Grace Presbyterian Church
November 27, 2022, Advent 1A
Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
Advent Disruption, part 1: An Unexpected Hour
There is a certain level of disconnect between our setting this morning and the scripture appointed for the day. We haven’t gone whole hog with the sanctuary; there is at least one indicator – the banner hanging on the wall – that this is in fact Advent and not Christmas Eve already, or actually two in that the Advent wreath has only one candle lit. And I suppose that the fact that the Nativity scene is not yet populated also counts. But there is greenery about, including this substantial tree in front of the lectern and the wreath behind me, and while the Nativity scene might be empty it is still here. Pretty obviously this sanctuary is being set up for Christmas.
And then we read the lectionary readings for the day, all four of them, and they float like the proverbial lead balloon in the midst of all the Christmas-is-coming around us, even more in the world out there. Decorations go up quickly, including at our house, and the transformation that has been worked in many locales just over this weekend is impossible to miss. In the face of all of this, today’s readings make the stark and unrelenting proclamation that it’s not Christmas. Not yet.
That first reading, from Isaiah, isn’t so bad about it. It’s good familiar stuff, although by the time we read verse 4 we are forced to admit that it is a prophetic writing that is not yet come to pass. Indeed, unlike what Isaiah writes here about “plowshares into swords,” our world is much more consistently doing what Don Henley sung about in the song “The End of the Innocence,” when he sang of “beating plowshares into swords for this tired old man that we elected king” back in 1989. As such, the comfort of a good familiar reading goes a bit cold. For that matter, the psalm isn’t much help either; the call to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” is a reminder that, even if no outright war is being fought there at this time in history, there certainly is not peace in Jerusalem. And let’s face it, readings from Hebrew Scripture are not going to give us good old Christmas feels no matter how hard we try. That’s not it’s job.
It’s when we get to the New Testament readings that the cognitive dissonance kicks in hardest.
There are two seasons of the liturgical year in which such apocalyptic readings from the gospels appear, and they just happen to show up almost back-to-back. This reading from the first week of Advent, from Matthew, is a near relative to gospel readings from Luke that finished up Year C leading to Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. In fact, at the end of this Year A, the gospel readings for the final three Sundays of the year will be taken from the next chapter of Matthew, from the three parables that make up that chapter – the final one being the very well-known parable of the sheep and the goats.
Here this snippet of apocalpytic literature serves a different function than those late-liturgy readings. Here we are reminded that the “first Advent,” the coming of the Son of God in the birth of a child, is not the only Advent we mark in this season, even if the rest of the season doesn’t show it too much outside of the epistle readings. Christ is not done with this world; in this extended discourse he is stressing to his followers to live in expectation that Christ will return to be with them again, no matter how unexpected it may be.
The metaphors Jesus uses here are of the chilling type that get exploited by the less-ethical self-proclaimed preachers and teachers who do the exact thing that Jesus warns against. Right up front in verse 24 Jesus warns that nobody knows – not even Jesus himself! – when that hour might come. The end of this reading reinforces that disturbing statement, with its declaration that “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” I’m guessing I don’t need to remind you how many of those self-proclaimed preachers and teachers have been exposed so far by picking days and hours that passed by with no coming of the Son of Man.
The example Jesus uses of the time of Noah serves to point out that unexpectedness. Folks were, well, frankly, living their lives, and then all of a sudden the flood swept them away. So it will be when the Son of Man returns. There were two men working in the field, two women grinding grain, and then one was gone. No warning. The owner of the house didn’t know a thief was coming; the thief breaks in. No warning.
These examples aren’t as easy for us to grasp in modern times. We have storm warnings like never before (even if some politicians try to pretend otherwise, but don’t get me started on that), so the flood example is hard to grasp. We have home security systems that will tell us when a stray cat comes to our front door, much less anyone with hostile intentions. It’s harder for us to grasp the whole idea of something, especially something so momentous as the coming of the Son of Man, happening without warning.
And yet in many ways the prescription is the same. Live ready. It isn’t about to panic or to live in some kind of paralyzing fear or paranoid defensiveness, but to follow Jesus.
O. Wesley Allen, Jr., a preaching professor at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, describes that act of following Jesus as:
…the church at work in the not-yet places of the world. Places where justice and equality have not yet been found. Places where hunger and thirst have not yet been alleviated. Places where school children die of senseless violence [note: this was written three years ago]. Places where the planet is not yet being treated with respect.
To this exhortation the reading from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome adds the call “to wake from sleep.” Writing from perhaps thirty-ish years after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, Paul sure seems intent on warning folks away from losing hope in that promised return; see how strongly he emphasizes that the time is coming – “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers“; and “the day is near“. For Paul, “to wake from sleep” means to put aside the self-destructive and others-destructive behaviors of our negligent past and to be awake – dare I say “woke”? – and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” the way a new convert in Paul’s time would put on a new garment after being baptized. Leave past things behind and live in expectation, even if, as in Jesus’s words in Matthew, we don’t know when to expect.
Things happening at “an unexpected hour” are inevitably disruptive. We can’t go off to a mountaintop and do nothing but wait (as some past groups have done) and we’re not called to do that anyway. Ultimately, no matter how good we are at staying awake, the coming of the Son of Man inevitably disrupts.
Advent is all about disruptions, really. Even the familiar stories to come in the weeks ahead, the ones we’re probably accustomed to hearing by now in this season, are ultimately disruptive to a status quo that abhors disruption. If there is any challenge for us in coming into this season yet again, maybe it is for us to hear these stories, and even the one we tell on Christmas Eve, with the disruptive and upsetting power they had when they first happened, when they were first told among those early followers of Christ, when they were first written down. Let Advent be disruptive.
We don’t like that idea, of course, not when Christmas is coming with all the familiar and comfortable trappings in which the Nativity story gets covered.
Maybe that’s the biggest reason we need a good unexpected disruptive Advent.
For the unexpected hour, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: Manger scenes and hanging greens; Keep watch, O Christian people; Come Now, O Prince of Peace (GtG #103).
 Working Preacher, December 1, 2019 (gospel reading); https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent/commentary-on-matthew-2436-44-3 (accessed 25 November 2022).