Matthew 24:36-44 Common English Bible (CEB)
36 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 37 As it was in the time of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Human One. 38 In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. 39 They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away. The coming of the Human One will be like that. 40 At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. 42 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. 43 But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. 44 Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know.
This morning I felt like I used to feel on Christmas morning growing up. You see, we weren’t allowed downstairs before our parents on Christmas day, and it was all I could do not to sneak down just a couple of steps to see what Santa had brought. I didn’t have any parents telling me not to come and peek this morning, so when I got here at 6 am, armed only with the flashlight in my phone, I crept down the stairs from the office and gasped at the beauty I could see in the dimness of that light. So I need to say something right away about the way our sanctuary looks this morning. It is awesome! Thanks, as Laurie said in her email, to all the Christmas elves who came in to set everything out and to Elf Number 1 (aka Jeffrey) for spending all day Friday here at the church creating Christmas magic. Advent purists may find some details to criticize, but I don’t. I am simply overwhelmed by the beauty that has been created here. I think maybe next week I will spend some time going over all the symbolism involved in the wreaths, the evergreens, the poinsettias, the orbs hanging from the trees, and all the other decorations. Even the woodland creatures watching our service, the wooden soldier standing guard, and the sparkly reindeer taking flight over the gifts of food we will contribute to Selma Cares, as well as the table set for a feast in the library, all say something about the way we approach this holy day. Oh, there will be so much to say next Sunday.
And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming.
“You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. . . You should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know.” Advent is all about preparation. We prepare for the coming of the Human One - the Messiah. Not for his birth, because that is a historical event. That is something that actually happened in the past, and isn’t questioned. At least, not by historians, who know from documents other than the Bible that there was such a person as Jesus from Nazareth who was crucified while Pilate was governor of Judea. If such a person existed, then obviously, he was born. Thus, his birth is a historical event. But his return, that is something we aren’t sure about. We are sure it will happen, but we don’t know the circumstances that will bring it about and we don’t know when, exactly, it will happen. The rabbis say that the Messiah will come when either the world is so bad that he has to come straighten us out, or the world is so good that he is inexorably drawn to be with us. (I like the second option better.) Oh, there are prophecies, and signs, and formulae that have been carefully worked out by all sorts of people, but we cannot possibly know the answer. After all, Jesus himself said, “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows.” If we are to believe Jesus about other things, then we kind of have to believe him about this, I think. Since none of us are God, (for which I give thanks daily!), none of us can possibly know, for sure, when the end will come, no matter what prophets may have said or mathematicians and physicists have worked out. And because we don’t know exactly when the end will come, we must always be prepared.
I kind of like the homeowner symbolism Jesus uses. If you knew when your house was going to be robbed, you could be ready for the thieves when they arrive. Your house would be locked up securely, you would be standing just inside the door with your trusty shotgun (or with your cell phone all set to call 911 while taking a picture of the thief breaking in for evidence). You would have no fears or worries the rest of the time. You could leave all your doors wide open every day and night, not worrying at all. But on that day when you knew you would be robbed, you would be ready. However, reality tells us that thieves seldom advise the homeowners in advance, so we have to be prepared all the time.
Thus is it with the coming of the Lord at the end of days. We have no idea when that will be. We don’t know when our own individual end will come, and we don’t know when the end of days for all the people of the earth will come. And so, we must always be prepared, ready for the end.
Can I tell you how terrifying this passage always was for me growing up? It was preached in such a way that my understanding was, “If I am not perfect, I will go to hell.” If I had misbehaved and not had an opportunity to confess and be forgiven, I was going to hell. If I had missed a chance to do good for someone, I was going to hell. God was always watching to make sure I was behaving perfectly, and if I messed up in any way, I was going to hell. And since there was no way to know for sure when the end was coming, I was pretty sure I was going to hell, whenever. I could never understand how God was always so judgmental and angry and punishing and yet “Jesus loves me”, while both being equally God (along with the Holy Spirit, who was somehow always left out of these conversations). As Philip Gulley and James Mulholland note in their book, If God is Love, it is as if God is the bad cop and Jesus is the good cop. As long as we respond to Jesus, all is well. If not, well, we wouldn’t want Jesus to leave us alone in a room with God (pg 21) I grew up fearful of God. At about age 7, I learned a prayer of confession which said in part, “I regret my sins because of the loss of heaven and the pains of hell.” The prayer went on to say, “but mostly because they offend you, O God, who are all good and deserving of all my love,” but really, I was sorry only because I was afraid of hell. I didn’t actually believe in a loving God. I only knew about the angry one. And so, I was always afraid.
This year the theme we are using for Advent is “Do not be afraid.” We have heard Christian talk about the fear he had about his trip to Italy to study opera last summer, and how God helped him through that fear. Each Sunday during Advent, someone will come forward with a story of something they faced fearfully, and light a candle in gratitude for God’s help. We will learn, I hope, that we need not be afraid, for God is with us always.
It took quite a long time for me to learn that. I mean, I knew the “God is watching you” part really well, but it never occurred to me that God was watching over me in love rather than to catch me doing something wrong for which I could be punished. But eventually, and with the help of loving people in 12 Step meetings, I learned about God as I understand him to be today - merciful, caring, and forgiving. I learned about the God that Jesus spoke of when he spoke of his Father, who was there for him always, who stood with him in good times and bad, who wept with him in times of sorrow, and rejoiced with him in times of gladness. And, to quote Gulley and Mulholland, “The longer I was in relationship with God, the less I feared.” (pg. 22) These days I understand that previously incomprehensible statement in that prayer, “I am sorry for the mistakes I make because they offend you, O God, who are all good and deserving of all my love.” These days I do not fear. Well, I don’t fear God, and I don’t fear outcomes as much. I still fear fire and snakes and stuff. But not God. I know that no matter what happens, I will be ok because God is with me.
It is a scary time right now for some of us. We are watching the news and wondering what the coming years will mean to those of us who are LGBT folks, or poor, or dependent upon Social Security and Medicare and the Affordable Care Act. We are concerned about what the future will bring for family members and friends who are refugees, or undocumented, or Muslim. Some friends of mine who are female and clergy are getting even more hate mail than they already were. I, thank God, have received very little over the years, and none of it about me personally. More like form letters than personal threats. But scary, nonetheless. I sat in a restaurant the other day listening to a man at another table rant loudly about what was going to happen now to all of “those people,” and about the laws that will be now passed to make America pure again. It was scary. And yet I say to you, fear not, for God is with you.
Fear not, and be prepared. Be prepared at all times for the coming of the Lord, for none know when that time will be. And yes, it will be like the days before the flood, when everyone is behaving as they normally do, eating and drinking and marrying. Working. Getting water. Gathering food. But some will be prepared in their hearts for God’s embrace. Some will be able to live without fear of what might come, because they know that God is with them. Others, who do not know God’s love, will be fearful about what is to come, the way I was always fearful.
And here is what we must do to be prepared. We must love one another. We must work very hard at not being judgmental, but rather at loving the person who God has created. Even those who threaten us. Even those who make us fearful. Even those who rant loudly in restaurants about the people they hate. We must forgive them, and pray that they will find love, the kind of love that we know in Christ. The kind of love that calms hearts, and soothes souls. The kind of love that sends us out to feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and comfort the comfortless. The kind of love that impels us to stand with our friends who have reason to be fearful. The kind of love that allows us to see Christ in every person, and to reflect the love of Christ back upon them.
We do not know when the Lord will return, but we do know how to live in expectation of that day. We know how to invite him into our hearts, even before that day has come. We know how to live as if every day is that last day. My brothers and sisters, when we go from this place, let us go out to live in love as we await the coming of our long expected King.