Well, it’s the season for making lists, and that is exactly what we have been doing this week in my household. Letters to be written, cards sent, presents to buy and parties to plan, and just in case you’re thinking of putting it off for a week or two, the horrible piped Christmas carols in the shopping centre are cranking up and the fake store Santas are looming. It is the frantic season, the season to be "jolly".
You make the mistake of coming to church, however, in the middle of all this commercialised holiness, and you might be forgiven for thinking you had arrived on a different planet. Not only will we Anglicans be firmly resisting the temptations of tinsel for weeks yet but the readings from the Bible today focus our attention – not on the anticipated birth of gentle Jesus meek and mild two thousand years ago ... but on the end of all things, and on judgement. Perhaps the deepest desire of many Christians is that this year, finally, the Church will let us get a bit earlier to the Christmas message of peace and goodwill.
Except, of course, that the sort of nostalgic anticipation that focuses on the birth of a baby two thousand years ago without noticing the connection between that event and the future promises of a God who continues to break into our lives and our world today, tomorrow and the next day – also misses the bigger and ultimately more helpful reality hinted at by Christmas – the claim that history itself is the story of God’s saving activity, and for this reason is not random or meaningless. Advent forces us to think both backwards and forwards, connecting the promise with the challenge and the fulfilment of all things, and the hope that someday the world will be at peace, that one day, finally, creation will be as God wants it to be.
We live, as I may have suggested before, in an age of anxiety. Probably every generation has its own unique things to worry about – as a university student in the late 70s I remember a general feeling of anxiety about the threat of nuclear oblivion – someone somewhere had a finger more or less permanently hovering over the button that would start the countdown to the end of the world as we knew it. Today the end of the world comes in a variety of slower-motion scenarios – images of rising oceans and sinking cities, of a planet that is drying out and heating up, losing its wealth of plant and animal species, running out of space and food as the human population continues to pump out greenhouse gases and consume unsustainably; endemic levels of political and ideological conflict creating entire populations on the move and increasing our anxiety even further. The anxiety of the daily news cycle exhausts us and we yearn to disconnect - little wonder that at this time of year we long for the familiar fairytale narrative of shopping, and decorations, and carols.
But the Advent tradition of the Church nudges our attention towards the future, as well as towards the long-ago story that helps us to remember who God is, and how God works in the world, in our lives – and the reason for this double-focus is so we can get a sense of where we are headed, and what the promises of God will bring. And so Advent calls us to remember and re-tell the story of people who like us lived in uncertain times, and like us were looking to the future, and waiting for the promises of God to be fulfilled, and struggling to live faithfully as they waited. One part of faithfulness, of course, is repentance, remembering and turning away from the paths that have taken us away from God, noticing and turning off the things that have drowned out God's voice in our hearts and minds, believing and turning toward new ways of living that offer hope not just to us but in the wider world that God loves.
Our Gospel reading this morning is Jesus’ response to his disciples’ anxiety – anxiety about history, and events yet to come, and how God’s purposes could possibly be fulfilled in a world that seems oblivious or hostile. And this text is part of a longer passage in which Jesus talks about how we should live in the ‘in-between’ times – between the promise and the fulfilment, between Jesus’ historical life and death and resurrection and his return to make all things whole, and right, and good. While most Bible scholars agree that the specific focus of this passage is the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Roman armies in 70AD – an event that for Jesus and his disciples was still in the future but the writer of the Gospel was already past history – it is clear that Jesus expected that God to break into human history in a way that would transform and fulfil the initial act of creation. And he speaks over and over again about the agenda of God in human history – but notice that in today’s reading Jesus specifically tells us he doesn’t know God’s timing, he isn’t giving us a future blueprint of history, just the assurance that God is active within it. As Christians we see the evidence for this in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus himself - and we see the evidence for it in our own lives as well.
And so I think it is significant that in this passage the focus shifts from grand and cosmic images to the mundane and ordinary, from a vision of the sun and moon going dark and stars falling out of the sky to a picture of workers in the field and women in the kitchen. It reminds us that we need to connect the great and remote-sounding statements of the Gospel to our own lives, and the mundane events of our own time. Theologian Mary Shore points out that where other apocalyptic writings like Daniel and Revelation seem to be addressed to people living through great and terrible persecution, giving hope that God will break in from outside to restore and set things right, this passage from Matthew seems to be addressed to sleepy people, ordinary people who might have lost focus or forgotten their original vision. To Christians – perhaps like us – who have been living with limited expectations for so long they no longer believe that anything much will ever change. And she describes the passage as what we Aussies would call a "wake-up call" – a reminder to expect the unexpected, a reminder that the X-factor in human history is God, and that ultimately, human power and human plans do not get the last word. New Proclamation 2007
Which is deeply reassuring, especially for disciples like us who see in the world around us - and if we’re honest also recognise in ourselves – a horizon limited by cynicism, selfishness and indifference. Because living in a world defined by human competitiveness and greed, the only way to preserve hope, the only way to live as disciples, is to trust that at any moment we may be surprised by the sudden presence of God. Today’s reading reminds us that the living God waiting for us around the next bend is the wild card of our own lives and of history itself, the holy surprise that not only illuminates and restores and makes sense of our lives, but that finally gathers the whole of human history into the extravagant mercy of God.
And Matthew is going to give us in the very next chapter a hint as to how we are supposed to live while we wait for God’s promises, or, to use the familiar imagery of Christian expectation, for Jesus’ return. As writer David Bartlett puts it: ‘one day, perhaps, Jesus will reappear, suddenly, in the clouds or like a thief in the night, and we had better be prepared. But before that – in fact every single day of our lives - Jesus is certainly going to appear just around the corner, suddenly, like a hungry person, or a neighbour ill-clothed, or someone sick or imprisoned or in despair’. And how we respond to Jesus in these situations is going to set the terms for how Jesus responds to us on the great day of judgement and fulfilment.
In other words, the focus for Christians waiting for the fulfilment of all things needs to be on how we live our lives right now in ways that are pleasing to God and that demonstrate our trust in God’s goodness. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it: ‘resist the temptation to save your best self for tomorrow. Focus instead on how you live today’. Ours, Taylor reminds us, may very well be the generation that witnesses the triumphant return of Jesus in the clouds – or else we might meet him in the same way that all the generations before us have - daily, in our everyday lives, and at the end as each of us closes our eyes for the last time. Either way, our lives are in God's hands, and that’s OK. "On the Clouds of Heaven" in The Seeds of Heaven