I guess we live in busy times – we’re certainly living right now in the busiest time of the year – I’ve noticed in our fast-paced society there’s a general weariness that seems to set in around the middle of November and lasts until Christmas and then we enter the silly season – are we nodding off yet? Anaesthetised by the nightly horrors on the evening news, we find it hard to feel sympathy for the victims who seem to have been there on our TV screens forever when we’ve got a few concerns of our own. Snowed under with busy-ness and responsibility, we seriously try to do the best we can for the people we love, to do the best we can at work, to get on with our neighbours, contribute to our parish community. But we’re too busy to pay attention to things of the spirit. It would be good to have the time to think about things like Jesus coming back. But there’s too much going on. We tune out of the most important stuff of all. So, are we asleep?
According to the picture Matthew paints for us, Jesus tells us we are indeed asleep – and it’s time to wake up. The season of Advent begins with the big picture, with Jesus’ promise to return and his vague but worrying instruction to stay alert, and only then does it begin to converge and zero in on the concrete historical fact of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Today we are confronted with the information that this is not just ancient history, that we personally need to get ready, because Jesus is coming back and if we’re not ready we’ll be left behind. This might be alarming news, if it weren’t for the fact that we’ve heard it every year on the first Sunday of Advent, for as long as we can remember. So if it’s not actually that urgent for us, if today’s message has become over-familiar and isn’t actually jolting us awake - what does it mean for us?
A few years ago I remember reading an article in the Messenger by the Dean of Perth, who of course doesn’t mind stirring up a bit of controversy. The Dean hazarded the opinion that literal belief in the second coming of Jesus is a bit superfluous really, it’s the first coming that matters, the fact that in Jesus of Nazareth we see God becoming human, God bridging the unbridgeable gap between the finite and the infinite; that Jesus models for us what God is like and what God’s priorities are; that Jesus models the way of self-giving love that shows us what God’s character is like; and then finally that Jesus shows us that in God’s scheme of things life is stronger than death, because God has created us for love and for eternity. Dr Shepherd argued we really don’t need the doctrine of a second coming, we just need to pay closer attention to the first one, to the reality that, in Jesus, God has become present in human history in a new way which changes everything, forever. Dr Shepherd said he thought the doctrine of the second coming got tacked on along the way because Christians fell into the same trap the Jewish people fell into when they were expecting the messiah the first time around – which is the trap of triumphalism - this time, God, we want to see you throw your weight around a bit, no more getting pushed aside onto the cross, this time take out a few of the bad guys. Of course, the Dean’s opinion piece provoked a bit of theological fisticuffs, which, I don’t know about you, but I used to rather enjoy a bit of impassioned argument in the pages of the Messenger.
I like his point, but I’d rather argue the exact opposite, I’d rather take issue with people who want to restrict Jesus to just two visits. Why just two, I’d want to ask? You see, not only am I happy to go along with Matthew in assuring you that Christ indeed is coming back like a thief in the night – surreptitiously, in other words, on the sly, when you least expect it – in disguise - and not only would I also want to suggest that the whole of creation is heading towards a culmination or some sort of joining together of all the threads and all the pain and joy of existence that all get joined together in Christ – some sort of climax of history and creation that we couldn’t possibly guess at - but I’d also want to suggest that the Christ keeps coming to us along the way as well, that when it comes down to it there is nowhere in creation and no time in human history when Christ is absent - because what we see in the person of Jesus Christ is the commitment of God to being present in creation, Christ is God’s commitment to sharing with us this whole joyous and confusing mixture of love and busyness and heartache that we call human existence. The main question isn’t where and when Christ is coming back, the question is how often we notice when he does. Or how often we’re too preoccupied.
The earliest generation of Christians certainly expected Jesus to come back bodily, from the sky, and in St Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians which is the very earliest writing in the whole of the New Testament we see that he apparently held this belief quite literally. Matthew is writing a bit later, so he’s concerned to wind back the speculation a bit. You don’t know the day or the time, he insists. Unfortunately that hasn’t stopped silly speculation to this day about people being raptured out of their cars in the middle of the freeway, or planes dropping out of the sky because their pilots have been whisked off. To talk about just the second coming of Christ is I think to short-change the gospel; and to try to second-guess the details says more about us and our need for certainty, than it does about God.
What Matthew is on about with his talk about the day of the Lord, and the coming again of the Son of Man, what he’s trying to say is that the future belongs to God just like the beginning of all things belongs to God, and the here and now belongs to God. Not knowing what the future holds for us personally, or for the church, accepting that we can’t have that knowledge means we have to be vulnerable, and we have to trust God’s good purposes for us. What Matthew is getting at is that the only thing we need to know about the future is that the future is God - that the God who created the world we live in, and the God who brings the work of creation to perfection by coming to live among us, is also the God who comes to meet us out of the future.
But that’s not all. You see, when Matthew talks about the ‘day of the Lord’ he is using an expression that goes back to the prophets. It’s an expression that carries a whole history of meaning, to do with the hope of deliverance, of vindication for God’s people, the hope that in the future God would restore God’s people – but also the other side of the coin which is accountability – like the prophet Amos who warns us not to look to the day of the Lord for hope unless we are also prepared to look at ourselves and acknowledge our own failings and our own injustices. Judgement is a big theme for Matthew – he says if the future belongs to God, then justice and judgement also belong to God, it is God’s judgement that is both the ground for hope and the ground of peace. The two working together in the field both seem to be alive – but the one who is taken is the one who was truly awake, the one who notices that the day of the Lord has already come, the one who recognises the face of Christ in the many faces the world wears – this one is taken into eternal life. This is symbolic language, an extended metaphor. It is a dramatic way of waking us up to the importance of being aware of the world we live in and the God-connectedness of everything - it is a way of telling us that if we’re truly awake to what is happening in the world we live in we will encounter Christ in the middle of the busyness and the responsibility of our lives, and that when we do we will be taken – we will be transformed. We get to choose – is that what we want? Or are we too busy?