Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44, for Dec. 1, 2019 Advent 1A
Audio will be here for several weeks.
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 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 and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But 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. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
What in the world was Jesus talking about? What could it mean that the Son of Man was going to come, bringing along such an odd string of events: two in the field, or two grinding, one taken, the other left.
Sounds ominous. Taken by whom? Taken where? Why one and not both? What are we supposed to imagine is happening at this seemingly normal unexpected hour?
A lot of ink has been spilled to explain this. Here are the questions that get asked: Was Jesus talking about the end of time? Or, was he talking about the Roman army invasion in 70 CE to crush the Jewish revolt? Who does the cryptic “Son of Man refer to?” That title could mean so many different things in the Hebrew Bible — a single person, the whole nation collectively, the action of God, using a human army. Which one of those is most like the surprise coming of a thief in the night? And what would any of that have to do with me, today?
The funny thing is, that we do not have to know the answer to any of those questions in order to get the point. The point is: to be awake. Don’t let life lull you into passivity. Use the time before the flood, as Noah did, to prepare, because the water is already rising.
But, we need to ask the question: is there anything coming for us that we need to be awake to? If the warning given was about a past calamity, as I believe it was, then maybe danger has passed and there is no need to be alarmist now.
Well, consider this: if the calamity was already over by the time Matthew wrote his gospel, which I believe it was, why would Matthew want us to read about it?
You normally don’t warn people that the barn door is open after the cows have left. I believe it is likely that Matthew knew that it wasn’t the last calamity. More is coming. More is always coming. It is always time to call people to wake up.
It is said that soon after his enlightenment the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the Buddha’s extraordinary radiance and peaceful presence. The man stopped and asked,
“My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?”
“No,” said the Buddha
“Well, then, are you some kind of magician or wizard?”
Again the Buddha answered, “No.”
“Well, my friend, then what are you?”
The Buddha replied, “I am awake.”
“Buddha” means awake.
I think that says it. Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha, lived the first part of his life asleep to the world outside of his privileged luxury. Then, he woke up to suffering. Eventually, he experienced a profound awakening we call enlightenment. He became Buddha; awake.
We know next to nothing about Jesus’ early life, growing up as a poor laborer in the tiny peasant village of Nazareth, but the gospels record an experience that seems to have been a moment of awakening for him. It was his baptism. That seems to have been the moment in which he came to understand himself as God’s beloved child in a transformative way. That baptismal experience is recorded in all the gospels.
After that, his public ministry started. I think it would be fair to summarize his quest as trying to awaken people. Jesus tried to awaken people to the presence of the Kingdom of God and all that that could mean, both personally and publicly. It meant awakening people to their essential identity as God’s beloved children. That is the message we need to keep hearing until we believe it in our bones: that God loves us; God is for us, not against us. We are beloved.
Why is it so hard to internalize that message? In other words, why do we so easily fall asleep to our belovedness? Maybe because we live surrounded by so many messages telling us the opposite.
That is why what we do here is so important. This is the place where we come to hear the counter-message. This is where we find the strength and encouragement we need for the next week, and, cumulatively, for the next calamity which will surely come.
So, I wanted to take the occasion, on the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the church year, to say something about how I understand the significance of what we do when we gather like this for worship. Some of us have been coming to church all our lives. It is easy to be on auto-pilot, but that would be a pity. When we are awake to what is happening here, it can be transformative.
Awaken to Worship
So, let’s talk about worship. First, you showed up today: that is excellent. You got up, got ready, and here you are. Now, make sure to get everything being offered here. To do that, stay present. If you are like me, you know that you can attend something good, like a concert or a movie, and if your mind is somewhere else, you can miss out on the pleasure and power of the experience.
It is common for people to think of worship as a performance. Often, people think of God as the director. The minister and liturgists are like the actors on stage. The congregation is the audience. But that is actually mistaken.
One theologian has suggested that worship is indeed like a performance, but we should imagine the roles differently. The clergy is like the director, the liturgists are like the stagehands. The actors are the people in the congregation. The audience is God.
Actually, the word “liturgy” itself means, “the work of the people.” That is why you have so many active parts in our services. You are not just an audience having an auditory experience, as you would be if this were a concert. You participate. Worship is the work of the people; the work of giving gratitude to God, of acknowledging our shortcomings, and of affirming God’s inexhaustible grace in words and songs. Doing that work, if we are awake and present to it, helps us to believe that we are beloved.
The fact that we do the work of the people together gives us strength in numbers: we are not in this alone. When the next calamity comes for us, knowing that will be crucial.
To help all of this to go from our heads down to our hearts, were are given the sacraments. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, because they involve physical things we can see and experience, taste and smell, help seal the message of our belovedness deeply.
Our Presbyterian Church has gone beyond what the Bible teaches about how to celebrate the sacraments, giving a primary role, for the sake of order, to the ordained minister. But the language of our Book of Order is permissive about most of the rest, if you want to read it that way, which I do.
There is not one mention of the word “worthy” in the discussion. It is about service; serving; which means that it is about being a servant, which is what we aspire to be for each other.
God, is our audience when we do the work of the people in common worship. God is present in a powerful way as we gather like this today. God becomes more present to us, more real to us, when we are awake to what we are saying and doing. We leave here more awake to God’s presence in our lives. God’s Spirit, we believe, is in all things, and everyone; staying awake to that reality changes everything.
Worship has a flow. The large print in our bulletins shows the direction of the flow: from Gathering, to Proclaiming, to Responding and finally to Sending. We begin by being gathered; we are called to worship, and we respond to that call with a celebration of God’s mercy and forgiveness in prayers and songs.
Then we flow to the proclamation of the Scripture, our wisdom tradition. We remember the words of Jesus and of the prophets and apostles. We reflect on what they mean for us today in our very different context.
We flow next to our response. By receiving the sacraments, and by acts of giving and affirmations of commitment, we enact our desire to stay awake to what we have been called to do and be. Finally, we flow towards the world outside the walls of the church as we are sent out as the beloved community, to the world, and for the world.
We do not know what the next calamity will be. It may be as personal as a health crisis for us, or for someone we love. It may be political. It may be the effects of the climate crisis. It may be terrorism or something another nation does; who knows? Whatever it is, we need to live wide awake. What we are doing right here, right now, if we are awake and present to it, will help us be awake and stay awake, prepared for it as part of the beloved community. When the next calamity comes, as it surely will, we will have each other.