— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
First Sunday of Advent; December 1st, 2019
“But the exact day and hour? No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father knows.
“The Arrival of the Son of Man will take place in times like Noah’s. Before the great flood everyone was carrying on as usual, having a good time right up to the day Noah boarded the ark. They knew nothing – until the flood hit and swept everything away.
“The Son of Man’s Arrival will be like that: Two men will be working in the field – one will be taken, one left behind; two women will be grinding at the mill – one will be taken, one left behind. So stay awake, alert. You have no idea what day your Master will show up. But you do know this: You know that if the homeowner had known what time of night the burglar would arrive, he would have been there with his dogs to prevent the break-in. Be vigilant just like that. You have no idea when the Son of Man is going to show up” (translation from The Message by Eugene Peterson).
I don’t think I have ever preached a decent sermon on this passage of Scripture…. ha! ha! I know, I know … why should this passage be any different than all the others… ha! ha! Here’s why I think I’ve struggled more than is usual with this one; I simply do not like the images Jesus called forth in this collection of verses. I just do not like the pictures Jesus painted to make his point about the fullness of time when the Son of Man will come again.
Here’s what I don’t like. Jesus pointed to the flood washing away most of humanity. Everyone, except Noah and his family, was blissfully unaware of the death waters that would overtake them. According to the Scripture, God sent the violent waters, it was God who sent them, to deal with God’s wayward children. This image can lead, I think, to a dangerous and unhelpful image of God as Destroyer instead of God as Love embodied in Jesus, the incarnation of divine grace. The image Jesus used does not match the God to whom Jesus pointed, the God who Jesus embodied, the God who led Jesus to live his life loving enemies and never raising a hand to defend himself even as he was being led to the cross.
Jesus, in this passage, also pointed to a burglar coming unexpectedly to steal from a home not equipped with enough dogs for self-protection. The image here is of God as Invader ready to break into the home of an unsuspecting, unprotected, sleeping family to take away precious possessions. God is imagined here as a criminal who is indifferent to the terror visited upon a family violated by criminal invasion. Once again, the image does not match the truth of the God Jesus came to embody.
Now the real issue here, as far as I am concerned, is that religion and our concepts of God can be weapon-ized. Human beings can twist such images – Destroyer or Invader – to make ourselves agents of a violent and invasive God. If God can kill enemies, then so can I. If God can use violence against those who do not embody God’s righteousness, then so can I. If I have a clear sense of what God’s righteousness is … and for far too many people there is an unholy confidence in our abilities to know what God demands …. then God may have chosen me to be an instrument of God’s wrath and punishment. I can convince myself that I am chosen of God to carry out God’s anger in whatever way, immoral or not, is most effective because I am the chosen one.
It is unhealthy for us as human beings and as societies to think that anyone has the stamp of being God’s chosen one such that morality, truth, peacefulness, justice are suspended and that person or those people can do whatever they think is right. Here’s an operating principle for determining the true righteousness of behavior in others and ourselves: No one using violence or lies or scare tactics should be considered a man or woman God has chosen to carry out God’s edicts on earth. God, if the totality of the witness of Jesus is to be believed, does not work God’s purposes out with violence.
Sometimes, we must admit, the reality of living in a fallen world forces us as individuals and as a society to make hard choices between bad options that might include violence, but when those times arise the actions should be understood as painful accommodations to a world broken and sinful, and not taken as an embodiment of God’s righteousness. No one is chosen by God to do anything beyond what love for all God’s children would lead any one of us to do.
So… I have had a hard time preaching using the images of flood waters and burglars as signs of God’s in-breaking reign of love. There you have it. I suspect Jesus can handle my implied criticisms of his choice of images! Now that I have that out of my system, let’s see if it’s not too late to find some wisdom for our lives today in this passage about the end of time.
I have decided that the heart of what Jesus seemed to want to convey to his followers was this – the world can change in an ordinary instant so live with eyes open to the essentials of life – love of God, loving kindness to neighbor, self. We can get distracted from these essentials by all manner of things and fail to see what makes for fullness of life. Jesus was teaching his followers and is teaching us to be alert to what really matters. What really matters is to love and be loved and to help heal the world such that more and more people can know loving kindness. We only have this one life on earth to live into the glorious truth of love binding all things together in perfect harmony. We have a limited amount of time and we should be awake and alert to that which is essential: love of God, loving kindness to neighbor and self.
For many or most or all of us, we do not live our lives with much fear and trembling about the second coming of Jesus. We do not have the same mind-set of the earliest church over two thousands years ago that thought the end of time was soon to follow the death and resurrection of Jesus. For the early church there was for the generation or two after Jesus a powerful and life altering working assumption that soon and very soon all would be gathered up and the world would be destroyed and made new with the final judgment carried out by the return of the Son of Man, Jesus.
Since we do not live with the same working assumption about the end of time and the second coming of Jesus being just on the horizon, I’d like to suggest that for us we can think of our own deaths as the second coming of Jesus. We are being called to be alert to what really matters because we will die one day. Our deaths may come suddenly by natural disaster, crime, or failure of health, but our deaths will come. Our deaths may come slowly with plenty of time to prepare, but our deaths will surely come. Maybe Jesus’ words about being alert can apply for us as we recognize that our lives will end. We do not have forever on this earth. We have but one life to give for love of God, loving kindness to neighbor and self. This kind of love is what makes for abundance for the short span of life that is ours.
I want to illustrate this point Jesus was making by quoting a Jewish man who quotes a Buddhist philosophy. This, admittedly, is a dated quotation. I found it in one of my many bad sermons on this passage. This part I like. I used it in a sermon on this passage from 2010. It comes from Morrie of the book Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. Mitch, a sportswriter, was a student of Dr. Morrie Schwartz at Brandeis University decades earlier and then he saw his old, beloved professor being interviewed by Ted Koppel about his impending death. Mitch decided to set up interviews (they happened on Tuesdays) with Morrie to discuss life and death. In one of those interviews, the following interchange took place.
Morrie said: Everyone knows they’re going to die, but nobody believes it. If we did, we would do things differently.
Mitch responds: So we kid ourselves about death.
Morrie: Yes. But there’s a better approach. To know you’re going to die, and to be “prepared” for it at any time. That’s better. That way you can actually be “more” involved in your life while you’re living.”
Mitch: How can you be more prepared to die?
Morrie: Do what the Buddhists do. Every day, have a little bird on your shoulder that asks, ‘Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?’ …the truth is, Mitch, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live…most of us walk around as if we’re sleepwalking. We really don’t experience the world fully, because we’re half-asleep, doing things we automatically thing we have to do.
Mitch: And facing death changes all that?
Morrie: Oh, yes. You strip away all that stuff and you focus on the essentials. When you realize you are going to die, you see everything much differently...
Morrie took the conversation to Mitch’s life and he said:
if you really listen to that bird on your shoulder,… then you might not be as ambitious as you are… the things you spend so much time on – all this work you do – might not seem as important. You might have to make room for some more spiritual things (Tuesdays with Morrie, pages 83-84).
Jesus said: So stay awake, alert.
You have no idea what day your Master will show up.
Whether its our deaths or the end of time,
Jesus is the Buddhist bird on the shoulder.
Jesus reminds us that our deaths,
our ultimate meeting up beyond the veil with God,
will one day come for all of us.
Our deaths may come like a thief in the night
or like rushing flood waters;
so, let us learn how to live beyond the grip of the tomb.
Learn how to love so that when death comes
we will have lived out our days without regret
and we will face death without the darkest dread
of coming to the end of a squandered life.
Time is a gift. God is nigh.
Let us fully live by being alert
to ways to love to the fullest.
May it be so. Amen.