Back from PA and a blogging hiatus. Thanks to ProgressiveChurchLady for keeping the home fires burning on this site. Here are my notes from Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent:
In my Sunday messages I don't usually follow the lectionary, the suggested scripture texts that many Christian traditions and churches follow. But I want to read today's suggested gospel passage, the reading for the first Sunday in Advent:
36 ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
This passage is part of a series of "you better be ready" passages that Matthew has collected together in chapters 24 and 25. While each of the parables and stories in these passages might have had a different meaning when and if they were spoken by Jesus, the writer of Matthew has grouped them together for a purpose. He uses these passages to convey a particular message for his community in the midst of their situation.
That situation is the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 CE, a moment when we know from both Jewish and Christian writers when many who lived through it believed would be followed by a decisive response from God. Apocalyptic fever was in the air; the center of God's presence in the world had been destroyed; God had to respond.
Matthew uses these passages to tell his community that yes, we should expect God's coming, but don't be fooled by the "obvious" signs that everyone is pointing to. Be patient. Be good. Be ready. When it happens it happens. But more importantly, he brackets these passages with the larger story of Jesus. And he doesn't end his gospel with an apocalyptic message, but with a mission from Jesus to go out into the world making disciples.
But let me tell you what I find interesting about these passages as they are used by Matthew. They suggest to me that some people in this early Christian community were not entirely satisfied with what they got in Jesus. The first showing apparently didn't quite satisfy. The Son of God appeared and not much changed in the world. In fact, within 40 years things got much worse for Jews and members of the Jesus movement centered around Jerusalem. And so some early Christians began to hope that he would come again - this time in a big, dramatic way, decisive way. And of course some Christians have been reading these passages ever since and trying to figure out when is the big event going to happen.
But what if there wasn't going to be another big event. What if the first visit was all there was. What if who Jesus was, his vision, how he lived, what he taught, was the whole package? What if God had appeared in a unique way in Jesus in this not entirely satisfying manner and this was the whole point?
That is what I think. I think there isn't going to be any second coming of Jesus. I think there isn't going to be any big decisive end-time act by God. I think we may very well bring about the end of our world at some point through environmental degradation or nuclear destruction, but it won't be an act of God; it will be because we have made God absent.
I think one of the central points of the Jesus story is the setting of when and where he lived: the poverty, the Roman occupation. It was right there in the midst of this difficult moment in time that the presence of God was experienced in an unexpected, new way. The birth stories of Matthew and Luke, different as they are from one another, both make this very point. Who would have thought that the Son of God would appear in a stable, to the parents of a not-yet married couple, in the backwater town of Bethlehem.
But the real story of Jesus is that he didn't just appear for a moment and make a flash and then go home with a promise that he would pop back in some day in the future. While he was here he shared what he knew. What he saw, the way he lived - it was possible for others to do too. We are all sons and daughters of God. We can all learn to live into that.
We can learn to see the presence of the divine in the unexpected, the difficult, the ordinary, the not entirely satisfying reality that is so often a part of life. We can learn to be mindful of who we are. We can learn to use our time, exercise our gifts, be a force for hope and love and healing in our world. We can surprise people - who is this person? That is what they said about Jesus - who is this person. We know him; we know his family; where did he get this gift? We can learn to be surprised again every day by wonder and beauty and joy - to see beauty in the lilies of the field.
It is Advent. It is a time of getting ready, attuning our senses and spirits once again to presence of God who came and who continues to be right here in our midst.