Live With Hope
Category : Reflections
A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on November 27, 2016 (First Sunday of Advent)
– Isaiah 2:1-5
“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.
– Matthew 24:36-44
The musical “West Side Story” begins with its lead character, Tony, looking forward to a night that he hopes will bring excitement, and maybe romance…
(Play “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story) YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xu7sRdRrm_w
I especially like at the end of that song, where he seems to be looking for something amazing to come from the midst of the poor tenements and the hanging laundry of New York’s west side.
That is what Advent is about. Today is the first Sunday of Advent. And Advent is about waiting for something amazing to come. The question is, what are we waiting for?
For many people, Advent is a time for dreaming of “a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.” It is a time of nostalgia for times gone by.
But for the church, Advent is a time to hope for something new — something great.
In this season we prepare to celebrate the great thing that God has already done, in coming to be with us in the baby Jesus. But we also remember that we are waiting for Christ to return. The early Christians waited eagerly for Christ to return. They believed that the work Jesus came to do was not completed during his lifetime – that he would return to bring about God’s judgment on all people and nations, and to begin God’s righteous rule over all the earth. Because at the time the gospel of Matthew was written, the young Christian community was suffering persecution by the Roman Empire. The world was not yet at peace. They believed Christ would return in their lifetime to make all things right and new.
The traditional gospel readings for the first Sunday of Advent were first written to encourage the early believers not to lose hope when it seemed like Christ’s return was delayed. They urged the early Christians to remain ready, and watchful, but not to waste their energy speculating about the exact time of the second coming. God only knows when that will be.
Today, these scripture texts sound just plain strange – even depressing, when our consumer culture operates on a different timetable than God’s. Who wants to listen to warnings about the end of the world, when there are parties to attend and holiday bargains to purchase, and festive songs in the air?
But these visions are not depressing. They are great, good news! Like the song from West Side Story: “Something’s coming, and it’s going to be great!”
Let’s take a closer look at this text from Matthew. Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes (that was one way he referred to himself, borrowing a title from the prophet Ezekiel),” then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken, one will be left.” For anyone who has read the book or seen the film “Left Behind,” with its fictional imaginings of what some call the “rapture”, this inspires visions of people being literally and miraculously snatched out of this world and into God’s protection. The idea of such an event is a misreading of the biblical texts. I think Jesus was trying to describe a great mystery using language and images that were so incredible that they couldn’t possibly be taken literally!
I will attempt to explain what I think these texts are about. But to try to explain what Jesus may have meant in more rational language is clumsy, and can rob these texts of their power.
I believe that, at Jesus’ first coming, some people were ready to accept who and what he was, but many were not. He was the gift of God’s presence, God’s wisdom, God’s love, God’s righteousness – of what human life could and should be, of eternal life — but he was so different that many people just didn’t get it. When Christ comes again, it won’t be in some cosmic event that will affect everyone in the world at once, but rather Christ will come to people, one at a time, hoping to be recognized and received. Some will get it; some will not. Some will see in Christ a new way of living, and will leave this world of human dominion that we foolishly call “the real world,” and take up residence in the Realm of God, where there is enough for everyone, and where there is peace with justice. They will be “in this world, but not of this world.” There is something better waiting for those who will see and accept it.
Even so, Jesus said he would return like a thief in the night. Not a very comforting image; no one likes to have their house broken into. That is because, when God comes to us in Christ, it can happen very suddenly. God breaks into our carefully constructed and defended orderly lives and worldviews, challenging our assumptions, and many things that we hold dear. That is necessary for us to truly accept God in our lives and trust in God’s leading. It is a good thing. After all, we occasionally see the fallacies of life apart from the God who makes and loves us: all the shopping in the world won’t bring happiness; the partying won’t bring us out of despair and depression; insisting on our ways by the use of force won’t bring peace. We need something new. But it still may feel at first like our well-ordered lives are being broken into.
There are many stories throughout history of people who supposedly “had it all” – and their lives were turned right-side-up when the spirit of the living Christ broke into their lives and changed everything.
More than two thousand years ago, God came into our world in Jesus. That was a miracle worth celebrating – and we will celebrate – four weeks from now! But even after two millennia, we wait as a faith community for Christ’s Advent to each one of us, to our church, and to people throughout the world. “The air is humming, and something great is coming… Maybe tonight!”
Robert J. von Trebra