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Advent 2: Let Love Rule

December 6, 2015

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Advent. December 6, 2015

 Malachi 3:1-4         Matthew 24:36-44

“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.

There is an irony in our scripture reading this morning. The more we focus on the explicit subject of these eight verses, the details of the day and hour of the Son of Man’s coming, the more we will end up violating Jesus’ express desire that we not worry about the details of the day and hour of the Son of Man’s coming. The only way to avoid this dilemma is to recognize that these eight verses are part of a larger conversation Jesus is having with his disciples throughout chapters 24 and 25. That conversation concerns the establishment of an intentional, international community, living under the reign of love. What Jesus called the Empire of God.

Now the essential context for understanding the ministry of Jesus and the writing of the gospels is that they both took place within the Empire of Rome. Rome’s rule over Judea and the neighboring nations that Rome had conquered and incorporated into its empire was both violent and repressive. It occupied every aspect of the people’s lives. In this larger conversation, of which our reading is a part, Jesus challenges his disciples to live as if they believe that God, and not earthly rulers or empires, is sovereign over the earth. Jesus called his followers to God’s Empire, rather than Rome’s; God’s way, rather than Rome’s. The English Monarch, King James, translated the Greek term here, Basilea, as Kingdom of God.[1]

The political implications of such faithful living are underscored by where Jesus holds this conversation. According to Matthew, Jesus departs from the Temple, where he had made various pronouncements about its immanent destruction, and has now seated himself upon the Mt. of Olives (24:3a). David climbed this mountain, weeping, after his son Absalom had betrayed him and seized political power. King Solomon used the Mount as a site for idol worship. And the prophet Ezekiel had a incredible vision in which the presence of God abandoned Jerusalem and camped instead on the Mount on account of the injustice practice by the nation’s rulers and false prophets who failed to treat the people’s needs as holy. It is from this significant Mount that Jesus speaks privately to his closest followers.

By widening our lens from today’s scripture passage to its context, we notice that it is the disciples, not Jesus, who initiate the conversation about when the Temple will be destroyed and what the signs of the end of the age will be (24:3b). Maybe they were wondering how much longer they’d have to keep up this intensive ministry until the anticipated massive social change came about. It was the disciples – and not Jesus – who initiate the discussion of timetables and signs.

Jesus, to the contrary, is focused on the present.   He is more concerned with how the disciples will respond under threat, in the midst of chaos, and during national turmoil (24:4-8). Jesus is principally concerned that they not forswear their allegiance to the Empire of God, which has been the subject of his entire ministry. He warns them not to be led astray either by false hope of messiahs, by war, or even diverted by personal assault. In case they think time is a factor for them, Jesus goes so far as to promise them that if they remain faithful to him and to God’s empire, that they will be tortured, put to death, and hated by all the nations (24:9). Jesus’ resounding theme is that earthly empires will fall, “these times will end,” but that is not to be the disciples concern. Their concern must be with how they live now; because how they live now will determine whether what comes next merely reproduces Rome’s empire or whether it ushers in God’s empire.

In our passage for this morning, Jesus uses “keeping awake” as a metaphor for faithful living. Notice however, one does not keep awake in order to anticipate the coming of the Son of Man. Rather such expectation should orient us not toward the heavens but toward our neighbors, particularly those who are imprisoned, the immigrant, the sick and the poor. While our scripture reading today does not directly discuss this orientation, its warning and call to attention is the prelude to some of Jesus’ most famous lines about the judgment of the nations and its peoples in the following chapter. It is these teaching which conclude his speech from the Mount of Olives to his disciples. Here we learn that “to be ready” is not a matter of predicting particular events but a matter of connecting to particular people (25:34-36, 40).

Now what’s interesting in this very familiar passage is that the Son of Man comes to judge the nations but he separates the people of these nations from one another according to whether they have extended uncommon and potentially seditious love toward “the least of these” (25:32). For those who were imprisoned under Roman rule were not run-of-the mill criminals. Some were peasants who could not meet their tax burden. Still others were men and women who had participated in unsuccessful popular movements to overthrow Rome; what we would call today political prisoners. Moreover to welcome the stranger, care for the sick and ensure the survival needs of the poor (and Jesus and his followers were themselves poor) meant a veritable explosion of traditional boundaries of kin and an abrogation of religious laws concerning who is “in” and who is “out” of the social and worshiping community (see Mt: 8 and 9).

white Plains Says Welcome

While in our day these verses from Matthew have often been tamed to mean that individuals and the church should offer charity to “those in need,” in the context of these two chapters of Matthew we must realize that this kind of love challenges allegiances to kin and country. Jesus is about building an intentional, international fellowship of love that unites across and in spite of national and familial ties. The peoples are thus separated, not according to their national or familial or religious affiliation but according to the love they have shown. Indeed in the Great Commission, which comprises the final verses of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sends forth his followers saying, “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:19-20).

When the church talks about Christ coming again, we are referring to that time when all barriers to Love’s full reign in our world will cease; a time when the world will embody the just-peace God has always and ever intended; a time when our world will be ordered by love. Let us live now, with anticipation toward that new world, undeterred by the reign of empires or the tests to reputation or even life that our faithfulness will entail, but with full trust in the one who has promised to be with us, no matter the day or the hour.[2]

 

[1] A solid introduction to this way of reading scripture can be found in The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted, by Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., Professor of Biblical Interpretation at the New York Theological Seminary, and ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

[2] An earlier version of this sermon was published by The Rev. Noelle Damico in The Minister’s Annual Manual for Preaching and Worship Planning, 2010-2011. Permission to use and adapt was given by the author, who is also my wife.

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