My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 24:36-44.
To download an audio of my sermon, click here.
Happy New Year! Liturgically speaking, of course. We have now entered into the Advent season, and as such we move into a new liturgical year and start the great story of Judeo-Christianity all over again.
Each Sunday of Advent explores a different theme, and the theme for the First Sunday of Advent is Hope. I would like to explore this theme a little. Hope comes from Old English roots that mean "trust", so when we talk about a hope for the future, our hope in God, we are not talking about a wish: we wish the future would be like this or that, we wish God would do this for us. We are talking about trust in the future will be good, trust that God is working in us and the world.
The passage that we have been given to explore hope is a little odd, and certainly difficult for most modern Christians because it is apocalyptic. It deals quite clearly with the Second Coming of Christ, something in which the people to whom the author of Matthew was writing most certainly believed in, but something in which most modern Christians do not. If they do, it is certainly not thought to be as immediate or imminent as in Matthew's time.
The Gospel of Matthew was written around 80-90 AD, ten or twenty years after the Temple had been destroyed by the Romans. The destruction of the Temple was synonymous with the end of the world, such that "When the Temple falls" was used much in the same way you or I might say "When Hell freezes over". The fall of the Temple was seen as impossible, but if it happened, it signaled the end of everything.
So these proto-Christians (at the time of Matthew's writing, the differentiation between Judaism and Christianity was by no means clear) were traumatized by the fall of the Temple. They needed hope.
They also needed hope because not only were they being persecuted by the Romans who could not distinguish between them and Jews, but they were also being persecuted by their fellow Jews who felt that their movement was heretical.
They were alone and hopeless. It was into this situation that Matthew wrote his Gospel. It is a Gospel that foretells Christ coming back, and soon, to make things right: to overthrow the powers of oppression, to unify Judaism, to rebuild the Temple and the nation.
But there was a problem: he didn't come back. He's still not back. Despite the immediacy of Matthew's advice ("Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming"), life had to continue as normal, people had to get back to the real world, and people had to find a new way to frame the Second Coming.
What does this mean for us as modern-day Christians? I for one certainly don't live with the expectation that Jesus will come back tomorrow.
But what if I did? What if we all did?
There is a phenomenon in psychology referred to as reactivity. Broadly, this describes the fact that most people tend to act differently when they think they are being observed. So while people can commit unspeakable acts when they think no one is watching, we also tend to act a little better when we think someone is keeping an eye on us.
Around Christmas, the lyrics to Santa Claus is Coming to Town go "He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows when you've been bad or good so be good for goodness' sake". Perhaps this was a way to keep children behaving around Christmas!
Let's be honest: if we knew Jesus was keeping track, if we knew Jesus would be back tomorrow or later on this afternoon, wouldn't we all act a little differently? Wouldn't we all make an extra effort to be kind, loving, considerate and generous? Wouldn't we all make an effort to mend fences with family and friends so we wouldn't have to report to Jesus that we can't get along with so-and-so?
So the question then becomes: why don't we act that way all the time?
Maybe Jesus will come back, literally, bodily, in person and in the flesh. Maybe he won't. But I don't believe that really matters. Jesus said repeatedly, in one way or another, "The Kingdom of God is within you".
I have hope for this Kingdom, meaning I trust in this Kingdom. I hope and trust that the kingdom of God, which the returned Christ would ostensibly bring about, is actually possible without him bodily returning, because the Kingdom is that state which could exist on earth if only a critical mass of people would stop being such jerks to each other.
The kingdom of God is marked by all the things Jesus was: kind, loving, caring, compassionate, merciful, forgiving. If we could all be like that, the Kingdom would literally be here.
Over the course of this Advent season, as we anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ as we relate the Nativity story, let us all redouble our efforts, to do our part to hope and trust in that Kingdom in which all are loved, all are accepted, and all are welcome.