Today’s congregation is sometimes perplexed as to why the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent focuses on the second coming.
The preacher can thus explain that beginning the liturgical season of Advent with the second coming reminds us that the work of the first advent (coming) of Jesus is not complete. The risen Jesus instructs (and empowers) the church to continue its witness until the second coming (Matthew 28:16-20).
Matthew has an end-time (apocalyptic) orientation, believing that history is divided into two ages — a present, evil age that God would soon replace with a new age (often called the realm of God or the realm of heaven). The old age is marked by the presence of Satan and the demons, and by idolatry, sin, injustice, exploitation, sickness, enmity between nature and humankind, violence, and death. The new age will be characterized by the complete rule of God and the angels, and by authentic worship, forgiveness, mutual support, health, blessing between nature and humankind, and eternal life.
For Matthew, God is acting through Jesus Christ to effect the change. The birth, life, and resurrection are the first phase of the transformation, with the complete manifestation arriving with the second coming. Meanwhile, Matthew’s community lives in a conflict zone between the ages. God calls the Matthean community to follow the instruction and model of the Matthean Jesus.
Some scholars affirm that many in Matthew’s congregation were losing confidence in the coming of the Realm. The apocalypse was delayed. Their witness was fading. Matthew wrote to encourage them to continue.
Matthew 24:1-31 employs stock apocalyptic language to say, “These signs indicate that you are living in the final chapters of history.” Matthew 24:32-44 underscores, “You cannot know the exact time of the final apocalypse, so you need to witness with intensity.” Matthew 25:1-46 then tells four interlocking parables to point the community toward Realm-like qualities of life necessary in the great transition.
According to Matthew 24:36, neither the angels nor even Jesus can know the precise time the apocalypse will occur. Only God knows.
Matthew 24:37-44 reinforces the idea that the community must “be ready.” In this context, to “be ready” is to continue to do what Jesus taught in the Gospel of Matthew. The community is to prepare for the final advent less by doing special things and more by living and witnessing as Jesus instructed. The liturgical season of Advent is an annual reminder of the importance of faithfully doing what Jesus said.
Matthew’s Gospel uses four examples to underscore the fact that the community cannot know when the cataclysmic event will occur. The first is from the days of Noah (Matthew 24:37-40). Before the flood, people carried on with their daily lives — eating, drinking, marrying. But they knew nothing about future events until, suddenly, “the flood came and swept them all away.” The listener would remember that the story of Noah in Genesis 6-8 calls attention to the unfaithful lives of many in Noah’s generation, a situation similar to that of Matthew’s own generation. But the emphasis on the reference to Noah in Matthew is on the sudden coming of the flood.
The second example is two people in a field, perhaps working. Suddenly one is taken (Matthew 24:40). The third example is two women grinding meal together. One is taken. (Matthew 24:41). Where are the field worker and grinding woman taken?
These examples could prompt many preachers to address a popular misinterpretation. Premillennialism (also known as Darbyism or Dispensationalism and associated with the “Left Behind” series) takes these texts to refer to “the rapture,” when believers are airlifted out of the world while the rest of humankind suffers the tribulation. However, neither Matthew in particular nor biblical eschatologies generally contain the detailed time-line scenarios of premillennialism. To the contrary, Matthew encourages the congregation to remain faithful in witness even in the midst of conflict until the second coming (Matthew24:1-28). Perhaps one way to prepare in Advent is to leave behind “Left Behind.”
The fourth example is a homeowner who did not know when and where a thief was coming. Had the householder possessed such information, the householder would have stayed awake and prevented the break-in (Matthew 24:43). The congregation, then, should stay awake.
From Matthew’s perspective if people do not know when the second coming will occur, they cannot wait until the time is near in order to prepare for it. Matthew wants the congregation to be prepared through witnessing at all times (Matthew 24:42, 44).
Before the preacher moves from the exegesis to the sermon, the preacher needs to make an important theological determination: How do the congregation and preacher relate theologically to the apocalypticism of this passage (and of Matthew more broadly)? I see three main options (recognizing that there can be many nuances).
In each case, a preacher can help believers identify interpretive possibilities and identify what they gain and lose with each option, while pointing out that Jesus in all options calls the disciples, and empowers them, to witness faithfully to God’s ultimate purposes of love, peace, joy, and abundance. Coming to such clarity is a powerful way to prepare through Advent.
Christians share a common theological conviction with the authors of Isaiah 2:1-5: Our most precious promises are attached to tangible realities like land, mountains, temples … bread, water, and wine.
In these concrete ways, God draws near to God’s people and to the world (compare to Exodus 25:8). Isaiah 2 describes a day when God’s promises to Judah — so often obscured by defeat, judgment, and historical circumstances — will be fully realized in history. It will be a day when glory outshines shadow, when joy extinguishes sorrow, when peace silences violence, when rebellion cedes to obedience — when faith becomes sight.
Isaiah 2:1-5 belongs to a body of texts associated generally with Zion, the Temple, and the city of Jerusalem (Psalms 46, 48, 78; Isaiah 11:1-9; 60-62; Hagar 2:6-9; cf. Revelation 21-22). While varied in their contours and claims, these texts are generally characterized by a common set of theological assumptions: (a) Yhwh is a king whose reign is cosmic in scope; (b) he has chosen Zion as the center of his reign over the world; (c) Zion serves as the center of God’s governance over creation, making Zion the axis mundi; (d) at Zion Yhwh establishes order by bringing chaos to an end.
The theology embodied by these texts is not only an Old Testament reality. The New Testament is also shaped by the theology of Zion, most especially in the book of Revelation (Revelation 21-22), which insists that Jerusalem is the bride of the Lamb (Revelations 21:9), and a destination for the nations of the earth (Revelations 21:24-27).
Israel was not at all unique in claiming that it’s capital city was the center of world governance. Many other cultures from Mesopotamia to Egypt made similar claims, especially in the royal propaganda of the ancient Near East. Israel adopts and adapts these traditions, utilizing them to speak about God’s promises to Zion and to David.
Canonically speaking, the word of promise in Isaiah 2:1-5 is embedded within prophetic oracles of judgment (see Isaiah 1:21-31; 2:5-22). In the prior chapter, the “holy” city of Jerusalem is accused of murder, rebellion, injustice, and corruption (Isaiah 1:21-23). And the texts immediately following Isaiah 2:1-5, claim that God’s people have forsaken God’s ways (Isaiah 2:6-9). In the first two chapters of Isaiah, then, Jerusalem is offered words of both judgment and salvation. These words of judgment, however, are not in contradiction to the promise of Isaiah 2:1-5. In fact, they are in service of it:
Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes! I will turn my hand against you; I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city (Isaiah 1:24-26).
In this text, promise and judgement are not contradictory realities: judgment serves promise, and contributes to bringing about the fulfillment of promise. The city of God will one day be transformed from alloy to pure metal. She will be a holy and magnificent magnet for the nations, but only after a season of judgment and refinement, when God will turn God’s hand against the city. God must first approach Zion in the form of an enemy before showing himself as the fulfiller of promises.
The promises in this text are utterly absurd when examined against Israel’s ancient history. The “mountain of the Lord” (i.e., the temple mount, known also as Zion) was never the most prominent mountain, even if one only considers nearby peaks (Psalm 125:2). The nations have never streamed to Jerusalem to learn divine teaching; Yhwh has yet to play the role of international conflict mediator; and the waging of warfare continues to afflict creation to this very day. Whatever realities this text speaks of, they exist primarily in the realm of promise and hope, not in the realm of reality.
Similar things could be said about the second advent of Christ, which we pray for longingly in this season. The church’s affirmation that Christ will one day return to change what we know by faith into sight is similarly absurd. Like the promises of God to Isaiah, the precious promises of Christ’s second coming — that truth will defeat falsehood (Revelations 19:11-21), that the dead will rise (Revelations 20:1-6), that the devil and his forces will be destroyed (Revelations 20:7-10), and that death itself will die (Revelations 20:14-15) — are hidden behind the tragedies of history.
The promise of Christ’s return contradicts so much of what we see in the world. It is a joy to celebrate Christ’s coming in the past, but in this season of Advent we must pray earnestly for the faith to believe joyfully in Christ’s future coming, in all its glory and absurdity.
It would be hard to imagine a more poignant, desperately needed, and timely appeal than Psalm 122:6: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”
Situated at the epicenter of world tensions, any peace that prevails in Jerusalem today can be chalked up to the transient success of armed security, and is as fragile as the temperament of the next shooter, stabber, or suicide bomber.
Then Christians get derailed over precisely how to pray for Jerusalem’s peace. Some are Zionist sympathizers and it’s pretty simple; others see Israel as an illegal occupation, and Jerusalem as the nagging symbol of injustice. But couldn’t we join hands in this one prayer, not over-envisioning what that peace would actually look like or whose flag would be flying? Jesus, after all, grew up chanting this Psalm, and when he arrived on pilgrimage, he wept over the city and lamented that “If only you knew the things that made for peace.”
Psalm 122 is one of the Psalms pilgrims would sing on their way to and upon arrival in Jerusalem for the great festivals of Passover, Unleavened Bread, and Tabernacles. They weren’t vacationers, or sightseers, or highly motivated people of faith. It was decreed that they make these annual pilgrimages. We blanch over the prospect of religious decrees or days of obligation in worship; but for Israel there was a joy in the discipline. Not, Darn, we have to go to Jerusalem now? But, We get to go to Jerusalem now!
“I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go … ‘” We almost sense a child at play or doing her chores when mom and dad call them away from the drudgery and triviality of life, declaring now is the time to go to the most magnificent, holy, spiritual place on earth, where we will be stunned by the glory of the temple, where we will see relatives and friends we’ve not seen since last pilgrimage (mentioned in verse 8!), and where we will be blessed by our Lord.
We can picture the physicality of this Psalm. “Our feet have been standing within your gates.” Imagine your feet, touching the ground, dusty, weary, arthritic, callused, but within those gates, visible in renovated form to tourists today. The act of walking is worshipful obedience; we should ponder our feet having gotten us there. Or perhaps the words of Mother Pollard, an elderly woman, refusing the offer of a ride during the Montgomery bus boycott: “My feets is tired, but my heart is rested.”
In your mind’s eye, look with those pilgrims at the walls, the gleaming stones — and these were people who came from tiny, colorless villages with what we’d call shacks and lean-tos. Verse 3 speaks of the city being “bound firmly together” — which is more than admiration of the masonry. The adjective used here is never otherwise used to describe construction, but normally speaks of fabric, or of people. This city binds the people together. What else could?
And so, the mood is one of gladness, and affection. And of course, love. As if speaking to the city as a person, which for them it very much was, verse 6 says “May they prosper who love you.” The Hebrew is a bit ambiguous. Robert Alter renders it, “May your lovers rest tranquil.” There’s love, and rest — and a playful use of language. “Rest tranquil” is yishlayu, which is alliterative of yerushalayim, “Jerusalem.” And what they seek is “peace,” shalom, which is already in the root of the city “Jerusalem.” The Victorian biblical scholar A.F. Kirkpatrick suggested that “the Psalmist prays that the nomen” (“Jerusalem,” the city of peace) “may become an omen.”
The Psalm clarifies that the pilgrims came to Jerusalem for judgment, and to give thanks. We might shrink back from the place of judgment. But we misunderstand. The Hebrew word rendered “judgment” is mishpat, and mishpat is when the neediest, the marginalized, those nobody else cares for are cared for. God’s justice isn’t blind, like that statue outside the U.S. Supreme Court. God isn’t an unbiased, fair judge. God sees, God loves, God is entirely biased in favor of each pilgrim, each one of us. This God is literally dying to give us more than we’d dream of.
And so, like them, we give thanks. For Israel, “thanks” would have been the todah sacrifice, something tangible, something precious you offered to God, to demonstrate your immense gratitude to God, and your intense trust that your future was in God’s hands. Gratitude is the secret of the faithful life, as it banishes guilt, regret, anxiety, and self-centeredness. We give thanks in worship, and take that gratitude back home and keep it up.
One thing we can be thankful for is that our prayer for the peace of Jerusalem will be answered with a ringing affirmative. God has promised this. Revelation 21 envisions a holy, gleaming, beautiful, and peaceful New Jerusalem, where God is the city’s light, and the love and fellowship aren’t annual but constant.
In his forthcoming Brazos commentary on the Psalms, Jason Byassee writes this on Psalm 122: “Look at the psalmist’s great desire for Jerusalem. The church says ‘yes’ to this desire. And yet pilgrimage is about more than a long walk. It is about the soul in community with others and God. If this costly and dangerous journey to the navel of the world is this glorious, how much more glorious must be the costly and dangerous journey that is our entire life and afterlife toward the vision of God?”
This week is the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of the new year in the church calendar.
The season of Advent is a season of waiting; as a time of waiting it is a time of preparation. We prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ.
When we talk about “the coming of Christ,” we’re not just talking about the birth that we will celebrate in a few weeks’ time. In Advent, we see the coming of Christ in double-exposure: looking forward to the second coming of Christ in the future even as we look forward to celebrating the first going of Christ that lies in the past. It is as though the liturgical year allows for the two defining moments of our age, its beginning and its end, to overlap in a mystical time that is simultaneously past, present, and future.
Know What Time It Is
Understanding that Advent is as much about preparing for the yet-to-come arrival of Christ as it is about the already-past arrival of Christ is critical to understanding why we kick off Advent with Romans 13:11-14 as one of our Lectionary texts.
In fact, Romans 13:11 begins with the exhortation, “Know what time it is!” (NRSV). The time Paul has in mind is the pregnant eschatological moment that began its gestation with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and will have its full birth at his return.
One of the beauties of Advent’s double-exposure is that it reminds us that God answered the people’s long-suffering anticipation of the Messiah’s birth, thereby providing us with renewed hope that the long-anticipated return of the Messiah is also something we can continue to hope for.
The Night is Gone, the Day is At Hand
The imagery we use in our Advent services reflects the imagery of dawning light Paul uses in Romans 13:12-13. He speaks of the night being far gone, and the day of salvation being at hand. The implication he draws is that we need to live properly, as in the day.
The notion of a dissipating darkness is one that we model each Sunday as we light one additional candle, right up to the point where we light the Christ candle, signifying simultaneously the moment when the Light of the World was first born upon the earth and our hope that the Light of the World will once again come and cast away every shadow of darkness. Advent is a season of hope: hope that God’s promised future will, in fact, arrive again as it did on the first Christmas.
Living as People of the Day
The fact that the light has already begun to shine, that Christ has already been born, that Christ has already enacted our salvation, should not be ignored in this season. On the contrary! Paul here says that to live properly in this season of dawning light is to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” The season between the first and second Advent of Christ is one in which Christ’s advent to the throne at God’s right hand offers us the possibility of living now as creatures of the new creation yet to come.
In essence there are three sources of hope for the promised future: (1) the promise Christ made that he would return; (2) Christ’s own resurrection which shows us that there is an embodied future on the new creation awaiting us; and (3) the transformation of our lives and communities here and now, which is a manifestation of the future that awaits us.
So, we wait for Christ’s coming by becoming the Christ people: putting off the deeds that mark the world not subjected to Christ’s reign of peace and justice. We wait for Christ’s coming by becoming that future ahead of his arrival, so that when he arrives he will behold his own as though looking in a mirror.
This is why Paul says at the beginning to “waken from sleep.” It is a summons to start faithfully living out the resurrection-life of Christ.
Deeds of Darkness?
As Advent signals a time of rising joy and expectation, we might be more skittish than usual about dropping the “s”-word (sin) in church. We like talking about brokenness and injustice is all in vogue. But the word “sin” has fallen on hard times. Some of us want to give Romans 13 a wide berth on the first week of Advent because of its talk about putting off revelry and drunkenness and debauchery and licentiousness and quarreling and jealousy.
And yet, the idea that there is a bright future to take hold of means that there is a night to be left behind — including the night in ourselves. Our own brokenness overflows beyond ourselves in ways that wound others. Our brokenness leads us to act in ways that further wound ourselves. I think both of these are ideal candidates for the “s”-word.
Perhaps Paul is inviting us, this Advent, to put on the Lord Jesus Christ by doing a little experiment. Perhaps each of us might imagine a Jesus-looking opposite to one temptation that the “holiday season” of our world will confront us with: How might I put on gratitude rather than succumb to jealousy? How might I be peaceable with my family over the holidays rather than following into the same old patterns of quarreling? What might sobriety offer me at that party where I’m tempted to have one or two drinks too many?
Perhaps taking such steps would open us up to our true selves. Perhaps these would be little rays of light piercing the darkness of our false selves. Perhaps in these ways we might put on the Lord Jesus Christ and bring a little bit of his future into our present time of waiting and preparation.