Doing While Waiting: Matt. 24: 36-44
1st Sunday of Advent: Nov. 27, 2016
Matt. 24:36-44 [Jesus said to the disciples] “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels or 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.
I have been longing for Advent.
For Advent, specifically, rather than the cultural Christmas season. The beautiful decorations, and the sparkling lights, and the cookies, …those are all wonderful and I enjoy them as much as any other working-student Mom in America, but… those things are all also a lot of work.
And I am kind of tired, and my normal weeks are already quite full, and my nerves are vibrating from the buzz of angst and contention in the public sphere, and what I have been longing for… what my soul has been panting for with all the yearning of a thirsty deer, has been the invitation to wait.
I want to hear O come, o come Emmanuel,
and remember that God is coming into this world as an act of God’s great, self-giving love,
and take a deep, calming breath, because my job right now is to wait.
And the we get today’s readings…
Keep awake!... for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
And it will be like the flood, coming to sweep all away;
And it will be like two people at work, and one is suddenly taken with no explanation;
And it will be like a thief breaking in to the house, in the middle of the night.
This is not the Advent I have been longing for!
Not only does this sound really scary and nothing at all like Emmanuel, God with Us… this also resurfaces the problematic anxiety from my Evangelical childhood about the rapture, and the fear of being “left behind.”
Why in the world is this the gospel text for the first week of Advent… the week where we are encouraged to reflect on HOPE?
Well, there are very good reasons, of course, for this reading. In fact, they are reasons that help us to develop a deeper, more transformative understanding of what it means to hope and to wait. To get at those reasons I want to talk a bit about context, and then talk about what “staying awake” looks like, and then talk for just a bit about a great 70s movie. It will make sense, I promise.
The historical community addressed by this apocalyptic, end-times text is a community caught in the in-between. They are in-between culturally in the tug of war between Jews and Gentiles in the developing Christian faith. Many scholars think that the Gospel of Matthew is addressed to a mixed community in Syria that is trying to hold onto the significance of Jewish heritage in the aftermath of a rupture between the synagogue and the church. So, the original hearers of this text are trying to understand how to follow Jesus in way that embraces his new teachings without abandoning what they already know.
They are also in-between eschatologically – which means in their understanding of how God is acting in human history to bring about God’s kingdom. The Gospel of Matthew presents an understanding of two ages. One is the current age. According to one summary I read this week, this age is marked by “idolatry, sin, injustice, exploitation, sickness, enmity between nature and humankind, violence, and death,” (an assessment that is perhaps all too familiar). This contrasts with the new age that will cure all of these ills in the perfect rule of God. The Matthean community is waiting expectantly for this second age, and maybe getting a bit tired of waiting.
It is in this in-between context that the Christian community is called to actively hope; to engage – both with contrasting cultural expectations, and with the brokenness of the world – and to engage in a way that is informed by the unfailing expectation that God is acting to bring about the redemption of the world. In the context of “a conflict zone between the ages”, the community is called to keep living faithfully as Jesus taught them to live.
And just so in our context, a context that certainly knows it share of division within the faith community, and fatigue with witnessing to hope in the face of a broken world… we too are called to keep living faithfully as Jesus has taught us to live.
But what does that mean, exactly? What does it look like for us to “keep awake”?
It certainly can’t mean that we can never physically fall asleep, because God has given us finite human bodies that cannot function without sleep. And besides, what would be the point? The text talks about staying awake to prevent a thief from breaking into the house, but protecting our possessions is not what Jesus talked about in his ministry.
So, what does it mean to “keep awake”? What is the point of the call to vigilance?
I think we can get some help from the last apocalyptic text we read together, just two weeks ago. In the 21st chapter of Luke we also heard words from Jesus to his followers warning them that they cannot know the precise time that God’s kingdom will break in. In that text, the point was not to leave us in a paranoid fear, but rather to exhort us: “Do not be terrified… this is an opportunity to testify.”
So too here, the point of keeping awake is not the wakefulness itself, it is what we do with our consciousness. When we are paying attention, we can see the need in the world around us.
We can see the need of the wanton revelers who focus only on their own pleasures, as in the time of Noah; we can see the need of the workers going about their plodding daily tasks; perhaps we can even see the need of the thief who is planning to break in and steal.
We can see them all in their need for the coming of Christ, and then we can respond to those needs – with both our testimony and our activity. We don’t stay awake just for the sake of brownie points. We stay awake because there is work to do.
There is one further source of hope to be found in this gospel reading – and this is where the movie comes in.
A few weeks ago I introduced Alaina and Maddox to the movie Godspell. They have watched it three times since then, which is really fun for me, and also was probably the reason for an immediate association in my mind when I first read today’s gospel text. When I read the words “keep awake” my mind immediately flashed to the scene in the film when the Jesus character asks his disciples to stay awake while he goes a few yards away to pray in preparation for his crucifixion.
Of course, just like the original disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, the movie disciples fall asleep. And here is the illuminative point: when Jesus challenges them for their weakness they all respond with the same words, but in a very discordant non-unison:
“everyone else my fall away, Lord, but I never will.”
They all say the same thing, but they are all wrong. They make a promise they can’t keep and they propose to judge their own faithfulness based on doing better than the others, rather than leaning on each other to be more faithful together.
With this scene in my mind, I read today’s gospel exhortation that “therefore you also must be ready…” with a question I would not have thought to ask otherwise. “Who is the ‘you’ being addressed?” Raised as I was in American individualism, my instinct is always to read “you” as talking to “me” rather than to “us.” But in the Greek, the “you” addressed is plural. And that makes all the difference for how we understand the task of keeping awake to be ready for Christ’s coming – we wait, and we prepare, and we witness TOGETHER.
This is the hope of the first week of Advent . We don’t wait alone. On our own we can never be ready. We can’t stay awake the whole night, or, for that matter, build the ark by ourselves either. We can’t witness effectively, and we certainly can’t respond effectively to the ills of this world. But we aren’t exhorted to wait or to be ready by ourselves.
Pastoral Director J.R. Daniel Kirk says “We wait for Christ’s coming by becoming Christ’s people.” Becoming a people requires togetherness – interdependence, and trust, and the willingness to lean on each other and work together to make this world look more like the prophecy from Isaiah chapter 2.
Christ gave us to each other, so that we can remind each other of the promise that Christ is coming to make the world new, and that in the meantime, we can witness to that hope in a way that transforms us and our world.
It may not be the quiet and peaceful “waiting” we might want from Advent, but it is so much better. It is waiting that reminds us we can do the work Jesus has given us to do, because he has given us each other as companions in the waiting, and because the work he has given us to do is to witness and work for our Hope that he is indeed coming to transform the world, and that he calls us to be part of that transformation.
Keep awake – we have wonderful work to do.
 Historical analysis drawn from Sundays and Seasons, Year A 2017, “The Year of Matthew”, p. 12-14.
 Ron Allen, “Commentary on Matthew 24:36-44”, workingpreacher.org.
 Daniel Kirk, Commentary on Romans 13:11-14.