The First Sunday of Advent, Year A, 2016 – Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
“You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour”
If you surveyed the average Torontonian on the street today and asked them ‘what the season of Advent meant to them?’ I suspect that very few people would respond with a reflection on the End Times. Though, to be fair, I suspect that if you posed the same question to many Christians today, their first thoughts would probably not turn to the coming Son of Man either. Up until very recently, I would also have to admit that I knew very little about Advent’s association with the coming of Christ.
Reflecting on my own childhood, the only thing I can recall about Advent are those calendars which I diligently propped open each day to claim my chocolate treat. Although, if I’m being honest, as I got older my patience with opening up those little cardboard calendar doors each day grew pretty thin. In fact, my sister and I grew so tired of waiting for our little ration of chocolate each day that eventually we began to pry open the calendars with an Exacto knife, eat all of the chocolates resting safely in their plastic mold, return the empty tray back into the box, reseal the box and thus retain the illusion of a pristinely ‘unopened’ calendar for parental approval. Reflecting now on our Advent calendar heists, I see how much my sister and I were actually enacting another Advent tradition—a rival tradition that placed the Shopping Mall at the heart of our daily worship.
Today, we do not have to look very far to find this rival tradition to Advent. Just two days ago we celebrated Black Friday to mark the official beginning of the holiday retail season. We set aside an entire day, wholly dedicated to the mindless consumption of cheap goods and the gratification of our one-click desires. A day which I all-too-willingly participated in with a smile and a swipe of the card. Even if you did not participate in the works of darkness intrinsic to Black Friday, I think it’s safe to say that all of us have, in some way, allowed the habits and practices of the retail cycle to dull our understanding of Advent.
Can you imagine if Jesus returned to our city during Black Friday? Can you imagine Jesus, standing in the middle of Dundas Square during the high holy day of the retail cycle, and proclaiming that “not one stone” would be left of the great Eaton Center temple. We would protest—
But Lord, this is our place of worship! But Lord, we make our pilgrimage to this great commercial temple each year. What do you mean that “not one stone”?
And yet Jesus’ sobering vision for the future of the Eaton Center would only be the beginning of what he had to say. What if Jesus told us that one day all the things we take for granted—our security, our nationhood, our food supply, our natural environment and our worldly truths—will all be overturned in an instant. Like a flash of lightning, the Son of Man will return and “heaven and earth” as we know it “will pass away” (24.35). Assuming that at least some of the mallgoers take our Lord’s words seriously, they would naturally want to know the exact time of his return in order to prepare themselves.
What hour will you return my Lord?! Does this mean I shouldn’t get a gift receipt for my new iPad?
After the earth-shattering events of the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus’ disciples pose similar questions about the coming Son of Man. In the book of Acts, one of Jesus’ disciples asks him anxiously, “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” to which Jesus replies “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (1.7). In an attempt to answer similar concerns about the timing of the coming of our Lord, Peter tells us that we should never ignore the fact, “that with the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” and that most importantly, “the Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but [He] is patient […] not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (1 Pet. 1.9).
What do we learn from these responses? Well, the first thing we learn is that God has sovereignty over the temporal life of His creation. Which is to say, our time on earth is not our own but God’s. We cannot force God’s hand and tell Him to speed things up. Thy Kingdom come, not ours. The unknown time of the coming Son of Man teaches us that time is not our possession. We do not own the future. We are not the masters of our own fate. Time is a gift from God. When we say in our liturgy that “Christ has died / Christ is risen / Christ will come again” we affirm that time is not only a gift from God but that, through His Son, God has redeemed all of time—past, present and future. The coming Son of Man therefore reveals to us that our future is given in Christ. However, if the time of Christ’s return is unknown then we must learn how to wait.
Indeed, learning how to wait and prepare ourselves for God’s given future in Christ lies at the very heart of the Advent season.
Thankfully we also learn that God is patient with us. God gives us time. Peter reminds us in his epistle that “God waited patiently” in the “days of Noah” just as He waits patiently in our own day (1 Peter 3.20-22). Interestingly, in our gospel reading for today, Jesus also returns to the “days of Noah” as a figure for the end times. Jesus offers us a picture of a people completely absorbed in the patterns and habits of everyday life—eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. These people are too busy to think about God or worry about His purpose for their lives. We know this because the people living in the “days of Noah” were also notorious sinners. Underneath the veneer of busy-ness and shallow hedonism, God saw a people that had forgotten Him. While God patiently waits, these people live out their lives as if God was not there at all. These people have taken advantage of God’s patience and wasted God’s time. Sin and evil insinuated itself into their hearts and they slowly became oblivious to the coming cataclysm ahead. As a foretaste of the coming Son of Man, the flood stands as a reminder that God’s patience has limits. What we do with the time given to us by God matters. It matters because God’s time is not aim-less.
God has not called us to twiddle our thumbs in the waiting room of His creation. God’s time has an end and as Christians we are drawn up into that end through the mission of the Triune God. Advent thus reminds us that there is both a flood in our future but that God has also given us the ark of the church, made from the wood of the cross, to deliver us to safety. God gives us time before the flood so that we might mature in faith and come to see one day the fullness and breadth of Christ’s redemptive work in His creation. The unknown time of Christ’s return only sharpens our focus on God’s mission for the world and helps us clarify our priorities as God’s newly baptized creation in His yet-to-be-fulfilled Kingdom.
Immediately after our gospel passage, Jesus’ offers us a parable about a master who leaves his servants in charge of his household while he’s away. The master leaves his servants with an abundance of resources and gives them ample time to finish their work. After the master has been gone for some time, one of the servants begins to tell himself in his heart that ‘his master is delayed’ and he decides to stop working. Like a teenager who throws a house party while his parents are away, the servant decides to abandon his household chores and gets drunk. Of course we know how this story ends. The parents suddenly come home unexpectedly and the revelry is rudely interrupted. The master eventually does return and he finds his reprobate servant eating and drinking and abusing the rest of the serving staff. We know that the outcome for both the inebriated servant and the intoxicated teenager will not be good.
When we take God’s patience for granted, we tell ourselves in our hearts that “God’s return is delayed” and thus our time is best spent doing other things.
We spend countless hours watching Netflix, we immerse ourselves in social media, we max out our credit cards on consumer goods and we pamper ourselves with luxury vacations. As time rolls on, we find ourselves unconsciously participating in a world with habits and practices that are far removed from God’s purposes for our lives. Eventually we may even forget that God has any claim upon our lives at all.
The season of Advent reminds us of the coming Son of Man not to make us despair but to wake us up from our everyday oblivion. The imperative to “keep awake” in our passage is directly related to the unexpected hour of our Lord’s return. For it is the promise of Christ’s decisive return that acutely reminds the church that God’s Reign is both inaugurated and consummated by the Son. To reiterate, we are always living in a Christ-conditioned past, present and future reality. The unexpected hour of the Son’s return wakes us up to the reality of God’s yet-to-be-fulfilled mission for the church in the world. There is still plenty of room on the ark before the coming flood. The hungry still need to be fed, the stranger still needs to be welcomed, the prisoner still needs to be visited and the sick still need to be comforted. Ultimately, Advent reminds us that there is still work left to be done in God’s Kingdom before heaven and earth pass away and not one stone remains from the Eaton’s Center.Amen.