Advent 1 2019
Rev. Doug Floyd
Isaiah 2:1–5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 24:29-44
Stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
As we begin the season of Advent, we are looking for the coming of the Lord. Our readings today are pointing us toward its pretty dramatic coming, particularly the gospel reading. But how are we to understand this coming? The challenge, at least for us in this age is one either to turn the readings into some tool to predict current events or sadly to go just the opposite and turn them into some kind of just spiritual truth that is not connected to space and time as we know it.
In today’s bulletin, I’ve included a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that I’ll read to us to help us think about the gospel being grounded in this world.
Whoever evades the Earth finds not God but only another world, his own better, lovelier, more peaceful world. He finds a world beyond, to be sure, but never God’s world, which is dawning in this world. Whoever evades Earth in order to find God finds only himself. Whoever evades God in order to find the Earth does not find the Earth as God’s Earth; he finds the jolly scene of a war between good and evil, pious and impious, which he kindles himself—in short, he finds himself. He who loves God, loves God as the Lord of the Earth as it is; he who loves the Earth, loves it as God’s Earth. He who loves God’s kingdom loves it entirely as God’s kingdom, and he loves it wholly as God’s kingdom on Earth. And this because the king of the kingdom is the creator and preserver of the Earth, who has blessed the Earth and taken us from earth.
With that in mind, if we read our Old Testament readings, Israel is looking for the coming of this victorious king, the Messiah in Zion. They’re looking for the king who will rule out of Jerusalem. Of course, that’s on Mount Zion is in the center of Jerusalem. So they’re looking for a physical king. In fact, the whole book of Isaiah is a book of the King. The first part of the book is about the King coming and bringing judgment.
The second part of the book is a story of the suffering servant. And then the third part of the book is the conquering king or the conquering hero who defeats all the enemies of Israel. When they heard those prophecies or those songs they might not have actually connected those three characters as the same person. But the gospel writers said “All of these are bearing witness to Jesus Christ, the Messiah.” Then Psalm 122 is an expression of delight at the coming of the Lord, coming to Zion. It’s focused upon going up to Zion. It’s a Psalm they would sing as they traveled to Zion for their festivals. The Old Testament reading speaks of the earthly faith of the Jewish people.
When we get to the New Testament in our Gospel reading or even all our Gospels, we see this king that has been long-awaited arrives and Israel fails to recognize him as the king. They don’t see him for who he is. In fact, in Jerusalem, in Zion, in the very heart of where he should be welcomed and he should rule and he will teach the nations, this is the very center of opposition. The leaders turn against him. The leaders are threatened by him. The Romans are afraid of him. Some of the people follow him and of course, we know the gospel story that eventually they will have him crucified, killed.
That gets us to a Matthew 24 and 25, which happened right before the betrayal and the crucifixion. Jesus is offering a series of dire warnings. We heard some of the dire warnings from Matthew 24 but it continues on into Matthew 25, and he offers all sorts of images. Some people are being taken away; some people are being left, which it’s been interpreted in multiple ways. Some people are ready for this appearing; some are not ready. It’s a sudden appearing. It seems to set off a cataclysm. The world seems to be collapsing. There is a judgment. By the time we get to the end of 25, a judgment seat. A sorting out, a separating. So we have this like the parables of the sheep and the rams being separated. There’s a separating. Then there’s a passing sentence by the king.
The passages from Matthew 24 and 25 have been read in many different ways. Typically, in Advent, we’re reading them, looking toward the final consummation of everything in Christ. That’s why I included this image by who Gustave Dore on the bulletin. It is an image of Christ coming in the clouds. We see this kind of image in the Old Testament such as the Psalms. It’s the Lord of hosts. He’s coming ready for war. Whenever the Scripture uses the language of Lord of hosts or talks about him in association with clouds, it’s almost always warrior language. He’s coming for a battle. He’s coming for a fight. In the bottom half of Dore’s image, there are the pagan gods and they are being cast down. What he has captured actually in this image, is one of the big stories of Scripture. It’s the battle between God and idolatry. God is overthrowing the idols of this world.
As I’ve said before, and I actually don’t claim originality to this, I think N.T. Wright says it better than I, but he says, “The Bible is about a battle between paganism and the true God of the universe.” It’s never about atheism. Atheism is just another form of paganism. It’s just one more paganism. There are all sorts of false gods and idols across the ages. The Bible explains these false gods that enslave people and God is overthrowing these false gods. This is the image of Jesus coming to overthrow these powers, these enslavers. This is the ultimate consummation.
This is what we are looking forward to at the beginning of Advent. The coming of the Lord of Hosts. This is kind of odd because shortly we’re going to shift gears and focus on him coming to earth as a baby. Now at the beginning of Advent, we are tag-teaming with Christ the King Sunday. We are looking for him coming as the victorious one. The glorious one.
With this in mind, we hold that this is a physical story. It’s not just the spiritual reality. It is setting the world to rights, bringing justice, the long-awaited for justice. But now these same passages can easily be applied to the fall of Jerusalem, which happened shortly after Jesus’ sermon. It happens in 70 AD and much of what he described actually happens. The city is destroyed; people are fleeing to the mountains. Some are taken; others are safe. Okay?
If we think about Matthew 24 and 25 in relation to the fall of Jerusalem, then we could begin to look at these texts as a series of cataclysms across history. When empires have fallen, or power systems have fallen, the Roman empire collapses it’s very a similar image to the fall of Jerusalem actually. When the vandals invade Rome, burn the city, which is actually, it’s not the most significant battle, but it is a series of battles that show Rome losing its power and the empire has come to an end. And actually, that kind of story gets told and retold at different points in history. And even now we see powers being overthrown. We see even in the last few months, the ruler of Bolivia stepping down. It’s happened multiple times in our lifetime. Some of the great dangerous dictators running for their life, ending up sometimes destroyed in most humiliating circumstances.
Matthew 24 and 25 could be seen as the end of an empire, the end of the power system. This often seems to happen suddenly. Suddenly this comes upon. I mean the revolt in Chile is sudden. They weren’t expecting it and suddenly the whole country is still erupting in revolt. And so one way I could read Jesus’s tale is the idea that all the kingdoms of this world constantly collapse. That there comes a point when they’re judged and they collapse and it is the ruler of the world. That’s how some people would read Isaiah and Jeremiah. They’re always telling us that God is the true sovereign of the world and he gives empires a period. He gives countries a period and then judgment comes.
I can also see how Matthew 24 and 24 speak to my own life. We also have a period of existence and then judgment comes. It can seem like life will go on and on but then suddenly it’s gone. When Paul uses blink of an eye language, the idea that it feels sudden, that most people when they come to the point of death, even if they’ve lived a long full life, still feels sudden. It still feels life has been short because in fact it really is short.
In Advent, we’re holding all these kinds of ideas in tension, particularly the idea of God coming. Ultimately, we’re looking for him to set the world to rights. He comes in judgment and mercy at the same time. The cross is the story of judgment and mercy bound together. They always come together.
In these last few minutes, I want to focus on His middle coming. It is not the second coming. It’s the middle coming. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux writes that in between His first coming and His second coming, Christ comes in the midst of our lives. He doesn’t simply come at the end of our life. He comes in the midst of our life and he literally comes into our world. He transforms us. So what does that actually mean and what exactly am I looking for in Advent? Am I looking for a collapsing empire? Am I looking for some kind of supreme evil ruler like the antichrist? Am I looking for the heavens to light up, Jesus to descend in a cloud? What am I looking for in this world? That’s why I started with the Bonhoeffer quote, because if I abstract it out, I’m just looking for some unnamed thing that God will set the world to rights.
But I don’t actually have any idea what I’m actually watching and waiting for. So what am I watching and waiting for? If I say the coming of the Lord, what am I meaning? Well in one sense I am looking for this day of judgment in my own life and the life of the world. But, I am also looking for him to enter into my own time and space.
We’re all born into time and space. In fact, we are time and space in a sense. This is actually from Maximus the Confessor. I have come into being, I’ve come out from and so at that point, I am time and space, I have particularity as a person. I have my own space, my own body, and even though I can’t define all of what that means, I have my own collection of what it means to be a person. And it’s dangerous when I say I’m not a body, I’m just a soul or something because I am a body actually, and the Bible suggests that when I die I will be in a body again. God’s created me to occupy a body. So I live within a body, but there is the soul. To speak of the soul is to say there’s something more than just the sum total of all the parts of what I am. I’m bigger than all of it. We may not exactly understand, but I think we will be quite surprised when we do understand how glorious it is.
I live within a beginning and an ending. So there is my time: past, present, future. I have my own timeline. In that sense, each of us lives in time and space but we also have a particular time and space. We can think more about our own particularities. This is what I just wanted to briefly think about is so these little particularities and I’m going to draw them like little almost like boxes, or maybe just lines since I can’t do the dimensions. But imagine this is a box, so in one sense I’m born in a specific place, at a specific time. Okay. I’m located in the great history of the world. I come into being in a specific place, a specific city. Now I don’t know if everybody in here was born in America, but let’s just say we were. So I might first off have this box of sort of having some kind of identity is a national identity, but then I am born within a city or live within a specific region and that may change multiple times and each of those are actually will be part of who I am. These places will help shape who I am.
In fact, some people may occupy several of these places simultaneously. The body doesn’t live in those simultaneously, but we may move between them. And you could keep thinking of your own distinctives as a person. Your particularity. I can keep listing it out. I keep thinking of how time and space is so particular to me, my language, the family, my DNA.
As you think about your own specific ways you live in time and space, you might also think of you job, clubs or ministries; schools you’ve attended or your children attend, relationships with other people. All these characteristics are part of your own personal participation in time and space but they are also limitations. So we are not simply limited to bodies, we are limited by our birthplace, our home, our relations, our social connection. They are like little boxes that surround different aspects of our lives.
Within every boundary or box, I’ve mentioned there are rituals of participation such as being present, doing some specific activities, maybe exchanging talents or thoughts or service. Rituals of participations can be both life-giving and some are life-stealing. A family can be a place of great affirmation and encouragement, but it can also be a place of humiliation and shame. Some rituals are imposed upon us and some we choose. For instance, alcohol or drugs can become ways of numbing pain while also become a life-stealing pattern of behavior.
Some people chose to have affairs because they feel isolated or unloved, but they damage their own souls even as they seek out life through life-stealing patterns of behavior.
This brings us to other boxes or boundaries that stretch back to childhood. Memories and learned behaviors from childhood can bind us in healthy and unhealthy ways. Some people may struggle with anger, fear, pain, or shame that stretches back to childhood.
Consider Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home. She tells a story of three people living together. Two children have returned to home, and they’re living with their aging father. They’re all living with their own memories of childhood in that home. So in one sense the house is haunted. It’s haunted by their own memories. And each of them are isolated in different ways, because what’s actually happened is these distinctives have become boundaries. They have become obstacles to love. And so you have one son who’s never felt part of the family. He’s always felt isolated from a child. And there’s no explanation why. He just felt isolated. He could not find himself as a part of this community. We have a daughter who was a pious child and has lived in her mind a failed life, failed relationship, returned home.
So now all three are negotiating their existence together. And what Marilyn Robinson has done is described every home life. Every home is filled with memories old and new. There’s a lot of other things that are being exchanged than just what we can see and hear. So we have boundaries of memories that we may not even be able to identify. As John Calvin says (and I paraphrase), “I come before God and confess my sins, but I can’t even confess them because I can’t even see them. I’m so blind to my own sinfulness. I can’t even see it.” “So I have to read the Psalms because the Psalmist is at least honest about who he is.” We can’t even see these broken places.
In fact, James Houston says that, “These broken places often become the very bounds, the very place of strength.” These strengths compensate for places of brokenness that often become hidden under layers of memory and activity. Sometimes the most successful people in town are the most broken, but they have become so successful at negotiating that brokenness that they’ve mastered something else, whether it’s in ministry, in law, politics. Actually, we see it every day on the news. So that shouldn’t be surprising. Every time you see a politician go down for some secret thing they’ve been doing, it speaks to these things that have been shaping their behaviors that sometimes feel like they have no control over them.
I mean this should be obvious. Anybody you talk to, or if you talk to many people, so many people, so many homes are broken up part by wounded people wounding others. People often have such deep wounds that we can’t see. Some families are just completely normal and then others in our community, in our own communities, so many ministers, broken family, so many families.
Now this has been a quick overview, but I am trying to help us think about how each of us dwell in a shared time and space, but we also dwell in very particular sets of memories and patterns of behavior. As we think about our own lives, we might be aware of personal struggles, areas of loss, places of great disappointment. We may dislike aspects of our bodies, our appearance, our health problems. Then again, we may be unaware of how we have hurt or continue to hurt others in our actions.
The condition of sin has separated humans from God and one another. All the particular aspect of who we can become obstacles to love God and one another fully. Just as the Apostles Paul was persecuting Christians in his zeal for the Lord, we might fail to love God and one another due to our own blindness.
During Advent, we are watching and waiting for the coming of the Lord within our own boundaries of existence. In our relationships, in our failures, in our joys, in habits both good and bad. I would suggest that just as many in Israel were unable to recognize Jesus because of their expectations, we also might be blind to the coming of the Lord in the midst of our own lives. We might be distracted by pain or desire or even boredom.
During Advent, we are watching and waiting and trusting that Lord has come, will come and is coming in our lives. He can penetrate the boundaries and obstacles that may hinder knowing and giving love. He can open every boundary or limitation to His love. According to Romans 8:38-39, Paul reminds us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. His love cannot be stopped in any area of our life from the most non-religious areas to the most broken areas to the most devote areas.
In our second lesson today, Paul tells us “owe no one anything, except to love each other” (Romans 13:8). I would suggest that our places of frailty and weakness where we are most tempted to be isolated from God and others can actually become the places of deepest intimacy and love.
During Advent, it might be worth taking some personal time to reflect upon the places in our lives where God seems absent. In these places, let us ask Him to open our eyes to behold Him and our hearts to receive Him.
awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. Be ready, for the
Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Berlin: 1932–1933, ed. Carsten Nicolaisen, Ernst-Albert Scharffenorth, and Larry L. Rasmussen, trans. Isabel Best, David Higgins, and Douglas W. Stott, vol. 12, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 288.