Be honest! What are your first thoughts as you anticipate the first Sunday of Advent? For me, both as preacher and as worshiper in the pew, the church year and the gospel readings always seem somehow out of synch with other life rhythms.
The student only half-humorously jokes that it is only the second day of class and she is already two weeks behind. We have just cleared the Thanksgiving table, we already feel ourselves months behind on the Christmas shopping list, we’ve long been planning for the special programs and festivities that will lead up to that day, and yet now we’re invited to think about Advent and beginnings. If Advent speaks of “coming,” instead of the coming of Christmas-in long-standing tradition, this first Sunday of Advent invites reflection on the eschatological theme of Christ’s second coming. These thoughts often call forth uncomfortable associations of end times and judgment and encourage the preacher to skirt around a subject not on most people’s popularity list. If the beginning of a new church year invites fresh perspectives on physical or spiritual life rhythms, then we will be challenged by negative impressions of the same-old, same-old of our world in which nothing seems to change.
Since the reading from Matthew for this Sunday plunges into the middle of the narrative of this year’s gospel, it will be time well-spent in preparation for this new year of preaching to read through the whole of the gospel, preferably in one sitting. Such reading will hear again the amazing promises which frame this gospel and the life of discipleship: “And they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” (1:23) and “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (28:20) It will follow as the narrative presents Jesus as the Messiah of God (1-4:17), powerful in his ministry of word and deed (4:18-16:20), and culminating in his suffering, death, and resurrection. The hearer will be summoned again to Matthew’s particular themes of discipleship in Jesus so-called five “speeches:” the Sermon on the Mount (5-7); the teaching on discipleship (10-12; “Come to me, all you that are weary.and I will give you rest” 11:28); on the transforming power of the new disciple community (18-19; “For where two or three are gathered.I am there” 18:20); and on living now as disciples in the sure and certain expectation of Jesus’ coming again as Messiah (24-25; “As you did it to one of the lest of these…you did it to me” 25:40).
Reading in this wider context is especially important, since it is precisely in this last section and its themes that the lesson for Advent 1 is located. There are a number of potentially interesting details in this lesson that could be misleading sidetracks, but two simple, yet dominant, themes stand at its heart balancing and playing off one another in talk “about that day and hour” (24:36).
The first theme is this lesson’s sure and certain promise that God’s future and our future belong to this Messiah, the Son of Man. The “that day” of the text refers back to the promise of the Son of Man’s coming when he will “gather his elect from the four winds” (24:31). And then three times in this lesson, at beginning, middle, and end, the promise of his coming is a refrain that structures and underscores the surety of God’s promise in this Messiah: “The Son of Man is coming” (24:37, 39, 44).
The second theme is that of “knowing” – actually of “not knowing.” Five times it drives its point: “no one knows, not even the Son” (36); “they knew nothing” (39); “you do not know” (42); if the owner had known” (43); and “at an unexpected hour” (44).
Focusing on these two themes of promise and not-knowing, one will escape being sidetracked by verses 40-41 and talk about the Rapture that has captured the imaginations of many modern readers. These verses have only one purpose. Like the story of Noah, they simply illustrate our lack of knowledge about how and when these things will take place.
It’s this theme of not knowing that is surely the key for the preacher. The danger for every Christian community – it must have been for Matthew’s own – is that the important questions of When?, How?, Why? How can I know? (see 24:3) do not seem to get answers. The danger is then that not knowing turns either into not believing and despair or into wild speculation and fears. The beginning of the new year and the sounding of the Advent trumpet with its themes of “coming” may then only fall on ears and hearts that are numbed by the “same-old, same-old.” “Well here we go again; so what’s new?” “Has anything really changed?” we ask. The problem for us is the sameness, the routine of it all – whether good or bad.
How do you prepare for a promise? Promises by their very nature always come as a surprise. This gospel lesson balances the surety of the promise of the coming of the Son of Man -the promise of God’s nearness to our world and our lives-with the not knowing, the mystery, the whens and whys that mark our lives in the meantime.
Such promises call use to watch-to “be awake” (42) -not just for what is to come, but to continuous preparedness for what is already taking place in our midst. The danger is that we will be lulled to sleep in the seeming sameness or disappointing news of the world around us. When this happens, our failure is in not knowing the significance of this day-that each day is lived in the promise of the Lord’s nearness. The Son of Man is coming and you must be ready.
The task for the preacher is to help us see the mystery and the promise of the extraordinary presence of God in the ordinary routines of life, or even in those disastrous events that make God’s presence so difficult to envision. Enable our imaginations. It takes imagination shaped by God’s promises to see the poetry of God’s working in the reality of today’s same-old.
It will help to observe Matthew’s own way of doing this. In the lessons that follow it is as if Matthew imagines in a series of parables unique to his gospel what this watchfulness would look like: a servant who takes faithful care of the master’s household (24:45-51); ten maidens, five of whom keep their lamps trimmed (25:1-13); stewards who care responsibly for what is entrusted to them (25:14-30); or ones who “not-knowing” still go about unconsciously caring for those in need (25:31-46).
In the same way the preacher will help us to hear and embody once again the excitement, the expectation, the surety of God’s promise to be near us as we live in faithful discipleship while waiting the coming of Christ our Lord.
To preach on this text stands us in good stead: Isaiah preached on it, too! Or so it seems. The text occurs twice in the Bible-with minor variations-here in Isaiah and again in Micah 4:1-3.
Interpreters have had as little success solving the “Which came first?” question as folks have had with the proverbial chicken and egg. Micah and Isaiah are contemporaries, both prophets of the eighth century B.C.E. and both concerned primarily with issues of justice and integrity before God in a time of social inequality and hypocritical worship.
Yet, despite their common messages of judgment and calls to repentance, both prophets pick up this oracle about the nations coming to Zion where they will beat their swords into plowshares and learn war no more. And, “pick up this oracle” is apparently just what both of them do-take an existing oracle of promise and preach on it for their own purposes.
“In days to come,” says Isaiah, signaling that, however attractive the promise of no more war sounds, it is not one that we can usher in in our own time or in our own way. When and how it comes is God’s business-though this does not at all mean that the word has no hook for present hearers. If it is merely an isolated promise of a messianic age somewhere over the rainbow then it may perhaps have no immediate application-then or now. But Isaiah anchors it in his own history (“The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw…”) and then uses it to make a timely point. We will do well to follow his example. The passage represents one of the traditions of Zion, important throughout the book of Isaiah, in which the nations recognize the presence of God on God’s holy mountain and come streaming in. Unlike some of the Zion psalms (Pss 46; 48), here the nations do not come defeated, but positively and voluntarily in order to learn God’s ways, walk in God’s paths, study Torah (“instruction,” v. 3), and hear the word of the Lord. It is that turn to the ways of God that will motivate the destruction of the implements of war and the rejection of war itself. Amazing! Wonderful! And how do we get there from here?
That is where Isaiah turns this into a sermon for his own people. He, too, knows that the kingdom to come is not theirs to construct, but he has something to say about life in the meantime. He follows the peace oracle with a warning to Israel that is addressed in precisely the same way:
Address: “Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord.” (v. 3) Promise: “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction.” (v. 3)
Isaiah to Israel
Address: “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (v. 5) Promise: “For thou hast rejected thy people, the house of Jacob, because they are full of diviners from the east.” (v. 6 RSV)
Isaiah takes this perhaps familiar promise of peace and transforms it into a sermon in which, surprisingly, the nations become role models for Israel. Returning to his theme of judgment, Isaiah admonishes Israel to come and relearn God’s ways, following the lead of the nations who, coming to seek Torah, have now become the teachers of Israel. Isaiah seeks to shock Israel out of its complacency by demonstrating how the nations have chosen a better way. The nations, more commonly seen as bad influences on Israel (and again, for example, in 2:6-8), make a breakthrough in the peace oracle, opened by God to a radical conversion that God’s word through Isaiah makes possible for Israel as well.
What shall we do with this sermon? Advent, as we know, is a time of hope and longing, but also a time of repentance. Isaiah reminds Israel (and us) that we can’t appreciate the promise without hearing the judgment. If there is no need, there is nothing for which to hope. As preachers, we will have to name the need, the recalcitrance, the resistance to God’s peace, of our congregations (and ourselves) so they can repent and return to the ways and paths of God. Like Israel, we, too, stand under the judgment of God; and-precisely for that reason-for us, too, the promise is overwhelming. God is taking us somewhere we cannot go on our own, not because of our righteousness, but because of God’s goodness. The coming peace is God’s, but it is promised to us. And thus, like Israel, Isaiah calls us to act in the meantime as though the promise is ours. We cannot usher in the kingdom of peace. But, by God’s grace, we can practice peace-within ourselves, among our families, in our congregations, in our neighborhoods, for our world. Why not? “Blessed are the peacemakers!” Christmas comes not to awaken nostalgia, but to awaken our hearts to the ways of God, calling us to conversion and setting us free to be agents of God in the world to which Christ came-even, as Israel is urged to do, to learn from and make common cause with the “nations,” the outsiders, the others. For, under God’s instruction, there is no more “other,” no more “we” and “they”; and until that happens, there is no peace. God is taking us there, says Isaiah, and, though that kingdom is not ours to make, it is ours to practice-for, as we learn at Christmas, it has come in person to reside in our midst. Perhaps by practicing God’s peace we can make our own little piece of “Zion” begin to reflect some of the attractiveness of Isaiah’s “mountain of the Lord” that will draw others to come and see just what God is up to among these odd people who worship a baby in a manger.
In this brief but extremely rich passage, Paul tells us that as Christians we are all “morning people.” The time is just before dawn, the sky is brightening, the alarm is ringing, day is at hand. It is time to rouse our minds from slumber, to be alert to what God is doing in the world, and to live in accordance with God’s coming salvation.
This “wake up call” comes in the midst of teaching about mutual love and acceptance in the fellowship of faith (13:8-10; 14:1-15:6); Paul interrupts himself to remind his hearers of their common hope in the clear and revealing light of God’s coming day of salvation (vv. 12-13). This hope is the motivator for the new ways of relating to one another that Paul wants the Jewish and Gentile Roman Christians to adopt.
Amidst the bitter divisions eroding our churches today, both local and global, Paul’s words bring needed perspective. In the wonderfully countercultural season of Advent, he gives us a way to name the present situation: it is still dark, still night. We still indulge in quarreling and jealousy. Paul intends to give us “night vision” to see and name this division as “darkness” (see also the parallel passages in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and Ephesians 6:10-20).
When we wake up, we get dressed. Paul tells us what to wear: “let us put on the armor of light” (v.12); and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 14). Why the military image of armor? It’s as if we are awakened suddenly from a dream of nighttime revelry, and discover that we are in a military encampment during the hours just before dawn. The camp is astir, preparing for imminent battle; sniffing the wind, scanning the horizon, the soldiers put on their armor and don their weapons.
The image tells us that we’re in the middle of conflict; instead of fighting each other, we need to unite against a common enemy. In parallel passages (Ephesians 6:10-20; Romans 8:38-39) Paul names the enemy as “not flesh and blood,” but “principalities, powers, the world rules of this present darkness, the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” How can we make sense of this language in our pulpits today?
First, our enemies are “not flesh and blood.” As Christians, we are never to consider other people as our enemies, no matter how bitter the divisions in the church may be, nor how painful our experiences. Rather, we are to fight against the destructive powers that enslave and divide people. That might be a history of mistrust and injustice, addictions, thirst for revenge, prejudice and fear, greed, and so forth. Paul calls these “the works of darkness,” identified with the “the desires of the flesh” (see Gal 5:19-21 for “the works of the flesh”). It is often the petty manifestations of these powers that erode our fellowship and our witness. When we engage in battle against such destructive powers, we fight for the unity of the church.
Second, the parallel for clothing ourselves in the armor of light is, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Here, the imagery of donning clothing points backwards to the moment of baptism and our hearers’ first profession of faith, recalling Galatians 3:27: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” This language of “putting on” a person could be used in ancient times to refer to playing the role of a character in a play, “getting into” the role so intensely that we live and breath it day and night, losing and finding our identity in that of the character.
So indeed, for those who have put on Christ, Christ’s destiny becomes our own: “This perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory'” (1 Corinthians 15:53).
The parallel between putting on the armor of light and putting on the Lord Jesus Christ tells us both that to live out our baptism is inevitably to be in conflict with the status quo, and that Jesus Christ is our sure defense. Paul’s language comes from Isaiah’s description of Israel’s terrible darkness and God’s mighty intervention:
We wait for light, and lo! There is darkness; And for brightness, but we walk in gloom. . . . [The Lord] put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle (Isaiah 59:9, 17)
Paul uses the same description of God as Israel’s warrior to describe Jesus Christ, who intervenes on behalf of all humanity. To be baptized into Christ is to be clothed with this mighty power, and to be summoned to battle with all that deflects us from the mutual love enjoined in the larger context of Romans 13:8-15:6, including all that divides the community and sets Christians against one another. At stake is not simply our own health and happiness, but our witness to God’s righteousness in the midst of a hostile world.
In conclusion, this extraordinary text tells us what it means to be “morning people” in the darkness before the dawn: