by Lea F. Schweitz
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology/Religion and Science, Director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science
On this new day, grace and peace to you, Brothers and Sisters.
Since we last gathered here for a Monday Service of the Word, many of us have gathered with friends and family. We gathered to give thanks and to share a meal. Since we last gathered here, some of us have been missing dearly those for whom we still give thanks but with whom we are separated by miles and time and death and illness.
Today we gather after a break dedicated to giving thanks and after the first Sunday of Advent. Yet, the texts we meet this week seem to run aground of all this gathering: One will be taken. One will be left. This is a text that can evoke division – and fear: Which side am I on? Will I be taken? Who will be left? Am I ready?
Our Gospel readings for today seem unambiguous: Keep awake. Be vigilant. One will be taken. One will be left. But, in Advent, things are often not what they seem. Into the long nights and dark days of Advent will break the light of the Christ child. It is a time to wait for the Lord, who is about to do something new and surprising, and it is a time rest in God’s presence so that we are freed to take our leave of the anxiety that comes with ambiguity and the unexpected.
Now that we have entered the season of Advent, I will admit to being a fan of Christmas movies. I would like to say that I have discriminating tastes in this genre, but alas, I do not. In practice, this means my families are subjected to movies that perhaps should never have been made (much less watched, and occasionally, re-watched.) Furthermore, it means that I know every single word and song of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. Every. Word.
The plot of White Christmas is irrelevant; frankly, plot might be too generous. It’s a musical with lots of song and dance. One of the songs opens with the telling of some not very funny jokes, including:
“How can you keep an angry dog from biting you on Monday?
That joke is old, the answer is to kill the dog on Sunday.
That's not the way to keep a dog from biting you on Monday.
How would you bring the thing about?
Have the doggie's teeth pulled out!”
At this point, you might rightly begin to wonder: “What could this possibly have to do with our readings today?”
Jokes and riddles ask us to think differently, see the world anew, and be open to possibility. In a way, they are versions of “Isaiah thinking.” In Isaiah, we hear God looking to do a new thing. In Advent, we hear God looking to do something unexpected and inviting us to take our leave of the anxiety of taking and leaving.
When I read, “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,” the lyrics to this song from White Christmas echoed in my memory. How do you keep a thief from breaking in? What if being ready doesn’t mean staying awake in order to defend one’s home?
So, how do you stop a thief from breaking in on Monday? Not by killing the thief on Sunday. Notice that even if the hour is known, the question remains: “how can we be ready?” Perhaps what we need most is to be open to doing something unexpected. Perhaps we might set a table and invite the thief in. God is here; the table is set, and the thief is transformed from unwelcome threat to invited guest.
God is coming at an hour unknown poised to do something new, and we may take our leave of the anxiety of the thief breaking in. What about the anxiety of leaving and taking?
One will be taken. One will be left. It seems pretty clear which side you’d want to be on. After all, children in the United States are educated under the No Child Left Behind Act and Wikipedia tells me that Left Behind, the best-selling series of rapture fiction, has sold more than 65 million copies. One will be taken; one will be left behind. On this reading, one clearly hopes to be taken. Who would want to be left behind?
Here at LSTC, this is an opportunity to channel one’s inner “Barbara Rossing.” In her book, Rapture Exposed (and in an interview on ABC World News Tonight), she proclaims: ““God is coming to heal the world, not to kill millions of people; God loves the world, and God will never leave the world behind” (Rapture Exposed, vii).
God will never leave the world behind. If you need more convincing about this, I heartily recommend Prof. Rossing’s book.
And if that doesn’t seem argument enough, consider again Advent. How do we know that God will never leave the world behind? First and foremost we know because the Christ child we will meet in a stable reminds us that God has not left the world behind. As we light the first candles of Advent, we may put aside the worry about being left behind.
However, even if we put aside a worry about being left behind, we might still ask whether it is better to be taken or left.
It is ambiguous in our text. Noah, it would seem, was left. It was the flood that came and swept away those who had otherwise been going about their lives. Those who were eating and drinking were taken; Noah on the ark was left.
Taking and leaving is ambiguous in our experience.
On one of the days I was writing this sermon, the front page of the Red Eye newspaper was headlined: “The Deported.” Inside was an article about the detention center just outside of Chicago. Of the 392,000 persons deported from the United States in 2010, everyone from Illinois will pass through the Broadview center just 20 minutes outside of Chicago. When reading that newspaper together with Matthew, it is the faces of immigrants about to be deported that are revealed as “taken,” and it is the faces of those that remain who are “left.” From this context, the ambiguities of taking and leaving are painfully evident, and a gulf begins to open between the language of “taken” and “left” and the promise and good news of the Gospel.
One will be taken. One will be left. Which am I? We can put these nagging questions to rest. First of all, it isn’t clear on which side you would want to be. More importantly, in these texts God is coming at an hour unknown poised to do something new, and we may take our leave of the anxiety of the ambiguities of taking and leaving.
What of the ambiguities and anxiety of keeping awake in order to be ready? The Son of Man, like the thief, after all, is coming at an hour unknown. Keep awake; don’t allow your house to be broken into.
I fear some of us may have less trouble here. We are a community of night-owls and early-risers. More often than not, in the halls at LSTC, if one asks “how are you?” So frequently, the reply is “busy.” I’m no less guilty of this. But, busy – this is not a state of being into which I think we’re called. How are you? Busy. Stay awake, work harder.
Particularly on the edge of finals and the ever-nearing end of the Semester, we cannot read this as an exhortation to stay awake, ever vigilant, and hard at work. As the parent of a toddler, this is particularly clear. Readiness requires rest. It requires a quite alertness rather than a state of orange alert.
Children have these moments of calm; it’s not a state of sleepiness. Really, a tired toddler is not ready for anything – let alone something new; something similar may be said for us, too. Quiet alertness is a well-rested state that allows full attention to the world, and in the lives of children, this is a precious “teaching moment” – it is an opportunity to do something unexpected; something similar may be said for us on this, as well.
This text that ushers in Advent is less about keeping awake and more about being ready for God to do something new.
The future is in God’s hands; God will not leave the world behind. In the present, God is present for God will not leave the world behind. And, God is coming. To this our heart may cling even though we know not how or when.
Although the days are dark, the nights are long, and the hour is unknown, we might trust and hope in Christ’s coming. From this hope springs an urgent waiting that trusts in God’s presence. The good news is that God is here, watching, preparing – and about to do something new.
This Advent season may you cultivate the quiet calm is open to the world, feels the Spirit’s presence, prepares for Christ’s coming, and is ready for God to do something new and unexpected.
Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44