Sunday, December 1, 2019

Phil Kniss: Awake in hope

Advent 1: Our wait begins
Matthew 24:36-44; Isaiah 2:1-5

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I appreciate the thoughtfulness
of those who came up with the title of the Advent resources
for Mennonite Church USA and Canada.
It’s in big block letters on the bulletin cover.
“What are you waiting for?” – you can ask the question in many ways.
A question of longing and lament we ask of God,
as did the psalmists and prophets:
“What are you waiting for,
before you end this suffering or injustice?
How long, O Lord?”
Or maybe, a question God asks of us,
who are being too passive,
not taking responsibility for our end of the covenant:
“What are you waiting for?
You have all that you need to live faithfully.”
Or maybe, it’s a question we ask of each other, in empathy,
as we seek to discover the places of longing,
of desolation, of differing needs in each other’s lives.
“What are you waiting for?
During this season we will ask the question in all those ways,
and maybe more.

But today, our expectant longing for God to act.
Our proclamation of hope in the midst of darkness.

But wait! . . . didn’t we just talk about hope last Sunday?
Of course, we did.
We have ended, and are now beginning the church worship year,
by proclaiming hope.
How fitting.

The Christian community marks time differently than civil society.
In worship we don’t mark time with a calendar
based on movements within our solar system.
We mark time with the pivotal events in God’s story.

So naturally, our year begins with the first Sunday of Advent.
Happy New Year, everybody!
Each year we retell the story of God’s great inbreaking,
the incarnation,
when God took on flesh and dwelled among us.
And our year goes through the stories of Jesus,
and the whole scope of the biblical story,
ending around Thanksgiving
with celebrating the Reign of Christ.

Last Sunday we ended our special series on Creation with Hope,
and today we start a new year with Hope.

I don’t think we’ll be too repetitive,
and even if we were, who would complain?
These days, who would say we suffer from too much hope?

Last week,
in our focus on hope in Creation,
we saw how God’s trajectory,
always moving toward healing and hope,
is woven into the very fabric of creation.
How in the passing of the seasons,
and just in the way Planet Earth works,
life is persistent,
it keeps bubbling up, even in the most inhospitable conditions.

This week,
we see hope in God coming to us in the flesh,
God choosing to be with us in our darkness,
in the promise of Immanuel—God with us—
who came at a moment in history we celebrate at Christmas,
and who still is coming,
and who will yet come again.

I want there to be no doubt in anyone’s mind and heart,
that the coming of Christ to be with us—past, present, and future—
is to be welcomed and rejoiced over
and is to fill us with hope and high anticipation.

Now, you might wonder . . .
how do we make sense of today’s Gospel reading?
Did Matthew 24 sound like a declaration of hope and joy?
or like a doomsday warning?

I will say this,
growing up in a church that talked a lot about the rapture,
and showed scary movies, in church, about God’s day of judgment,
Matthew 24 never sounded like reason to rejoice.

It was a warning that the second coming of Jesus
would be as horrible as the terrifying flood in the days of Noah.
That two people would be working side-by-side,
and one would suddenly disappear, swept away, forever.
Or as in lyrics by Christian singer Larry Norman—
in a song I played often on my record player—
“A man and wife asleep in bed,
she hears a noise and turns her head, he’s gone.”
It was kind of like a Christian version of a similar program
developed for juvenile delinquents in the 70s.
That program was called “scared straight.”
They would put troubled teens behind bars for a few days
and let them taste the horrific life that awaited them,
if they didn’t get their act together.
The trouble was, it didn’t actually work—
either to keep juveniles away from crime,
or to form Christian teens into disciples.

So there are some in my generation,
that still have a kind of instinctive gag reflex
when we hear Matthew 24.
We either set it aside as antiquated and irrelevant,
or we pretend it’s not there at all.

Unfortunately . . . for churches who follow a lectionary,
it keeps coming up.
We can’t really get away from it.
But it’s been good for me to wrestle with these texts over time,
and let them speak to me, even when I’m not drawn to them.

And now, I actually appreciate them a great deal.
I’ve gotten to that point,
by not lifting them out of their cultural context,
but reading them in the context of Jesus himself,
his life, his character, his ministry, his way with children.

And I just don’t see Jesus as one who would have approved
of a church that used his words to scare 11 and 12-year-olds
into compliance,
or to paint God as a vengeful God
eager to punish people for their misdeeds.

So let me share this take on Matthew 24.

First of all, what point is being made,
by Jesus comparing his second coming to the days of Noah?
Did Jesus really intend for us to picture some horror-movie scene
with disobedient people fighting for their lives
against the raging flood waters?
Did Jesus intend for his listeners to tremble in fear
at the thought of his coming?

If so, how do we square that with Jesus’ words elsewhere?
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
And how do we square that with Jesus’ insistence
that the children not be sent away to be silent and compliant,
but invited them to come near to him,
and invited the adults to be like those rambunctious children?

No, I think Jesus was making a different kind of point.

Let’s still be clear.
His call was not to some low-demand, low-expectation Gospel.
The good news is not tolerance for everyone and everything.
Jesus was still calling people to be disciples.
He was still calling them to take up their crosses,
and follow, even when following was costly.

But Jesus brought up the topic of the days of Noah for another reason.
Not to scare them straight.
But to make one particular comparison.
Namely, that his second coming would not conform
to everyone’s expectations.
There would be surprises.
There would be people who thought
they were working on the same project, but were not.
Both his purpose and his timing would be misunderstood.

This is the way rabbis taught in those days.
It’s typical rabbinic Jewish style of teaching.
You point out another event, or another biblical story,
in order to make a single point of comparison,
even if all the details don’t match up as an analogy.
Several times, Jesus quoted scripture in ways that seem odd today.
He took phrases in the psalms and
used them to make a point the psalmist wasn’t making.
He wasn’t being disrespectful of the text.
He was using a teaching tool that his listeners understood.

When Jesus compared his second coming to the days of Noah,
he did not intend to terrify his listeners and give them nightmares.
He was telling them,
“Don’t get lazy about the kingdom of God.”
Stay awake.
It will surprise you.
It will interrupt your reality in ways you weren’t expecting.
Just as in the days of Noah.

In the flood story in Genesis,
all the people thought Noah was out of touch with reality.
They were shocked and surprised to find out otherwise.
So it will be in your day, Jesus said.
Even those who work beside you every day in the field,
or grind meal on the same stone in the courtyard,
even your closest companions will see one thing,
while you see another.

So don’t be deceived.
Don’t get lackadaisical.
Stay awake!
Pay close attention to the signs.
And, take heart!
Because I am coming back.
I will be with you again.
The Kingdom of God will break into your reality.
That is good news.
So rejoice!
Live in hope!

The greatest temptation for us human beings is distraction.
Chronic distraction.
We are easily distracted anyway,
and it’s worse now with all the technology
we are tethered to 24 hours a day.

As a culture we are in a chronic state
of inattentiveness to each other,
inattentiveness to the divine,
inattentiveness to small signs of life all around us,
because our attention is always being drawn away
to the latest, biggest, flashiest, most shocking
scandal or catastrophe.
Our collective senses are being dulled
to the work of God all around us.
At this rate, we will utterly fail
to notice God’s reign breaking in.
The reign of God might be taking root
and sprouting through the soil right outside our front door
and we don’t see it.
We stomp on the tender plant as we go rushing out the door . . .
to get to our next big thing.
We’re not awake.
We’re not alert.
We’re not ready for the reign of God.

This is what Jesus was most concerned about,
and what Jesus issued this warning about in Matthew 24.

We think we know what the reign of God looks like.
And we can get pretty proud of ourselves
when we construct something that looks, to us,
like the reign of God.
But so often, we get it wrong.
That’s why two people can be working beside each other
in the same field—in the same row in the same field—
and God’s reality still cuts right between them.
One of them is mistaking the work of their hands,
for the work of God’s hands.

We are constantly tempted to think the reign of God
is the work of our hands.
But the kingdom is not ours
to manufacture, manage, or manipulate.
Did you notice all three of those words begin with “m-a-n”?
That’s not a coincidence.
“Manus” is Latin for “hand.”
To man-ufacture, to man-age, to man-ipulate,
is to use our hands to control, exert force upon, or interfere with.
Hands prepared for the reign of God
are positioned to receive, to accept as a gift,
palms upturned in gratitude.

When our spiritual body posture is open,
our mind and will and spirit are also attentive.
We wait, with expectation,
for what we are about to receive.

Being attentive and thus, hope-filled, is our Christian calling.
It is the life to which God in Christ invites us—
a life of hope and joy and freedom under the reign of God.
It is the life Isaiah described in our Old Testament reading today,
“Come, come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain.”
It’s a life where people laugh
as they beat their swords into plowshares,
and put away their war manuals.
It’s a life where people walk in the light of the Lord,
with a lightness in their step.

That’s the life of hope and joy Matthew 24 calls us to.
I think Jesus is deeply saddened when scripture gets twisted
to where young people (or adults) lie awake at night
trembling in fear about something intended to give them hope.

Matthew 24 is a serious call to a deeper life,
from a God who embodies both love and judgment, to be sure.
But it’s not the rapture we should worry about.
It’s living in the surprising reign of God
that should capture our attention.
This Gospel word is an invitation
to a life of freedom and joy and attentiveness in Christ,
where the kingdom of God shows up at unexpected times
and in unexpected places.
It is a call to expect the unexpected.

As we heard in last Sunday’s text hope that is seen is not hope at all.
No, we live in hope
because we trust God to show up,
because we give God the freedom not to meet our expectations,
but to show up when and where and how God sees fit.

Let’s call out to God in prayer, and in song,
as we turn to Sing the Journey 54, and pray together,
Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts.
Shine through the darkness.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in your church gathered today.

—Phil Kniss, December 1, 2019

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