Advent 1 A: Watching for God Together

Matthew 24:36-44

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I am writing this letter to you on the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day. In a few hours, stores will open and people will flock to cash in on Black Friday deals. It used to be that Black Friday started on, well, Friday, but as you likely know those shopping “opportunities” have slowly but surely crept back into the wee hours of Friday morning, then to midnight, and most recently into the evening of Thanksgiving Day itself. On the whole, we seem to have a very hard time waiting for things.

So did the early Christians to whom Matthew was writing. Keep in mind that Matthew likely writes in the early 80s of the first century, or roughly fifty years after the events he describes took place. And like most early Christian communities, Matthew’s congregation had been expecting Jesus to return to them for quite some time. In fact, some scholars think that the Gospels themselves were actually written in part to encourage Christians who were confused and discouraged by Jesus’ delayed return. For this reason Matthew, following Mark and like Luke, devotes a section of his Gospel to exhorting his congregation to stay awake, keep prepared, and wait with anticipation for Jesus’ return. If they aren’t watching and waiting, Matthew suggests, they very well may miss God’s advent among them through Jesus’ second coming.

The trouble is, of course, that nearly two thousand years later, we’ve been waiting an awfully long time. So long, in fact, that I’d dare say that most of our people aren’t waiting any more. Which means that Matthew’s exhortations stand a pretty good chance of falling on deaf years. I mean, goodness, but if we can’t even wait until Friday morning to shop for deals, how do we expect our people to keep waiting for two millennia.

Which leads me this week to focus less on the event of Jesus’ return and more on the profound sense of uncertainty that this passage evokes. No one, Jesus says at the beginning of the passage, knows when the Lord will come, not even Jesus. He follows that up by giving several examples of pairs of people being taken unawares, one taken, one left. And then at the end of the passage, and in case we weren’t listening carefully, Jesus underscores again that the Son of Man will come at an unexpected hour.

Uncertainly, surprise, unexpected events. These at least are things we know something about. So what if we updated the examples Jesus employs just a bit. Two colleagues were working; one was diagnosed with cancer, another not. Two candidates applied for a coveted job; one was chosen, the other not. Two kids were navigating their way through high school; one succumbed to a drug addiction, the other not. Two couples were joined in marriage; one stayed married, the other did not.

Our lives are filled with unexpected, surprising, and life-altering events. And in the midst of all of this, we are invited – actually, commanded – to keep watch for the presence of the God we know in Jesus. This isn’t always easy, especially when the unexpected event is tragic. Sometimes you have to wait a while to see where God is at work and that can be painfully hard. Yet the promise throughout Scripture is that God reliably meets us at our point of greatest need and accompanies us even and especially in the most difficult of circumstances.

But as we’ve already said, watching and waiting are difficult for us, at least as difficult as it was for Jesus’ earliest followers. Which is one of the main reasons we come to church on Sunday! That is, straining to see God at work in the ups and downs of our lives, we come to church to hear these words of exhortation and encouragement read once again, and we also come to church to be surrounded by other Christians, some of whom are struggling to see God, and some of whom have recently seen God and can share with us what they’ve seen.

While I’m not sure this is exactly what Matthew had in mind when he wrote this passage, I do think one of the chief reasons Christians gather is to encourage each other and help each other to see God, especially during dark and difficult times. Keep in mind that’s why Matthew and the other Evangelists wrote in the first place! A millennia and a half later, Martin Luther would say something quite similar when he described the church as the place where you could count on the mutual comfort and consolation of the faithful. And that tradition continues every time we meet.

Dear Partner, I wonder if the opportunity before us this week is to help our people imagine that when they are having difficulty seeing God present in their lives, they can come to church to have help in their waiting and watching. And when they have experienced God’s love, they can come to help others. Despite whatever divisions any of our communities may be experiencing – and certainly the recent election demonstrated that there are far more than we may have imagined – we are joined together first by God’s promise to come and abide with us and then joined together yet again by God’s gift of a community to help us see God keeping that promise.

No one knows when tragedy will strike. No one knows when incredible blessing may occur. No one knows. But we do know this: God is present. Sometimes that’s hard to see, and then we need help. Sometimes it’s apparent to us, and then we can help others. That’s the way the body of Christ worked all those years ago and, at its best, still works today. Thanks for sharing this word with those of us who find it so hard to wait, watch, and prepare.

Yours in Christ,