December 1, 2019
The Journey From Apocalypse and Anxiety to Discipleship and Peace
The security company Ring places commercials on TV that show us how they can protect us from home invasion. The little doorbell camera is filming 24 hours a day, and it sends a message when danger approaches. Ring, much to the surprise of some, has forged video-sharing partnerships with 100’s of Police forces across the United States, granting them potential access to homeowners’ camera footage - the nation’s “new neighborhood watch.” You can choose to opt out, but this 24 hour monitoring of our neighborhoods has upset some civil liberties advocates.
If Jesus were preaching today, maybe he would change Matthew to go like this: Keep awake therefore… if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief would come, then he or she would not need to hire Ring… be ready for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. Jesus, in Matthew’s telling of the end times would have us awake and ready.
Ring would have us believe that we live in dark times, and we need their protection. As we sit in worship, on this gray December morning, we enter the season of Advent. Advent at its start, presents us with two contrasts: the unknown nature of the end times and the light of Christ coming into the world. Advent, the first season of the church year, begins at the darkest time of the year, at least in the northern hemisphere, and so naturally we light candles. Advent: the light of the Lord versus dark; end times versus new beginnings.
This year, as a part of the Advent wreath liturgy, we are going to sing at least one verse of the ancient and famous O Antiphons each Sunday. I know this sounds a bit church nerdy technical, but actually we all are very familiar with the O Antiphons. We sing them every year at Advent time; we sang them today, and in general they are considered the most popular Advent carol. In fact, the O Antiphons are so popular that most people consider them a Christmas carol and not an Advent hymn. O Come, O Come Emmanuel, O Come Desire of Nations bind….bid envy strife and discord cease.
An Antiphon is a chant sung preceding or following a psalm, psalm verse, or canticle. The O Antiphons were originally part of 9th century or earlier monastic and cathedral services. The seven O Antiphons were sung on the last week of Advent immediately before or after a Psalm or before or after Mary’s Song from the Gospel of Luke known as the Magnificat. They are called the O Antiphons because each antiphon begins with the word O in both Latin and English. Each O Antiphon also begins with a title for Jesus, Emmanuel (God with us), Wisdom from on high, Lord of might, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring (Source of Light) and our focus today—Desire of Nations, who fills the world with heaven’s peace. O Come, O Come Emmanuel is the oldest hymn in our hymnal that is not a quote from scripture. People have been singing this hymn to various tunes for well over one thousand years.
We who sit in the darkness of Advent, and the darkness of our world, long for Jesus to come again and be with us. We long for Emmanuel to come to us in peace because we live in a world where so many people in so many places are pleading and protesting for their human rights: While we are captured by impeachment proceedings and the weather, people in Hong Kong, western China, Chile, Venezuela and Bolivia, Ukraine, Palestine and Iraq struggle for peace and a future. We long for Christ because even in America, children are hungry and asylum seekers are caged. At Advent we focus on getting our hearts ready for Christmas, in the midst of these deflating events and desperate situations.
I think perhaps the Christian interior has two longings for Christ at Advent, two reasons to hope and prepare. Our first longing is that sometime during this holiday season Christ will truly enter our hearts, and we will get it. We will embody the light. We will find Christmas living in our heart. We will be transformed by love come down, and we will live Christmas. Our Second prayer is that Christ will come again, and set things right in our world. Just as the Jews hoped for the birth of Christ, we long for the return. Every time we serve the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim this hope—even more so, at Advent.
This morning we have shared one of the most inspiring passages in the book of Isaiah, from the section known as First Isaiah. Isaiah prays, discerns, preaches and writes during a 40 year period of political intrigue, warfare and change. Life for the people of God is not just tumultuous but tortuous, yet Isaiah has a deep prayer life, and in his prayers he hears God’s promise of peace and the promise of a messiah. He preaches his message of hope—swords forged into plows to a depleted and downtrodden people. He urges people of faith to never give up, because God cares and God keeps God’s promises.
Matthew for his part was very much aware of the prophet Isaiah when he wrote his Gospel. Matthew writes some 800 years after First Isaiah and, like the Rabbi Jesus, Mathew quotes Isaiah extensively. Matthew wrote mainly to share the Good News. Matthew uses every ounce of his talent to gift us a Gospel that tells us whom Jesus is—the new Moses, The Christ, the Star that shines in the darkness, the one whom Isaiah foretold. This Jesus is the Desire of the Nations. This is the Savior Son for whom the world longs. This is the wonderful counselor, the Prince of Peace who will protect and nurture.
It is in the context of the promised Mighty Counselor and Prince of Peace that we must read this 24th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. It’s not like God needs Ring to record what we are doing with our lives. God’s mind is a hard drive well beyond any web that humanity can construct, beyond any pictures we can store on the so called cloud, and God will hold us accountable through Jesus. Why do people insist on describing the return of Christ as a physically fierce and bloody battle? Why do certain Christians understand God as being as violent and vindictive as humanity? Small minds and hearts lead to tiny and incomplete pictures of God. Where are our theological inspirations and moral imaginations? Nothing in the life and ministry of Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospel, leads us to conclude that he will lead anyone into everlasting torture.
Dream for a moment that Jesus will get face-to-face with us and refuse to allow us to forget the pains we have inflicted on humanity and even our closest friends and family. This raw exposure to the truth, about ourselves, will be well beyond humbling, because God will expose our false selves. Our convenient veneers, our self-illusions will be bared, and we won’t be able to hide. God will forgive even as God shows us every instance that we carried a grudge or were miserly with our resources and our graces and our pardons. It is in the grace-filled glare of love’s pure light, that we will find ourselves indicted, yes, but more importantly forgiven and transformed and since the vast majority of us are way too hard on ourselves, we may not be able to accept it.
David Bartlett at Pittsburgh Presbyterian Theological Seminary says this, “Those Christians who are agnostic about last things are tempted to fall into a state of perpetual apathy. Those Christians who are [super] focused on last things are tempted to fall into a state of perpetual anxiety.” Matthew’s retelling of the words of Jesus encourages faith and discipleship rather than apathy, and hope rather than anxiety. Macbeth speaking the cynicism of Shakespeare professes that “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” For the Bible, and for the church, life is a tale told by a sovereign and loving God, enacted according to God’s grace, love and pleasure, and always moving toward making ALL things new. This is why in our communion liturgies we affirm that Christ comes again.
For Matthew, it is not that Jesus’ first coming was historical, and his second coming will be the end times. No, the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ means the church is already living and always will live in the turning of the ages. The End has begun, and we live in the in-between. We live in “the already” of the salvation we have experienced in Christ, and the “not yet” of salvation not being fully consummated in the world? Everyday God watches us, and everyday God tries to love us into discipleship.