Matthew 24:37-44, First Sunday of Advent
Twenty-eight days before Christmas! Some people begin numbering the days to December 25 as soon as the “ber” months arrive. Last year, I chanced upon a website that started a Christmas countdown on December 26. But I wonder: Would people be as excited for Christmas if our Gospel today were the main image of what we are waiting for?
As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man… Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left (Matthew 24:37,40-41).
We look forward to the birth of the Baby Jesus. Who would not when this world-changing event is accompanied by angels singing, a star shining bright, and gifts being given? We cannot wait until the God who is Emmanuel, the God-with-us, finally comes fulfilling his other names – Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:5). But would it be anticipation or anxiety that would fill our hearts if the coming of the Son of Man was like a flood that could carry us all away or a thief breaking into our comfortable lives and stealing our sense of security?
I think we need to wait for this God, too. I think we need to balance our consoling images of God with this one that challenges. Yes, God is a shepherd who seeks the lost sheep and, upon finding it, puts it on his shoulders and rejoices. Yes, God is the miracle worker who heals our infirmities and feeds us with more bread and fish than we can eat. But God is also the master to whom we stewards are accountable. As we saw last week, he is also the crucified king, and we who profess to follow him must be ready to carry our own crosses, too.
We need all these images of God. To pin him down to one would be a disservice to him and to us. The God who suffered is also the God who rose again. But the resurrected one was first the betrayed, battered, and bruised one. When I was a child, my grandmother unintentionally scared me with the God who was this big-eye-in-the-sky watching my every move. He sees me when I’m sleeping, he knows when I’m awake, he knows if I’ve been bad or good – for goodness’ sake that is a creepy portrait not just of Santa but of God! But this God who watches so closely that he has numbered the hairs on my head (Luke 12:7) also makes sure not a hair on my head will perish (Luke 21:18). God is mercy, and God is also justice. God forgives, and God also judges. Lean too much towards the God who is patient and kind, and you might take him for granted. Fall too much towards the God who demands our repentance and that we respond rightly, and you might not be able to love him. Not only do we need all these images, but we need to hold them in dynamic balance.
But many times, we just settle on one image of God and venture no further. Why? One detail from our Gospel today provides one answer: The Son of Man was coming but people were “marrying and giving in marriage” (Matthew 24:38) until it was too late. If you have ever helped plan a wedding, you know how consuming it can get – consuming not only of your time but also of your energy. Many times, we just get too busy with so many little things that once we come to know God in a certain way, we put him in a box and leave him there as we attend to other things. And we lose out on all the other facets of God that make him a diamond we can look at forever, a treasure that never ceases to dazzle. Maybe this is why we need images of God like the one in our Gospel today – to make us stop and pay attention.
Let me make a prediction: The next twenty-seven days before Christmas (for some, maybe even the twenty-eighth day), you will be very busy preparing gifts, attending parties, running after this or that, and so on. Let me make a challenge: In the next few weeks of rush, deliberately set aside more than just a few moments of hush. Let me make a suggestion about what you can do when you make time to be quiet: First, look back at the past year and try to give a name to the God you met. Do not just rely on names others have given him before like Rock, Fortress, and Light. Give him your own term of endearment, your own “nickname” based on your personal experience of him. Second, we have twenty-eight days before Christmas and thirty-five days before January 1, but today, the first Sunday of Advent, is already the start of a new Church year. A good New (Church) Year’s resolution might be to begin each day with this prayer: “Lord, what face will you show me today? Lord, let me love you more however you choose to reveal yourself to me.”
One of my “nicknames” for God is “My Trustworthy Mystery.” He is a mystery because I will never be able to figure him out. He never ceases to surprise. But he is a trustworthy mystery because no matter what happens I know I can trust that he has my best interests at heart. A mystery is not something we are too stupid to understand. A mystery is something that whenever we say something about it, we discover there is even much more we can say. But we must say something about it first to open the door to the “much more.” What can you say about your God? Who is the God you are waiting for this Advent?