Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on December 1, 2013.
I have a deep appreciation for the situation comedies of the 1990s. In all likelihood, the reason I am so fond of these sitcoms is because I grew up with them; watching Frasier or Friends or Mad About You was my reward for finishing my homework or practicing the piano. At the same time, part of the reason I love these shows is because they hold up well even fifteen years later. Nineties sitcoms were more sophisticated than their hokey and saccharine eighties counterparts, but they still had a charming innocence that the cynical, reality-driven shows of the last decade abandoned. There are, of course, elements of these shows that did not stand the test of time, plotlines that simply don’t make sense in our current context. For instance, every episode of a show in which two characters were unable to meet because of some earlier miscommunication could be solved very easily with a cell phone. Also, every episode of a show where there was a misunderstanding about someone’s identity could be resolved with one of the characters looking her up on Facebook. Perhaps the most obvious sitcom trope that no longer works is the two lovers sharing a tearful goodbye just outside of the airplane jet bridge as one of the characters is about to fly away. Those of us watching in our post-9/11 world are saying to ourselves, “That could never happen anymore. They would have to say goodbye at home or by the ticket counter, and that’s not nearly as dramatic.”
This particular nineties sitcom trope exposes how much has really changed since terrorists hijacked airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon twelve years ago. We are now hyper-vigilant; we’re not willing to take any chances. At the airport, you can no longer go through security unless you have a photo ID and a boarding pass, and I’m willing to concede that this makes sense. You can no longer carry knives of any length onto an airplane, and that makes sense. When you go through security, you have to take off your shoes and put them through the X-ray machine. Why? Because a guy once tried (and failed) to explode a bomb that was in his shoes. You can no longer carry containers of liquid larger than three ounces on the plane anymore. Why? Because someone once tried (and failed) to explode a bomb that involved combining liquids hidden in shampoo bottles. You also may have to go through a machine that allows the TSA agents to essentially look under your clothes. Why? Because a guy once tried (and failed) to explode a bomb that was in his underwear. Now I don’t mean to suggest that all of these are bad things. Rather, these measures are indicative of not only our society’s intense concern with security, but also our very human preoccupation with protecting ourselves, our insistence on always being prepared for whatever comes next.
It is this very human impulse that Jesus taps into in today’s gospel reading. Today, we hear what is frankly one of the more terrifying passages in Matthew’s gospel. This comes from what scholars call the “Little Apocalypse,” which is Jesus describing what the coming of the Son of Man is going to look like. Prior to this passage, Jesus appropriates a number of apocalyptic metaphors from Scripture, telling the disciples that “the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its lights; the stars will fall from heaven and the powers of heaven will be shaken.” This is dramatic, Cecil B. DeMille-type language that is meant to give the disciples at least a fleeting sense of how great and awe-inspiring the day of the Lord is going to be, that day when God will reconcile the world to himself. This language is supposed to fill them with hope and expectation, because it describes a time when the righteous will be vindicated and God’s people will be restored. Naturally, the followers of Jesus would like to know when this is going to happen so that they can be prepared for what comes next. Jesus tells them, however, that the coming of the day of the Lord is a mystery at the heart of God, that no one knows about that day or hour, not even the Son. In fact, Jesus says that it will take us completely by surprise, that it’s going to happen when we least expect it. And here is the terrifying part of this passage: Jesus says that the Son of Man will come so suddenly that people who are working side by side will be taken away from one another and vanish from each other’s sight.
All of this underscores Jesus’ exhortation to keep awake and be ready for the coming of the Son of Man. He tells us that we do not know on what day our Lord is coming, and it is here that he plays upon our preoccupation with security and preparedness. Jesus presents us with a scenario to help us understand his point about readiness: “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.” It’s a vivid and potent image. The thief is not going to send us a note to tell us when he is going to try to break into our house. And if we can’t prepare for a specific moment, it would seem that we’re supposed to be prepared all the time. Perhaps Jesus is telling us to stay hyper-vigilant, to keep all of the lights in the house burning, to sit up straight and fight off sleep even as our eyes grow heavy peering out the window and looking for the thief. I think this is the classic human response, the post-9/11 response to this scenario: we don’t know when the thing we’re preparing for is going to happen, so we have to stay awake forever. Of course, there’s no way we could possibly stay awake forever; there’s no sustainable way for us to be that vigilant. Perhaps we have to look at this image differently. I think that when we hear this metaphor, we’re conditioned to imagine that we can prevent the thief from coming, but remember that Jesus is using this image to describe the coming of the Son of Man, and the day of the Lord is coming whether we think we can stop it or not. In fact, Jesus tells us that this is the only thing that we can be truly secure about, that God is going to make things right through the Son of Man. So if we follow Jesus’ metaphor to its logical conclusion, we don’t know when the thief is going to arrive but we also have no way of stopping him; perhaps, then, we’re not meant to worry about catching the thief in the act. Perhaps Jesus is using this image to point us to a different way of looking for the Son of Man.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the time in the Church year that we not only prepare for Christmas, but we also affirm that God is going to be revealed and reconcile all things to himself on the great and terrible day of the Lord. Now, I’m perfectly willing to concede that the coming of Son of Man tends to be a touchy, even uncomfortable subject for many Christians. Many of us would much rather concern ourselves with the mangers and stables and sheep of Christ’s first coming. Part of the reason for our discomfort is that throughout history, there have been two extreme approaches to preparing for the coming of the Son of Man. On one hand, there have been numerous Christians throughout history who, in spite of what Jesus said in our gospel today, have proclaimed that they could pinpoint the exact date and time of the day of the Lord and Christ’s second advent. While there are a whole host of issues with this, I think the desire to know exactly when Christ is going to return stems from the very human desire for security. We want certainty, we want assurance, we want to know when to expect whatever we’re expecting. On the other hand, instead of being hyper-vigilant about the day of the Lord, there are those who say that it’s never going to happen, that it was a mistake of the early Church, that Jesus only was on this earth once, and any talk of the coming of the Son of Man is foolishness. Ironically, I think this impulse stems from the same desire for security. We would rather assure ourselves that something is never going to happen, rather than living our lives with any kind of uncertainty. As we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent, however, we are called us to a middle way, one that is less secure, one that is riskier, but one that takes Jesus seriously and trusts that we are being reconciled to God and one another.
In the very next chapter of Matthew’s gospel, just after we have heard three parables about the necessity for watchfulness, Matthew unfolds the judgment of the nations, the passage wherein people are separated as a shepherd separates sheep and goats. Strikingly, Jesus introduces the passage with the phrase, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory.” The last time Matthew uses the phrase “Son of Man” is in the passage we read this morning. To my mind, this means the story about the judgment of the nations reveals something about the day of the Lord; the story about the judgment of the nations is meant to prepare us for the coming of the Son of Man. You know the story well: when the righteous come face to face with the Son of Man, he says to them, “Come, you that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The righteous are surprised, because they don’t remember doing any of these things for the king. But the Son of Man responds “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” Jesus tells us that we encounter the Son of Man when we reach out and care for those who cannot care for themselves.
Advent, therefore, is not about pinpointing the precise day of the Lord’s return or saying “Christ will come again” even as we assume that it will never happen. We are not meant to look for the false security of certainty; we are called to embrace the uneasy reality of risk. Jesus calls us to risk ourselves, to take a chance and reach out to those in need. In a moment, when we pray for those who have died, you will hear the name of David Dingwall. David was a priest in the Diocese of Easton who died this week after a disturbed man set himself on fire and walked into a church’s outreach center. This tragic event highlights the risk we take when we care for those who cannot care for themselves. Events like this might tempt us to close our doors and turn our backs on the world. But I suspect that Fr. Dingwall knew the truth that we affirm today, that each moment we spend caring for other people is an Advent moment, an opportunity to encounter the Son of Man. Every can of food you give to Hands-On Outreach, every hour you volunteer at Thrift House, every note you send to someone who is lonely, every time you welcome a newcomer to Heavenly Rest is an Advent moment. So be ready and stay alert, because every person you meet could represent the coming of the Son of Man, the one who reconciles us to God and one another.