Sermon Seeds: Stay Alert
Sunday, November 27, 2022
First Sunday of Advent| Year A
(Liturgical Color: Violet or Blue)
Days to Come (Click here for the series overview.)
Cheryl A. Lindsay
It sounds like the beginning of a horror movie or the content of your worst nightmare.Imagine living your life, going about your daily routine, and being unaware that a seismic change was imminent. In fact, cinema has taken the imagery evoked by this passage in order to inject a deep emotional response in a variety of works. It’s always the one taken and one left that is emphasized even if the circumstances are updated for a contemporary audience. What would it look like in your life? Perhaps, you might be in a denominational gathering. Half the gathering is taken and the other remains. You could be working at home, you remain but your partner is taken up. Some may be on their morning run to a coffee shop. Suddenly, your barista is taken up but the cashier remains.
This is scary stuff. It’s disorienting and unsettling. You want to dismiss the probability of this occurring, but Jesus has prefaced his remarks with a reminder of the days of Noah. Jesus situates his admonishment for today by connecting the predicted future with the known past. A similar move has happened before. Noah’s contemporaries did not know that their last day was their last day. Jesus does not suggest that the devastation will be as eradicating as that reset, but it will be devastating to those who aren’t destroyed but are left behind. It’s enough to inspire nightmares, but instead of a horror film, this story is contained within the gospel of Matthew. Yet, is the good news supposed to keep us up at night?
This is a connective story within a connective gospel. Like most biblical narratives, it is not written in the moment that the events transpire. In fact, several decades have passed. The biblical writer situates the life and ministry of Jesus to speak to their particular audience who are experiencing particular events shaping their lives. Matthew’s narrative is first heard in light of the destruction of Jerusalem, an event as significant to the people of the writer’s day as the flood in Noah’s.
Jerusalem’s devastation made an example out of Jewish people. It reminded the rest of the empire that Roman power was not to be challenged. It also raised significant theological issues and questions about the identity, way of life, and future of Jewish communities in the empire. What was God doing? Had God withdrawn God’s presence and blessing? Was the event punishment? If so, was there forgiveness? How should they live so as to prevent such a terrible thing happening again?
“And this military-political event posed special challenges for Jesus-followers. They followed one who had been executed on a cross. Rome used crucifixion, a cruel form of the death penalty, to punish runaway slaves, bandits who attacked elite personnel and their property, and insurrectionists against Roman rule. Jesus’ death by crucifixion placed him in such company. The alliance comprising the Roman governor Pilate, the face of Roman power in Judea, and the Jerusalem leaders with whom Pilate shared power, had viewed Jesus as a threat for attacking the temple that was the basis for their power, for proclaiming an alternative empire, and for being understood as a king not sanctioned by Rome. In telling the story of Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel interprets and addresses this post-70 situation. How did followers of one crucified by Rome negotiate a world defined by a fresh assertion of Roman power?”
Matthew’s account is particularly biographical in nature, locating the life of Jesus within the context of world events and leaders impacting the Jesus story. The identity of Jesus is emphasized, from his ancestral line to his experiences to his relational encounters. His story is told in six parts (double the number of acts as a typical play). This portion is found in the fifth part, which “narrates his increasing conflict with the ruling powers in Jerusalem, his curses and judgment on their imperially allied world, and his crucifixion as rebel king and death (chs. 21–27).” (Warren Carter) Here Jesus shares a prophetic word that tethers past and future through the present, all mired in conflict. Only the past is certain, the future is predictive, and the present is determinative. All connect to Jesus and his salvific promise in this moment.
This Gospel is for a church (neither a people nor a religion) in transition and in the process of defining itself. Thus, it forcefully emphasizes the quest for Christian identity by little ones and marginalized people. This theme is already expressed by the theological concepts of faithfulness to the law (as interpreted by Jesus) and of the destiny of God’s people, which should be read in terms of the separation and tension caused by Jesus the Messiah, the authoritative teacher and redeemer sent by God. For Matthew, the key of history is christological: past, present, and future should be viewed in light of Christ. Matthew simultaneously presents a narrative plot about Jesus and theological subthemes. Consequently, the interactions among several possible meanings, traditions, and typologies shape each passage…. Matthew’s history is a sacred history in which God intervenes. But it is neither a history of Israel, nor a history that ends with Jesus, nor again a history of the Church, as we conceive of it today. It is a history in which the Old Testament is neither forgotten nor abandoned, but fulfills the great promise of God, clarified in Jesus who emphasizes this promise in the history of Israel in the canon of Scripture. Matthew opens up the sacred history of Abraham to include Jesus, as well as events of his own days and of the future. Thus, we should pay attention to the periodization of sacred history posited by Matthew, for whom the central event is Jesus, and for whom the continuing presence of Jesus is a promise for the future. For Matthew, sacred history is a history of salvation given to those who respond to Jesus’ teachings and deeds with complete ethical commitment.”
Unlike most prophecies, Jesus does not explicitly offer the promise of redemption upon repentance. If we consider most of the prophetic works of the Old Testament, the Holy One invites the people to return fully to their covenantal relationship as a community. No matter how pervasive the impending doom may be, it can be avoided or at least mitigated by that communal turning toward the Creator.
In this prophecy, Jesus implies that how one lives will impact their fate but the communal nature is deemphasized. Individuals are called to be ready. That does not mean, however, that Jesus is dismantling the communal nature of discipleship or the kindom of God. He does deconstruct and re-center it.. Belonging in the kindom is not by birthright, inheritance, or ancestral lineage. Belonging comes by acceptance of God’s inclusive invitation. Entering the kindom does not depend upon inclusion in any other community that may have barriers and gatekeeping. This repudiation of existing norms drove much of the conflict that Jesus experienced with authority figures in his time.
A note here about focusing on the people of that conflict: The way of Jesus has perpetually been in conflict with those of authority–during his earthly ministry and after his ascension. Regrettably, Christians have too often demonized our Jewish siblings based on the specificity of the conflict during the time of Jesus. If we consider the true nature of the conflict between the kindom of God and the kingdoms of this world today, however, we will often find that those in authority, and in opposition to kindom purposes, cloak themselves in Christianity even if their walk does not demonstrably follow Jesus.
Advent invites remembrance and anticipation. It is a season that particularly holds the certainty of the past and the predictability of the future with the choices of the present. Earlier in church history, repentance served as a critical component of the expression of the Advent season. Today, it’s more common to embrace a joyful anticipation. But, as scary and full of conflict as this story may be, I suggest that joy and repentance need not be in opposition.
Perhaps, the challenge of our age is to find the joy in turning toward God, to walking humbly, to loving mercy, and doing justice. The vision Jesus gives seems grim, but like the days of Noah, it’s the promise of a reset that enables a renewal, a refreshing, and a restoration of God’s good creation. Unlike the days of Noah, in the days to come, we have agency, power, and open invitation to participate in crafting the end of our own story. What if we lived our lives holding that past remembrance and future vision in mind as we choose our present actions? What if we treat the possible as probable, like the property owner who guards against intrusion? What if we choose the possible as probable and follow the way of the kindom on earth as in heaven?
What if we believed we could eliminate gun violence?
What if we determined to eradicate every “-ism” and their destructive consequences?
What if we hope the possible as probable and stay alert?
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“Bury Me in a Free Land”
— Frances Ellen Watkins Harper – 1825-1911
Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.
I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.
I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother’s shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.
I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.
I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.
If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.
I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.
I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.
For further reflection
“Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.” — Maya Angelou
“This is what the past is for! Every experience God gives us, every person He puts in our lives is the perfect preparation for the future that only He can see.” — Corrie ten Boom
“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another)… There are just some kind of men who – who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.” — Harper Lee
“Aliveness, he will teach, is a gift available to all by God’s grace. It flows not from taking, but giving, not from fear but from faith, not from conflict but from reconciliation, not from domination but from service. It isn’t found in the upper trappings of religion -rules and rituals, controversies and scruples, temples and traditions. No, it springs up from our innermost being like a fountain of living water. It intoxicates us lie the best wine ever and so turns life from disappointment into a banquet.” ― Brian D. McLaren
Carter, Warren. “Matthew.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Duarte, Alejandro. “Matthew.” Daniel Patte, Ed. Global Bible Commentary. Nashville: Abington Press, 2004.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Invite the gathered community to engage the Advent Unwrapped Resources (a collaboration between the United Church of Christ and the United Church of Canada) found here.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=1