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Hope in the Already-Not Yet Time of God

November 27, 2022

First Sunday of Advent

Matthew 24: 36-44


By: Rev. Karen Howe


Here we are on the first Sunday of Advent…finally! Or, already! We know we are beginning our new liturgical year – the calendar and the lectionary tell us so; we have the Advent wreath ready. This is the season of anticipation of the birth of a baby. We’re ready to dive right into “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…”


But that’s not what we get this first week. The Scripture says, “…about that day and hour.” The end times, and the Second Coming.


The stores may be all decked out for Christmas, but we do not yet seem to be there.


This passage jars us into wakefulness, out of the complacency or franticness of counting down the days until Christmas. This passage tells us that we are not yet ready to look towards the little town of Bethlehem, but that we are to be awake here and now. This passage keeps us alert to the already-not yet-ness of this Advent season.


The season of Advent is one of knowing and not knowing. We know that in a few short weeks we will celebrate the birth of baby Jesus and hear the beautiful, familiar stories.


We also know, as our gospel reading tells us today, that we don’t know God’s mysterious Kairos centered timeline; we don’t know when or how the world will be transformed; when the Realm of God will be fully present. No one knows, and we are warned that our job is not to know, but to be ready for this transformation. All in the same liturgical season, we will hear of Jesus’ return and Jesus’ birth. God’s timing; not ours.


Scholars generally agree that the author of this Gospel of Matthew wrote his narrative around 80 CE, and that part of his agenda was to reassert an eschatological expectation among his readers after some fifty years of waiting for Jesus to return. That’s a long time to wait. That’s a long time to hope.


But along with this encouragement not to give up hope of a swift (though less swift than initially believed) return, is Matthew’s concern with helping his readers (including us) practice an eschatological existence in the here and now, so that they would be ready at any given moment. “To be ready” is to continue living by the teachings of Jesus that he has already taught us.

Matthew begins his explanation of this in between time that we can’t know, with the example of the days of Noah. Before the flood people were just living their lives, when this unexpected, no-warning, devastating flood swept everything away.


He then moves to two people working in a field, and two women grinding meal. In each scenario, one is “taken” and the other left. We’ve seen movies and paintings of people being whisked away.


Who is taken and who is left is rather unclear, and I believe not really the point. People have sometimes made it the point by insisting that it will become clear who has been chosen and who has been left (remember the bumper sticker “If this car has no driver, the Rapture is here” or some such thing).


The theme the church generally assigns to this first Sunday of Advent is hope. Matthew’s harsh reminder of the flood, of some people being plucked up, while others are left doesn’t really speak of hope to me. Isn’t hope forward looking? How do we hope when we don’t know what’s going on? How do we hope and live fully in this moment?


When I was serving First Congregational Church in Pueblo, I rented a pleasant little apartment. One day, I went out onto the balcony and was greeted by a man who was painting the exterior of the building. After saying hello, he asked, “Are you a believer?” I knew I wanted to tread gently on that one.


“I am the pastor of a UCC congregation in town,” I responded, hoping that my rather vague answer would confirm an affirmative answer in his mind, and that we could move our conversation to something less important, like what shade of tan he was using on these walls.


Whatever he thought, he was not deterred. He continued as pleasantly as before, saying, “I know that the Lord is going to return someday soon to take me home, so I’m just biding my time here on earth until that happens.”


He was expressing one fairly common understanding of Matthew’s warning of one plucked up and one left behind. To my understanding, the author of Matthew was using this example to exhort us to live each moment fully; to continue to live out the teachings of Jesus; to live our lives as living testimony to God’s goodness, to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.


To my understanding, we live in this moment; we live our daily lives without necessarily knowing what the outcome will be.


“We make the hard decision to undergo the chemo and radiation, not knowing if the misery will be worth it, but as if it will. We decide not to drink today, not knowing if we’ll be able to do the same tomorrow, but trusting we’ll get sober one day at a time. We reach out to that person who’s angry with us, as if forgiveness is possible. We work for racial justice, as if both hearts and systems can be changed. We care for Creation, as if the worst of the climate crisis is not inevitable.” (Vicki Kemper) We make these decisions in the not-knowing, but hopeful place of God’s presence.


The first century followers did seem to believe that Jesus would return within their lifetime. As time went on, that was revised. Rather than a singular event that will instantly transform the world, there developed an understanding of the constant presence of God that draws the world toward Kin-dom qualities. This draw, this pull invites us, encourages us to participate with God in bringing about the Realm of God, on earth as it is in heaven.


So we return to the already-not yetness of God’s time; of this season. We return to what we do know; that we live in “between” time and are called to live this eschatological existence.


Karl Barth enjoined us to live in times such as these with “a newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.” This encourages us to care for those who are suffering (and as we read any newspaper today, we know of so many who are suffering) and to know that the words of Jesus “will not pass away.”


We care for the victims, families, and friends of the too, too many mass shootings around our country. We care for the minority communities trying to be true to their God-imaged selves and still be safe. We care for those whose everything has been swept away by hurricane winds and floods.


While we are here, anticipating the birth of the Holy Child, or awaiting the return of the Christ, we are called to witness, through our words and actions; to witness faithfully to God’s ultimate purpose of love, peace, joy, and abundance, and to live in hope, and to be ready for whatever God has ready for us next. Amen.



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