The Sunday Sermon: What are you watching for?

Rev. Richard Hogue Jr.

Happy Advent, everyone! Advent marks the beginning of the new year for the church calendar, so it is just as appropriate to say: Happy New Year! Advent, as a word, means “the arrival of notable person, thing, or event.” The church year begins with Advent because we contemplate the arrival of Jesus, leading to our celebration of Jesus’ birth during Christmas, and later his life and ministry through Epiphany, Lent, his death and Resurrection during Holy Week and Easter, and the life of the church in Pentecost. We find ourselves back at the beginning of that cycle today, watching and waiting for the world to change as we look for a messiah.

The new church year also marks the beginning of a new section of the three-part lectionary, or cycle of readings. We are back at the beginning of that cycle which draws from Matthew’s gospel. Matthew’s gospel is the most heavily Jewish of the four canonical gospels, in terms of its observance of Jewish practices, reference to Hebrew scriptures and their interpretation, and in its structure. It’s structured into five major discourses, separated by the formula “when Jesus had finished.” This division reflects the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, the Torah. While the subjects of the Pentateuch and Matthew’s five discourses don’t line up thematically, they do share the ongoing conversation about God’s intention for humanity, our bungling, how we are still beloved by God, and what our response to God’s grace ought to be. Matthew’s Jesus is constantly reaching back to the Hebrew prophets, such as Moses, Elijah, and as we heard today, Noah, among others, to re-examine and inspire conversation about what it means to live faithfully in light of God’s love and desire to be close to us. Those five discourses’ subjects are the Sermon on the Mount, evangelism, parables, church organization, and eschatology.

For those unfamiliar with, the word “eschatology,” it means the theological study of the end of human history, what happens to our souls. This study keys in on where we are with Jesus in this passage today, as he references the flood, the prophet Noah, and the disappearance of people in agrarian and domestic settings. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” It is fair to ask: Why do we begin a new year and its accompanying book by reading something the end of everything?

We begin the new church year with Jesus’ talk of the end to frame for ourselves what it means to live a life like Jesus’, which is ultimately the faithfulness he asks of us. This chapter of Matthew we read from today, chapter 24, starts with Jesus exiting the Temple after spending most of the day preaching and teaching there. It it is the exact same day Jesus’ entered Jerusalem, the day we celebrate as Palm Sunday, the beginning of the end of Jesus’ time on Earth. He’s also overthrown the tables of money changers and has become a pariah to religious and Roman imperial authorities. He exits the Temple, after having caused an immense ruckus, proclaiming aloud that the Temple will be destroyed. It was quite the day.

Jesus’ disciples follow him up to the Mount of Olives, a spot from which one can see a lot of Jerusalem, and they ask him when this destruction of all they can see before them will happen. Instead of directly answering their question, he warns them of false Messiahs, he tells them of signs and portents, including a great earthquake. In all of this, Jesus draws on the ancient prophets to provide his non-answer to the disciples’ questions. And that’s where we catch up with them today:

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of 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.”

When I let the weight of all that sink in, it’s quite terrifying. Could you imagine if you looked down in this moment, at your phone or bulletin, and then looked back up, and half of the people around you were gone, simply vanished? The comparison with the Flood story adds further fright, as the image of a world drowning without any rescue coming is as catastrophic as it gets anywhere in the Bible. In Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 film, Noah, about the prophet and the Flood through a rabbinical lens, there is a most haunting scene. While the rain continues pouring and all those who mocked Noah are stampeding towards the Ark, the ground and then mountain tops disappear into the great deluge. Noah and his family sit safe inside the Ark, but the anxious screams of those left to the rising chaos of the deep penetrates his family’s ears and souls, even as the last cry is long drowned away. Jesus’ message is clear, this will not be some clean unencumbering of human foibles. No, this will be a time of unfathomable disruption.

That can be difficult to hear and contemplate in a world that seems to be in constant turmoil, between wars, shootings, climate change, and all other manner of macroeconomic and racial injustice, let alone our own personal shortcomings. But the prophets would posit that these are a result of our own handiwork, that humanity, for all our accomplishments, is still both Cain and Abel, offering our best, but still contemptuous of our own kin, even to the point of spilling each other’s blood.

Yet, here’s the thing: Jesus’ way, God’s way, is the very definition of upheaval and disruption to our order of things. Indeed, for those with perceived power, God’s order is a befuddlement to our conceptions, precisely because it removes our illusions of power and control. For the Roman Empire and its vassal states, the ultimate control was wrought through the willingness to employ death, capital punishment, as the chief means by which to make examples of the unruly. The cross was, first and foremost, a threat: go against us and we will torture you for days in front of your friends and family, until your own body chooses to die under the unbearable strain.

But just as we perceive the cross to be the end, for Jesus it is only the beginning. Each Gospel shares that an earthquake erupts immediately after Jesus’ last breath on the cross. But in Matthew’s gospel, there’s an additional piece to the resurrection puzzle: “The earth shook, and rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of their tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” Yes, folks, those are zombies in the Bible.

Where for Noah, death encircles humanity in the shape of the watery void, for Jesus, the disruption of death itself is at hand. Rather than drowning the living, the dead rise in triumph over death, and the righteous join with God. And that’s why we begin the church year with anticipation of the end, because for Jesus’, the end is the beginning, and all the ways we think the world should operate will be inverted. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

As the light wanes in these fall days and we head towards longer nights, we ought to remain watchful for God’s signs in our lives. God is always ready to disorganize to reorganize. Perhaps the best way for us to respond while waiting for God to surprise us is to ask ourselves this question for Advent: What are we watching for? Amen.

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