Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, November 27, 2016
Taken from Matthew 24:36-44
We’re now anticipating Christmas, aren’t we? On this first Sunday of Advent, we start with the Christmas carols, we start with Advent Wreath. Our minds turn to crèches and stars and shepherds, Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem, and the triumphant and resurrected Lord Jesus reverts to Baby Jesus in the manger.
Yet, the lectionary readings for this season we call Advent so often turn to the apocalyptic. The Apocalyptic writings of Scripture—at least odd, and if you read them in any detail, they may even seem to us as grotesque.
We think of the Book of Daniel and all its beasts rising up out of the seas. We may think of the Book of Revelation, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, something called “The End Times”, the Great Dragon and the Beast and the mark of the Beast, and great battles of evil against good, all of which either preachers of a certain ilk or Hollywood have portrayed to us in lurid and frightening dimensions.
So much has Hollywood captured our culture’s apocalyptic imagination that I’m willing to wager a fair amount that if you asked anyone thirty years of age or younger whether the Book of Revelation features zombies, they would likely say, “Yes!” Maybe you would answer “yes”, too, to the zombie question.
What other part of the Bible features zombies? The Book of Daniel! Not really, no. No part of the Bible, apocalyptic or otherwise, mentions the first thing about zombies.
To complicate matters for us, not only do we have to contend with the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation in all their bizarreness. We also must contend with the fact that our Lord himself on occasion would go off on an apocalyptic tear of his own. Usually, it’s Advent, it’s the Christmas Season; that Jesus’ End Times teachings are recommended for our consideration.
A couple of definitions are in order. The word ‘advent’ means ‘coming’, ‘arrival’. So, at Christmas we celebrate the coming of God among us in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. That’s certainly cause for Joy and Peace and Hope and Love, the usual themes of the four Advent Sundays.
The word, ‘apocalypse’, means ‘to reveal, to make plain, to uncover what is hidden’. So, in that sense, I suppose we also might speak of God coming among us in the birth of Jesus as a sort of baby-sized apocalypse, all swaddled up and placed in the manger.
Honestly, though, that would be a stretch, to spin the word ‘apocalypse’ to fit with Christmas. How can we possibly join that word of bloody warfare and ghastly beasts with such life-giving words as ‘Hope’ and ‘Joy’ and ‘Peace’ and ‘Love’? Well, we really can’t, unless we realize that we focus on the wrong things in our usual fascination with the fantastical and the gore of much apocalyptic preaching and movies.
That was not what Jesus was calling us to see when Jesus spoke of such things. What Jesus always, always, called people to see was this: the kingdom of God has come among you! Look, Jesus taught, this is what God’s kingdom is about, it’s a community of love, a love that reclaims and redeems and creates.
The image Jesus so often turned to help us understand his words and his life was that of a wedding. A grand and glorious wedding which God is hosting, to which we all, sinners and fools and cynics, the religious and the anti-religious, invited to find our place at this coming wedding. Now, “wedding”, that’s a word that does seem to fit with our Advent words of ‘Hope’ and ‘Joy’ and ‘Peace’ and ‘Love’.
Pastors are well-acquainted with weddings. I’m pretty much a “go along, get along” kind of guy – until it comes to wedding rehearsals. Then, I become like a little Napoleon at wedding rehearsals. You know why? I’ll tell you why. A wedding rehearsal is nothing but a train wreck waiting to happen.
Of course, I never actually say that to a couple while I’m doing pre-marriage counseling with them. Part of the process of premarital counseling is to do wedding planning.
“What do you want to happen in your wedding?” I ask the couple. “Well, our mothers think it should go like this…”, they may answer me.
“That’s nice,” I reply, “but what do you want to happen in your wedding?” “Well, my best friend from college has this great idea…” perhaps the bride will say.
“That’s nice,” I say, “but what do you want to happen?” “Well, did you ever see that movie ’Love, Actually’,” they’ll eagerly ask, “where the couple is getting married and they turn to leave and then this brass band stands up from all over the church and starts playing and a choir stands us starts singing that Beatles song, ‘All You Need Is Love’?”
My favorite reply came from the bride who wanted all Elvis music during her wedding.
In my brain, a voice is going, “train wreck…train wreck…train wreck.” But, I don’t say that. Instead, we sort through all the options for the wedding party and the music and the various elements of a wedding as a worship service—most couples forget, the church wedding is a worship service. We write down who does what when and why, which can include why Elvis or the brass band would be better left for the reception.
I drive home, be sure to let the wedding coordinator know…it’s a worship service which means the pastor is in charge.
And, I always assure them, no matter what happens, no matter how many moving parts there are in this wedding that may run off-the-rails, stay calm. They, the couple, will be there; I, the pastor, will be there; and I will get them married.
On this first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of “Hope”, I am talking about weddings and the train-wrecks that can come before a wedding because that’s what Jesus talked about. In chapter 25, verse 1, Jesus goes straight into a wedding parable to talk about how we’re to live.
In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus describes for us what human life will be like when that moment comes, that final revealing of God’s kingdom. Jesus reaches all the way back to Genesis chapter 6 to illustrate his apocalyptic preaching.
Jesus says in verse 37, “as were the days of Noah, so will be the [day of] the coming of the Son of man.” Then, Jesus goes on to describe how it was in the days of Noah by describing your basic domestic setting: people eating and drinking, falling in love, getting married, their families blessing their marriages. All of this domestic life going on as though it would always go on uninterrupted. Until, of course, it does get interrupted.
We speak so often of living in “The End Times”. As the Bible describes it, it’s really more of an “End Moment”. No one knows when that’s going to happen. Jesus says in verse 36, “no one knows…the angels don’t know; I myself don’t know when the End Moment will happen, but God the Father alone knows.”
“But, I’ll tell you what I do know,” Jesus continues. “It’s gonna look a lot like things have always looked while human beings are in charge of things.”
In other words, what we so often call “the End Times” is just plain old ordinary human times, the time in which we terribly flawed humans keep on trying to rule ourselves with our many kingdoms, and powers, and schemes that we come up with.
Things will get worse from time to time. Jesus describes one such really bad time that will befall Jerusalem in about another 40 years. But, overall, life will continue, fluctuating, swinging back and forth, between normal domesticity and occasional human-contrived horrors.
Then, in an instant, it will all be over. You see, there is no final apocalyptic battle with the outcome uncertain. What those apocalyptic movies and so much apocalyptic preaching describe more appropriately should be call the pre-apocalypse.
Think of the so-called “End Times” this way: we don’t live through “The End Times”; we live in “The Meantime”; in “the meantime” before the Advent of the triumphant and resurrected Lord. And, on occasion “the meantimes” will become just that, a very mean time in which to live.
That’s when you and I and all God’s people will especially need to remember and to ask ourselves, what did Jesus teach and live? Jesus taught and lived that the kingdom of God was among us. This is what it means, Jesus taught and showed, to know yourself to be part of the kingdom of God and how you are to live from this moment on as a member of God’s community of love.
Because, Jesus so much wanted us to understand, that’s the reality of life. The kingdom of God, this community of God’s love that God is inspiring and expanding, is very real. It exists. For the present, it is experienced only through faith. It is seen in the lives of the people who profess that faith.
From time to time, the powers of this world’s rulers attempt to assert themselves as though they are god. Then, those rulers and those kinds of communities become demonic. It’s as though they’ve become possessed, caught in an evil nightmare. Then, living this life of faith and being this community of love becomes very, very hard. So, especially in those times, we must be wise and vigilant. Especially, we must guard against our love growing cold and dying.
In describing such especially hard chapters in human history, Jesus warns us in chapter 24, verses 11-13, “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because wickedness is multiplied, most people’s love will grow cold. But those who endure to the end will be saved.”
Because wickedness is multiplied, most people’s love will grow cold.
The New Testament scholar, Eduard Schweizer, comments here, “This can mean love for God or for one’s neighbor; for Matthew the emphasis is on the latter [love for one’s neighbor]. False doctrine is accordingly not erroneous theology, but an attitude that in practice does not display love.”1
In the typical “end times” kind of preaching, there’s so much said about nations warring, and cosmic upheaval, and signs of every sort, but there’s not often mentioned this sign: people’s compassion for their neighbor will grow cold. And who is my neighbor, we may ask? Well, you know how Jesus answered that question.
Jesus warns us, because of wickedness, people’s love will grow cold, but the one who endures to the end will be saved. Endures how? We endure by not allowing our compassion to grow cynical and hard. We endure by continuing to love as Jesus has shown us to love.
When the apocalyptic moment happens, it’s all over. The curtain of this universe’s veil will be suddenly drawn open, and the parallel reality of God’s rule, of God’s community of love, will be made plain. The true order of the cosmos will be seen by all, and all that remained at odds with God’s rule will be destroyed in an instant.
The old is out, the new is in, and every knee bows and every tongue confesses, in heaven and on earth and under the earth—to use the Bible cosmology—what? To whom is every knee bowed and what is every tongue confessing? That Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11)
And that day, says the Bible, will be like going to a grand wedding.
The Book of The Revelation, from which we did not read today, speaks of that future advent of Christ as a wedding. It will be like a glorious wedding.
Revelation, chapter 19, verse 7, Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and his Bride has made herself ready.
Chapter 19, verse 9, And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb”.
Revelation, chapter 21, verse 2, And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
Chapter 21, verse 9, the angel says, ‘Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb’ and then the angel flies John off to see the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.
So, in the Book of The Revelation, God’s consummation of history, the Advent of Christ, will be like a grand wedding.
You and I are people of faith looking forward to the great wedding; in fact, we are part of the wedding party. We are in this present age living a kind of rehearsal preparing ourselves for the great wedding of the Lamb and his Bride. It will no doubt be a grand and glorious happening, this wedding. But, from time to time the rehearsal will be an absolute train wreck. We live, at times, through truly mean times.
But, the big wedding day is still coming. And, we are the wedding party. We must rehearse for that day. We must be the ones’ who love does not grow cold. You know, in this world that takes a lot of practice to keep such love as our Lord showed us, alive and vibrant.
One of the challenges of premarital counseling is to help the couple to imagine their married life: what will life be like after the wedding? One of the realities each partner has to recognize is that what they know of marriage is pretty much what was modeled for them in their parents’ marriage.
What did you see your parents do in this situation and that situation? Which parent do you most identify with? What roles from your own parents’ marriage do you expect your spouse to take on? Oh, that’s when premarital counseling gets really interesting!
So, you process those competing, conflicting, priorities with the couple and you help them to re-imagine their married life. You hope to see the couple reshape those learned behaviors, to turn their received experience of marriage into something productive and fruitful for their own marriage.
That becomes the vision to which we as couple and pastor look ahead to and celebrate on their wedding day, come what may in the planning and rehearsing and the train-wrecking and all else that may go wrong.
We in the church do something like that together. We realize what experiences we’ve learned growing up in the world must be abandoned, what must be unpacked and rearranged, so we can form the family of faith together.
We show up and keep on showing up, rehearsing this love which Jesus shows us, and Jesus has promised, with that love and with this vision guiding us, the wedding day will come, the marriage will happen. For the one who endures to the end will be saved.
1Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew (Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975) p. 451.