Wake! Watch! Wield!

The Gospel According to Matthew 24:36-44

December 1, 2019: Advent I

The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

Good morning and welcome to the first Sunday in Advent! 

It’s one of those Sundays that challenges a preacher whose pulpit does not change from year to year. Because the theological context and message of Advent I are the same…every year, albeit framed slightly differently by each gospeller in our three-year cycle.

But the message is simple across the board: Wake up. Watch out. And get ready, because the end of the world as we know it, is near. That’s the message in Advent I, in every Gospel, every year. Dark. Scary. Urgent.

 It’s so dark and scary that we hardly get past…..that. We hardly ever talk about why the world as we know it will be ending.  We almost never go there unless we are dragged by a …..sermon…or an… evangelical. Because, I think, the very concept at hand is somewhere around a 9.9 on the theological Richter Scale. It is an earth shatteringly difficult notion around which we, in this current culture, can barely get our human arms.

The concept is that of the Second Coming. And in my humble estimation, it is the only Christian theological concept that surpasses even the resurrection in its….incomprehensible unpopularity as a tenet of the mainline Christian faith. It would not even register as a chat topic on mainline spiritual social media. The Second Coming of Christ, at least in our denominational realm, has next to no followers, excepting clergy, of course.

But Advent is tailor made for our contemplation of the Second Coming. It is almost the core of Advent’s theme. And so we hear about it every year in the Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent. 

We are made abundantly aware in our Scripture that what we await at this time of the year is not just the birth, but the return, of Jesus the Christ. It’s one of the reasons that we do not sing Christmas carols during Advent. Because they are overwhelmingly geared to the birth of the immaculately conceived child, with no acknowledgement at all that he has already been born. Advent is not just about the birth, but even more directly about the return of Jesus our Savior.

But Jesus makes it crystal clear, in all three Gospels, that he is intending to return. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus makes this promise to his disciples in the chapter just before this morning’s reading. He says: For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’ 

There it is in black and white. You will not see me AGAIN until... That is, I am going to be back, says Jesus. Which means that the Second Coming is not an afterthought. It’s not that Jesus came and died and rose and then God said, “Holy cow, I think we need to try this again, they didn’t get it the first time.” Nope. Jesus was planning to come again all along. Part of the plan.

And in a culture that is all in regarding second chances, we might think that the Second Coming would have more attention. But this Second Coming is not predicated on a failed first attempt, like most second chances. This one was in the cards from the get-go. 

And even so, even though there is hardly anything more uniformly and widely attested in the New Testament than the Second Coming of Christ, we still do not talk about it. Much. At all. Except today. On Advent I.

Although, we already embrace the Second Coming every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Every time we pray that God’s Kindom will come on earth as it is in heaven. We are praying explicitly for the Second Coming. We are praying for the new beginning that will fulfill God’s promise of peace on earth.

But it is not until this first Sunday in Advent that we actually focus on the cost of that new beginning. A new beginning that is predicated on a terrifying ending.

But Advent I insists that we come to grips with the cold hard truth that peace will not just grace this world, it will replace this world.  Altogether. Like the Incarnation and the Resurrection, the Second Coming will turn the world on its head. 

The theological term for that earth-shattering ending that will precede the Second Coming is called “the apocalypse.” Literally “to uncover.” Apo-kaluptein. To reveal. The apocalypse is the revelation that comes when the façade of this world is wiped away. 

Don’t worry if your eyes are glazing over, it’s a tough concept. But it is axiomatic to the Christian way. And it is the underlying message of this first Sunday in Advent. Every year. In every Gospel. The darkness of destruction  must precede the light of revelation. The apocalypse is the conduit to the Kindom.

But, apocalypse is not a Christian concept. The Book of Daniel is loaded with calculations and ruminations regarding the apocalypse. The notion that the world was coming to an end did not begin with the birth of Jesus Christ. It was alive and well centuries before. And the issue was not whether the world would come to an end, but when. And because no one knew when, there was always an aire of urgency.

All three of our synoptic Christian Gospels pick up this urgency in their passages on Advent I. Although all three deliver the warning a bit differently.

In year B, Mark simply delivers the bad news that the world is coming to an end.Yes it is. So wake up to that realization. See the signs. Accept the truth. And deal with it. Full stop.

In year C, Luke too delivers the bad news that the world is coming to an end, but he tempers that jolt with a modicum of hope. The world may pass away says Jesus in Luke, but my words will not pass away. In Luke’s Gospel, the coming demise is not just the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad end. It is more of a means to a beginning….an end that is required to clear the decks for a brand new, life-giving beginning. So if we can just wait it out, a new day will dawn at the end of this dark, dark night. Luke’s message is also wake up! But he adds a sit tight motif. Wait it out and things will be fine in the end.

But this morning begins year A. And although Matthew delivers the same bad news that the world as we know it is indeed on its very last leg, he adds what I hear as a true gift in the midst of the maelstrom. And maybe it is the ultimate gift…..for the Christian who has everything.

Dan Harrington, who was the professor of New Testament theology at Weston School of Theology when I was at EDS, says that Matthew picks up his version of the impending end almost verbatim from Mark’s Gospel.  But instead of just cautioning the reader to be aware of the signs in this generation that point to the coming of the last things, Matthew adds a twist.  Matthew balances his warning of the apocalypse with a call to action. 

He says that since we know the end is near, we are therefore free to live every day as though tomorrow were our last. And Harrington says that with this instruction, Matthew “brings about the union between eschatology and ethics.” (347, Sacra Pagina Commentary). In essence, Matthew frees us to behave every minute of every day as if we might wake tomorrow morning to find the kindom of God parked in our front yard blowing the horn.

It’s the perfect gift for Christmas! The gift of freedom. Matthew’s version of the doomsday Advent prophesy comes wrapped in the gift of abject freedom! Live like there is no tomorrow, says the Gospel. You are free! Free to stop acquiring things and start gathering loved ones.nFree to forget your obsession with security and start opening your doors to your neighbors. Free to forget protecting your reputation and social standing and begin speaking from your heart. Free to forget your fear of losing whatever it is that you love more than love. Because you are going to lose it. And soon.

So empty your pockets. Drain your coffers. Spend your time connecting. Give your attention to love. Invest in your values. Contribute to peace. Shell out kindness like there’s no tomorrow. Spread joy like jam. Unload whatever gifts you have in abundance. Because you are going to lose them. And soon.

Hold nothing back. Save nothing for a rainy day. Because that rainy day just might end up being a flood. And a big one. Ask Noah. This is no time for practicality. Spend your virtue with wild abandon. Because no doubt, the end is very near.

Matthew’s gift is not the sort of pastoral pablum for which our comfort zones might long. It’s not a reassurance that we will be fine. That all will be well. Matthew does not assure us that God’s reign will not conjure a flood or that all will be a-okay after the flood subsides. Matthew does not comfort us that peace will not cost us our prosperity. Matthew does not assure us that we need not worry because Christmas is just around the bend. Jesus will be born and peace will come on earth. Matthew does not blow smoke up our skirts. 

No. Matthew’s Gospel says nothing about Advent as a time of waking and patiently waiting for greener pastures. Rather, Matthew’s Gospel says that Advent is a time of waking and wielding. Wielding our agency to infuse God’s love  in everything we do. Because the end is coming. And all we can claim for ourselves is whatever time we have left with which to do whatever we were born to do.

Although we do not know exactly when the end will come, that might be part of the gift. Because that uncertainty is the core of our freedom to live with wild and generous abandon.  Because now that we know that that the end is on the way, we are free to throw caution to the wind and live with absolute and utter authenticity…. compassion…. mercy…. kindness… generosity…. intimacy…. honesty….what else? Go ahead, what else do we refrain from in the name of fear? To steal a phrase from NIKE, now we are free to : Just do it! Because we have nothing to lose.

It’s the Bad News Good News of Advent according to Matthew. A paradox. That the knowledge that the end of time is imminent offers such a great grace that frees us to spend our time infinitely well.

Because Advent takes us out of time as we await both the birth that has happened and the return that is yet to come. Our lighting of the Advent wreath is the inextinguishable sign that we are not in Kansas anymore. Now, we are in God’s time. We are with God’s blessing. We are in God’s hands. 

This notion of connecting tenses of time is at the core of our Christian eschatology. It’s another difficult word that just really refers to the end time; the eschaton, literally the end time. And eschatology is key. Because we take our earthly marching orders from our concept of what awaits us in the end, in heaven, of what awaits us when we shuffle off this mortal coil. Our present values and choices and behavior reflect what we think eternity holds. And so eschatology is worth understanding.

For example, if we think that there is nothing after death, that this earthly life is all that there is, then we might be predisposed to spend everything we have in this world on ourselves and our own priorities as individuals. Because there is nothing other than today. There are no after-life consequences. There is no after-life hope. There is nothing more to consider than here and now.

If we think that the end time will be a time of judgment, that we will be called to account on “Judgment Day,” then we might live our lives trying to make sure that we will pass muster; like the movie Defending Your Life. Our values will be predicated on their ability to make us look good, in preparation for that Day. We will live in a way that sets us up to win our own personal case in the court of eternity. Our marching orders will be designed to mitigate the judgment that lies ahead.

But if we think that eternity is a kindom that seats every child of God equally at God’s table;  that the worth and value of every creature and creation of God will be celebrated in the end, then we are more likely to spend everything we have in this world on each other. Because we will be sitting across the table from each other for all of eternity. 

The way we understand the eschaton determines the way we live our lives. It is not a stretch to say that eschatology makes all the difference.

Advent is the season when we are invited to check in with our eschatology. How are our lives connected with our understanding of what matters in the long run? Now is the time to align ourselves and our lifestyles with our understanding of eternity.

The very word Advent invites this time bending endeavor. Advent, is from the Latin adventus. And adventus in Latin is a very particular verb form. It is a perfect passive participle. We don’t have this form in English. But in Latin, the perfect passive participle has a somewhat contradictory meaning in and of itself. The perfect passive part denotes something which has already happened. But the participle part is something that is happening as we speak and continues to happen into the future. 

So, Advent, from the perfect passive participle adventus, is: 

  1. something that is happening now and is ongoing.
  2. and also something that has already happened and is finished.

This sounds like a contradiction. And it is if we are thinking in a linear way. Advent does not move in a linear way. We can’t get our arms around the coming of God if we try to move from start to finish, from beginning to ending. We can’t put one foot in front of the other and get to God. We have to change our orientation; to move spatially rather than chronologically. For there is no logic to God’s Chronos, to God’s time. 

And so this morning Matthew gives us a new translation of God’s timetable. A timetable where the human question: When? is translated into the divine imperative: Now. The focus is not when will the world will end, but when will we let go of our fear and live as we were born to live? Freely!

Matthew turns “the end is near, oh my!” Into “the end is near, get going!”

And so the most pressing question for us on this first Sunday in Advent is not: When will the end come? The question is: How will we live differently if we truly believe that tomorrow will be the end? Specifically. What will we change right now? Today. How might our life today reflect the eternity that might begin tomorrow? How will we spend our time? Our resources? Our energy?  Now. What changes will we make immediately?

Consider it. Because my friends, the question is not rhetorical.

Now that we are awake, what change will we make?


© December 2019, The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

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