United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds December 1 2019

First Sunday of Advent Year A

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Worship resources for First Sunday of Advent at Worship Ways

Lectionary citations:
Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Isaiah 2:1-5
Additional reflection on Matthew 24:36-44

Focus Theme:
Choose to Wait

Reflection:
by Kathryn M. Matthews

The great biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, has compared this week's beautiful passage from the prophet Isaiah to the "I have a dream" speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but, alas, most days our lived reality is still a long, long way from either prophet's vision of healing, justice, and peace.

This year, we close our eyes and listen to the words of this dream with heavy hearts, thinking of the conflicts and war that flare and threaten to flare all over the world, from Syria to Central America...and in our cities and neighborhoods, as well, our homes and workplaces, our relationships with one another (the political and the personal, too), whether in our families or within the walls of our congregations.

What does "no peace" feel like?

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.

Melting glaciers, superstorms, masses of plastic in the ocean, earthquakes (in eastern Ohio!), "sunny day floods," one wildfire after another in California, animal species facing extinction: we have to wonder if nature itself is at war with us--not that we could blame it if it were.

Burned and battered but still listening

Perhaps we can begin to imagine, then, 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 Isaiah's dream, this vision of God's intentions, and then they looked around them at their once-beautiful city, Jerusalem, burned and battered by powers that must have appeared unstoppable.

Still, they chose to cling to their trust in the promises of One more powerful than any empire or any destructive force; this week's passage is Isaiah's recitation of God's promise of a "world" very different from what was visible just then.

Words of critique, words of hope

Scholars note that there are two beginnings to this book of Isaiah: chapter one looks back in harsh judgment on the people, but our reading begins again, with a vision filled with hope. "This is a dream about a new age, pregnant with possibility and rich with promise," R. Michael Sanders writes. While we may hold dear other Advent images like the lion and the lamb, here the central image is a great mountain that invites the people to a whole new way of life, a life of peace.

Who wouldn't want to ascend such a mountain, no matter the cost, no matter how arduous the journey, if peace is at the end? On this mountain, Sanders writes, "the peoples of the world can learn Yahweh's ways, the instruction, the word of the Lord. Yahweh will judge and settle the disputes of the nations."

We note the expansiveness of this vision, which includes "the peoples of the world": weapons will be transformed so that, instead of fighting one another, all of God's children will "once again work in the fields, bringing in the bountiful harvest that God will provide for them" ("Isaiah 2:1-5," The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible, The Prophets I). That is the dream of peace.

A grace-filled image for all

Isaiah's prophetic 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!

Waiting and hoping in a new season

We hear these lovely words from Isaiah not only in a time mired in conflict and contention, anxiety 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" (Texts for Preaching Year A).

While the culture around us wraps up another year hoping for increased consumer spending during the holidays and waiting for final reports on the past year's profits, the church has already stepped forward into a new time, to begin a season of hoping and waiting for something of much greater significance than profits or spending, for a dream more wonderful than anything the news is reporting.

Raising our hopes

Indeed, "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). Or as David A. Davis, writes, "Advent is a season boldly to lean into God's future unafraid" ("First Sunday of Advent, Isaiah 2:1-5," Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship).

At the beginning of this new church year, we remember who is really in charge of everything, and set our hearts on being part of this One's plan. But as lovely as these verses are, they also paint a very clear picture: while God is the One who brings this dream to reality, 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.

Have your expectations of such wonders become "domesticated," as Brueggemann says? Are we simply enduring the conditions around us, feeling too "numb" to hope for them to change?

Comfort, promise and a call

So, there are words of comfort and of promise about what God is going to do in the midst of so much suffering, so much longing, but between the lines, there's also a call for us to participate in bringing that beautiful dream of God to reality.

We suspect that Dr. King expected us not just to sit around appreciating the elegance of his words and waiting for that great day of peace and justice to arrive, but to work, actively work, as we wait for its fulfillment. Isaiah too wants us to loosen the grip on our swords and our instruments of war, and to take up the things of peace, to "walk in the light of the Lord."

There's always a catch

It all 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, each one of us, individually, even our great theologians and scholars, if they are brave enough to admit it, as Brueggemann does so honestly here.

Opening our own hearts

In fact, the hardest call for us to answer may be in each individual heart, rather than focusing only on the larger world of politics and nations (not that those aren't important, especially now). It is so easy, so human, for our hearts to grow entangled with petty resentments and even larger hatreds, born of frustration and disillusionment.

We find it a tremendous challenge to move through times of discouragement and even oppression without losing our souls to such terrible wrongs, such powerful impediments to peace. And we have to ask, what are the "little investments" we so jealously protect?

"Delighting in God, Engaged in God's Purpose"

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. After all, that's how we (ironically) have to settle conflicts, that's how we (ironically) keep a "kind" of peace, at least until a better one is possible.

However, Isaiah promises a day when, in Brueggemann's words, "The nations will not only delight in God's person, they will be engaged in God's purpose" (Texts for Preaching Year A). (By the way, wouldn't that be a great mission statement for a congregation: "Delighting in God, Engaged in God's Purpose"?) Or, as Bruce C. Birch puts it, "In God's reign these implements of conflict will be transformed into tools of community" (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1). What a beautiful Advent image!

Taking the longer view

Isaiah actually promises a time when God's ways will fully shape how all of us live, 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. In the meantime, James Limburg reminds us that God invites 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).

Peace through justice

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).

And yet, even in a world overflowing with God's abundance, there is vast and unnecessary suffering because of our refusal to share and our anxiety about losing what we have. For example, how many children will go to bed hungry this very night?

Wealth moves upward

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 recent years, even during an economic recovery that still leaves many out in the cold, economically.

Nearly a decade 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, with little relief in sight. We can't bear to imagine what happens to those at the bottom, who have little voice and no power.

Ancient texts, post-modern challenges

Perhaps the post-modern texts of columnists and social scientists could be read alongside the ancient one, in order to hear the challenge of the prophet and the call of God to respond. Will budgets, deficits and national debt be addressed in the light of justice for all?

Will the guiding question--the benchmark of decision-making--be the one that Francis of Assisi and so many other great spiritual leaders have asked, "How will this affect the poor, the outsider, and those on the edges of our community?"

How can we re-arrange things?

If Isaiah and Dr. King could dream of peace and lift up that vision for us, we too can dream the dream of peace and re-arrange our individual lives and the life of our communities, large and small, to be peace-making communities of generosity, justice and joy.

We can become communities of listening, of self-examination, of acceptance, of change--even if that change is not easy or fast. We can't do this on our own, but God makes it possible, grace enables us to accomplish so much more than we can imagine, because it is God "who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20).

Lives shaped by God's Word

This is the hope, the message, that all humanity longs for. Bruce C. Birch notes this deep human need: "Every generation needs assurance that the powers of the world - whether the Romans of Jesus' time or the principalities and powers of our own age - do not determine the future."

But that means a different way of life than the one we too often choose. God's Word, Birch writes, "counters the alternatives that tempt our allegiance in the world. The ways of this world are self-centered and idolatrous. This verse reorients the faithful to the alternative world created by covenant partnership with God" (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1).

The beautiful images of Advent, of swords beaten into plowshares, of a lion lying down with a lamb, of a mountain of peace and justice and learning and hope, represent this promise of God, this "alternative world" we are invited to inhabit.

Are we willing to move?

Leanne Van Dyk addresses the "considerable movement in this text: the mountain will be raised up; people go upward; God's word extends downward; the nations will beat their swords and spears into agricultural tools." We may think we're busy during the Christmas season, but this passage about a mountain of peace has its own movement and motion, with people "going up" and "going forth," and "God's blessings cascade down to all nations. The images suggest flow and abundance" ("First Sunday of Advent, Isaiah 2:1-5," Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship).

Perhaps the theme of joy might intertwine here with the image of peace, for this is an active kind of peace (peace in motion), and joy lifts our hearts and moves us, makes us feel like dancing and celebrating, makes us want to sing God's praise. In any case, this is no "sit and wait" kind of anticipation in Advent; we are to be a people who act and move and participate even as we anticipate the promises of God.

Can we bear to live in hope?

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 do 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, we consider quietly what we truly long for in our lives, and the price we are willing to pay for it. Looking at our lives, we reflect on how we have constructed them to protect what we have, as individuals, communities, and nations: haven't we often beaten our personal and communal pruning hooks into spears in order to protect what we claim as our own?

Christmas cards and concrete steps

In the coming weeks, for example, as we write our Christmas cards and sing Christmas carols, with their lovely messages of serenity, grace, and good wishes, we hear a call, deep in our souls, to pursue peace in our lives and in the world around us, not just to talk about it as if it were a sweet but unattainable idea.

During this season of Advent, for the sake of peace, we can take real, concrete steps to heal division, alienation, and broken relationship in our family, our community, and the world, if we have the courage to do so. Beginning with just one step, one relationship, perhaps one apology or offer of peace, we need to believe that we can be part of God's dream.

Living in the meantime

One of the challenges of being a Christian is living in the meantime, which requires the gift of waiting with grace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Not everyone can wait: neither the sated nor the satisfied nor those without respect can wait. The only ones who can wait are people who carry restlessness around with them" (God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas).

I don't remember being taught that I needed to "carry restlessness around with" me (I was actually taught to be meek and mild, although that didn't turn out well); what a wonderful image for us during this Advent season of waiting and hoping. How do Bonhoeffer's words speak to you?

An invitation, not a lecture

Paul Simpson Duke suggests a most gracious tone for preaching this text, not as command or exhortation but as invitation, for "Isaiah's vision....does not scold or admonish; it lifts a gleaming promise of what God will do in days to come. If the sermon blasts the nations or lectures congregants about being peacemakers, it violates the text's intention. True to the season, the sermon will express the deeps of human longing, and point to the dreams and promises of God for the world" (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1)

After all, this text, this season, and therefore this sermon, are about hope - and isn't hope an invitation to experience the world in a different way?

Honesty, realism and hope

We look around at the world in which we live this faith: in some ways, it already seems "too" festive, often prompting a well-meaning criticism from those of us who would prefer a truly "Advent approach" to these weeks of waiting and preparation and hope - hope not just for presents, but for the greatest gift of all.

However, Stacy Simpson Duke is sensitive to what is often underneath our holiday busyness, "the deep, true needs of people who are longing for something Big." We can critique the culture around us, but she wisely suggests its "messages are so powerful [because] our human yearning is so real, and so profound."

That's why the invitation to move toward that mountain, to hear the promises and to trust in the One who offers them, is so powerful. "Isaiah," Duke writes, "holds up a vision of the true. He takes us to a mountain and shows us what our hearts are actually tuned for" (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1).

What a beautiful image, to consider that are hearts are "tuned for" for what is good and right and just, not for brokenness, greed and violence. No wonder our longings for peace are so deep and persistent in every age: peace is what our hearts "are tuned for."

Raising our vision, respecting the hurt

Preachers face congregations full of people who are hurting, each in their own way: grief, loss, discouragement and fear may even make it hurt to hear such beautiful words of promise and hope when reality, every day, is so different. Duke advises the preacher "to be honest about realities and attentive to the fact that happy visions of hope can make old wounds throb."

Nevertheless, she writes, and we must preach, that "a new and long-for reality will take hold some day," and as we wait and live in hope, "there is a power in walking in God's light now, one step at a time" (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1).

The call to peace

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 listen to one another, and in the listening, hear the voice of the God, calling to us in this new day?

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The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Jo Hudson, 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."

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 20th century
"Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed--but hate these things in yourself, not in another."

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 19th century
"Peace is always beautiful."

Albert Schweitzer, 20th century
"Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace."

Aristotle, 4th century B.C.E.
"It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace."

Pythagoras, 6th century B.C.E.
"Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.”

Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes, 20th century
"How come we play war and not peace?"
"Too few role models."

Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"There is no 'way to peace,' there is only 'peace.'"

Marianne Williamson, 21st century
"The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world."

Additional reflection on Matthew 24:36-44:
by Kathryn Matthews

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.

Apocalyptic talk

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.

We love to hear about 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.

Missing the bigger story

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 that 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.

Preferring the past

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? (Note: few of us, outside our rural areas, have any idea 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.

Seeking meaning in a lonely world

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 trying 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 chill the soul).

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.

The sum total of our preparedness?

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 (that's what we called it in those days) 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 a sudden, unexpected, unpredictable End of the World.

Living on the edge of end of all things

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, ongoing, constant 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 (haven't we called that "unthinkable"?).

And now there is also the slow-motion but anxiety-producing "end" of many things we ponder because of global warming and our failure to care for God's beautiful creation: the extinction of species and the exhaustion of marine life, the pollution of the sea (plastic is found in living creatures around the world) and the burning of our forests, coastlines being redrawn because of rising oceans, including one of the greatest cities in the world, Venice, underwater...we bring such sorrows on ourselves.

Telling and re-telling the story

Our preparations and wariness can't wipe out our anxiety or our sense of helplessness in the face of so many things we can't understand or control, individually or communally. 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.

Penitence and preparedness

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.

(Note: This is a good opportunity, a golden moment, to explain the change in the color of our stole and possibly the paraments in our sanctuaries to purple, the color of penitence.)

The words of Jesus

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 from 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.

God is going to make things right

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.

From the cosmic to the mundane

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 (New Proclamation Year A 2007-2008).

God wakes us up

However, this text is different, Shore 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 assume that today and tomorrow will look 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: "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). I remember years ago, hearing a speaker remark on the loss of religious imagination in the church, and I wonder if Shore might agree.

Unpredictability and human cynicism

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." We might 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, noting the unpredictability of an ever-present God whose encounter with us, as 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). That is a beautiful way to describe that dramatic and fearsome moment after all.

How will we respond?

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 at all, 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). What a wonderful exhortation!

What we can "control"

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 the meantime," in ways that are pleasing to God and utterly trusting in God's goodness, we 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: "Ours may be the generation that finally sees [God] 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!

For further reflection:

Meister Eckhart, 14th century
"In this life we are to become heaven so that God might find a home here."
and
"Only the hand that erases can write the true thing."

Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"In a gentle way, you can shake the world."

Allan Boesak, 20th century
"It is not true that our dreams of liberation, of human dignity, are not meant for this earth and for this history: This is true: it is already time for us to wake from sleep. For the night is far gone, the day is at hand."

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, 20th century
"Sometimes, I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there's no room for the present at all."

Miraslov Volf, 21st century
"We need to let our effort to know God slide out of our hands, and open them to God's continued and unexpected self-revelation."

Richard Cizik, National Association of Evangelicals, 21st century
"When I die, God isn't going to ask me 'Did I create the Earth in six days or five days?' but 'What did you do with what I gave you?'"

John of the Cross, 16th century Spanish monk
"Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be a better light, and safer than a known way."

Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire, 20th century
"Dear Jesus, do something."


Lectionary texts

Isaiah 2:1-5

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!

Psalm 122

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.

Romans 13:11-14

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.

Matthew 24:36-44

[Jesus said:]
"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."


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.

Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday" — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."