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’ll 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,” it’s sometimes called. But there’s is more to Advent than that. This is also the time when we look ahead to the second coming of Jesus Messiah… the Christ, 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) officialvisit. 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 story from Matthew’s gospel: Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem after journeying from his home base in the Galilee—a journey of around eighty miles, as the crow flies… probably a bit longer on foot. We don’t really know how long it took Jesus and his disciples to make the trek… you could make in a week if you were in a hurry, but Jesus was rarely in a hurry. In this case, he’d been preaching, teaching and healing up a storm as he made his way up to Jerusalem. His message had drawn the acclamation of large crowds—as well as disdain from religious elites—all along the way. Jesus knew that this would be his final trip to the City, and he made his triumphal entry in grand style—on the back of a donkey (Mat 21:1-11). He then went straight to the Temple and made a mess of things—at least that’s how the merchants and moneychangers saw it (vv. 21:12-17). 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 wicked tenants (vv. 21:33-45) and what happens to those who refuse their master’s invitation to the son’s wedding banquet (vv. 22:1-14).
Those in authority: among them the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees, listened with alarm. Who is this Jesus? He’s a rabble-rouser, that’s what he is! He’s getting into our lane… messing with our mojo… overcooking our grits! 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 (vv. 22:15-22). 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 anyone could understand: Love God—love your neighbor. That was it. And no one could argue with his erudition (vv. 22:34-40). 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 was making. And that 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 gonna 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 today’s Gospel reading, Jesus also speaks of apocalypse—an apocalypse comparable to the Great 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. We are told to expect the return of the Son of Man: the second coming… though the timing is shrouded in mystery. 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;Ezk 32:7; Joel 2:10-11; Zep 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” (Mat 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 605 to 536 BC (ish)… 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 through generations of self-indulgence and idolatry. But even amidst all of the violence and turmoil, when the last remnants of the glorious kingdom built by David and Solomon were being trampled into 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 7:13-14). And five hundred years later Jesus, like Daniel, is prophesying the fate of the latest generation of God’s rebellious people. And his message is as timely and relevant for us today 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 standards 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 house 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 most. 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 where and 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 built us an “ark,” in the truest sense of the word, that will sustain us through fire and flood. He has shown us the way. Now it’s up to us to put away the willfulness and self-indulgence that dogs our days, as it did those of the Jewish people back in Old Testament times. We must recommit ourselves to loving God and neighbor and redouble our efforts to be good stewards of the vineyard and bringers of the Kingdom that will surely come.
So, yes, Advent is a time to prepare ourselves for the birth of the Christ Child… the first coming… 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 step into that embrace through self-examination and repentance. How’re we doing with that? 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 examining our lives carefully and honestly and asking 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. Won’t you climb aboard?