In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
In the past few months, I have come to appreciate the biblical insights of a woman named Debie Thomas, who was born in India but grew up in Boston, the daughter of an evangelical pastor. Now she works at an Episcopal church in California and writes for the Christian Century. In her comments on today’s Gospel lesson, she explains: “I didn’t grow up observing Advent. My childhood church didn’t follow the liturgical calendar, so the holiday lineup I remember went straight from Thanksgiving turkeys and pumpkin pies to Christmas trees and ‘Jingle Bells’—one consumer feeding frenzy pressing hard into the next (that may sound a lot like your childhood). But,” she writes, “as I’ve moved deeper into the liturgical tradition, I have come to love the holy season we are now entering. I love that the Church begins its new year when the days are still getting darker. I love that the season rejects shallow sentimentality and false cheer. And I love that the Gospel gets us started with images that startle me out of my complacency—not swaddling clothes, twinkly stars, and fleecy lambs, but Jesus as relentless pursuer of my soul. Jesus as thief.”[i]
You may not love that the Gospel gets us started on this season with such startling images, but there they are. The word advent means “coming,” and the one whose coming we anticipate is not Santa Claus, with a sack full of toys, but Jesus, with who knows what? Justice? Mercy? What will the world look like when God’s will is done and God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven? We don’t know, exactly, and it makes us a little anxious. We’d probably rather talk about Santa than Jesus during this season because with Santa at least we know what to expect. Jesus has always been a little too unpredictable for our tastes. In today’s Gospel lesson he talks about the coming of the Son of Man and says that it, too, will be unpredictable. It will happen when we least expect it. He urges us to stay awake, therefore, and be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour— “like a thief in the night.”
This Advent sermon series is called “What’s the Word?” and it was dreamed up by my friend Dorisanne Cooper, pastor of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina. She’s one of the preachers in my Preacher Camp group, and in the notes she shared with us last summer she wrote:
The question, “What’s the word?” is something we ask when we want to know what’s going on, when we want to get a picture of things. (Or when we can’t quite think of what we want to say). Advent is a season with lots of familiar words (stable, swaddling clothes, shepherds), but as we more deeply engage the Advent texts themselves, other words arise that both reflect and shape our days and call us to deeper living. In many of the weeks’ texts, the Gospel reading tends to be more of a reflection of our days while the Hebrew Bible reading (all from Isaiah) points us toward the possibility of what might be.
So, is the Gospel reading for this Sunday, with all its frightening images, a “reflection of our days”? Maybe so. Dorisanne writes:
Ah, the tradition starting Advent with the apocalyptic texts! It’s actually one I lean into, usually borrowing from Fleming Rutledge’s phrase, “Advent begins in the dark.” [As a preacher] I don’t mind on this Sunday giving space to naming how hard life really is, and how bad things are or feel, to allow for people to be honest about where they are in response to the way the world of television commercials and glossy magazine ads tends to paint a picture of a perfect season with diamonds and new cars and everyone getting along. I find this Sunday gives extra permission to name how things aren’t like that for most all of us, but the truth of Advent is that that’s exactly what God comes into. The Matthew text allows us to name the feeling of the uncertainty of our days while diving deeper into the “word” that Isaiah saw and the hope of the ways and paths of God.
Dorisanne chose the title “Hopes and Fears” for this Sunday, two words suggested by the readings themselves. The reading from Matthew is unusually fearful, while the Isaiah reading is abundantly hopeful. Both words have something to do with Advent and as I thought about them last week I thought about how both words look forward, toward something that hasn’t happened yet.
In a sermon I preached a few weeks ago I talked about children, and how one of the things I love about them is the way they live in the moment. Over Thanksgiving I asked the family, “When does that change? When will Leo, for instance (my two-year-old grandson), start looking forward to Christmas?” We agreed that he is already getting excited about Christmas lights and the prospect of presents, but he isn’t yet able to say, “Remember what we did for Christmas last year, Opa?” or, “Do you think it will snow on Christmas this year?” For the most part, he is still living very much in the moment, and if the moment has Christmas lights in it, so much the better.
I’ve heard that anxiety occurs when our bodies try to respond to something that hasn’t happened yet.[ii] We perceive a threat—real or imagined—and some internal alarm goes off. Our hearts start beating faster, adrenaline is pumped into our system, we get ready to fight or flee, while actually there may not be anything to fear. Amy Frykholm, a journalist who focuses on religion in America, seems to have that phenomenon in mind when she writes:
Lately I’ve been trying out a new discipline: reading the news without engaging in speculation about the future. I’ve been curious about how much of my daily news intake is not about what has happened, but various predictions about what might happen. As far as my new awareness indicates, my own news-reading routines are full of predictions: weather predictions, election predictions, economic predictions. Who will say or do what. What it will mean.
I’m aware of how attractive these predictions are to me. I almost always heedlessly give a part of my morning to participating in this collective project of predicting the future, for good or for ill, right or wrong. It is almost as though I am trying to replace faith with a false mastery of the future. Given the number of these articles in the various news media that purport to know the future, I am guessing I am not alone.[iii]
“Trying to replace faith with a false mastery of the future,” she writes.
Maybe that’s why Jesus told his disciples not to try too hard to figure out when the Son of Man would come. “But about that day and hour no one knows,” he said, “neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So don’t waste your time making a list of the “88 reasons Christ will return in 1988” (like the one I remember seeing back in 1987, replaced the next year by a list called “89 reasons Christ will return in 1989”), and don’t waste your time putting up billboards announcing that Christ will return on May 21, 2011, as some people did, or that the world will be destroyed six months later, on October 21, 2011 because that didn’t happen either. Amy Frykholm writes:
We tell ourselves these stories about the future because they allow us to imagine that we can prepare, that we know what’s coming, that if we only analyze the future rightly, we can create viable safety plans. The bigger the predicted catastrophe, the greater we imagine that just by knowing it is coming, we can avoid its most adverse effects. In other words, we use predictions about the future to try to escape the basic vulnerability of being human.[iv]
“Don’t even try” says Jesus, “for as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” And this may be a good time to admit that some of the warnings in today’s Gospel lesson are really scary.
Jesus talks about the days of Noah and then reminds his disciples that “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,” he warns. “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.”
When I was just starting out in ministry I talked about the return of Christ as a good thing, a happy thing, like when you were a child and your father had been away on a trip and then he came home a day earlier than you expected and you jumped up and down and said, “Daddy’s home!” So shall the coming of the Son of Man be, I preached. But when I look at this passage closely I hear Jesus warning of devastating floods, and sudden disappearances, and thieves breaking down our doors. It’s not very comforting. It could make you anxious. It could make you fearful. It could make you turn to the Old Testament lesson for this Sunday, from Isaiah chapter 2, which looks forward not with anxiety, but with expectation.
This is “the word that Isaiah saw,” a vision of the future that could make your heart beat faster with hope. Listen: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
This passage comes from the Eighth Century, BC, a time when the nation of Israel was surrounded by enemies, when the threat of war was an ever-present prospect that must have made everybody anxious. Into that grim reality Isaiah speaks this word of hope, a vision of a future in which everyone will want to know the Lord, that he may teach them his ways, that they may walk in his paths. When that happens then “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Can you imagine? Can you envision the people of our time, the people of this world, hungering and thirsting for the word of the Lord, hearing it and obeying it until they saw the foolishness of their ways and gave up their lust for power, until Russia, for example, turned its tanks into tractors and its helicopters into hay balers? If you could hold onto that kind of vision you might be able to look toward the future with hope. You might even begin to feel a sense of expectation, wondering,
“Could it come today?”
Which is what I think Jesus wants us to feel when we consider the coming of the Son of Man. I don’t think he wants us to feel anxious; I think he wants us to feel expectant. If I were advising him I might say, “Jesus, do you think you could cut out some of this language about floods and sudden disappearances and thieves? That kind of talk just scares people.” And he would say, “I didn’t mean to scare anyone. What I meant is that you can’t predict these things. You can’t wait until you know they’re coming and then get ready for them. You have to be ready for these kinds of things at all times. So it is with the coming of the Son of Man.” And if you read all of Matthew 24 and not just today’s passage, you will find that Jesus is talking about something really hopeful. “When the world around you is falling apart,” he says; “when you think things couldn’t get any worse; that’s when you need to lift up your heads, because that’s when the Son of Man will appear, and that’s when he will send out his angels and gather his beloved from every corner of the earth.”[v] Whatever else that might mean, I think it means that if you belong to Jesus, you have nothing to fear. And that’s good, because looking toward the future with fear leads to anxiety in the present, while looking toward the future with hope leads to expectancy.
And that’s what we love about Christmas, isn’t it? We expect something wonderful. We don’t know what it will be, exactly, but we believe it will be good. If it wasn’t they wouldn’t call it Christmas.
I think about my own Christmases as a boy. I’ve told you about them before. We were poor. I couldn’t have looked forward to them because I was going to get so many presents or so many sweets. And yet I looked forward to Christmas with an excitement I have rarely felt about anything since. On the night before I couldn’t sleep. I would lie awake in my little twin bed waiting until six o’clock, because my parents had told me I couldn’t wake them up before then. And finally, when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I would pull my mattress off the bed and drag it down the hall to the top of the stairs, where I could lie on my stomach and see the clock on the wall and hear it tick-tick-tick ever so slowly toward the appointed hour.
I was well past that age when I was living in the moment. I was living with the memory of Christmas past and the hope of Christmas future. I was quivering with expectation, just waiting for that minute hand to reach the top of the dial so I could leap out of bed, run down the stairs, throw open my parents’ bedroom door, and shout “Merry Christmas!”
The coming of Christ is going to be kind of like that, Jesus says, and if you’re not ready it could scare the (what’s the word?) bejeebers out of you.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] Debie Thomas, “Like a Thief,” in the Journey with Jesus webzine (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2466-like-a-thief).
[ii] Andrew D. Lester, Coping with Your Anger: a Christian Guide (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983)
[iii] Amy Frykholm, “Our Hidden Future,” in the Journey with Jesus webzine (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/).
[v] Matthew 24:30-31.