The Gospel today, as we head into Advent, is about attention and attending, and the rhetoric it deploys certainly gets your attention. It’s something like the Left Behind stories that Nolan loves so much, which are becoming a troubling presence in our sermons here of late. Only this reverse-polarity rapture that Jesus describes, with people being swept away in an instant, is not an evacuation of the worthy, but a purification, leaving the good and holy folk here on earth. It has surely sparked the imaginations of Christians through the ages, both the ones who worried that some flaw or mistake condemned them to be swept away, and those pious ones who rested assured that they would get to bask in life without the rabble, the cosmos as a private club. Both groups were wrong, but that’s later.
Right now let’s deal with this text. Matthew’s gospel, scholars believe, was written in the last couple of decades of the first century. And Matthew, like Luke, takes Mark’s Gospel as a primary source of material. So a lot of the stories we see in Matthew and Luke appeared first in Mark, which was written around the year 70 of the Christian Era, around the time that the temple was destroyed. When Mark’s Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple, he is framing the persecution of Jews and Christians as the first movements of the apocalypse, the unveiling of God’s new reality. And when Matthew, 20 or so years later, takes Mark’s story as a template and expands on the description of what will happen when Jesus returns, we can read it as an explanation of what has very notably not happened yet.
The second coming had not happened. Probably everyone who actually walked with Jesus was dead by the time Matthew was written, and there had been no return, end of history. People expected the end to come soon. People always do. But it had not come, and it had been a while since Jesus taught these things. So these early Christians were a bit anxious that the greatly expected return of Christ would not come to pass. The Gospel helps them find their bearings a little. Us, too.
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” That line, which appears in both Mark and Matthew, is a big deal. Jesus is stating that he does not know very much about the second coming. So your temptation to read these predictions literally should be tempered by the part where Jesus totally tips you off that he’s speaking rhetorically. Farmers and grain-grinders ought not expect to be beamed out of their daily existence all of a sudden. At least, Jesus can’t specify that much. Those parts aren’t in Mark. They are exclusive to Matthew, and it doesn’t seem that they are there to dial in the prediction of the second coming with more detail. Jesus is not an oracle. He’s not a fortune-teller, or a seer of the future. Jesus is a spiritual leader, a conduit of divinity in our midst, capable of speaking astonishing truth and demonstrating incredible compassion. Which is to say, this lesson is a spiritual teaching, not a mapping out of a rapture. This Gospel helps us adopt the proper posture toward the incarnation, toward the moments when God joins us.
“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.” That’s a weird metaphor to draw on when you’re talking about the return of our savior, but it works. The focus shifts with that sentence from a terrifying scene of judgment to a stance of preparedness. And the last line: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” The language of apocalypse helps to highlight level of intrusion, of disruption that the Son of Man will bring. The apocalyptic language here helps to make the point. And we know neither the time nor the hour. They are both unexpected.
Nazareth was certainly unexpected. The prophet foretold that a messiah would come from Bethlehem, which was far from Nazareth. It took a census—a census that was likely a construct of the story—to get them to Bethlehem. Mary was unexpected. An unmarried virgin, pregnant, with God’s child? A king, born in a stable, greeted by shepherds and foreign kings while hunted by the ruler of his homeland?
We have heard the story so many times that it’s like a blanket we wrap around ourselves, forgetting the raw fear Mary must have felt when the angel appeared with a calling unlike any other, the very real risks of being an unmarried pregnant woman in Galilee, the dangers of travel, the many, many ways in which a stable is not a medically ideal place for childbirth. The only people who knew this was happening—the shepherds and the wise men—were tipped off by angels or by a star. You and I, my friends, would not have noticed.
And so we have these 4 weeks before Christmas, the season of Advent, to prepare for the coming of Jesus, for the new beginning. We are, as Nolan taught us when he unpacked the earlier part of this story as told by Luke, orienting ourselves toward a new way of being, a way dictated by the possibility that some future moment will bring something so new, so strange, and perhaps so subtle, that we will need practice and courage to name it, to say “Hallelujah, God is doing a new thing here.” This is a time to root ourselves in the practice of making room in our hearts for God, whatever shape God takes.
The world pulls us outward at these times, toward gatherings of family and friends, the fierce commercial competition for your desire and your dollars, the seemingly endless list of preparations for what might finally turn out to be a perfect Christmas (but won’t). And the church moves in counterpoint to those pulls. This is a season for turning inward. For taking inventory of our soul, and for clearly seeing and naming the things within us that will keep us from recognizing God when God comes.
Now, between finals and the commercialism of Christmas, you’ve got some challenges here. But the practice of Advent, like the spirituality it cultivates, is a simple one. It is one of making a little space. I like to call it leaving the window open. The academic stress and family… stress and the rush of geting Christmas put together can very easily become your horizon, the outer limit of what you can see, walls closed in around you. When you let the walls close in, you’re pretty much stuck with the stuff you closed in with you. You have set up a closed system. Perhaps a cozy one, but closed all the same, and the Incarnation, the event of Christmas and the expectation of God’s future movement, the practice of being Christian itself is not about a cozy closed off space, but about an openness to God’s movement.
Into this enclosure of stress and demands, you can let in a fresh breeze. Call her the Holy Spirit if you’d like. You can, at any point, open a window for the possibility of something new.
Take a minute, as you wait for your coffee order or for the bus, or as you gather yourself for another chunk of studying, and imagine opening a window, so that the unexpected can come in. That which comes from outside, which is always new to us, and which leads us to things we cannot imagine. Know that this time of getting ready for Christmas, spritually, finds us preparing for the next thing, for the next unlikely story. We are preparing to be people who can say “yes, this is God.” It is a quiet and a holy preparation, and it actually goes perfectly with this time of year. Keep the window open, and pay attention.