“Stay Alert!” Colchester Federated Church, November 27, 2022, (Matthew 24:36-44) First Sunday of Advent

Today is the First Sunday of Advent, and it’s a bit strange to begin Advent with texts about the day of judgement.  Jesus commands his followers to stay alert because they do not know when the day of the Lord will occur.  Just like in the times of Noah, when people were going about their daily lives before the great flood, people will be going about their daily lives when the Human One will come to this earth.  Jesus says, “Therefore, stay alert!  You don’t know what day the Lord is coming.”[1]

This Gospel text gets to different views about when and how this day of judgment will take place.  John P. Burgess laid this out nicely in the Feasting on the Word Advent Companion.  Now, we could combine Matthew Chapter 24 with other apocalyptic passages in the Old Testament and New Testament and work out a timeline of events that is already taking place (or will take place soon).  Christians who view the day of judgment in this way (particularly American fundamentalists) believe that there will be a literal rapture where some people will be physically lifted up to be with God while others will be “left behind” to face God’s wrath.  The belief is that the rapture may take place in our lifetimes.  Granted, the timeline evolves and changes a lot.

A second way to think about the day of judgement is that it’s not about the end of human history, it’s about the end of each person’s mortal life.  This belief within Christianity is that at death everyone will stand before God’s judgment seat.  This will occur soon after we each have taken our last breath on this earth.  In this line of thinking, we will give an account to God of our lives—the good and the bad—and God will weigh our lives in the balance of mercy and judgment.  Though the lesson remains that we must not neglect to do what Jesus commanded because we never know when and how we will meet death itself.

The third way to think about the day of judgment is symbolically.  The point isn’t to speculate about any day of judgment in the future—whether it’s at the end of human history or the end of each person’s earthly life.  Jesus says, “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son.  Only [God] knows.”[2]  Instead, the point in this line of thinking is for each of us to be confronted with God’s claim on our lives here and now.  Every day is a day of judgement in a way.  Because every day we must ask ourselves (as Burgess outlines), “Am I living in the way of Christ?  Am I trusting in him alone?  Have I allowed myself to be distracted by selfish cares?”[3]

Christians have sometimes combined these views or have even come up with new ways to understand what Jesus is talking about here.  It’s worth considering on this First Sunday of Advent how we think about the Son of Man (or the Human One depending on one’s Bible translation) coming at an unexpected hour.  It’s worth considering what we think about God’s love and justice. 

A fascinating aspect of the Christian faith is that we live in the already and not yet.  Jesus—Emmanuel—already came to earth to show us the way of life and love.  The coming of the Human One already happened and we celebrate the Incarnation on Christmas Eve.  Though Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection continue to inspire and confound us.  Moreover, Christians believe in eternal life and that we can help create heaven on earth now.  The past, present, and future mingle in a way.  Perhaps time is not so linear but more cyclical in our faith.

The concept of time is fascinating in the Christian tradition.  One of my favorite questions about this topic came from a parishioner who was trying to explain the liturgical year to her children.  I went into this whole (what I thought was brilliant) explanation of the cyclical nature of the Christian year coinciding with the cyclical nature of life—how we experience birth and death throughout our lives, for everything there is a season as Ecclesiastes so eloquently states.  This exasperated parent said, “That’s great, Pastor Lauren.  But how do I explain to my kids why Jesus is born in December, dies as an adult man in April usually, and then gets resurrected on Easter every year?  That’s what they want to know.”  It was an awesome question, and maybe our long chat was helpful?

As we begin Advent, Jesus is telling us to stay alert because we do not know exactly when or how the future will unfold.  We live in this space between what once was and what will be.  We live in liminal space—in the threshold.  There is wisdom in staying alert as Jesus taught because in the end it’s an invitation to stay present in this in-between time. 

The Covid-19 pandemic obviously represented a great upheaval in our society and in our individual lives.  Some of us were more affected than others.  Some of us shouldered more burdens than others.  Though the pandemic altered our sense of time.  There have been studies that most Americans experienced distortions of time in the beginning of the pandemic.  These distortions are common in times of trauma.  We have just been through a long, unprecedented, and collective national trauma.  We want to move on, and what a blessing to return to some normalcy, but we can’t deny two years of traumatic upheaval. 

It was not that long ago that we embarked upon virtual worship and our staff was recording ourselves in our homes and making a video to send out on Sunday mornings.  Once we returned to in-person worship, we had sign-ups and Nicole had a seating chart to space people out.  At one point in the pandemic, I printed out an old Order of Worship that I labeled “Before Times” to figure out what parts of the worship service we could safely do together in-person.  Passing the Peace and the Circle of Friendship for instance (parts of our worship that we recently brought back) were no-gos for a while there.  I’ve only been planning worship services for over a decade and still have to contemplate how it used to be.  Our perceptions of the past, present, and future have changed because of the pandemic.  So, if you ever find that you can’t remember how long ago something was or even how something “normal” used to be—you are not alone because it ends up that the pandemic has quite literally distorted our sense of time.

Perhaps because of this, we can especially take heart in Jesus’ message to stay alert—to stay present.  “Nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son.  Only [God] knows.”[4]  Because maybe we can’t even remember the details of how things used to be.  Lord knows the pandemic made the future more uncertain.  So much for all those strategic plans and here’s how the next five years of your life will look!  In some ways, we are invited to live in the present moment now more than ever.  Maybe that advice seemed trite a few years ago.  Now, the present is all we can know for certain. So let us be attuned to the ways that God will show up in the present throughout the holy season of Advent.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 24:42, CEB.
[2] Matthew 24:36.
[3] John P. Burgess, Theological Perspective of Matthew 24:36-44 in Feasting on the Word Advent Companion: A Thematic Resource for Preaching and Worship, pg. 40.
[4] Matthew 24:36.

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash