Sunday, December 1st, 2013 – Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44 and Isaiah 2:1-5

Matthew 24:36-44

36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 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, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 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. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

 

First Reading
Isaiah 2:1-5

1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

When I was a youth director over in Rochester, we had an intern pastor named Eric. And Eric loved to go running. Everyday, he would go for a run, but you never knew when. Eric’s office was right next to mine and he was always dressed in business casual – nice shoes and slacks and a collared shirt, etc.  But of course, those are not the kinds of clothes you would go running in. Naturally, before Eric went for a run, he would change in his office. But the thing is, Eric would never pick up his work clothes, and hang them off the back of his chair, or lay them folded nicely on his desk. No, he would just leave them on the floor in a heap. His shirt, on top of his pants, on top of his shoes. So, it wasn’t uncommon to leave your office and see Eric working hard and then ten minutes later, when you return, see an entire outfit in a heap on the floor, as if he had vanished into thin air. Whenever this happened, those of us in the office always wondered if the end times had come, and Eric had been chosen and we had been left behind.

Society often calls this moment the rapture. When “the end” is coming, when Jesus is coming back to take back all of the chosen people, and to leave behind all the rest. It is an image of the world going through a time of trials and tribulations from which the faithful and the chosen get an excused absence. And the idea of this comes from the gospel reading in Matthew that we just heard. “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

The rapture has for some time been a common fear in our society. Remember Y2K and the excitement around the year 2000. How afraid everyone was of what was going to happen? And then in the last couple of years, there has been prediction after prediction after prediction of the end of the world and, thankfully, none of them have come true. But people can be so certain about the rapture and where they fit into it all, that they will proclaim it through their bumper stickers. One bumper sticker says: Warning: In case of the rapture, the driver of this car will disappear. Another says: When the rapture comes, can I have your car?[1]

This is a hard text. It is how the season of Advent, the beginning of our new year always starts out. With a hard text like this and it almost always invokes fear in most of us. But I have to say, I think we have misunderstood it.

First off, the word rapture doesn’t even exist in the Bible. Secondly, much of this understanding of the rapture comes from a 19th century priest named John Nelson Darby. He uses this scripture, but I think it is a misreading of it. Too often, we forget the opening words of our text: But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Jesus says that no one knows. Not even Jesus! So, when anyone wants to tell you that they know when the world will end, you remind them of Jesus’ words – no one knows. Not even Jesus.

If that 19th Century priest misunderstood this text, so how do we understand it? First, we have to remember that when Jesus preaches throughout the gospels, Jesus says the kingdom of God is near. The reign of God is at hand. Not just in Jesus’ day, but even now. The kingdom of God has come to this place. It is within you. We can access it. Now. At the end of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, I am with you always. Always. Even now.

What we miss is that if the kingdom of God is near, then God is always coming. Not just a second time, but over and over and over again, God is coming here. All the time. And it is always unexpected. And Jesus says, you better keep awake so that you can see it.

And that’s what Jesus wants. Jesus wants us to see that it is true. That the kingdom of God is…near. It is here. Not somewhere else, but right here, right now. And when you can see that, your whole world changes.

It’s like that magic eye art. Where there is a patterned image on a page, but if you look at it just the right way, you’ll see this 3D image popping out at you. Do you know what I am talking about? I remember as a kid, it took me forever to figure those out. All of my friends could see the sailboat or the basketball or the earth in 3D hidden within the picture, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t until someone told me to stop looking at the picture and look through the picture. Behind it. That’s when the image that was hidden came into view.  And now, I can’t stop seeing the 3D image. Now that I’ve learned how to see it.

I think it is the same with our gospel text. This isn’t about being frightened of when Christ is coming again. It’s about seeing that Christ has already come again and again and again. It is about looking behind what is happening in this world and seeing that the kingdom of God is already near. Jesus says, “Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” “The moment you are aware of Christ’s presence in the world, it is as if you have stepped into a new world. It is like you have left where you were and stepped into a new world.” It is the same earth, but now you can see Christ’s presence in it. What if that is what this text is about? The two people are standing in the field, one person realizes and sees Christ’s presence in this world and suddenly it is like they are taken into an entirely new place and the other person is left there. The two people might still be standing next to each other, but they are living in entirely different world. One person can see Christ in the world and the other can’t. [2]

And that’s how it is. God is coming to this place, not a second time. But a third and a forth, and millions and billions of times. God is always come near to us. Always. And when you can see that, it is like you are taken up into an entirely new world. A world where God is always around us. When we are afraid of Jesus’ second coming, Jesus is saying I’m already here! That’s is what this season of Advent is about: God saying to us, I am always coming to you. I am always being incarnated in your world. And so the work of Advent for us is learning to see that.[3] To look through this world and to see God in the ordinariness of it.

And when the ordinariness of the world gets combined with the presence of God, then it becomes extraordinary. The story of Christmas, the story of Christ’s birth is the story of God coming to us hidden in the human.[4] So that we might be able to live our lives not in fear that Christ is going to come and sweep some of us away and leave some of us behind, but so that we might live our lives in joy and expectation of seeing that Christ has already come and continues to be present with us always. So that we might be able to see farmers in our fields working beside one another as extraordinary, or standing at the kitchen counter making lefse beside one another as extraordinary. Or can you go to Hy-Vee at 2pm on an afternoon and see it all for what it is: the theater of the glory of God.[5] That the kingdom of God has come near and it is extraordinary.

But you know while this sounds good, this isn’t always easy. This is why Jesus says, “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.” If we know when God is coming to us, we will often times not let God in. Because when God comes, God changes everything. And God asks us to do hard things for the sake of a better world.

We heard about this in the Isaiah text. Isaiah speaks a word from God to the people: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” When God comes to you, God asks something of you. To beat your swords into plowshares and your spears into pruning hooks. Swords and spears are tools that bring violence. Plowshares and pruning hooks are tools that bring life. When you see the presence of God all around you in the ordinary, you’ll see that God asks you to do hard things – like turn the tools that bring violence in our culture into to tools that bring life. What are the tools of violence that we need to dismantle into tools that bring life?  As America Christians we should be dismantling our drones and turning them into water wells for those without clean drinking water. Maybe we should re-rig them to deliver bread to our enemies instead of bombs.

This is the Christian life, folks. And it is not always easy. This is the life that we are baptizing Foster into. This is a sacrament where something ordinary, like water, is combined with the promise-filled word of God and it becomes extraordinary. An event of God’s grace-filled presence.[6] We are baptizing Foster into world where Christ is always coming to him. But where Christ is also asking of him difficult things. Hard to do things for the sake of a better world. I wonder what will be the swords and the spears of Foster’s generation. And may we teach him not to be afraid of the second coming of Jesus, but rather teach him to trust that God is always coming to him. And may we teach him to be brave enough to follow God’s calling and to take tools of violence and turn them into tools of life.

Because this is not just Foster’s work, but ours as well. This is a life that we all are communing into when we take Holy Communion. This is a sacrament where some ordinary things, like bread and wine, are combined with the promise-filled word of God and it becomes extraordinary. An event of God’s grace-filled presence. We are communing into a life where Christ is always coming to us. But where Christ is also asking of us difficult things. Hard to do things for the sake of a better world. May we not be afraid of the second coming of Jesus, but rather to trust that God is always coming to us. And may we be brave enough to follow God’s calling and to take tools of violence and turn them into tools of life. Sounds like an ambitious but worthy goal for us in this new year. Happy new year, everyone. I look forward to it with you. Amen.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven,pg. 110.

[2] I am indebted to Rev. John Van De Laar for this insight in his sermon from November 2010, found at aslowwalk.org.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Alan Storey insight

[6] Daniel Erlander’s Let the Children Come, pg. 3.

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