Advent 1A, November 27, 2016

November 28, 2016

Carried Away By Christ

Matthew 24:36-44


36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: 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. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.


One of the interesting things about this passage of scripture is that it isn’t as ominous as you might first think. The reference to the days of Noah and the arrival of the flood sounds like a warning of the coming of dire circumstances, but I think it’s more of an appeal to be alert than it’s a warning of looming disaster. It’s a big thing that we need to be watching for, but I’m thinking we’re being instructed to pay attention for an opportunity more than we need to be on guard for a cataclysmic event. I know it’s easier to remain vigilantly watchful if you feel threatened, but it’s not easy to stay on high alert at all times for anything, and I think Jesus is calling for us to be more awake than panicked.


Sharla and I were amazed that our little grand-dog Pickle could stay in a state of high anxiety for the entire journey to Kansas City, but he has developed a phobia of riding in a car, and he shivered for about 6 and a half hours as we drove to KC last week. I couldn’t believe he could maintain that level of panic for so long, and I really don’t think that’s the kind of attention Jesus is calling for us to maintain. We aren’t to be anxious – we are to be alert.


The world may well be ending tomorrow, but that isn’t what we’re to be watching for. There are no signs for us to be watching for because Jesus said nobody knows what God intends to do about that, so we don’t even know what to be watching for. Nobody will see that coming. But Jesus was directing us to be aware of something. I believe we are to be watching for the mysterious presence of Jesus to turn up, and there is a way in which he comes in to our midst and carries us away.


This passage is funny in the way that it both points to the arrival of the end of time and yet it also indicates that Jesus comes to us in powerful ways within the context of ongoing history. As a person who is more oriented around the ongoing nature of time, I’m more inclined to talk about the way we should be attentive to those ways in which Christ becomes present to us as we go about our usual business. I don’t know what to say about the ultimate arrival of Christ at the end of days. I can’t even pretend to know how to prepare for such a day, but I do believe that we can be sensitive to the ways in which Christ appears and touches us as we go about our ordinary lives.


On one hand, I’m thinking the grace of God operates in a way that’s similar to gravity. I don’t think we are always conscious of the force of gravity, but gravity doesn’t let up, and every once in a while there are these moments when the force of gravity becomes really obvious.


My friend Charles Zook knows a lot about the ongoing force of gravity. Charles navigates the world in an electric wheelchair because of spinal chord injury he sustained in a terrible fall. He has enough use of his arms to operate his wheelchair and his specially equipped van, and he maintains a very active life, but it’s not easy. He was working with some medically challenged kids at Camp Aldersgate one summer, and one child asked him what happened to him. Charles has a great sense of humor (in a twisted sort of way), and he responded to that child by saying that gravity got him. I don’t know how that child processed that answer, but I was pretty amused by his response.


Gravity is that force that’s always with us. You might say it’s the primary force that defines how we go about our lives, but it’s so relentlessly present we are largely unconscious of it’s presence. There are those moments when we become painfully aware of the force of gravity. We can get thrown to the ground by it pretty quickly, so it’s important for us to remain alert, and I think there’s a similarity between the force of gravity and the power of God’s presence in our daily lives.


The presence of God in our midst isn’t as obvious as gravity or oxygen or many of the other invisible elements that define our lives as they are, but Jesus didn’t want us to live without awareness of this other life-giving reality. I dare say God’s presence is more powerful and consistent than the force of gravity, but it’s not as easily identified or exposed. As clearly as gravity is on hand to hold us down to the ground, the spirit of God is here to lift us up, but we don’t always make ourselves available to it’s power.


Unlike gravity, we can choose to ignore the force of God, and by doing so we can live really flat lives. We aren’t required to take note of the ways in which the Holy Spirit is prompting us to wake up and pay attention to the way in which Jesus Christ is in our midst. God doesn’t throw us to the ground as predictably and unforgivingly as does the force of gravity, but just because we don’t know what God is doing doesn’t mean that God isn’t present. It primarily means that we aren’t paying attention.


But it’s a beautiful thing when we are paying attention. I think I might have witnessed the power of God at work in our midst the other day. You know we had the pleasure of giving away over 250 turkeys at the food pantry the other day. It was a beautiful day and people were really happy about what we were able to do. We created what we thought was a fair distribution system. We wanted to make sure that we provided turkeys for those who regularly came for food before we gave them out to those who only came for the turkey, so we created this ticket system. If you were a new client you had to come back at near the end of the distribution time, and most everyone understood and cooperated.


But there was one man who felt like a victim of the situation, and he was behaving badly. He was saying things that he shouldn’t have been saying, and it was turning in to an ugly situation. I won’t try to explain the details of his argument, but I came to understand his frustration, and I decided to let him have a turkey. He took the turkey, but it didn’t stop him from being rather belligerent. He kept talking for longer than should, but he eventually left, and we were happy to see him go. It was an ugly scene, and it left everyone feeling pretty bad, but it wasn’t over.


About 10 minutes after he had left he came back. I wasn’t sure what he was coming back to do, but it turns out he was coming back to apologize for his bad behavior. In particular he came back to apologize to Sandra. He needed to apologize, but he didn’t have to do that. He could have left feeling angry and resentful about everything, but he came to realize that everybody, including himself, was just doing the best they could, and he wanted to acknowledge that he appreciated what we were doing.


Now this wasn’t exactly a miracle, but it was pretty close to one. I don’t want to lower the bar on the way in which God’s presence becomes revealed in this world, but on some level I think what we witnessed was the way in which God’s gracious power becomes manifest in our world. That man’s hard heart softened a little bit, and it sort of blew me away.


What we have in this passage of scripture is some assurance that we aren’t living in a world that is separated from the attention of God. We don’t know exactly what God has in mind, and it’s foolish for us to try to anticipate what God intends to do, but it’s important for us to pay attention to what God seems to be doing. The message for us is to go on each day with our perfectly ordinary lives with an extraordinary awareness of how near God is to us all.


There is an element of warning in this passage. The message is that we can live with ignorance of the role God currently plays and will ultimately carry out. And if we choose to live in a spiritually unconscious manner we are missing out on the true richness of life,


If we live without awareness of God’s presence in this world we won’t pay proper attention to the things and the people that God’s spirit would have us see. The imagery is of two people doing the same thing but one is taken away while the other is left behind. What this says to me is that it doesn’t matter so much what we engage in doing in this world, but it makes all the difference what we are most concerned about.


I know we aren’t in total control of the concerns of our hearts. I don’t think any of us are capable of rooting out all of the selfish impulses of our hearts and minds, but occasionally we have the good fortune of having our lives seized by the grace of God. I dare say most of us have had those moments when this ordinary world has been redefined in a powerfully new way by the spirit of the living God.


John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, spoke of having his heart strangely warmed as he was walking down Aldersgate Rd. on an ordinary day in London. Like many of us, Wesley wasn’t having a particularly great day as he was walking down that street. In fact he was sort of struggling with what he was doing with his life, and he wasn’t confident that he was doing the right thing. But he was doing his best to find his way, and in a very quiet but powerful way he felt this sense of assurance come over him. He came to feel that his life was in fact in God’s hands, and that externally invisible but internally dramatic experience set him on a course that we United Methodists continue to this day.


I think we often wish God would seize our hearts and provide us with great revelations of ultimate truth, but those moments are hard to come by. And if we aren’t careful we’ll miss the small moments when God’s truth breaks through to us and calls us to turn around and apologize or to share a word of encouragement to someone who’s having a hard time.


This First Sunday in Advent is an invitation for us all to renew our trust in the invisible but ever-present force of God’s spirit in this world. This is the force that has the power to renew our lives, give us direction, and bring us hope. The Spirit of God isn’t easy to discern, but it’s worthy of our attention. It can seize us in an instant, but God doesn’t act upon demand, and if we aren’t attentive we won’t see the large or the small ways in which God is in our midst.


God’s love is more consistent than gravity, but it’s lighter than air. Not even the angels in heaven know what turns it will take, but we can trust in it, and we can be carried away by it if we will make ourselves available to it. Expect God’s good presence to be on hand, seek to be aware, and celebrate when it emerges.


Thanks be to God for the grace we have already received and for the glory that will be. Amen


2 Responses to “Advent 1A, November 27, 2016”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Thompson – could not have been a more timely message in that I have to lead our discussion next week about the “Rapture” – your sermon provides a much better answer than been scared to death abour the “Left Behind” series of books –
    Thanks! – Mickey

  2. Anonymous Says:

    meant “”being scared to death” – Mickey

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