Minister: Rev. Lee Spice
Theme: Advent 1 – Pondering The Unknown
Anthem: Our Hope is in Emmanuel – Johnson
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Advent I: Pondering the Unknown
Isaiah 2: 1 – 5 and Matthew 24: 36 – 44
Today we begin the Season of Advent, a word that means “coming.” In this time of reflection, we await the coming of Jesus into the world. There’s kind of an overlap in our church year, where we are both celebrating the birth of Jesus into the world…and so we anticipate Christmas, but into our rush towards the holy birth all of these stories about the second coming of Christ show up.
The word for this kind of writing is called “apocalypse.” Usually, when we hear the word “apocalypse” it is used to describe some kind of end-of-the-world prophecy.
But that’s not what apocalypse means. And apocalyptic writings are not necessarily about the end of the world. The word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek word that means “revelation.” In other words, in these writings, something is being revealed.
The Bible is full of these kinds of revelations. Most famous is the book of, well, Revelation, in which a lot of bizarre imagery shows up – fantastic beasts with multiple heads and various scary angels, the horsemen, the scroll and the lamb and the Seven Seals.
In some Christian faith traditions, passages such as today’s – about the Thief in the Night and about people being left behind – are used to scare people into following Jesus. This passage is one of the ones that fed the whole “left behind” movement, which seems to have started with a tacky 1970’s movie and moved on to a multi-million dollar book and movie series. It feeds the fear-based theology that Jesus will come back and lift all of the good Christians to heaven and leave a lot of us behind. That event is called the Rapture – which, I suppose, if you’re the one lifted to heaven is an adequate description. It certainly wouldn’t be the experience of those left behind. As one author (Nadia Bolz Weber) says, “to believe in the rapture feels to me like it’s the same as believing that when Jesus comes back, he will do so as a judgmental, angry SOB who apparently underwent a total personality transplant since his resurrection.”
But here’s the thing – these things are not about predicting the future. They are about looking around at the situation in which we find ourselves NOW.
It’s kind of like this: anyone remember the old, classic Star Trek series? As a young girl, I remember watching an episode about a planet that was engaged in civil war. The people were black on one side and white on the other – you could hardly tell that it was face paint at all! (not) – and in the end, you realized that they were at war because some were white on the left and black on the right, and others were black on the left and white on the right. Right.
So imagine that 2000 years have gone by, and someone figures out how to play the old DVDs, and there’s that episode. Are we going to take from the story that the left- whites or the right-whites really had a battle? Are our eyes going to scan the horizon for the Starship Enterprise or a maybe a vessel full of Romulans? No – hopefully, we will take that story as a commentary about race relations and about recognizing the humanity in each other, even if people look slightly different.
Apocalyptic writing is a kind of a code – usually written in dangerous times – and so they are able to say things in weird images that you wouldn’t be able to say out loud. Star Trek aired from 1967 to 1969. Any dangerous racial politics happening at that time? How about now? That story speaks to us in the now, although it pretends to be about the future. That is what apocalyptic writings are about.
So when the apocalyptic reading – the revelation – of today speaks about the thief in the night, and people left behind, it is not predicting a future.
Most simply, it’s about being ready to greet Christ, because he will show up unexpectedly.
The text implores us to stay awake. It says that, if the owner of a house had known what time the thief was coming, that owner would have stayed awake, and not let the house be broken into.
That makes it sound like Jesus’ coming is a bad thing.
But I wonder.
I wonder if this is another one of those Upside Down Kingdom times, when something that is bad turns out to be something good. You know, like you’re going along in your perfectly organized, perfectly controlled life, and, BAM, Jesus breaks in and messes everything up.
Okay, THAT sounds like Jesus.
What if this story is inviting us to watch for Jesus – not as a righteous and ticked off power figure coming on a cloud, but as a sneaky trickster, messing up our carefully-ordered state of self-delusion.
You know you’ve seen this. Into your predictable life comes a call to ministry; or a call to love your neighbour, even if it drives you crazy; or a realization that you are not alone in your struggles; or a new insight into the problems of the world, and you know YOU have to do something; or the knowledge that those predictable and dependable webs of addiction have to be broken.
Jesus breaks in – suddenly the way you have set up your whole life comes under question. Jesus breaks in – and maybe the stuff he wants to cart away are the things that are keeping you from really following the path of Jesus.
The thief breaks into your life, and opens you up to the vulnerability of being totally open to the love of God. From the most unexpected places.
Oh, there are so many stories in our lives of times when God broke through and surprised us. Probably some of you are sitting here, wondering how you even got here, because somehow, God showed up and shook up your life. On the internet this week, I saw a story about a policeman named Andrew Collins who wrongfully accused a man named Jameel of a drug offense, and that man was sentenced to 10 years in jail. Then the policeman got busted, and lost his job, and ended up in the same Jobs for Life program as the guy whom he’d put in jail. To his surprise, Jameel forgave Andrew, and he means it. It changed Andrew’s life – he is now a pastor, and preaches about forgiveness, because he knows what it’s like.
There’s the good thing you thought was a bad thing. There’s the Upside-Down Kin-dom that Jesus talked about where the last are first, and the first, last. You just never know where Jesus is going to break into your life.
So maybe we are meant to be in a state of perpetual un-knowing when that will happen. Maybe not knowing with predictability where God will show up actually keeps us on our toes…watching and waiting in expectation. Because you just never know.
So, be awake, and watch, and listen – this God who has promised to be with us can show up when we least expect it: In the need of a neighbour, in the brokenness of our lives, in the smile of a friend, in the mess of addiction, in the call to service, and maybe even in the sweat and blood of childbirth, and in the birth-cries of a baby boy, born in dangerous times in a small Palestinian town.