The following sermon was preached by James Nieman, President, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, December 4, 2013.
36 But about that day and hour no one knows,
neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son,
but only the Father.
37 For as the days of Noah were,
so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
38 For as in those days before the flood
they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,
until the day Noah entered the ark,
39 and they knew nothing
until the flood came and swept them all away,
so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
40 Then two will be in the field;
one will be taken and one will be left.
41 Two women will be grinding meal together;
one will be taken and one will be left.
42 Keep awake therefore,
for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
43 But understand this:
if the owner of the house had known
in what part of the night the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and would not have let his house be broken into.
44 Therefore you also must be ready,
for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
This week marks the start of a new church year, one oriented by the gospel of Matthew. Let me warn you, however, that Jesus had a whole lot to say in Matthew, most of it packed into five very long speeches. If you had one of those old fashioned red-letter Bibles, these speeches would appear as page after page of unbroken crimson print, Jesus waxing on and on without interruption. The first of these speeches you know pretty well. It’s the Sermon on the Mount, those treasured sayings that ever-so-slowly become obscure and puzzling. Another speech comes at the middle of the gospel, and you know it pretty well, too. It’s the Kingdom Parables, those vivid stories that rather rapidly become obscure and puzzling. But today, we heard part of Jesus’ last speech, and my guess is that you either don’t know it at all or actively avoid it. It’s called the Final Discourse, not only because it’s his final speech in Matthew but also because he spoke of final things—the end times. Ah, if only this speech were simply obscure and puzzling. To our ears, though, it also sounds bizarre and just a little bit crazy.
What prompted this moment of madness was a simple pair of questions. Way back at the start of this chapter, Jesus declared that the temple, so solid and secure, would soon be rubble. In response, his disciples naturally wondered “When will this be?” and “What will it look like?” Ever since, Jesus told them exactly what they feared, in the oddest of terms. If you review his words, you’ll soon encounter many grim scenes we quickly skim over: war, famine, earthquake; false prophets, lawlessness, persecution; darkened sun, falling stars, trumpet-blowing angels. Yes, it’s a catalogue of first-century apocalyptic images, the awkward side of early Christianity that embarrasses us sophisticated types. It’s like when you clean out an elderly relative’s attic only to discover a trunk full of freshly-pressed clothes dating from the Carter administration, colors not found in nature on fabrics less natural still and in styles that surely no rational person freely wore. Apocalyptic is like that, we think, a theological fashion blunder committed by nice ancestors, but now gently to be tucked away and quietly forgotten.
I doubt Jesus was as uncomfortable with these images as are we, but what’s surprising is how little attention even he gave them. Rather rapidly, in fact, he recited these images as a kind of non-answer to his disciples’ questions about the when and the what of the end. It’s like he wanted this window dressing out of the way to reach his real point, which is where today’s reading begins. Disasters, faithlessness, cosmic signs … we all know that story, Jesus seems to say, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” No one knows—not you, not me, not the angels, and in a phrase that smacks of Arianism, not even the Son. No one knows—such a strange thing to say at the close of a term devoted to knowing all sorts of stuff. No one knows—because to seek such insight means you wrongly regard God’s job description as your own. No one knows—except the Father, who’s got it all covered. And if that’s so, friends, then it’s time to get out of the clouds and start living right here, right now, in the meantime. That’s what Jesus really wants us to know.
To turn us toward that meantime, Jesus offers three images, not bizarre oddities but ones breathtaking for their ordinariness. If no one knows about the end, if it’s in God’s hands alone, then Jesus wants us to know that the meantime until then will be like a familiar flood or daily duties or common crime. The familiar flood was in the time of Noah, yet Jesus doesn’t focus on that old guy but on the crowds oblivious to the rainfall while the ark sailed off. And Jesus never says they did something wrong, only what was typical—eating, drinking, marrying. Then comes an image of daily duties, men plowing and women grinding, when suddenly some were taken—not in the rapture, but in death. Again Jesus offers no rhyme or reason, just that others would live on to labor another day. The last scene is of common crime, a burglary where Jesus dwells not on the thief but the victim, the owner whose best efforts still failed. But short of being paralyzed by fear or drinking lots of coffee or just abandoning all hope, what exactly was this householder supposed to do?
For that matter, what exactly are we supposed to do with these images of familiar flood, daily duties, and common crime? Remember, Jesus is showing us life in the meantime, before the end that rests solely in God’s hands. So what have we learned? Mainly, that the meantime is marked by unawareness, uncertainty, and unpreparedness. Those without a place on the ark lived ordinary lives, ignorant of what lay ahead. Those who labored in the field or at the mill lived ordinary lives, indistinguishable from one another. Those guarding their homes by night lived ordinary lives, ineffective at even basic readiness. As we live in God’s meantime, what we can know for sure is that we too will be just as unaware, uncertain, unprepared. And here at the end of a semester when you’ve spent enormous effort posturing as if you really are aware, certain, and prepared, this may not seem like very good news. My best guess, though, is that this is exactly what Jesus was trying to convey. Life in the meantime is not something we attain. It’s instead a kind of waiting, a leaning toward God’s future in trust.
In our household, we have a sad, insider habit of calling ourselves “the planning family.” You may show up at a party fashionably late, but we arrive precisely at the time instructed on the invitation. You may use Google Maps to find someplace unfamiliar, but we plot alternative routes for traffic and weather variables. You may have a little “to do” list for the week, but we develop cross-indexed strategic plans for coordinated efficiency. We are, in short, nerds. So for Jesus to imply that life right here, right now, in the meantime, will find me unaware, uncertain, and (gasp) unprepared, well that just about crushes every instinct I have. And good for that. You see, in the meantime, in this time before God’s final time, what you consume or whether you mate will not secure your life—ask those who bid farewell to the ark. In the meantime, how well you do at your daily labor will not secure your life—ask those plucked from the field or the mill. In the meantime, your weary efforts to protect what you have or who you are will not secure your life—ask that householder who watched all night in vain.Lasting life does not begin with us—and right here, right now, during God’s meantime, that’s the most honest news we can hear and the most hopeful. Lasting life comes from God who secures a future for us in love. Lasting life comes through the merciful One whose life was poured out so ours might bear mercy to others. Lasting life comes as a promise today in simple signs: our meal at a table meant for all, our labor in this place of common calling, our care for one other whatever the future holds. The end is God’s, the meantime now, and ours the joyful task to receive the lasting life that draws closer each day. Such is our prayer, our Advent longing in this little season. Hasten to us, O God. Come, Lord Jesus. Spirit, come quickly. Amen.