(A sermon for Advent 1A November 28, 2010 Matthew 24:36-44)
I don’t know about you, but at my house, we just spent several days cooking and eating and reheating and rearranging the elements of our Thanksgiving feast in as many ways as possible, from pie for breakfast to turkey salad for lunch to Thanksgiving soup for dinner. Maple syrup found its way into pumpkin pie and whipped cream and even gravy! Everyone had a little wine—LP had her first taste—to which the response was “Bleh!!!”
The number of pies was actually ridiculous. We started out with three for six people, which seemed a little over-generous, and then a neighbor brought another to our door Thursday morning. Mid-afternoon, the doorbell rang unexpectedly. “Who can that be?” I wondered aloud, and someone joked, “Pie delivery!” Sure enough, it was my children’s grandfather, making a quick stop to drop off a pecan pie.
As my oldest pointed out, that gave us .83 pies per person.
"But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matthew 24:36-39, NRSV)
In those days, we were eating and drinking and basting the turkey and whipping the cream and nogging the egg.
Well, we didn’t actually do that last one. But we had fun, and we went about it in the ways that are some conglomeration of my childhood and the family habits of my children’s father and the practices we’ve developed together, and it all felt good. We were happy, and talking about people we love and things we’ve enjoyed and dreaming of the magnificent futures of our young people and eating holiday food and washing my great-grandmother’s china by hand, and even the most mundane of chores, like sweeping the kitchen floor, felt beautiful and celebratory.
And that’s what people were doing, says Jesus, just before the flood. They were doing all the ordinary and festive things, eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage. Other than a mystifying set of conversations God had with old Noah, urging him to build an enormous boat in a place nowhere near water, the rest of the world was just going about its business. There were no signs of oncoming doom.
And then the water poured over their heads and that was the end.There was just…disaster. Utter disaster. I remember reading a picture book about the flood with #1 Son when he was a little fellow, and I remember his distress at an image of the water coming up and over the animals left behind by the ark. And we find Jesus here in some distress about what is to come. Here at the beginning of the church year he is saying the same kinds of things he heard in another gospel just two weeks ago as we ended the last one, warning that at an unexpected time, the whole world will come crashing down.
And we don’t really like to hear it.
Well, I don’t.
Two brothers will be in the yard, one holding the bag open while the other rakes up the leaves; one will be taken and one will be left. A mother and daughter will be washing the china, admiring the painted chrysanthemums and the gilt edges on the pretty old plates; one will be taken and one will be left.
Jesus describes an unthinkable moment, in which two people can be working together and just like that, like the snapping of a finger, one will be gone. It’s a dark image, because it threatens our expectations and our understanding of how life should be. And we wonder, what does this image mean? We’ve come to think of the people being snatched away, literally disappearing; that’s the influence of “The Late Great Planet Earth,” the Hal Lindsey book I poured over in high school, and its descendants, the “Left Behind” series of novels. But we’ve just been hearing about a flood.
Will one be swept up? Swept away?
We’re in the dark about the details.
This first day of the church year, the first Sunday of Advent, isn’t that far off from the beginning of the new calendar year, in a little over a month. The thing they have most in common is that in the Northern Hemisphere, they come at a time of darkness. The days get shorter and shorter. The college student at my house, sleeping in on his first morning home, lost half the daylight! By 5 o’clock, it felt like midnight.
I, on the other hand, woke up early the day after Thanksgiving, took our young musicians on a quest to North Conway to try out bassoons and drove back in the waning day. Even though I was exhausted, I found I could not go to sleep at a reasonable hour. The long darkness felt confusing. I tried reading, and watching a video, the very things that usually put me right to sleep, and still I lay awake. What was I waiting for? What made me so alert?
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But 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.” (Matthew 24:43, NRSV)
Keep awake, because you don’t know when the break is coming. But is it a break-in, a breakdown, or a breakthrough?
In the deepening darkness of the next few weeks, we will all feel the lack of daylight. Some of us will feel it more than others, especially on days when the weather is gloomy. In church we light the candles of the Advent Wreath, a reminder that we are in a season of preparation and anticipation. We consider qualities that God brings into the world in Jesus, and the words we associate with the wreath all sound much sweeter and kinder than the story Matthew tells about floods and thieves and people being separated from one another.
At our house, a great deal of discussion has centered on the question of a Christmas tree. Is this the year to downsize my expectations, to compromise my desires, to be realistic and hyper-practical? A tabletop tree or a tree to plant later—I’m sure those would be lovely, but I like a tree that takes up space. I considered getting one yesterday, while I still had young men around to help with it.
Honestly, if LP and I are the two people setting up a Christmas tree, with our average height of 5 feet, 1 inch, or thereabouts, being the one taken away would be much the better fate than being left behind to try wrestling a tree into the stand.
I want the light, as a hedge against the early nights. Last year we got the tree this early, and we only hung the lights on it. We waited weeks to add ornaments. We could have done the same thing yesterday, but somehow it felt too soon to me. I pulled into the tree lot, and then I pulled out again. Much as I would like to settle the question, I couldn’t.Sometimes we simply have to wait in the darkness and listen for God, wondering what we might hear next.
“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24:44, NRSV)
When I read this, I remember that Jesus wondered, too. Listen again to the way the passage begins:
"But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matthew 24:36, NRSV)
He would go to the cross wondering where God had gone and why he was alone, in a darkness deeper than the early sunsets of a Maine December. He would lie in a tomb for three days, and then wonderingly and knowingly rise from the dead. He would shrug off the boundaries of shroud and stone, moving through the world and beyond its limitations. He would change us, not with violence against us, but overcoming the violence done to him with grace and goodness, with hope and peace and joy and love.
Even for him, it could not happen without the darkness.
So don’t be too quick to plug in the tree. Wait a day, or even a moment. Watch in the darkness for the signs of Christ’s light. Amen.
Two women grinding coffee, from the collection of the Library of Congress and found at Vanderbilt's wonderful lectionary site.
Other pictures mine.