This past Saturday my colleague Deb Rienstra had an excellent reflection on a different way to observe Advent from the wastelands of life all around us. In a somewhat similar vein—that is non-Christmasy reflections that are nonetheless a traditional part of the Church’s observance of Advent—I offer today an abridged version of a sermon I preached for the First Sunday in Advent from Matthew 24. The sermon title is “The Days of Noah.”
There is a photo that has made the rounds on Facebook in the last few years It is ostensibly from inside a bookstore that has posted a sign that says “Books on the Apocalypse Have Now Been Moved to the Current Events Section.” Well, maybe. All through history there have been eras when people were convinced they were living through the so-called “End Times.” How often haven’t we seen images of vaguely crazed looking individuals walking through public plazas carrying those huge “The End Is Near” signs over their shoulders?
Years ago in the original version of the movie Ghostbusters, there is speculation that a rash of ghost sightings in New York City was signaling the start of something they described as being of “biblical proportions.” When the New York City mayor asks what that means, the actors in the film, capped off by Bill Murray, describe it as “Real Old Testament, wrath of God stuff. Fire and brimstone coming down from the sky, seas and rivers boiling, forty years of darkness, earthquakes and volcanoes, the dead rising from the grave, human sacrifices, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!”
Needless to say that was not a religious film. But the dogs and cats part notwithstanding, much of that apocalyptic imagery really does come from the Bible. And it is so well known even in the wider culture that those are the very sets of images that arise automatically in people’s minds when they hear the term “apocalypse.”
Of course, the irony is that Christian people should know that “Apocalypse” is actually the Greek title of the Bible’s final book. And the reason we call that book “Revelation” in English is because that is what “apocalypse” means: it is the unveiling of something, the revealing of something. What’s more, it is the revelation of something good: the full in-breaking of God’s kingdom when Christ the King of kings returns. That is why an apocalyptic text from the four Gospels is always the text the church has traditionally turned to for the First Sunday in Advent.
Why begin the Season of Advent this way? Because the only reason to celebrate that first advent of Jesus 2,000 years ago is because he was God’s Son in the flesh. And if that is true, then the second advent of Jesus will also be true, and so we are supposed to spend some of this month longing for and pondering that upcoming advent. After all, if Jesus is not going to come again to make all things new and fully usher in his kingdom, then to be honest, there’s not much left to celebrate at Christmas. If the second coming is not true, then the first coming has all the meaning of the Grinch who stole Christmas or Rudolph’s red nose.
Christians are called to live with a certain bent toward the future. Because of what we believe to be true in the past, we have firm ideas on what the future holds, too. But because of the past’s reality and the future’s certainty, our lives in also this present moment are to be somehow changed. Even so, the last thing Jesus intended to suggest in Matthew 24 was that people who believe in his future return on clouds of glory must become starry-eyed sky-gazers who twiddle their thumbs in anticipation of Jesus’ second advent.
In fact, the first part of this chapter says that figuring out the precise timing of the end should not be our concern. Jesus says that even he himself does not know the precise day and hour when this will happen, which means among other things that neither has he been giving a secret code for us to crack. At the same time, however, he is telling us that there must be no doubt that such a date will arrive. When it does arrive, there will be no missing it. But until then, it will be like the days of Noah.
And what are the days of Noah? Normal times. Typical days. Ordinary moments. When Christ comes again, it will be a day when also Christian people will set out to work as usual, praying during their commute that their kids will have a good day at school, that Jill will do well on her algebra test, that Charlie will make the basketball team. Even Christian people will go into work thinking less about their Lord and Savior and more about getting that PowerPoint presentation ready for the next day’s important meeting.
When you live in the days of Noah, even as a Christian, your thoughts about the future are more likely to be about basketball teams and sales meetings than the return of Jesus. The days of Noah are the inevitable context in which we live. The Christian challenge is to live in the days of Noah but even so have a hope that transcends the typical routines of those same days.
But how difficult this is. “Therefore, keep watch” Jesus implores in verse 42. Keep watch he says. We know what it is to keep watch. We know about anxious watching on snowy nights when our teenager is out with the car. We cannot stop watching until we see the beams of the car’s headlights bounce off the garage door. We know what it is to keep watch when we are waiting for lab results from the hospital. When will the results show up in our My Health account or when will the nurse call with the mammogram results?
We understand that kind of watchfulness. We also know what it is to watch for a loved one arriving at the airport. We have participated in and seen such spectacles often. Just look at the people at the airport awaiting the arrival of a soldier returning after a long tour in Afghanistan. Those loved ones cannot sit still! They are up on their tippee-toes and are not even aware of it! When the arrival is imminent, it consumes you. But when watching goes on for a long time, when there is as a matter of fact no certainty as to when something will happen, then it’s pretty hard to keep watching in any ordinary sense of that term.
In Anne Tyler’s novel, The Amateur Marriage, we witness a sad series of events. The book’s main characters are Michael and Pauline, a pair of World War II-era sweethearts who get married and eventually have three children. But then one day their oldest child, Lindy, just disappears. She runs away from home and promptly falls off the face of the earth. For the first days, weeks, and even months, they watch for her return. They seize on any and every clue as to her whereabouts. They pace, they peer out windows, they listen for a key scratching at the front door’s lock, they sit bolt upright in bed in case they think they hear footfalls on the driveway. And when the phone rings, they cannot answer it fast enough.
But Lindy does not return. Over the years, her absence becomes just another part of life. They never finally give up on the idea that they’d see her again, but they stop watching for her. At first they were certain she’d be back soon. They would not have been at all surprised had she walked back through that front door. Years later, though, the surprise flipped: after a while, they would have been surprised if she had come back.
When you’ve got at least some idea of the day and hour of something, you watch for it. When you have no idea, even if deep-down you still hope it might happen by and by, you even so find it difficult to watch.
But Jesus tells us, “You have no idea when this will be. But keep watch.” Tough assignment, Jesus! So what does it mean for us to keep watch as our Lord says we must? I think the concept of “the days of Noah” provides the answer. If you look at the last verses of this chapter starting at verse 45, you will see a remarkable little line there. Because Jesus illustrates what he means by being watchful with a little vignette about a household servant who does no more than giving the other servants their food at the proper time.
In other words, the good servant is commended for making dinner! It doesn’t say that what is commendable about this servant is that he set up a huge telescope on a mountaintop to keep scanning the heavens for the first sign of the master’s return. It doesn’t say that he became an itinerant preacher who schlepps one of those “The End Is Near” signs through city streets. No, it says simply that what made him a good servant was that he made dinner and served it at the usual time. In other words, he did what he had to do in the typical days of Noah.
Can it be possible that being faithful to our Lord in our everyday routines demonstrates holy watchfulness for his return? Is being an honest office manager, a careful school bus driver, an ethical attorney, a thoughtful housewife or househusband really a sign that we are aware that Jesus is coming back? Yes, it is.
A few minutes ago I told you about Pauline, the character in the Anne Tyler novel. Eventually in the story the daughter Lindy does return home. But her mother Pauline does not live to see it. When Lindy shows back up, her father says to her, “Your mother never gave up hope, I could tell.” Oh, of course, Pauline had gotten on with life. But she just had a way of glancing out the window that let you know the hope was still there. When she had the chance to take a cruise with a group of friends, she refused. She came up with a dozen excuses but everyone knew that deep down the real reason was that she didn’t want to be gone in case Lindy came back. “Your mother never gave up hope. I could tell.”
Hollywood thinks the prospect of the apocalypse should frighten people. But for Christians the apocalypse is supposed to fill us with watchful hopefulness. It’s not easy, of course. Things happen in our lives. Dear ones die. Dreams are shattered. Families disintegrate. We maybe need not move books with apocalyptic themes to the Current Events section but we all recognize the tumultuous national moment we are living in. How easy it would be to give in to despair and cynicism. But our Lord in Matthew 24 tells us to be hopeful, to keep watch, to let grace infuse acts as simple as serving up a plate of spaghetti and meatballs for those whom we love.
This is also exactly what we remember each time we come to our Lord’s Table. The sacrament is part of our watchfulness. We remember what was in order to anticipate what will yet be. So we take, eat, drink, remember and believe. And we keep watch for that one whose sacrifice we celebrate and into his presence the bread and the wine usher us. Nourished by this spiritual meal, we go out to serve in love and grace. And as we do and when people peer into our lives in the days of Noah—our Monday afternoons and our Friday mornings—we want them to be able to say something akin to what Michael said of Pauline. “Those Christians, they never give up hope. We can tell.”
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