Happy New Year!
Of course, today is the beginning of Advent, and a brand new liturgical year. This is the season when we look forward to commemorating the nativity of our Lord and Savior in the person of the baby Jesus, which was the “first coming.” And we will be forgiven if visions of sugarplums are already beginning to dance in our heads—if our thoughts have already begun to turn to holiday gatherings, gift giving and a rekindled spirit of love and charity between neighbors: the “Christmas Spirit,” we sometimes call it. But, as you know, there is more to Advent than that. This is also the time when we look ahead to the second coming of Jesus Christ: the Messiah, the Redeemer of the world, in his power and glory-the Parousia which, in ancient Greek, means presence, arrival or (and I like this one best) official visit. That day will be a new beginning with a capital “B.” That day will change everything.
So, let me provide a little context to what’s going on in today’s Gospel story: Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem after a journey from his home base in the Galilee—a journey that spanned ten out of the twenty four chapters of Luke’s Gospel (9:51-19:47). It may not have taken all that long to accomplish time-wise, but a lot had happened! Jesus had been preaching, teaching and healing up a storm along the way. His message had drawn the acclamation of large crowds—as well as the disdain of the religious establishment—all along the way. Jesus knew that this would be his final trip to Jerusalem and he made his triumphal entry in grand style—on the back of a donkey. He then went straight to the Temple and made a mess of things—at least that’s how the merchants and moneychangers saw it. I wonder if, at this point, some of Jesus’ disciples began feel uneasy about the future. But the crowd was still with Jesus. Each day he would sit in the Temple teaching anyone who would listen about the Kingdom of God—telling parables about the responsibility of laborers in the vineyard, and what happens to those who refuse their master’s invitation to the son’s wedding banquet.
Those in authority: the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees, listened with alarm. Who is this Jesus? He’s messing with our mojo! He’s a rabble-rouser! They were forever trying to trick Jesus into saying something “actionable,” something that would draw the wrath of the Romans, or run afoul of Hebrew Law. But Jesus was too smart for them. When asked whether Jews should pay taxes to Rome, Jesus noted that the “coin of the realm” bore Caesar’s imprint, and that the Jews should give to Caesar what is Caesar’s—and to God the things that are God’s. When asked which of the 613 mitzvot, or tenets of Hebrew Law, was the greatest, in true rabbinic fashion Jesus broke it down for them in terms of the Law and the Prophets: Love God—love your neighbor. That was it. And no one could argue with his erudition. I wonder if the Scribes and Pharisees ever noticed they’d been had: the harder they tried to trip Jesus up, the more they reinforced the point he was making. And the point was, “The Kingdom is at hand!” You’d best begin living into it.
But then, in our Gospel passage a couple of Sundays ago, Jesus’ tone began to change. Underscoring the urgency his message, Jesus stepped away from the parables for a while, and began speaking of apocalypse: “The Temple will be destroyed. You’ll hear of wars, and insurrections—nation rising against nation. There’ll be famines, plagues and earthquakes! You’ll be persecuted because of my name. It’s going to be hard, but everything will be OK in the end. Not one hair on your head will perish, and you’ll have the opportunity to testify!” (cf. Luke 21:5-19). Do you remember? And, in our Gospel passage today, Jesus also speaks of apocalypse—an apocalypse comparable to the Flood from Genesis that forever altered the face of God’s creation. An apocalypse from which there was only one refuge: an ark built by Noah to the exact specifications set forth by the Creator, himself.
And now, we anticipate the coming of the Son of Man: the second coming. In the section of Matthew’s Gospel immediately preceding today’s passage, after painting a picture of the destruction which is to come, Jesus recalls words of hope and final victory from Hebrew prophecy: “Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken” (cf. Isa 13:10, 34:4; Ezek 32:7; Joel 2:10-11; Zeph 1:15). “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matt 24:29-31). What a magnificent, terrible day that will be.
When Jesus speaks of “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven,” he is quoting the prophet Daniel who prophesied from around 605 until around 536 BC… right in the middle of the worst period of history the Jews had ever known. They’d been overrun by the Babylonians, their Temple had been destroyed, and all of the people sent into exile. God’s rebellious people were reaping what they had sown. But even so, in the midst the violence and turmoil, when the last remnants of the glorious kingdom built by David and Solomon were being trampled into the dust, Daniel prophesied words of awesomeness and hope to a faithful remnant of God’s people in their time of need. He said the Son of Man, the Messiah, would return to save his people, and that he would be given “dominion and glory and kingship… and that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion would be an everlasting dominion that would never pass away. His kingship would never be destroyed” (Dan 7:13b-14). And five hundred years later Jesus, like Daniel, is prophesying the fate of the latest generation of God’s rebellious people. And his message for us today is as timely and as important as it was to his disciples two thousand years ago: Stay watchful; stay awake, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
I expect there are some of us here today that worked (or were associated with someone who worked) for a large organization that regularly reviewed or examined its various departments or offices to make sure that all activities were being conducted in accordance with established policies and procedures. Anyone? During my time in the Coast Guard, we always knew that we would be hosting a group of District inspectors annually, during the month of November, so that they could make sure we had our shop in order. They called themselves an “Assist Team,” but we knew why they were there. We were being scrutinized—and we wanted to be ready. Nothing good came from not being ready. And with a little planning and teamwork, we always made the grade. After all, we had advance notice of the visit and a checklist of the items to be inspected, or tested. It was the unannounced “snap” inspections that worried the Command Staff. Those could be tricky, because no one ever knew precisely when they would happen or what would be assessed. During the years I served as a Search and Rescue Controller in northeast Florida, the “tests” were less routine. Sure, we had to keep up with our training and area familiarization; we had to make sure all of our qualifications were up-to-date; but it was when someone called on the emergency line in the middle of the night, or when “Mayday, mayday!” blared over the radio, that the real test would begin. You hoped you’d be ready. You had to be ready. It was a matter of life and death.
And as important as this sort of temporal readiness can be, the spiritual readiness to which Jesus is calling us in today’s Gospel passage is infinitely more so—because that sort of readiness will determine how we spend eternity. Our Messiah has come and opened the scriptures to us through his words and actions (cf. Luke 24:32). He has provided an “ark” for us that will keep us safe in the storm. He has shown us the way. Now it’s up to us to repent of the willfulness and self-indulgence that dogs our days as it did those of the Jewish people in Old Testament times. We must recommit ourselves to loving God and our neighbor, to being good stewards of the vineyard and bringers of the Kingdom that will surely come.
Advent is indeed a time to prepare ourselves for the birth of the Christ Child, a time to consider what kind of God would send his only Son to live among us, to show us the way to salvation. But it’s also a time to take stock of where we are… and assess ourselves honestly with regard to where we need to be in our relationship with our Creator. What if the Son of Man was to come this evening? Or tomorrow? Would we be ready? God’s arms are always open, but we must return the embrace through self-examination and repentance. What are we doing—or not doing—in our lives that causes us to fall short of God’s plans and expectations for us? If we can bring ourselves to grapple with these questions, and then do what we need to do to make ourselves more spiritually ready to spend eternity with our Creator, then we will find more joy in the coming Christmas than we could ever ask for or imagine.
So wait for it. The sugarplums aren’t going anywhere… the time for celebration will come. But not yet. Now is the time for us to examine our lives carefully and honestly and ask ourselves how ready we are for the new Beginning foretold by Jesus in our Gospel lesson this morning—that magnificent and terrible day when the Son of Man will come in a cloud… with power and great glory… the day God’s kingdom will break upon this world and change everything, forever. If the thought doesn’t give you chill bumps, it should. How are you preparing for that day of all days? Keep watchful. Stay Awake.
The ark that Jesus has built for you is ready and waiting. Will you climb aboard?