A Provocation: First Sunday of Advent

Matthew 24:36-44

24:36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

24:37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

24:38 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,

24:39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.

24:40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.

24:41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

24:42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

24:43 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.

24:44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

A Question or Two:

  • Does the command, “Keep awake,” imply that people are drowsy?
  • What do you do to stay awake when you are drowsy?
  • Does it work?
  • Why not?

Some Longer Reflections:

Too much mischief has been made with this passage.  Such passages have been used to authorize speculation about the end of the world.  Such speculation, if it does anything, makes people less prepared, less awake, less ready to cope with the ways the world ends everyday.  And such speculation teaches those who engage in it to love life less than they should.  Some who spend their time being ready for the world to end, trying to live in the flame of an apocalyptic theology, actually teach a hatred for this world, this life, and the messy responsibilities that go with all of this.

That is, to my eye, the exact opposite of what Jesus is saying in this scene.

So, some critical suggestions:

First: Stop thinking about the lines that talk about “one being taken, and one left.”

This is where the pointless theology of the “rapture” comes from.  This weird theology has not only produced some strange bumper stickers (In case of Rapture this car will be driverless, etc.), and bad movies ( you know which ones), it is not what these words are about.

In reading the gospels, any of them, always remember that they were composed in the form we have them sometime after the year 70 of the Common Era.  That matters.  In the year 70 of the Common Era the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed as the Roman military crushed the First Jewish Revolt against Rome.

The impact of this catastrophe cannot be overestimated.  The loss of the war was itself devastating.  The loss of the city of Jerusalem, the symbolic unifier of the Jewish people and the physical link to the memories that make Jews distinctively Jewish, tying them together all the way back to David, who ruled from this city, this loss shook the people deeply.

But there was also simply the fact of the massive loss of life.  Some ancient sources estimate that one million Jews were killed.  That number is surely too high.  But even if we reduce it by half, still the loss will have been devastating.  And inescapable.  Every extended family will have lost many members.

And, as in all warfare, the losses will have been frighteningly random.

My father was in the 82nd Airborne, 508th PIR, in World War II.  I had the great privilege of meeting the men with whom he served.  When they gathered for reunions of the unit, they told stories, to each other mostly, but they let me listen in.  They told about how drunk they got the night the war ended.  They told about how tough their sergeants were, whether in training or in the field.  But especially they told about the men who had been killed.  “He was right next to me,” they would say, and then their voices would trail off as they remembered things they chose not to put in words.  “You could never tell,” they would say, talking about the randomness of death, “You just could never tell.”  My father read histories of that war, and memoirs of those who returned.  But he disliked novels about the war.  In a novel you can tell who is going to die.  “It wasn’t like that,” he said.  “You could never tell.”

The words about one going taken and one left are the same kind of war story.  If there is a “rapture” going on here, it is a Roman rapture, and it has already happened.  The evidence would have been seen at every family’s dinner table: every empty chair would once have held a lively, quirky human being who was here one day and gone the next.

Second: What is this about “on what day your Lord is coming?”

It is hard to say.

The term Lord is applied in the Bible both to God and to Jesus.  This is no great problem for Christians who generally mash the two characters together, but such theological pureeing is years in the future for Matthew’s storyteller.  The one thing that is clear enough is that Jesus, though properly addressed with royal titles as the anointed messiah, did not properly carry out the world-correcting tasks proper to a messiah.  (For a longer look at the complications that go with this, re-read my Provocation for the Sunday that celebrates the Reign of Christ, 2016.)  That left Christians (starting with Paul)  casting about for ways to understand the incompleteness.  They seem to have imagined themselves in  a hiatus, a pause, an eddy in the stream of God’s history which would be followed by a climactic return of Jesus with full royal power.  This grew into a fully elaborated (and frequently problematical) theology of the “Second Coming of Christ.”  But it all started with an awareness of incompletion.  They confessed Jesus to be the Messiah.  But they did not forget that the work of the Messiah was far from complete.

In a theology shaped by this confession and this honest awareness, “Your Lord” coming is to complete what is missing.

But what does this mean for this Sunday, this year?

Maybe this:

Honesty and confession are both necessary for faithfulness.

Confession of Jesus as Messiah alone runs the risk of mistaking comfort for completeness, of baptizing a position of privilege and calling it all the will of God.

This has two unfortunate consequences.

First, it mistakes imbalance for balance.

Those at the top of whatever heap we are considering profess to hope for everyone to rise to their level of overconsumption.  “If only everyone could have a three-car garage,” we wish.  “If only everyone would live like we do in the suburbs,” we argue, “life would go better for all of us.”  In each case we miss the physical and social impossibility of such wishes.  Not everyone needs that many cars.  It might be better if fewer of us drove that many cars.  You can’t have sub-urbs without “urbs” for them to be “sub” to.  But most important of all, these matters are simply more complicated than such wishing pretends.  And the complications require real analysis and engagement.  Wishing solves nothing.

But the second problem is more serious.

If we abandon honesty about the broken state of the world, we can only do that by willfully ignoring that brokenness.  Every day, law enforcement officers leave home, go off to work, and confront danger that comes out of nowhere.  In the middle of writing a simple traffic ticket, a father who is also an officer is shot for no reason.  In the middle of a dull day at work, a domestic violence call goes wrong and an officer has to make decisions that will have life and death implications.  For everyone involved.

It will not do to forget what such unpredictable danger does to a person, and to a family, and to a community.  And it will definitely not do to ignore the reality of this danger in our communities.  We cannot live without law enforcement officers, not unless we have decided simply to cede control of our communities to violence.

But every day, in the same communities, young black men get pulled over for traffic stops for no reason other than the “broad shape of [their] nose,” to quote the report written after an innocent man was shot by a cop.  Every day black men get sent to prison for offenses that white men from the suburbs bargain down to misdemeanors, or for which they are not even charged.  Every day some loud white man is publicly furious over the claim that Black Lives Matter, somehow imagining that such simple restatements of the Declaration of Independence threaten the safety of angry white men.  The Declaration of Independence will indeed threaten white privilege, or rich privilege, or Christian privilege.  That old hopeful document, if implemented, will threaten privilege of all sorts.  But claiming that black lives, or native lives, or immigrant lives, or Muslim lives matter is no threat to anyone except someone who is ready to defend injustice with violence.  We call such people criminals, not patriots.

So, keep awake.

Privilege will defend itself against justice, which is to say that it will fight against the messiah.

The First Sunday of Advent, as we prepare to welcome God into this unsettled world, is a good time to keep awake to all the ways that privilege teaches us to forget honesty and fight against the work of God’s messiah.  We eat, we drink, we marry, we carry on as usual, amusing ourselves to death.  When we distract ourselves from faithful commitment to justice, we prepare to miss the moment our Lord comes to balance and heal the world.  We do not get to choose how that moment comes, or from what angle.  But if we insist on only seeing things from our own perspective we guarantee that we will be asleep when the decisive moment comes.

Keep awake.

 

 

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