So the rush has begun! We each grip an endless list of pre-Christmas responsibilities! Dates are set on our calendar for family gatherings, children’s concerts, Christmas tree cutting excursions and the like. We turn the page of the calendar to December and borderline frenzy sets in! Not only was it the first day of the month on Sunday. It was also the first day for Advent calendars, when children open little windows that build up excitement for Christmas. And we kick off another church year with the season of Advent which began on Sunday! Additionally there’s the elf-on-a-shelf calendar that has undoubtedly begun in many households! So our Roman, Christian, and cultural calendars coincide this year! What is clear with the convergence of so many means of counting down time is that something significant launched on December 1!
The Common Lectionary places before us a passage that speaks of the end times: Matthew 24: 36-44. There’s such a clash between the advent texts and our cultural Christmas hype! As we get excited about putting up traditional decorations and purchasing gifts for loved ones, the lectionary confronts us with a passage that speaks of the end of the world as we know it! I’ve observed two typical responses to conversation about the apocalypse: we either roll our eyes and totally ignore it or become obsessed with pinning down the day and time. So how do we make sense of a passage that perhaps seems irrelevant to how we spend our time leading up to Christmas?
It’s interesting to note as this passage begins that Jesus acknowledges that no one knows when the culmination of human history will arrive. He Himself, both divine and human, does not know the plans of God. The Greek word for this is kenosis, an emptying that Christ voluntarily offered so as to limit His divine knowledge. It is only in doing so that He is able to experience life fully as a human being. The good news is that Christ doesn’t expect us to know everything! That’s a relief, isn’t it? There are folks in our community who claim to know it all. I wonder why it is that we never read the headline, “Psychic Wins Lottery”? Even those who boast of great spiritual insight seem to have limited access to enviable databases! Jesus lets His disciples know in this teaching moment in Matthew’s gospel that uncertainty is a condition of even the most devout followers.
Noah shows in this lesson that Jesus is teaching. I’m struck with the number of places in the Bible where forebears in the faith, including Jesus in this case, refer to the time of Noah. Christ’s point is that people in that time were going about their usual rhythms when God swept in with judgment. It was a time when folks had no concern for their own spiritual well-being or for bringing about justice in their world. And so, as when a thief breaks into a home, that time is not known and is therefore all the more dangerous. If we knew it was coming, we would shape up. But the end of this era, Jesus instructs, will arrive unexpectedly.
Jesus gives a couple of examples of how suddenly this judgment will be meted out. He describes two relationships: two women meeting at the shared mill in their compound, women who have worked alongside of each other presumably all their lives. He describes two individuals who work together in a shared field. In either case each pair knows each other well and is engaged in regular daily labor. God swoops in according to Christ’s hypothetical narrative. One person in each duo is ready and passes the test. They are swept up into heaven while the other is left behind. This one passage prompted the writing of a whole set of books that became known as the Left Behind Series. Needless to say, the authors took plenty of creative license given that they wrote hundreds of pages of fiction based on this picture that Jesus painted in one brief moment of his ministry. Folks have obsessed over knowing when God will break into our history so that they can guarantee their admission into the great beyond. But Jesus’ lesson flies in the face of this tendency to labor for our own salvation. The unexpectedness of the return of Christ will emphasize who is ready and who is not. There is nothing in between. It’s a Pass/Fail class. Sometimes there are advantages to that. In this case, the division is stark and frightening!
Jesus tells this story to His followers so that they understand that they must be vigilant for the time and manner in which God will interrupt ordinary life with a grand finale. He urges His disciples to keep watch. This means to keep looking and to be prepared. If we use His example, we assume the homeowner watching for the thief is also prepared to rebuff any effort to get into the home. To watch as Jesus urges means actively watching and preparing for God to break into our world.
Advent, the beginning to the Christian year, calls us to a continuing relationship with Christ who meets us where we are. Every day we mark on our calendar, we seek to serve in Jesus’ name. Whether we are looking at our past and trying to make sense of it or focusing on the desires for our future, Jesus is with us in the present. Advent resets our clocks by reminding us that we live in the ready position for Christ to break in today….or not until long after we have breathed our last. So our work is less important than the attitude with which we do our work. Are we watchful for the ways that Christ nudges us into service or are we driven by the interminable list of things we have put on our calendars? Are we awake to the reality that this day belongs to Christ and is a gift for our use? Or are we simply listening for the pings from our phones that remind us of deadlines and dates? Are we so busy driving our children from one event to the next that we fail to notice how much they just want to sit with us and read a book or talk over a quiet meal? Work is not the driving force in our lives for finding meaning. Our hope will come from a faith that encompasses every moment of every day and points us to something so much greater than our own agenda. Jesus asks us in this passage what work it is that we most highly value? Do we need to change our priorities and swap out our business itinerary for a spiritual tune-up?
Albert Lexie died last October, 2018, ending a long career shining shoes. For more than 30 years he polished shoes for guests and staff at Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Children’s Hospital. He charged $3 per pair and donated all the tips he earned to the hospital’s Free Care Fund for children. When Christopher Gessner became President of the hospital he gathered staff early on in his tenure for a meeting. He was puzzled when he noticed that half the people sitting around the table weren’t wearing shoes! He learned quickly that Albert showed up at the hospital on Tuesdays and Thursdays with a smile and a readiness to transform tired shoes into gleaming newness! Soon Gessner was doing business in his sock feet as well! It was no small task to get to the hospital for Albert. He would catch a bus near his home at 6AM and, after a couple of transfers, arrive at the health facility at 7:30, ready to do business. He believed that every kid who needed care should receive care. He lived on $10,000 per year and donated all his tips to the fund that he renamed simply and appropriately, “Albert’s Kids. His tips totaled more than $200,000! He sacrificially backed his conviction that all children should be treated regardless of financial means. It’s not the work we do that defines who we are. It’s the attitude with which we take on our tasks.
Talk of the end times has gripped people for generations. A surreal topic that’s hard to grasp, we actually live in to Christ’s appearance on a daily basis. In our congregation we hosted our first week of guests through an overnight shelter system for homeless families. On December 1 our volunteers met Jesus in the faces of our first Family Promise guests. As we served them a meal, sat with them in conversation and provided safe, clean space for them to sleep, we welcomed Christ into our building. I expect we will be changed as the hosts. Through our service Christ takes up residence in our hearts. Most talk surrounding the end times is intangible and ethereal. But, in fact, when we center each day on living our Christian faith, we recognize His presence in the hospital bed of someone who needs our kindness. We discern His nearness in the gentle smile of a nursing home resident yearning for conversation. Perhaps we see Him in the eager face of a shy student who brings cupcakes to share for his birthday. What sounds surreal is, in fact, the disciplined life we live each day: watching for Christ and responding to His call for wholehearted service.
So what kind of Calendar did you turn to on December 1? What Advent are you expecting? Is it the frenzied list that brings you to Christmas exhausted? Is it the elf who produces mystery and gifts on a daily basis? Is it the beginning of a church year that reminds us to live with wisdom from the past, faith for today and hope for a future of Christ’s shaping? What calendar are you following as you prepare for Christ’s birth?