First Sunday of Advent, Thanksgiving weekend
Gospel: Matthew 24:36-44; First Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5; Second Reading: Romans 13:11-14
The lectionary seems to have bad timing. We’ve just had what might be the most universal celebration of a holiday in our country. Many of us have stuffed ourselves, had some time off for relaxing, did some shopping, we’re starting to get geared up for Christmas. And you come to church over Thanksgiving weekend, and you get to hear this gospel reading from Matthew that neither sounds hopeful nor is what we wanted or were expecting to hear. It’s bad timing. Though we might say that any time these apocalyptic texts come up. We just had another one, out of Luke’s Gospel, two weeks ago. There is a temptation today to jump right to Isaiah where there is hope and peace. We’ll be making that jump, but let’s sit with Matthew for a few minutes.
With our Left Behind baggage, many of us assume this text is about the rapture – two will be there and one will be left. The rapture isn’t a biblical idea, but it’s sure made some money for someone with the Left Behind series. Did you know that the idea of a rapture didn’t even show up until the 1800s? With our baggage, we tend to assume that of the pairs Jesus mentions, where one is taken and one is left, that the one taken is the one raptured – meaning they are taken to be with Jesus. Thus, it is bad to get left behind. But let’s put this into the context Jesus does, where he mentions the story of Noah. In the story of Noah, who was taken or swept up? And who was left? Noah was left. He and his family were the only ones left behind. So is it better to be left in the gospel story, or better to be taken? In the context of Noah, it seems it is better to be left.
And anyway, the text is ambiguous about what is happening here. What does it mean that one is taken? Why are they taken? What or where are they taken? We tend to make a lot of assumptions here that the text doesn’t give us permission to make. So to with Jesus’ retelling of the Noah story. He refers to those that were eating and drinking and marrying, rhetorically asking what happened to them when the flood came? Since we know they died, we tend to assume that doing that eating, drinking, and marrying thing must be what led to their demise. But Jesus doesn’t seem to condemn them for their behavior as much as he makes the point that they were not awake, they were not aware, they were not prepared. They were about to miss an opportunity. They didn’t get what they deserved by dying in the flood, they were just preoccupied in the everyday ordinary things of life that they weren’t looking for or expecting the work of God. And thus Noah is the only righteous person left, which is why God decides to try again, unfortunately in a tragic way for most of humanity. It is Noah’s righteousness, his right living, that saves him, or that leaves him left behind in this case.
There is a call to righteousness then from this text. We are to be righteous, like Noah. What does it mean to be righteous?
This question drives us to the reading for Romans today. That one is also a buzz kill. So much for those Christmas parties and having fun – maybe that’s what we think we hear from Paul. That might be taking it a bit lightly. Paul encourages us to put on the armor of light, to be covered by the Lord Jesus. The list of behaviors he calls out are selfish in nature – heavy partying and drunkenness, sleeping around and excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures, even quarreling and jealousy find their roots in selfishness.
Maybe we could say what he says another way: don’t do those things that are all about yourself. Live for others as Christ would live. Love one another. That is how we practice righteousness. That’s not always an easy thing to do – sometimes it’s harder to pursue righteousness than the selfishness that drives me to sit on the couch and binge-watch the latest show. Don’t let there be room for your flesh to be what drives you. (Granted, there may be time for that, but in moderation.) Live by the Spirit and the light of the Lord.
The Apostle Paul, who wrote the letter to the Romans, was convinced Jesus would return in his lifetime, which is why his call sounds so urgent – wake up! Salvation is near! (Notice that the motivation for righteousness is the goodness of God, and not the fear or threat of impending doom.) Don’t wait for tomorrow to do the grace you can do today. Don’t wait to live your righteous self; live your righteous self now. Don’t allow any excuse to keep you from living fully into the goodness and grace of God.
The reading from Isaiah invites us into this righteous living now. Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord! And Isaiah paints an image where righteous living can lead – to a world without war or need for weapons. A world where those weapons are even turned from tools of death into tools of abundance and fertility and community – tools used for farming, for feeding and sharing with others. There is a sense in Isaiah of peace, but a peace that is more than just no fighting. It’s an imagine of coming together, of making community together, where there will be no more sides, no more teams, because we will all realize we are on one team as the children of God. We don’t have to wait for Jesus to come back to live into this reality. Certainly, God will do that – will unite us and form us finally as one people – but we can, and are invited and even called, to work toward that vision now. To live in the light of the Lord. To live in righteousness and peace.
A seminary professor said that the sound of this time of year in the culture is the sound of jingle bells. But the sound of this time in the church year is the sound of metal being pounded and shaped into new things. That is certainly a counter-cultural representation for us to carry this Advent, where we embrace this sense of waiting – not just to remember the history of Christ’s birth, but to wake up to the mystery of Christ present with us now – in bread and wine and in this community gathered; and to prepare for the majesty of Christ’s coming to this earth again.
This Advent, our readings today ask us to wake up, to be prepared, to live in righteousness by loving all people. Come, people of God, let us live in the light of the Lord – now and always.