message we want to hear in these challenging days, when the darkness moves in and the days are so very short and gloomy, when the political world is in chaos and the news is full of war and mass shootings and when yet another report warns us of the dire consequences of global warming.
We came here, hoping for a word of hope and comfort, something we can take into the next busy week, to help us deal with frustration and stress and pain.
Let’s unpack this gospel text a little to understand what Jesus is saying to us today.
Jesus starts by asserting that the Son of Man will come again. We believe that. Every Sunday, we confess in the creed that we believe “he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” That Jesus will come again is not the question; when and how he will come is what the disciples are worried about.
As to when: Jesus makes very clear that nobody knows. Not even Jesus has a clue. God the Father alone will decide on that. So don’t ever believe anyone claiming to have figured out when this will happen. We simply can’t know.
As to how: Here Jesus gives us a couple of images.
First, he talks about the situation at the time of Noah and the great flood. People were going about their lives, tending to their marriages and businesses and daily chores. They had no inkling something momentous was about to happen. And then it started to rain, and rain, and rain some more.
All these unsuspecting people were swept away in the flood waters. Jesus doesn’t point to their sinfulness here, but only to the fact that they weren’t paying attention to what God was up to. They were so caught up in their daily lives that God’s action caught them off guard.
Second, Jesus paints this image of two men working in the field and two women grinding flour, and suddenly one is taken and the other is left behind.
The whole “Left Behind” book series and much of the rapture theology they preach are based on this verse. The trouble is that the two key verbs in this verse can be translated many different ways. The New Revised Standard Version, the translation we use in worship, reads, “One will be taken and one will be left.” This way it sounds like the preferred option would be to be taken; nobody wants to be left behind.
However, the two verbs can just as correctly be translated as, “one will be taken away (like a prisoner) and one will be let go.” Another option is, “One will be swept away and one will be forgiven.” In the original Greek, the verb we read as “taken” is the exact same verb as the “swept away” a couple verses prior in the Noah story. The verb translated as “left behind”, whenever it is used in the context of sin, is rendered “forgiven”.
You can see that there are many ways to translate this verse. The overall sense I get is that one person will be taken out of the picture, while the other person remains in place.
Taking these two images together, I hear Jesus saying that we need to pay attention, be watchful, and look for God’s doings in this world, or else we will be caught unawares and swept away and thus miss out on God’s kingdom.
Keep awake, Jesus says. I remember the days when my children were babies and I had to get up every night to tend to their needs. More than once did I sit in the rocking chair in the dark with a crying or nursing baby in my arms and thought, “Well, Lord, if this is the night you return, I am awake.”
Seriously, though, I don’t think Jesus wants us to stay up night after night. On the contrary, he wants us to get sufficient sleep because then we are healthier, happier, more productive, more likable people.
Jesus talks about a man left in the field, a woman left grinding meal. They are left in place to do what they need to do to make a living and provide for their families and care for their communities. I believe Jesus is calling us to go about our daily lives in a watchful way, in a faithful way, in a way that speaks to our belief that Christ is coming.
Too many people in this world act as if there is no tomorrow and as if nobody is watching. They dump pollutants into our streams rather than pay for proper disposal. They use company equipment to print their children’s homework. They cheat in small and big ways. They do things that may or may not be legal, but that definitely aren’t right.
We expect Jesus to come again. We wait for it with hope. Therefore, we live in such a way that Jesus could appear any day and we would rejoice to see him. We are honest office workers, careful bus drivers, ethical attorneys, thoughtful parents, caring friends. We go about our daily chores in the awareness that God cares. By the way we act and serve and care, we express our certain hope in Christ’s appearing.
Advent is the season of the church year when we are most expressive about waiting for Christ’s return. Come, Lord Jesus. O come, O come, Emanuel. We wait with eager longing.
But we can’t just sit around and wait for Jesus to do everything.
In my first parish was an elderly woman named Louise. She received a knee replacement. The doctor told her that is would take a year until she could walk like she did before her knee went bad. So Louise sat around for the whole year doing nothing: no exercises, no physical therapy, no effort of any sort. She just sat and waited for the year to be over so she could walk again.
How did that work out? You guessed it: She was not able to walk at all. Just sitting around had actually made her weaker.
The call of our Bible readings today is the call to an active kind of waiting. While we wait, we are to serve God and God’s people. While we wait, we are to pay attention to the signs as to what God is up to, in our lives and in this world. While we wait, we are to be engaged in God’s purpose.
We are the ones left in place, remaining, forgiven who will do the work of the kingdom so that God’s kingdom can grow and reach more and more people.
We are the ones called to reshape the instruments of war, to beat swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.
We are the ones invited to walk in the light of the Lord.
Come on, Isaiah calls to us, come and join us as we walk in God’s ways and bring God’s peace and justice and joy into the world.
Come on, Jesus calls us, live in a way that shows your hope in the coming Savior.
Come on, be engaged in seeking and doing God’s work, for then we can be thrilled no matter when or how Christ returns. Amen.