Last Sunday we had technical difficulties and were unable to livestream or record worship. Several people asked if I would share my sermon with them since they missed it. Here is the manuscript version, slightly different that when I preach from notes, but the same message with foot notes and resources to go deeper if you so choose.
May this reflection be a blessing to you as we begin our Advent journey.
FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT
Week One: Daybreak Trail
November 27, 2022
First Congregational United Church of Christ
First Reading Matthew 24:36-44 NIRV
Our first reading comes from book of Matthew. It is part of the final teaching or discourse that Jesus gives before he is betrayed and arrested. This passage is the answer to an earlier question in Chapter 24 about when the temple will be destroyed. They, like us today, were looking for a certainty, a sure sign that would be easy to understand. Jesus offers something far more challenging that requires a new way of thinking.
Listen to the Spirit speaking to us through this ancient text today.
36 “But no one knows about that day or hour. Not even the angels in heaven know. The Son does not know. Only the Father knows. 37 Remember how it was in the days of Noah. It will be the same when the Son of Man comes. 38 In the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking. They were getting married. They were giving their daughters to be married. They did all those things right up to the day Noah entered the ark. 39 They knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be when the Son of Man comes. 40 Two men will be in the field. One will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill. One will be taken and the other left.
42 “So keep watch. You do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 You must understand something. Suppose the owner of the house knew what time of night the robber was coming. Then he would have kept watch. He would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready. The Son of Man will come at an hour when you don’t expect him.”
Second Reading Romans 13:11-14 NIRV
Our second reading is from the letter from Paul to the church in Rome where there is a dispute about whether Jesus followers should pay Roman taxes since they are now citizens of God’s realm. The use of day/night, dark/light, putting on/taking off ask the believers to make a shift from their former ways to this new way. It is, like the Matthew text, a call to think in a new way about how we are to live as followers of Christ.
Listen to the Spirit speaking to us through this ancient text today.
11 When you do these things, keep in mind the times we are living in. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. The full effects of our salvation are closer now than when we first believed in Christ. 12 The dark night of evil is nearly over. The day of Christ’s return is almost here. So let us get rid of the works of darkness that harm us. Let us do the works of light that protect us. 13 Let us act as we should, like people living in the daytime. Have nothing to do with wild parties, and don’t get drunk. Don’t take part in sexual sins or evil conduct. Don’t fight with each other or be jealous of anyone. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ as if he were your clothing. Don’t think about how to satisfy sinful desires.
May God add a blessing to hearing and understanding of these words.
Catching the SonRise
By Rev. Robin Lunn
How do we prepare for the unknowable?
The Cascadia quake?
Perhaps we follow the advice of the bumper sticker that reads, “Jesus is coming. Look Busy!”
While this is a cynical (and humorous) response to the Left Behind millennialism of 20th century Evangelical Christianity, too often this is the response that we have on a visceral level to the Matthew 24 texts. It is just so hard to “keep watch” in the face of our current reality.
Let’s put these challenging texts into some 1st century context so we can (hopefully) go beyond our gut feeling and modern cultural framing.
Matthew 24:36-44 is part of the final teaching or discourse that Jesus gave before he was betrayed and arrested. This passage is the answer to an earlier question in Chapter 24 about when the temple would be destroyed.
“Jesus left the temple. He was walking away when his disciples came up to him. They wanted to call his attention to the temple buildings. ‘Do you see all these things?’ Jesus asked. ‘What I’m about to tell you is true. Not one stone here will be left on top of another. Every stone will be thrown down.’” (Mt. 24:1-2)
During this walk-and-talk when they got to the Mount of Olives, the hill opposite the Temple, the disciples asked Jesus, “Tell us, when will this happen? And what will be the sign of your coming? What will be the sign of the end?”(Mt. 24:3)
They were looking for certainty, a sign that would be easy to understand about the “day and hour” so they could be ready.
In her note on this text in the Jewish Annotated New Testament-NRSV, Amy Jill Levine gives some context for this question. In 1st century Jewish and Rabbinic terms, the “end” that was framing this question was most likely based within an understanding of the general resurrection of righteous Jews that would happen at the “end of the age.” It was understood as a bodily resurrection when the righteous would be risen and rejoin the living.
Christians reframed this as the “Second Coming,” and yet the Jewish understanding was about and expected παρουσία, Parousia – the return of the messiah that would be inaugurated by a military parade, a display of power and might. Remember that this text comes from the final teaching before Jesus was arrested and AFTER he had come into Jerusalem to shouts of hosanna which means “Save us!” For many Christians today, the idea of a military Parousia to mark the return of the King is a central part of their theology.
However, for thousands of years, people have been getting ready for the return of the King – a military and political figure who will restore each generation’s preferred reality as a projection of God’s Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. The preferred reality of those living 200 years ago, 1000 years ago, or 2000 years ago is not the preferred reality we have in mind today.
But like all generations, the disciples wanted something concrete to rely on. They wanted a sign. They wanted to know when and how it would happen. And I suspect, we too want to know. We want clarity and certainty.
But Jesus only offers ambiguity. Jesus so very often only offers ambiguity.
“But no one knows about that day or hour. Not even the angels in heaven know. The Son does not know. Only the Father knows.” (Mt. 24:36)
Then to make matters worse, the letter Paul writes to the church in Rome only builds on this ambiguity. To the not knowing, Paul adds a sense of immanence. He writes in chapter 13, “The day of Christ’s return is almost here.“ It is “closer now than when we first believed in Christ.”
And yet, here we are.
Waiting, some more….
Trying to make sense of the eschatological moment, the “now and not yet” reality that we keep finding ourselves in. The “now and not yet” moment can be felt in the new normal that is this time between Pandemic and Endemic. There is no hard line, no military parade or resurrection of the dead that marks the beginning or ending in which we live.
And so we wait…
But waiting is hard on our nervous systems. The Pandemic taught us all about the physical toll of the “now and not yet” lifestyle.
Is it over?
No, not yet.
Can we stop wearing masks?
Our bodies become fatigued. We can experience adrenal failure. Depression and anxiety become the norm. Our fight or flight mechanisms are on hyper-alert. We slip into freeze or dissociation as a way to cope.
We eat too much.
Watch too much tv.
Play too many video games.
Swipe, swipe, swipe…
What we now know about our nervous systems is that anger is the quickest way out of a freeze state. Is it any wonder that authoritarianism is on the rise? Perhaps we can see this as an attempt to move out of societal freeze, depression, and anxiety.
Rage as the answer to “Look busy! Jesus is coming!”
I think the mainstreaming of Christian Nationalism in this country is another sign of our collective adrenal collapse. The logic of the Parousia, the heavily armed, flag waving, cross carrying, overwhelmingly Euro-American true believers shouting, “Save Us!”, says to me that the signs along the trail that we are on have become overgrown by the thorny vines of fear and fatigue, and a longing to move fully into the daylight of certainty, clarity, and action.
But this is not the trail we are being asked to take as followers of The Way – this Jesus Way. As we begin another Advent season, we are on the Daybreak Trail, again.
Watching and waiting…
Searching for signs from the wilderness…
In order to actually catch the SonRise – s-o-n rise…
The Daybreak Trail is one where traveling in that light before the sun moves above the horizon requires a certain kind of attention. It is a trail that demands we attune to our footsteps, our companions, the surroundings. It is a trail that asks us to leave the past behind. And while we are moving toward a summit or destination, it is about being right here, in this now, so our bodies can be resourced to keep trekking. It is about being attuned to the path in a way that brings peace and not war, collaboration and not conflict, trust and not fear.
So, what is this age to come that we are waiting for?
For me, the Isaiah text for today is a sign from the wilderness that keeps me on the right path.
“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.
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 the Holy One may teach us their ways
and that we may walk in their paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
The Holy One 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.
O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (Is 2:2-5)
The House of the Lord that offers a map for our journey to global justice and peace takes us on the Daybreak Trail where we will walk together in that light.
May we take this trail and never weary.
May we watch and wait for those who are struggling.
May we rest and restore for the way is long.
And may we offer signs of hope from the wilderness as people who keep believing that the Beloved Community is possible.
 The Left Behind book series, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins in the late 1990’and early 2000’s is a tale using the Christian Premillennialist Dispensational theology created in the 1830’s by the Anglo-Irish Baptist, John Nelson Darby. To read more about this phenomenon, click here to read an article by Pieter GR de Villers, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa.  The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New Revised Standard Version), edited by A.-J. Levine and M. Z. Brettler. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.  Most Jews still hold that the physical body must be preserved so that the chance of being raised in the general resurrection is available. Those who hold to this belief will not be cremated when they die.