The Beginning is Near

by susan on November 27, 2016

ready-or-notDuring this first Sunday of Advent, we lit the candle of hope, shared stories & prayers of hope & explored Matthew 24:36-44 :

36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But 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. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

For the first time in five years, I hosted Thanksgiving.  I was really proud of how well I was able to overcome my perfectionistic tendencies and accept that everything could be good without being perfect. And, it was pretty good. The turkey was not still frozen in the middle as I seriously thought it could be and everything was warm and ready at roughly the same time. There was one part of the meal though that caused me some concern: the cornbread dressing.

I was using my grandmother’s recipe – the only recipe that is ever prepared & served at our family gatherings. It requires quite a bit of prep & involves several not-super-clear steps . You have to make homemade cornbread first, then the instructions include instructions like “mix until moist but not soupy” & “toast 5 pieces of bread and then a couple more…” . In other words, use your own judgement. As I was diligently following each step, I was suddenly thankful that my parents (who have eaten this dish thousands of times) would not be there to taste test it.

Even though I did question the large amount of sage I had written down on my recipe card (4 tablespoons, could that really be right?!), I went with it.

As the dressing began to cook, two things happened: the smell of sage took over our home & the dressing looked a lot dark-greener than I remember it looking at grandmas’s house.

Apparently, I had written that one ingredient down wrong. No one gagged and we ate the leftovers, but it could have been a lot better.

I was reminded of how getting one tiny part of the recipe wrong can change everything. Distorting that one little spice altered the whole dish.

That’s kind of how I feel about today’s passage. Misreading this & other similar passages has distorted, confused, complicated & distracted us from the central message of Jesus.

raptureEven though Jesus warned that the Son of Man’s coming would happen in a way no one expected, we are conditioned to hear this passage as a literal description of the end times. We are conditioned to anticipate a rapture – where those who call themselves Christians are evacuated somewhere else while those left behind & the world that God created and loves is destroyed.

Believing in the rapture demands preparation. After all, one must make sure to not be the 1/2 left behind.  It’s tempting for the end-times, rapture-oriented life to become devoted, even fixated on preparing for departure – with little or no attention is given to making the world a better, more just place.

That was not the belief behind Matthew’s “good news.” Neither is this how Matthew’s community would have understood this passage. They were not hoping, waiting and preparing for the end of the world. They were anxious for Jesus to return, but so that he could rescue them from Roman domination. They had watched their sacred city, Jerusalem destroyed in the aftermath of a Jewish revolt. Josephus, the first century historian who tells us much of what we know about Jewish life during this time, described the end of that 3 year war as total devastation. Not only was Jerusalem burned to the ground, but Jews were dispersed from their homeland. These Jewish Christians were now refugees.

They expected God to rescue them any minute & they were repeatedly disappointed. Instead of Jesus returning to make things right, their lives were getting worse.

His coming was taking too long. Their waiting was turning into impatience and their impatience was turning into complacency. Instead of carrying out Jesus’ revolutionary teachings, they were becoming preoccupied with the future & obsessed with the conflict & turmoil all around them.

The gospel of Matthew was not shared to tell these desperate people to get ready for a rapture. Matthew was reminding these weary, beaten down followers that despite how things may look and feel, Jesus IS their promised Messiah & he has come, he is present with them now & he will come again – only it won’t exactly happen like they are expecting it to.

In fact, they better get ready, because God’s rescue will happen in the midst of their everyday lives: while working in the field or while grinding meal.

It will happen while they are preoccupied with other things.
It will catch them by surprise.
It will cause some things to disappear,
while other things will remain.

And, while the rapture-way-of-thinking would have us believe that the good will be taken away to some of other place, that’s not what Jesus says here & it’s not what Jesus had been saying all along. He had been inviting people to be part of God’s kingdom starting here & now & forever.

Jesus was joining a long line of prophets who believed that God was not abandoning the world, but redeeming it, restoring it & rescuing it. He was warning these fearful & at-risk-of-becoming-complacent Christians to get ready for that day.

new-jerusalem-02They needed to get ready for a day when the vision of the prophet Isaiah will be realized:
A day when…
the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest of the mountains,
and …all the nations will stream to it….
swords will be beaten into plowshares,
spears into pruning hooks;
a day when nation will not lift up sword against nation,
… they will walk in the light of the Lord! (excerpts from Isaiah 2:1-5)

They needed to get ready because in this age to come,
there will be no room for greed or violence or envy.
There will be no place for pride or poverty or power-driven empires.
There will be no more hate, no more homelessness, nor more abuse.

We know how to get ready for a rapture, but how do we get ready for this kind of coming? How do we prepare for God to restore everything, including us?

We are conditioned to anticipate endings. We can spend all of our time & energy preparing for the sky to fall & for the world to end, but that is not what followers of Jesus are instructed to do. Instead of fearfully preparing for the end, we are warned to be present where we are & to actively prepare for what is to come.

What might happen if instead of preparing for the end of the world, we got busy expecting God to fulfill God’s promises?
What might we risk, knowing that all loss and disappointment, as difficult as they may be, will ultimately be restored by God?

This may seem like a strange place to begin this Advent season. Yet, here we are – warned not just to wait, but to keep awake, to watch, and to be prepared.

There is so much that can distract us
from setting our sights on the already & not yet kingdom of God –
even our frantic holiday pace can do that.

Instead of getting distracted, let us get ready;
for light is coming into the darkness.
The beginning, not the end is near.

It comes without warning & it changes everything.

Amen.

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