“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
Every Advent season, the Lectionary readings begin with some dramatic passage relating to Jesus’ second coming. This particular passage, from Matthew’s gospel, is part of a longer story, where Jesus’ disciples have asked him for some kind of sign so that they’ll know when he was about to return and bring in the new age. This kind of speech and writing about the end times is what we call “apocalyptic” writing. The term comes from the Greek word for revealing, unveiling, uncovering, and this style shows up a number of places in the New Testament. The purpose of these passages, whether it’s Jesus or someone else making them, is not to literally scare the hell out of people, contrary to the way they’ve often been used in the history of the church. Actually, it was just the opposite. The New Testament scriptures were written during the first and second generations after Jesus’ ascension and his promise to return. And after a short period of the believers thinking that Jesus was going to return quickly, his followers had to begin to come to terms with the reality that his return was apparently going to take longer than they’d thought, and that, in fact, things weren’t always going to be easy for them while they waited. All of these apocalyptic passages were meant to remind the believers of two things.
First, whenever Jesus returned, it was going to be at a time, and in a way, that no one will know or expect – not the angels, not even Jesus himself, and certainly, not Jesus’ followers. So forget about trying to calculate when Jesus is going to return; quit trying to shoehorn every current event into some supposed biblical prophesy road map that will give us the date and time that Jesus is coming back. That’s all a silly waste of time, Jesus is saying to the disciples. Instead of getting worked up over an unanswerable and unimportant question, Jesus tells them that they’re supposed to always be ready for his return, by living their lives faithfully, lovingly, and compassionately; always being grateful for the love and grace that God showed them – and to do it every single day, whether Jesus took five thousand years to return or if he came back next Tuesday at 3:00.
The unexpectedness of Jesus’ return is an important thing for us, because it isn’t just the second coming that’s unexpected. In fact, while I’m sure that we all wonder about when it will happen, Jesus’ second coming probably isn’t a burning question at the top of our concerns in our day-to-day existence. But the whole idea of unexpectedness in our life is something that gets a lot of our attention. And maybe that’s an even more important reason Jesus’ words in this passage are important for us.
We try to insure ourselves and insulate ourselves from a lot of that unexpectedness. But no matter how much we try, we all encounter unexpected things – often, negative things – in our lives. Maybe we suddenly lose a job, when we’re supposedly in the peak of our earning years – and suddenly, we’re in the job market for the first time in thirty years, and our competition is some whiz-kid who’s half your age and is willing to do the job for half your pay. Or maybe we receive an unexpected diagnosis from our doctor when we just thought we had a routine ache or pain, and overnight, our whole life is turned upside-down while doctors run tests and don’t have many answers, and the ones they have aren’t very good. Or maybe we have to suddenly deal with the same thing happening to someone we love. Maybe something happens to unexpectedly hurt or even destroy a relationship that we have with a loved one, and we have to learn how to continue on after losing that important relationship.
Much of our life – maybe most of it – is actually unexpected, and leads to uncertainty and risk. And obviously, that can be scary. And in an attempt to stave off that unexpectedness and lack of certainty and security, we’ll do all sorts of things. I actually think it’s that fear that’s at the root of most all of the hurt and harm that we do to each other in this life. On a less lethal, maybe even comical, side of this fear, we can see some of the extreme “Doomsday Prepper” people, who have built their bombproof bunkers and stocked up guns and ammo and food and toilet paper, and they’re ready on a moment’s notice to climb down into their shelter and shut themselves off from other people and the rest of the world.
But we don’t have to be one of those extreme people on reality TV to have allowed the fear of the unexpectedness of life to paralyze us, to cause us to turn inward and away from others, and of living life fully in this world that God has made us part of. That kind of fear and paralysis can make us unloving, untrusting. It can harden our hearts, making us think that to put ourselves on the line like that is just too risky. That to stand up for something, to have the courage to keep going despite potential risks, only invites our getting smacked down like we’re in some big cosmic game of Whack-a-Mole.
But this is the second point of Jesus’ words here – I think it’s the most important point he’s making. It’s the message of hope. God has never promised that we’ll somehow be spared from the unexpectedness, the uncertainty and risk of this life. But Jesus is telling his disciples, and us, that whatever does come our way, good or bad, that ultimately Christ will gather all of God’s people together. All will be made right. God will usher in that new age, that new kingdom, where we’ll know the fullness of God’s love and justice and righteousness. Christ’s promise gives us the hope that enables us to live life outside of the bunkers, whether real or emotional. It’s that hope that allows us to continue to step out in faith, to keep living, and risking ourselves, the way Christ wants us to, even though we know that sometimes we’ll end up feeling that big padded mallet pounding us back down. The hope that we get from Christ’s promise that he will return makes it possible for us to keep the faith, and to keep moving forward, onward, even in the face of unexpected setbacks.
He was one of the greatest composers in the history of Western civilization. And surely, his final work, his Ninth Symphony, is one of the greatest and most well-known pieces of music that Beethoven ever wrote. The last movement of that symphony is Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the beautiful, inspiring piece dedicated to the joy of life and love and humanity. It’s raised the spirits of countless millions of people worldwide, and it was actually chosen by the European Union to be the official Anthem of Europe.
Beethoven worked on that symphony for seven years. But as he began to work on it, his health unexpectedly began to decline. He suffered what many have come to believe were the long, drastic effects of lead poisoning, which included gradually losing his hearing. Despite this, Beethoven continued to compose his symphony. In fact, by the time he’d completed it, Beethoven was for all practical purposes completely deaf. In spite of that, he insisted on personally conducting the orchestra for its premiere in Vienna in 1824. Incredibly, the man who had written one of the most joyful and uplifting pieces of music in all of human history never heard it performed. His deafness was so profound that at that premiere, after the piece was over, Beethoven was facing the orchestra, and a musician had to turn him around to the audience to see the amazing response and applause coming from the audience – to see the result of his continuing on, despite his unexpected setbacks.
Beethoven himself was, at best, an unorthodox Christian, if he would have considered himself a Christian at all. But just as is the case today, Christians back then didn’t have an exclusive lock on having the hope and confidence that sees that it’s worth the risk to not hide from the world, to keep moving forward despite unexpected problems and not to be paralyzed by worries about uncertainty – the hope that God will eventually set all things right, and make all things new.
This Advent season, we think about the beginning of God’s making all things new, seen in the birth of the baby Jesus, and we remember the hope that his birth and his promises bring to us. The hope that enables us to face the unexpected in our lives, and to accomplish great things in spite of them. Maybe we won’t write a world-famous symphony. But we can have the courage to answer another job posting, or endure another round of chemo. Or care for a spouse battling Alzheimer’s. Or stand up to help someone who’s being deprived of their human rights, or who’s being discriminated against. And each of those things makes this world a little more like the kingdom of God. So today, remembering hope, and the light that it brings into our world – God’s world – we light this first candle. The candle of hope.
Thanks be to God.