A sermon on Matthew 24:36-44.
[for sermon audio recording, click here. Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash]
This past Sunday, during coffee hour, we held a pre-Advent activity introducing the theme that will be shaping our worship over the next 4 weeks.
That theme is (as I just shared in the children’s sermon) “Holy Disruption,” and to get us thinking about what that pairing of words might mean, I invited the participants to first do some word association with each of the words separately.
The words written on the paper labeled “Holy” were basically all positive: Spirit, wholeness, sacred, goodness, uplifting, of God, set-apart, glory.
“Disruption” elicited quite different associations: chaos, interruption, change, removal of stuff we like, stress, rude, detour, but also “opportunity for growth.”
That last phrase offers an important insight.
For the most part, the two lists seem to stand in stark contrast… until we consider that idea of opportunity.
Where is there opportunity within the initially off-putting experiences of disruption – chaos, interruption, change, detours – to actually move in a GOOD direction?
As we talked about the idea of HOLY disruption, the group began to answer that question.
Change can be a good thing if God is the one directing it.
And if God is the one interrupting our plans, then that means we were doing the wrong thing, and God’s plan will be better.
The same thing with detours. One of the meanings of “holy” is to be set-apart for God’s work. And sometimes that requires a detour from the directions we have been following.
Even chaos can be a gift if it breaks us free from old habits and turns us around from destructive patterns.
This Advent phrase – Holy Disruption – these two words that seem so unconnected, even contrasting… they actually make sense together! We can see how disruption really can be holy. Even something we might long for.
What we did not talk about last Sunday was how we can actually prepare ourselves for this kind of Holy Disruption.
And, at first glance, today’s gospel does not seem to offer very much help in that regard…
what with Jesus making such a big deal about how “no one knows” the day or the hour that God’s disruptive plan is going to break into our daily lives…
and imagery from the story of the flood sweeping in and washing people away with no warning, and of people being suddenly snatched from fields…
and the apparent parallel between Jesus’s return and a house-breaking thief.
It’s all very weird, and scary, and doesn’t seem to have a point.
Like, what are we supposed to do with all these assurances that we won’t have a clue what’s coming or when?
It’s seems like the logical conclusion would be… there’s no way to prepare for this so… just be constantly anxious?
But if we dig a bit deeper, I think we CAN find some guidance in this passage about how we can prepare ourselves for God’s Holy Disruption… even if we don’t know exactly what it will look like, or when it will arrive.
Specifically, I think the passage encourages us to ask three important questions:
First, we need to ask ourselves: what am I not noticing?
The allusion to the days of Noah is not actually a suggestion of cataclysmic change with no warning.
There were plenty of signs in the days of Noah that all was not well… that, in fact, the world was so broken that it NEEDED a radical disruption.
The story of the flood begins with the announcement that “the Lord saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil.” (Gen 6:5, CEB).
That’s the kind of thing that people SHOULD have noticed. But, instead, they were “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” (Matt. 24:38).
In other words, they were perfectly satisfied with the status quo. The people were enjoying themselves, so they did not concern themselves with any evidence that all was not as it should be.
And this allusion to the story of the flood is a reminder of just how easy it is to ignore the signs that change is needed, especially if WE are benefitting from the way that things are broken.
But Advent is about rousing ourselves to pay attention. As Debie Thomas explains:
“The message of Advent is, ‘Wake up!’ The message of Matthew in our lectionary reading is, ‘Keep watch!’ The call of the season is to recognize that we’re not paying attention to what really matters. To confess that we are alive and yet dangerously asleep.”
So, the first question we need to ask ourselves in preparing for God’s Holy Disruption is “what am I missing because it doesn’t inconvenience or injure me?”
What damaging dynamics in our families are easier to ignore?
What consequences of our culture or lifestyle hurt others while benefiting us?
What might God be seeing as a problem in need of solving that I haven’t been paying attention to?
The second question we need to ask ourselves is, what certainties do I need to let go of?
One of the things that makes disruption such a scary idea is the reality that it compromises the stability of things we thought we could rely on.
In a world with far too much pain and loss, and a news cycle that thrives on reminding us of these awful realities, it is natural – even psychologically healthy – to hold onto sources of security.
Human beings don’t tend to function very well without solid touchpoints, like shared cultural norms, predictable systems of government, and reliable sources of truth.
But this does not mean that all forms of certainty are necessary, or even good for us.
When certainty becomes inflexibility… when we hold too tightly to shoulds or musts in defiance of new evidence, or despite any harm they might cause, we NEED holy disruption.
And this is especially true when we are too certain about God… about what God believes, and who God judges, and how God can be expected to behave.
Again, Debie Thomas explains this implication of today’s reading so well,
“The implication of the thief-in-the-night analogy is that Jesus isn’t going to come in the guises we expect. If we think we have religion pinned down, if we think we know what revelation looks like, if we think we have Jesus all figured out, then we’re in for an unpleasant surprise.”
We need to hold our certainties loosely so that we won’t try to work AGAINST God’s holy disruption when it comes.
If we feel too certain that we know God’s plan for the world, then God’s disruptive action will trigger our fight or flight instincts.
And that’s why we need to prepare for God’s work by interrogating our certainties.
By considering ways that Good might challenge assumptions that we hold dear.
By actively looking for evidence of God acting in unexpected ways or through unexpected people.
By loosening our grip now on anything God might ask us to release when God interrupts our lives with a new plan.
Which leads to the third preparatory question inspired by today’s gospel: where do I need to make space for God to do a new thing?
This is the other implication of the Jesus-as-a-thief-in-the-night analogy.
A thief takes things, which logically means that there are empty spaces left in the wake of the theft.
Our instinct is to see such empty spaces through the lens of loss, even violation.
After all, we are generally the ones who made the decisions about how to fill that space with something that we valued.
But what if, instead, we really embraced the idea of Holy Disruption as an opportunity for change?
In order to gather new ideas, or practice new patterns of behavior, we need to clear space for them in our lives.
We need to identify the unhealthy or unfruitful habits that are draining our time.
We need to contemplate the patterns of thought that lock us into stubborn resistance against God’s life-giving challenges.
We need to make space in our hearts, and minds, and daily lives so that when God breaks in to do something new, we can see that incursion as a Holy Disruption, rather than a threat.
What am I not noticing?
What certainties do I need to let go of?
Where do I need to make space for God to do a new thing?
These are not comfortable questions. They are not questions that will lead us to the conclusion that no Advent preparations are needed in our lives.
But they are questions that will open us up to recognize God’s holy work of disruption, and to be able to join in that work with the kind of hope and joy that will change our lives and our world for the better.
Thanks be to God.