Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 27, 2016

2016.11.27 “No One Knows” – Matthew 24: 36 – 44

Central United Methodist Church
No One Knows
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 24: 36 – 44
November 27th, 2016

astronomicalclock

But the exact day and hour? No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father knows.

“The Arrival of the Son of Man will take place in times like Noah’s. Before the great flood everyone was carrying on as usual, having a good time right up to the day Noah boarded the ark. They knew nothing — until the flood hit and swept everything away.

“The Son of Man’s Arrival will be like that: Two men will be working in the field — one will be taken, one left behind; two women will be grinding at the mill — one will be taken, one left behind. So stay awake, alert. You have no idea what day your Master will show up. But you do know this: You know that if the homeowner had known what time of night the burglar would arrive, he would have been there with his dogs to prevent the break-in. Be vigilant just like that. You have no idea when the Son of Man is going to show up. – Matthew 24: 36 – 44, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

How do we feel, this Sunday after Thanksgiving?

turkeyprotestsIn many ways it is a strange thing, is it not, that because someone (Abraham Lincoln) declared a national day of thanksgiving, little could he have foreseen what that would mean: stores full of last minute shoppers, gridlock traffic, long car trips, packed airports, and Civil War, the Sequel when talk around the Thanksgiving table turns to politics, an especially dangerous time for such discussions, when people have sharp objects in their hands. And what about turkeys: turkeys have been protesting ever since: did you see this cartoon that was in the New Yorker (#not my holiday)?

After such a holiday, how do we feel? Tired? Disoriented? You may have had family come to you, or you may be here visiting family, which – while pleasant – can also be disorienting, unsettling to our usual schedule.

We also remember, that for some, family holidays such as Thanksgiving can be sad, even depressing. Do you remember – as I remember – how sad it was as a young adult to be far from home on a holiday? When we are older, holidays can also be sad times for those who families are far away, or even worse, dearly departed.

Dare we admit it: some of us might be renewed, even hopeful after Thanksgiving? Because if a holiday goes well, it can be renewing. (I say this speculatively, having rarely experienced it). Now that Thanksgiving is past, we enjoyed the time with family, and move into the holiday season, which is for some of us our favorite time of year. And so, despite all, we are hopeful, looking forward to the lights, the music, genuinely good times with family.

In the light of the election, one of the most divisive in American history, others have arrived at similar conclusions. David Brooks, a columnist with the New York Times – and a conservative at that – seems to have concluded that no good could come of this and has retreated into spirituality. He has been promoting the values of mutual respect, civic engagement, an emphasis on community and neighborhood, overall a belief in trickle-up decency rather than trickle-down economics. We may have lost the country, but at least we can regain our own little patch of the world, such as family, congregation, and community.

So on this Sunday, in this season of Advent – whether we are tired or disoriented or discouraged or even hopeful – the Gospel calls us to keep awake, to be vigilant, to be ready for whatever comes, which some have called the “good news of the end of the world.” For it is exactly at such times that God is near.

After hearing the Gospel this morning, you may wonder if the tour group is lost, and have gone in a circle. Didn’t we just hear this story from Luke two weeks ago, what Jesus said when his disciples pointed out the beauty of the Temple, how he shocked them by saying that it would all come crashing down? Here we are again two weeks later, still talking about such things, except this time from Matthew’s Gospel.

Remember, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all wrote their Gospels 40 to 50 years after Jesus, and some 10 years after the events Jesus predicted would happen, had happened: the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.

Think about it this way: we all remember how terrifying 9/11 was; imagine if on 9/11 Washington had been destroyed, the White House and the Capitol demolished, and tens –  possibly hundreds – of thousand people were killed, included people we knew. If you can imagine that (and shudder), then you have some sense of how shocked, scared, even disillusioned both Jews or Christians were after the Jewish Temple was destroyed.

Most early Christians expected Jesus’ return, thinking that if anytime was a good time, this would be it; but it did not happen. In fact, some scholars think the Gospels were written to encourage Christians confused and discouraged by Jesus’ delayed return. For this reason, Matthew, like Mark and Luke, devotes a section of his Gospel exhorting Christians to stay awake, to be ready, to be vigilant. If they aren’t, Matthew suggests, they might miss God’s advent among them, just as most had missed it the first time.

If Christians were losing their edge after only fifty years, what about us, after 2,000 years? Now, more than ever, Jesus’ call to vigilance about what God is doing in the world falls on deaf ears.

It’s like this: remember after 9/11, how vigilant we were?  The phrase is, “If you see something, say something.” Since then – in the name of vigilance – we have endured countless indignities, such as the loss of our razor blades, toothpaste, and water bottles, the loss of our shoes and almost our pants when we take our belt off, the loss of our dignity when we get patted down. We’ve become dulled to the endless looping tape messages about unattended baggage. To the point where, should something happen, we are so irritated, annoyed, and distracted that we are no longer vigilant nor ready to act.

But what if we interpret Jesus’ warning as less about his return, and more about a call to spiritual vigilance in life, waiting and watching for the advent of God in our lives? Because the truth is – as we have likely all learned but easily forget – anything can happen at any time. Uncertainly, surprise, unexpected events; good or bad can happen at any time. Events in which we can clearly see God’s hand, OR, things that happen that make us wonder where God is.

Viewed in this way, we could easily supplement those examples Jesus gave in his mini-parable, with examples we know, real-life examples closer to home. Two colleagues were working; one was diagnosed with cancer, another not. Two candidates applied for a coveted job; one was chosen, the other not. Two kids were making their way through high school; one succumbed to a drug addiction, the other not. Two couples were joined in marriage; one stayed married, the other did not. Is this random, predictable; or do we simply do not not know? No wonder, upon hearing Jesus’ words, his disciples asked him, when will these things be? No wonder his answer was, “Only God knows; no one knows, not even me.” No one knows!

Our lives are filled with unexpected, surprising, life-altering events; we never know from day-to-day when one is going to happen. But here’s the startling thing we learn from Jesus’ words: even in the middle of such things, we are invited – even commanded – to watch for the advent of God.

Doing this isn’t always easy, especially when what happens is tragic. Sometimes we must wait to see where God is at work, and waiting is always more difficult. Yet the promise throughout Scripture is that God meets us at our point of greatest need, and accompanies us in the most difficult of circumstances.

When we think about it, isn’t this one of the main reasons we come to church? To try and see God at work in the ups and downs of our lives, to hear these words of exhortation and encouragement, to be surrounded by other Christians, some of whom struggle to see God, and others who have experienced God in their lives, and can share with us what they’ve seen. Whatever else church is, it should at the very least be a place where you can count on the mutual comfort and consolation of God’s people.

In life, no one knows when tragedy will strike; no one knows when blessing will occur. But we know this: at both times, God is present. Sometimes – with tears in our eyes – this is hard to see, and we need help. Sometimes we see clearly, and we can help others. That’s the way the body of Christ worked in the first century, and that’s the way it still works today.

In Chicago, we have had too many examples of this, in young lives ended by street violence; to the degree that we have become numb to it. As of Wednesday, there had been 702 homicides in Chicago, with 108 victims 18 or younger. Yesterday, the family of U.S. Representative Danny Davis gathered at Carey chi-javon-wilson-funeral2Tercentenary African American Methodist Episcopal Church in North Lawndale, to lay to rest his 15-year-old grandson, Javon Wilson, 15, felled by a bullet as he tried to break up a fight over clothing in his family’s home. As they gathered, they did just what we’ve been talking about, they tried to make sense of such a tragedy and they comforted one another, chi-javon-wilson-funeral1but they also agreed it was a clarion call to end the violence. Rep. Davis estimates he has delivered eulogies for about two dozen young Chicagoans whose lives were cut short by violence, but this one – his grandson – was the hardest. He ended his eulogy with a prayer for peace from St. Francis of Assisi and then declared: “Let Javon’s life be a cry out for love and peace.”

In conclusion, I never preach this Gospel without thinking of the story told by the Rev. John Buchanan, former Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, about his granddaughter. At the time, she was attending a parochial school. One night around this time of year her mother was tucking her into bed and asked if she had learned any new songs, at which point she sang in the dark from her bed:

“Stay awake. (clap-clap)
Be ready. (clap-clap)
The Lord is coming soon.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
The Lord is coming soon.” (clap-clap)

Buchanan said his granddaughter loved that song and would sing it at a drop of a hat, with the result that, at their house, it was Advent all year long. (Rev. John Buchanan, Hope for the Long Haul, Sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church, December 2, 2001)

Like her, may we take Jesus’ words to heart, and may we be awake, ready, and vigilant for the advent of God in the events of our lives, both good and bad, each day and every day, all year long. Amen.

[I want to acknowledge my debt this week – as many weeks – to David Lose, for his commentary on this text, “Watching for God Together,” posted 11/24/2016 (in his dedication he wrote it on the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day!) His weekly comments may be found at his blog, “In the Meantime,” http://www.davidlose.net/]

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