When God Breaks In
Matthew 24: 1-3, 36-44
The Old Testament reading for today is that beautiful and much-loved passage from Isaiah that you just heard. Isaiah speaks to his people about a time when all nations will worship God and live in peace and unity. In this Kingdom of God on earth, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the weapons of war will be turned into tools for cultivation and bounty.
But the gospel reading for today hints at a very different Kingdom of God. In Matthew, Jesus is reported to speak of his “return” — what has come to be known as the “ second coming of Christ” (although that phrase never appears in the gospels). He compares this event to a flood or a robbery — and thus it carries an ominous tone, catalysmic and devastating. Something to be dreaded. This is not the passage I would choose for the first Sunday of Advent. I want a passage that hints at Christmas — a sweet story of Elizabeth, or the appearance of Gabriel, or the blessed tale of Mary and Joseph. I don’t want to think about the “second coming.” In fact, the reading for today — and the whole 24th chapter of Matthew– is problematic on so many levels that I have struggled to tackle it: Famines and earthquakes, wars and rumors of wars, lawlessness and persecutions, false prophets and sacrilege, lightning and trumpets, Jesus coming on a cloud, a devastating flood, a menacing thief. And then the most frightening of all: 2 people in the field — one left and one taken; two women at the mill — one left and one taken. Where do they go? Why? What happens to those who are taken? To those left-behind? These are questions that Tim LaHaye capitalized on in his series of books called Left Behind.
This challenging passage from Matthew has been preached again and again, by evangelists and preachers, often in order to scare folks into being Christian. It is an unfortunate approach, I think, and one that Christ himself never used. But what are we to make of this enigmatic gospel reading? I cannot fully explain it — nobody can– but I will try to untangle it, to put it in context, and suggest its relevance to 21st century Christians.
Here is the back-story: Jesus and his disciples are strolling through the temple grounds. The disciples are rubber-necking, amazed at the magnificent buildings — as well they should be. The Temple of Jerusalem was built of white marble plated with gold, and it gleamed in the sun so that a man could scarcely bear to look at it. At the corners of the temple were angle stones of marble weighing more than 100 tons each — cut and positioned by some unfathomable trick of ancient engineering! And the area was surrounded by great porches, Solomon’s Porch and the Royal Porch, upheld by marble pillars 38 feet tall and so thick that three men could not stretch their arms around their circumference. Such was the magnificence that the disciples admired on their occasional trips to the temple. If the time was now, they would be holding out selfie-sticks, posing with each other in front of this building and that. “Jesus, stand here. All of us, here in front of the Royal Porch!” With the wonder of tourists, they pointed out each feature to Jesus! But instead of joining the chorus of admirers, Christ says something shocking: “I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another that will not be thrown down.”
“ What is he talking about?” they ask? “ What power can possibly destroy these massive buildings?” they wonder. “Tell us, Jesus, when this will be?”
And before the gospel writer can record Jesus’ response, a second question follows on the heels of the first: (2) What will be the sign of your coming, teacher? How will this all end?” Apparently, the twelve assume the destruction of the temple will somehow coincide with or foreshadow the return of Christ and establishment of his Kingdom on earth. They are wanting to know the future. If all of this is going to be destroyed, then how will your kingdom be established? And when? Give us some information.
To these separate questions, Christ gives separate answers but in Matthew 24, these answers are somewhat tangled together; for casual readers, they are hard to understand and pull apart. Let’s see if we can try:
First, the destruction of the temple buildings. Jesus’ prophesied correctly. The temple was destroyed. By A.D. 70 — only 40 years later– not one of the magnificent buildings was still standing. Not one stone was left on another. Christ understood the political climate of his day and knew how close the Jews were to annihilation under the iron hand of the Roman Empire. By A.D. 70, Emperor Titus finally grew tired of the rebellious Jews and laid waste to Jerusalem and the Temple. According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, the siege was ruthless, and caused terrible famine. Though Jesus admonished followers to “flee to the mountains,” they did not, instead cramming into the city and seeking the shelter of the city walls. 97,000 Jews were taken captive and enslaved, and over a million died of wounds, disease, or famine. It was one of the most terrible sieges in all history — comparable to the Battle of Leningrad in 1941 and, tragically, Aleppo — now. “This is the truth I tell you,” Jesus said later in the passage, “This generation shall not pass away until these things have happened.” And so it was that several of his disciples who heard Christ’s prophecy lived to see this horrible day of destruction.
“But what will be the sign of your coming?” the apostles ask Jesus. To this #2 question, Christ offers contradictory answers. During their years together, Jesus has spoken sometimes plainly and sometimes cryptically about the “Kingdom of Heaven,” of the “Kingdom of God,” and of his death and resurrection. The disciples understand that at some future time, God would break into their world. And, like us, they wanted to know how and when, and what this will look like.
So, Christ first invokes the lesson of the fig tree: “Look around you. You will know what will happen by the natural events that precede it. When the branch becomes green and sends forth leaves, then you know that summer is near. LIkewise, when you see heavenly signs — the sun darkened, the moon giving no light, deafening thunder and lightning, then you know my arrival is imminent. “Okay, that gives us something,” the apostles think.
But, paradoxically, in the very next breath, Jesus says “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
So suddenly, all bets are off. Neither the angels in heaven or Christ himself knows when, and it is even wrong to try to guess. It is God’s secret. “I can only tell you this, Christ says: It will be sudden and unexpected — like Noah’s flood, like a thief breaking into your house.” And when that happens, there will be judgment. Some will be selected to go, and some to stay.
Now from my perspective, the analogies are unfortunate. Is Christ really comparing the coming kingdom of God to a devastating flood? Is God being compared to a malevolent thief? A bad guy bent on harming and stealing?
Surely not! The coming Kingdom of God is to be longed for, not feared; it is to be sought, not dreaded. If the KIngdom of God is the culmination of everything Christ stood for and everything that Christ modeled, then we should anticipate God breaking into our world with eager excitement. In the words of Isaiah: “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb; the calf with the lion, and a little child shall lead them” [Isaiah 11: 6]. “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains . . . .; all the nations shall stream to it. 3Many 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.’ . . . .’[T]hey shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’”[Isaiah 2: 1-4]. Bible scholar William Barclay says, “The watching of the Christian for the coming of Christ is not the watching of terror-stricken fear and shivering apprehension; it is the watching of eager expectation for the coming glory and joy.”
If so, and I surely think it so, then why did Jesus use the image of Noah’s flood or a thief in the night? The answer lies in the last verse I read: Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. That’s the point of those comparisons: the events — the flood and the robbery– were unexpected, surprising. Only watchful Noah was prepared with a boat, and only a guarded homeowner anticipates a robbery. While I wish Christ had chosen something else — the parting of the Red Sea, perhaps, or a snowfall in May, he makes his point: The coming Kingdom of God — will surprise us. And the only way we can watch for it is to be watchful all the time. To live expectantly. To live in joyful anticipation of the time or times when God breaks in upon our world. And, perhaps, the Kingdom of God will come — is already coming– in pieces, in small occurrences, through this person, through that situation, through this legislation, this new understanding, through medical science, through each prayer that is mightily answered?
I think: Right here in our midst, God has done something, God is doing something, or is about to do something. Sometimes it is something small and sometimes it is something great. And I want to see it, experience it, take part in it. I want to be watchful so that I do not miss a single God moment. I want to be alert when the Kingdom of God breaks in. Looking for and seeing God. Present with the God among us. Listening, responding to Godly impulses. Giving them credence. Not absorbed in the material present or my earthly future but staying read up, prayed up, grateful in the moment. This, I believe, is Christ’s message in Matthew 24: Live in the moment with eager anticipation.
Can you remember taking car trips with your children or grandchildren? You anticipate the trip with excitement, plan the route, make the reservations, perhaps even packing a picnic lunch to enjoy on the way. Your route will take you up into the mountains — beautiful scenery, so much to look at and talk about. But only 20 minutes into the drive, the first kid says those dreaded 4 words: Are we there yet? No, you gently explain, there are hours of driving ahead, but look out your window — the rolling farmland, the scenic overlook, the interesting roadside attractions. But your teenagers bury their heads in their pillows or start another video game on their phones. Whatever there was to see in this adventure, they missed it all!
I believe this life on earth is a bit like that. We focus so hard on our destination, that we miss God in our moments and in our days. Enslaved to our schedules and to our preconceived notions, we aren’t even home when God breaks into our world to surprise us. We want control and normalcy and predictability, not surprises. We demand instant gratification to the point that we have forgotten how to anticipate God’s presence with us. And remember, the only moment we ever have is this one. Now this one. Now this one. The past is gone and the future is unattainable. But we have this present moment. Now.
For all the jokes and frustrations associated with snail mail, I can well remember the excitement of waiting for and receiving a letter. Four days would seem an eternity to us now, but when I was a child, it was the period of eager waiting: airmail from a penpal overseas, or a birthday package from my grandmother in Western Maryland, and later a love letter, perhaps. The waiting might involve several disappointing trips to our small-town post office before that envelope or package arrived. That is anticipation.
And that is what the Advent season is about: about anticipating a child, anticipating a blessing, anticipating communication with God, anticipating God’s presence among us. Allowing our hearts to be open to the something new that God does in the present and will do in the future.
The secret of the Advent season is this: Jesus never speaks of us going anywhere! We are simply there. We are just waiting. The action is on his part. He is coming to us. That, after all, is what adventus means. Jesus made it abundantly clear in his life, death and resurrection that the earth is his home. It’s a dual citizenship, certainly; He is Lord of Heaven and Earth. But he spoke of himself as Emmanuel: GOD WITH US. The entire Book of Revelation describes Jesus coming to live with us forever, here on Earth. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them” [Revelation 21:3]. And in the Apostle’s Creed, we proclaim that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, and from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. We do not say he will then turn around again and go back.
The Rev. Hugh Beck writes, ‘It is amazing how “expecting the unexpected’ changes the ordinariness of life into a perpetual flutter of hope. It lightens the darkness. It breaks apart the chains of sin and death with a lively life that leaps for joy. For it knows that the ordinariness with which we are surrounded every day is not the last word. It is not a binding word. Into it and around it and through it, there is a God who has transformed this ordinariness into an unexpected extraordinariness. A child who will be his means of changing the world is at hand! God asks us to be living birth announcements of him through whom God is bringing a totally new thing to pass upon the face of the earth! “Keep watch!” Wait and see what God has done – will do – is doing! Our lives cry out to the world, ’Expect the unexpected!’ For we have seen the unexpected and we can hardly contain ourselves for joy and gladness!” AMEN.