Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44
December 1, 2019
The book of Isaiah tells of a tortured history of the Jewish people living in fear of invasion by foreign armies. Isaiah was a prophet who warned the people they needed to trust God to care for them, no matter what happened. In the second chapter Isaiah offers a vision of the world at peace. It is especially striking considering what the people of Judah were going through at that time when their lives were anything but peaceful.
Readings from the book of Isaiah are included in worship many Sundays in the season of Advent. The words of the prophet Isaiah help Christians understand how the Jewish people anticipated the coming of their Savior, and the hopes they had for the Messiah. Isaiah sets the stage for our understanding the coming of Christ into our world.
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 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 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. 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. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
The lectionary, the prescribed set of Bible readings, has us begin this first Sunday of a new lectionary cycle considering the end time. It feels a bit odd when we are entering the ‘most wonderful time of the year’ to be talking about something so difficult and depressing. Try to listen and see if it is only dire warnings meant to frighten or if there might be something more that Jesus was saying.
“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.
If the word Advent means “coming” what are we awaiting? Throughout Advent the passages of Scripture assigned us all have a sense of waiting. This first week of Advent the Gospel passage looks to Judgment Day. I don’t imagine many of us think about the end of the world as we began preparing for the festivities of the holiday season!
Advent tells us of the Savior for all the world born in Bethlehem – while also telling us that Christ will come again. It is what we do this Advent season, waiting for something that happened some 2000 years ago, but also living with an eye towards what is still to come in some unknown time.
It is a bit startling on this first Sunday of Advent to be confronted with images of Judgment Day. No matter how you understand the Judgment Day, (if you have even ever thought of it!), the images of being judged for how we lived our entire life, no matter how good we tried to be, is, well frightening. It is not something you want to linger on too long or you won’t get to sleep at nights.
I think it was the theologian Karl Barth who said you stand staring into the abyss long enough, you are bound to fall in. So, here is what I would offer on this first Sunday of Advent. Jesus said we cannot know the day or time when the end would come. But he also said a lot about how we are to live our lives in the meantime.
Jesus gave another illustration in what comes in the next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel that is often titled in Bibles: ‘The Judgment of the Nations.’ It is a message that I love. It guides us in how to live. If you recall, it is where Jesus talks about separating the righteous from the unrighteous by the way they had served God.
At the time of judgment the righteous hear: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” And the righteous answer: “Lord when did we do those things for you?” And the answer: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
The passage tells the unrighteous the reverse: you did not care for the ones who are the least of my family and so you did not do it to me. Faith in action is faith that is real and visible and sharing God’s love.
It is interesting this Advent message. We are preparing for what has already come – the birth of a Savior. But we are also preparing for what is yet to come.
That theologian, Karl Barth, talked about in-between time. If Barth were alive now, he might call it the liminal time – a threshold between what has been and what is yet to come.
Apply it to our Advent texts and it would be the time we prepare for something that has already come – the birth of the Christ – as well as the time yet to come, when Christ returns again. It is how we live our lives, managing polarities. Like the people Isaiah spoke to, we can find ourselves in the midst of darkness when life gets hard – when sorrow comes or we find ourselves immersed in uncertainty or even fear about the future. We look forward to a better time, to a time when we can walk in the light of God grace.
Isaiah’s vision is one we still await – for a time when there will be justice and peace, and no need for weapons of war, when those weapons will in fact become tools for feeding the hungry, when everyone is treated with the same love and respect, where no one has to sleep outside on a cold night, where we care for our earth like our home. It is a hope for transformation and justice for our weary world.
Today, as we enter the season of Advent in the church, we begin the journey to Bethlehem and the coming of Emmanuel – God with us. It is hard work staying focused on the message of Advent. It takes concentration to hear God’s message above the noise and the demands and emotions that come with this time of year.
Meister Eckhart was a German mystic who was born in Germany in the mid 13th century. He was a Catholic priest, scholar, teacher, and writer, but his search into the mystery of God is why he is remembered today. Meister Eckhart wrote this about the coming of Christ to the world:
What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself?
And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace,
and if I am not also full of grace?
What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to the Son
If I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?
Every day we are called to share in creation – to bring forth that which is yet to be born.
As followers of the Christ, we are called to be those who bring to birth that which is yet to come. In this Advent season, we are confronted with the eternal mystery and wonder of God coming to earth in the birth of the Christ child. Through it, God shows us a vision of what the world can be. In the birth of Jesus, a hope is born – a hope to be fulfilled when Christ comes again. Our focus is not on the past but on the present – with hope for the future.
Advent invites us to remember the story of God’s presence coming to us in the Christ born in Bethlehem. Advent invites us to celebrate how God continues to come to us – born in our lives once again. And Advent invites us to be transformed by the message of hope given for all the world.
Thanks be to God!