Sermon Seeds: Learning Peace
First Sunday of Advent Year A
Additional reflection on Matthew 24:36-44
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
Walter Brueggemann has likened today’s beautiful passage from the prophet Isaiah to the “I have a dream” speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but most days our reality is a long way from either prophet’s vision of peace, justice, and healing. This year, like every year, we read this text in the context of war: conflicts and struggles flare and threaten to flare all over the world, in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt…in our cities and neighborhoods, as well, our homes and workplaces, our relationships with one another, perhaps even within the walls of our congregation. We’ve come to understand the absence of peace in other ways, too: in the threat of terrorism that makes even “peaceful” days feel ominous and “secure” places unsafe, in the growing anger of the dispossessed that threatens to explode, in the damage to the earth that we will leave as a tragic legacy to our grandchildren, and to theirs as well. (Who ever heard of a “super storm” before? And yet the Philippines lie devastated from only the most recent one, and we have to wonder if nature itself is at war with us.)
It isn’t hard then to imagine how the people of Israel must have felt over the centuries in the face of threat, destruction, and exile by one empire after another. More than 500 years before the time of Jesus, they listened to this dream, this vision of the future, and then they looked at their once-beautiful city, Jerusalem, burned and battered by powers that must have appeared unstoppable. Still, they held on to their trust in the promises of One more powerful than any empire and any destructive force; this week’s passage is Isaiah’s recitation of God’s promise of a future very different from what was visible just then. The prophet’s words are so graceful, so haunting, so expressive of our deepest yearnings that we even use them in our public life as a vision for all of God’s children: James Limburg tells us that these words are engraved on a wall near the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City, where they inspire the work of many nations, many different peoples who yearn to live together in justice and peace (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). What a beautiful and grace-filled image to hold in our hearts during these cold and difficult days!
We hear this text not only in a time of conflict and war but in a new season at the beginning of a new church year: Advent, the time of waiting, and so much more. Again, Brueggemann: “Advent is an abrupt disruption in our ‘ordinary time’…an utterly new year, new time, new life.” While the world around us wraps up another year hoping for increased consumer spending and waiting for final reports on this year’s profits, the church has already stepped into a new time, to begin a season of hoping and waiting for something of much greater significance than profits or spending: “Advent invites us to awaken from our numbed endurance and our domesticated expectations,” Brueggemann writes, “to consider our life afresh in light of new gifts that God is about to give” (Texts for Preaching Year A). At the beginning of a new church year, we dare to hope for something much better than the news may report. We begin a new time remembering who is really in charge of everything, and setting our hearts on being part of this One’s plan. As beautiful as these verses are, they paint a very clear picture: God is the One who brings this dream to reality, but there’s work for us to do, too, in re-shaping the instruments of war, violence, and destruction into instruments of peace and provision for all.
So, there are words of comfort and promise about what God is going to do, but between the lines, there’s a call as well for us to participate in bringing the dream to reality. We suspect that Dr. King expected us not just to sit around waiting for the great day of peace and justice but to work as we wait. Isaiah too wants us to loosen the grip on our swords and the instruments of war and to take up the things of peace, to “walk in the light of the Lord.” It sounds really, really nice, but Brueggemann says there is, of course, a catch: “God wills for the world…a center of justice and righteousness that will get our minds off our petty agenda and our penchant to protect our little investments. I find that vision overwhelming – and not very welcome, because the things I value most I am reluctant to lose or risk, and even more reluctant to share” (Peace). The things of war between nations are also things that we struggle with as individuals, in our own personal lives. What are the “little investments” we protect?
We might claim that the nations, alas, can’t beat their swords and spears into the things of peace just yet, much as they might want to, because there are still so many situations in which those weapons are needed. Isn’t that how we “keep” a kind of peace, at least, until a better one is possible? But Isaiah promises a day when God’s ways will fully shape how we live, not just some of us, but every single person – “all the nations…many peoples” streaming toward the bright light of peace, and enough, for all. It may not look like that right now, but Advent is about taking the long view of things. And, in the meantime, James Limburg reminds us that God invites, or better, calls us not just to imagine and dream but to make peacemaking a priority in our everyday lives (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). Many people may doubt that seeking peace through justice will prove effective in turning back the dogs of war, but, as Mary Hinkle Shore claims, “even skeptics have to admit that justice, safety, and widespread prosperity have a better chance of resulting in peace than injustice, danger, and disparity of wealth” (New Proclamation Year A 2007-2008). In his November 1, 2010 column in the New York Times, “Fast Track to Inequality,” Bob Herbert wrote movingly – and disturbingly – of the dramatically growing disparity of wealth in the United States in the past few years, even during this economic recovery of sorts. Three years later, the middle class continues to erode and disproportionate wealth continues to move upward to a small segment at the top of the economic ladder. We can’t bear to imagine what happens to those at the bottom. (See Reinventing the Dwindling Middle Class) Perhaps these post-modern texts could be read alongside the ancient one, in order to hear the challenge of the prophet and the call of God to respond.
If this text were not so comforting and full of hope, it would be painful to read. Indeed, how our hearts long for a time – the time – of peace in the world! Perhaps the most powerful affirmation in the text, however, is that history belongs to God and will surely unfold as God sees fit. What then, is your role, your church’s role, the wider church’s role, in bringing in the great day described by the prophet Isaiah? How does the ministry of your church, and the spiritual lives and practices of its members, point to, anticipate, and participate in the in-breaking of this day, this dream of God?
As we steep ourselves in Advent observance and look forward as much as backward in time for inspiration and hope, what do we truly long for in our lives? What price are we willing to pay for it? Have we constructed our lives to protect what we have, as individuals, communities, and nations? Haven’t we often beaten our pruning hooks into spears in order to protect what we claim as our own? As we write our Christmas cards, with their lovely scenes of serenity, grace, and good wishes, in what ways are we pursuing peace in our lives and in the world around us? This Advent, for the sake of peace, what steps might we take to heal division, alienation, and broken relationship in our family, our community, and the world? Beginning with just one step, one relationship, perhaps one apology or offer of peace? Do we believe that we can be part of God’s dream?
How can people of faith transcend our differences and speak with one voice about the call to peace given by a God who – today – loves each one of us? What can we share in common – our care for our children, for the earth, for the future – that brings us together in recognition that we, and our lives, belong to the same God and therefore find our common ground in peace, not war? What ways do we need to imagine for our interactions to change? How might we deepen our respect for one another? How might we hear one another, and in the hearing, listen for the voice of the Still-speaking God?
For further reflection:
Jo Hudson, Gathering Pastor of Extravagance UCC, 21st century:
“There is a world of hurt out there that needs the word of hope in here.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
“The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all God’s children.”
Fred Rogers, 20th century
“When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”
Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages 1985-1995
“Dad, how do soldiers killing each other solve the world’s problems?”
John Lennon, 20th century
“All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”
Perhaps there are more than a few folks in our congregations who have finished up Thanksgiving, survived the first, crazed days of holiday shopping, turned on the Christmas carols, and immersed themselves in decorating, but probably have not given too much thought during that time to The End of the World. In fact, each year, there are undoubtedly those who are perplexed (and not entirely pleased) when, during such a festive yet quietly holy season (outside the malls and traffic jams, that is), the church calls us to ponder things that seem more suited to bumper stickers and bestsellers. Many Christians are uncomfortable, for example, with the Left Behind series and its extremely apocalyptic take on religious faith. To be honest, a passage like this one from the Gospel of Matthew is just the sort of text that provokes a certain uneasiness we’d rather dismiss, so that we can concentrate instead on the “main” message of the Gospels, which is, of course, love. God’s love, and God’s command to love one another, and the sweet little baby who is coming soon as the promise of love and peace and goodness. I know that I for one have always preferred that message to disconcerting talk of apocalyptic terrors.
However, focusing on the baby who came into the world one night long ago, and ignoring the promises of a God who comes into the world, into our lives, this very day (and tomorrow, too, and the day after that), surely misses the bigger picture of the story of salvation history. Here it seems reasonable to note that the word “salvation” resembles “salve,” and both have to do with healing, and so does the long arc of God’s story with us, the re-creation, the healing, the repair, of God’s beautiful gift of creation, from each of our “little” lives to the long sweep of human history and the graceful earth that holds it up. Did you ever notice, though, how much our Christmas celebrations focus on the past, for example, on a peaceful little stable long ago that we have, alas, romanticized; how many of us really understand what it would be like to give birth in a stable, next to large animals? Occasionally, there is mention of a hope that someday in the future the whole world will be peaceful, as God wants it to be, but even during Advent, we’d rather think and talk and imagine backward rather than forward, toward the fulfillment of all things.
And yet, we live in a time (probably not so unlike any other time) when people are searching for meaning, seeking to understand their own lives, their own inner selves, but also to find something larger than themselves in which to place their trust, their faith, their hope. We want to think that all of this means something, and is going somewhere, don’t we? Many years ago, I remember reading for the first time about existentialism, and the search for meaning, and the loneliness of the individual in a hostile universe, and the difference between atheistic and Christian existentialism (which should be fairly obvious; atheistic existentialism can really make one shudder). Those memories came back as I read commentaries on this text: like many preachers, I would prefer to preach on the Isaiah text. It’s so lovely, while this Gospel passage makes me wrestle with things I’d rather not think about.
I confess that I grew up with an inordinate fear of the End of the World, and it didn’t help matters that we were regularly reminded of the threat that the atomic bomb posed to our everyday existence. At any moment, we were told, a siren could go off and we were to jump under our desk for cover – that was the sum total of our preparedness, our watchfulness, for what would have surely been, in its own way, a sudden, unexpected, unpredictable end of the world. But there was that other End, too, the one that God would initiate, the one that, like “The Bomb,” would come from the sky and be even more terrifying. Today, our long-term state of preparedness, keeping us always on the edge of fear because of terrrorism, has a more contained, focused scope, and does not suggest, perhaps, the end-of-all-things scenario of nuclear warfare (don’t we call that “unthinkable”?). And yet even our preparations and wariness can’t wipe out our anxiety or our sense of helplessness in the face of things we can’t understand or control. If life provides so many reasons to live with such a powerful undertow of anxiety, isn’t it understandable that we’d rather think about shopping, and decorations, and carols, and a sweet baby in a stable long ago and far away?
What does the church have to say about all of that? The church turns our attention toward the future, and the present, not just the past, although that past helps us to remember who God is, and how God works in the world, in our lives, so we can get a much better sense of where we are headed, and what the promises of God will bring. And that’s why Advent is such a beautiful season: it remembers and re-tells the story of people who, like us, were waiting for the promises of God to be fulfilled, and striving to live faithfully as they waited. We note that an important practice of faithfulness, of course, is repentance, turning away from the paths that have taken us away from God, turning off the things that have drowned out God’s voice in our hearts and minds, turning toward new ways of living that offer hope not just to us but to those we encounter, in our personal lives, and in the whole world that God loves.
Our passage today consists entirely of words from Jesus, who has been preaching in the Temple here, near the end of his ministry and life, and now speaks in private to his disciples, whose attention has been caught by Jesus’ observation that the great stones of the Temple would be brought down, with all the physical and symbolic impact that would hold. His followers then get absorbed with technical details about timing – just as his followers do today – and our text is one part of a much longer response f
om Jesus about how we should live “in the meantime,” between his life and death and resurrection, and his return to make all things whole, and right, and healed again. While some scholars believe that Matthew’s Jesus is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem that had occurred by the time the Gospel was written down, and others say that his words could be applied to an individual’s personal death and judgment, there is much agreement that Jesus held what we call “apocalyptic” hope within his heart as well, a hope for God’s purposes to come to fulfillment in dramatic and transformational ways. And there is much agreement that Jesus, who was human as well as divine, did not know the exact timing on all of this; John and James Carroll write that “Jesus speaks with assurance and conviction, not with certitude based on divine omniscience and precognition” (Preaching the Hard Sayings of Jesus). Many commentaries note the eagerness and confidence of Christians who claim knowledge that Jesus himself says that he does not have (Matthew 24:36). However, Jesus does claim that God has indeed already broken into our human history, changing things, beginning the work of setting things right. We Christians believe this is evident in the life and work and teachings of Jesus himself.
Mary Hinkle Shore observes that Matthew moves in this chapter from the cosmic and grand to the most mundane images, from the sun and moon going dark and the stars falling from heaven, to workers in the field and women grinding meal. How do we connect apocalyptic images to our own mundane, ordinary lives? Shore reminds us that apocalyptic literature has been understood as addressed to people who are suffering from terrible oppression, to give them hope that things are going to change, and change suddenly and dramatically, because help is on the way. But this text is different, she says, because here Jesus’ audience seems less oppressed than “sleepy,” for “whether they are persecuted or privileged, they no longer believe that anything will change. They imagine today and tomorrow looking exactly like yesterday, and after days, months, and years of such scaled-back expectations, they are getting…very…sleepy.” Shore reflects on the way God “wakes” people up, suddenly, most unexpectedly, sometimes with good things, and sometimes not, but in any case, the “intervention of God into human affairs cannot be managed or scheduled the way many of the events of our days can be. Whether God’s advent is as manageable as a heart attack, or as manageable as falling in love, either way, you know you are not in control” (New Proclamation Year A 2007-2008).
Thomas Long’s beautiful commentary on Matthew’s Gospel includes a moving reflection on this text that connects that sense of unpredictability with deep “human suffering, indifference, and cynicism,” and the challenge they present to everyday discipleship. Long suggests that the very unpredictability of God in a text like this strengthens our ability to persevere in spite of that suffering, because “at any moment we may be surprised by the sudden presence of God.” (I think we could say that we never know what to expect from God, but we always know what we can count on.) Long makes, perhaps, the most important point for us to take home from church after hearing a sermon on this somewhat disconcerting text, that “we may never know when we may encounter the living God waiting for us around the next bend,” and that such a “moment of holy surprise, is but an anticipation of the great climax of all human history and longing, when the world, seemingly spinning along in ceaseless tedium, will find itself gathered into the extravagant mercy of God” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).
As we wait, and trust, in that extravagant mercy of God, Matthew gives us a very strong hint of how we are to live in preparation for Jesus’ return, for his next chapter contains the familiar terms of judgment Jesus will use. David Bartlett writes: “One day Jesus may appear in the clouds, suddenly, like a thief in the night. But before that – as Matthew reminds us – Jesus will appear just around the corner, suddenly, like a hungry person, or a neighbor ill-clothed, or someone sick or imprisoned” (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1). How we respond to Jesus in these terms will shape, Matthew says in chapter 25, how Jesus encounters us on that great day of fulfillment. And that fulfillment isn’t the end but just the beginning, Richard Swanson’s excellent commentary claims: “Jewish and Christian hopes are better characterized as expecting the Beginning of the World, not the end, the freeing and fruition of creation, not its destruction.It is a good exercise to raise your eyes to the horizon of this event” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew).
On this first day of a new church season and a new church year, then, as we long for a new heaven and a new earth even as we seek to live our lives right here, right now, in ways that are pleasing to God and utterly trusting in God’s goodness, let us turn to the inspiring and comforting words of Barbara Brown Taylor: “Every morning when you wake up, decide to live the life God has given you to live right now. Refuse to live yesterday over and over again. Resist the temptation to save your best self for tomorrow.” There’s no need to get lost in the technical details of timing, or to try to know something even Jesus himself did not know. Instead, Taylor urges us to focus on how we live, today: “Live a caught-up life, not a put-off life, so that wherever you are….you are ready for God….Ours may be the generation that finally sees him ride in on the clouds, or we may meet him the same way generations before us have – one by one by one, as each of us closes our eyes for the last time. Either way, our lives are in God’s hands” (“On the Clouds of Heaven” in The Seeds of Heaven). How very beautiful. Amen!
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 ploughshares,
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!
I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of God!”
Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together.
To it the tribes go up, the tribes of God,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of God.
For there the thrones for judgment were set up,
the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
“Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Sovereign our God,
I will seek your good.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
“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.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
Notes on Liturgical Colors
Advent and Christmas
The Violet color for Advent is traditionally connected with royalty and penitence. Blue is symbolic of expectation and hope, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ’s return at the end of history. Rose on the third Sunday of Advent, which was Gaudete (Joy), provided a little relief from the somberness of Advent in earlier times. Some Advent wreath sets include a rose candle. White first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are related in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. White is also used for Easter and Sundays following. (Some traditions use Gold or both for Christmas and Easter.)