First Sunday of Advent
TEXTS: Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24: 36-44
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 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, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 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.” (Matthew 24:36-44)
The “Second Coming”: no subject has caused wilder speculation and controversy. Nothing else has inspired more lunatic behaviour. No other topic has given birth to such bizarre preaching and writing.
And that’s interesting. Because, you know, the Bible never uses the phrase “the second coming.” The Bible does speak of the Christ who comes or who is coming, but it does not speak of different comings. Nevertheless, every one of us has heard some of the dire predictions about what it is all going to mean: the “great tribulation”; the “rapture”; “the lake of fire,” and all that stuff.
It’s been going on for a long time. The earliest Christians expected Jesus to return within a generation of his death. The Watchtower Society set 1874 as the date … and then, 1914. Perhaps most famously, followers of William Miller set the date for October 22, 1844—a missed deadline which led to what’s been called “The Great Disappointment.” Even today, you often see specific dates for Christ’s return as banner headlines in supermarket tabloids.
Now, it would be very easy for me to stand here and ridicule such ideas. But the fact is that the Bible does allude to the approaching return of Christ. I can scoff at other people’s predictions of what it all means, but—if I’m honest about it—my laughter at people’s predictions of a particular date for the end of the world is always muted by a little bit of nervousness. What if they’re right? What if the world does end next Thursday? What if it ended last month and none of us noticed?
Seriously, though, the question is important. Our gospel reading said that the coming of Christ will catch us off guard, coming when we don’t expect it. So it’s a fair bet that it won’t happen on the day that the story in the newspaper says. But what is going to happen? And when? And how?
I don’t pretend to know the answers to those questions—and I really doubt that anyone else knows the answers, either. But I do think there are questions worth asking.
The first question we need to be asking is, I think: just who is the Christ who is coming? That might seem like a strange question—but think about it for a moment. There are, after all, two rather different images of Christ.
On the one hand, there is the Christ of mercy—Christ the humble servant, who is not willing that any should perish, who accepts sinners and brings healing and forgiveness.
But, on the other hand, there is the image of Christ as the righteous judge, who weighs up your deeds—who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. This is the Christ who crushes the oppressors and casts the unjust into eternal damnation. This is the Christ who—as in “the days of Noah”—unleashes the wrath of God to sweep away an unrighteous generation.
To some extent, both of these are Biblical images. But I have to say that—if you did a tally of the Scriptural texts—the image of the merciful Christ would come out the winner. The image of the wrathful Christ, however, makes better movies and newspaper stories—and so it usually gets more publicity.
But look: the Christ who is coming is the same person who was revealed to the world as Jesus of Nazareth. His personality—his welcoming, accepting tenderness—remains unchanged. The coming Christ is the risen Christ—the one who accepts the doubts of Thomas and wins him over with humour and with love. He is the same one who met the heartbroken Mary Magdalene in the garden, and—with a single word—filled her with new hope and happy bewilderment. He is the same one who sought out the deeply ashamed Simon Peter, who had denied him and deserted him. Jesus not only forgave Peter, but also accepted him as a brother and entrusted him with the care of his flock.
This is the same Christ who met with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. You remember the story. They had given up. They were broken-heartedly traipsing home after witnessing the crucifixion. Then Jesus joined them on that road. And what did he do? Far from berating them for their lack of faith, he befriended them and inspired them to such a renewed hope that they described their hearts as “burning” within them.
The Coming Christ is not seeking vengeance for each prayer time you missed. He’s not coming to punish you for the times you messed up. No. This is the Christ who comes to establish peace, to bring healing, to restore justice and freedom. Most of the Biblical discussion about Judgment Day has very little to do with rewards and punishments. It has to do with the establishment of righteousness—a righteousness that creates justice and puts people right. It is about redemption and reconciliation.
The Christ who teaches us to love our enemies is obviously not a Christ of retaliation, but rather a Christ who—through suffering love—breaks down hatred and enmity. In mercy, he restores both the just and the unjust. It is this coming Christ who establishes the vision Isaiah gives us of all the nations streaming to the house of the Lord and learning his ways. They beat their missiles into water pumps and their battleships into fishing boats, and they study war no longer.
The Bible does tell us that the coming of Christ will catch some people unprepared. Matthew’s Gospel is full of parables about those who are ready and those who are not. Two of them are in the passage from chapter 24 which forms the Revised Common Lectionary gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Advent. One of them says that it will be like the days of Noah when the flood caught people unprepared. Notice that it doesn’t say it caught out the desperately wicked. It says it caught out those who were eating and drinking and marrying and generally going about their inoffensive business—just common garden-variety folks like you and me. They were caught out only because they lived without any awareness of what God was doing. So it will be at the coming of the Son of Man, says Jesus. Those who are not living their lives in preparation to receive Christ at any moment … Well, they will be caught out like the owner of a house that is broken into and robbed while he is sleeping.
Christ is coming. Not only is Christ coming, but Christ is arriving. The old is passing away and the new creation is at hand. As the great prophet Bob said, “The times they are a-changin’.”
Through the Spirit of God, the risen Christ is transforming the world and all that is in it. Some will be taken with it, some will be left behind. Jesus says that two apparently similar men will be doing the same work in the same field. One will be caught up in the new creation and one will be left behind—desperately clinging to the old ways and the old order of things. Two women will grinding meal together, and—even though no one could tell the difference between them by looking at them—one will be taken and one will be left. One will be caught up by the breath of God, and be transformed into the likeness of the risen Christ. The other one will be left breathing the stale, polluted air of the dying world—unwilling to be moved, unprepared for change.
How, then, shall we live? Christians have often seen their lives as shaped by memories—memories of the events of Jesus’ life. But I don’t think that the Bible allows us to see our lives as shaped only by memories of past events. No. Our lives are overshadowed by a coming event—by an event that even now is breaking into the world that we know. Our lives are shaped by the living God, by the coming Christ. We live in expectation of Christ returning—breaking into time, and establishing justice and peace and freedom.
To be sure, there is a continuity between the past life of Jesus and the life of the coming Christ. But Christ’s work was not finished when Jesus died. Neither was it completed when he rose from the grave, or ascended into heaven. No, my friends. Christ is living and acting, even now! Christ is coming to renew a poisoned creation. Christ is coming to heal the broken and battered victims of our society. Christ is coming to fill the starving stomachs with good food, to beat swords into plowshares, and to shine his light into the darkness of despair.
It is in that light that we are called to live. Any of you who are parents will understand this. You understand how profoundly your life can be transformed by anticipation. When you’re expecting your first child, you live differently than you have before. You see things in a new light. You get things ready so that you won’t be caught unprepared when the time comes. You begin to re-examine your style of life. You feel a shift in the balance of your responsibilities. A coming event—something not yet quite here, but well on its way—begins to dominate everything in your life. In light of this coming event, nothing can ever be the same again.
As Christmas approaches, that coming event, too, changes many things. Our lives begin to revolve around parties and celebrations and preparations. At Christmas, we will remember the birth of the one for whom we are now waiting. Christ is coming, and our lives should revolve around that fact. Our lives are supposed to reflect the hope that we have—the expectation of something new.
In whatever time is left, let’s respond to the call of the Spirit, who urges us to break free from the old world, and to live lives that demonstrate the love and the peace and the justice of the new world.
When Christ comes again, will he find faith upon the earth? We know he wants to. He wants to find his people—you and me—living an expectant faith that shows itself in action:
- faith that confronts hatred and wears it down with love;
- faith that confronts greed and overpowers it with simplicity;
- faith that confronts despair and breaks through it with hope;
- faith that lives as though Christ has already come.
He wants to find us living lives full of love, joy, peace, and hope … because he is coming!
This is what it means to live out the Gospel we preach. And we can do it. Yes we can! We can do it in Jesus’ name. We can do it through the power of Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.