A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on November 28 2010.
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For ass the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 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, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 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. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
This passage seems out of step with the beginning of Advent. We’re accustomed to hearing and reading passages that deal with the promised birth of a Messiah. The holiday carols are playing on radio stations and in stores. Christmas cards with shepherds and angels are being sent. Shopping has begun. These things don’t jive with Jesus talking about being ready for his return. What’s up?
As Doyne Elder reminded us last Sunday afternoon during the Hanging of the Green service, Christians do not observe Advent to celebrate the birth of Christ. Christ has already been born. We observe Advent to affirm our faith in the promised return of Christ as Righteous King and Judge. When we view Advent with this in mind, we get a better sense for why Advent marks the beginning of a new year in the Christian worship calendar.
Faith determines how we live. Many people have a rear-view mirror approach to life. Their lives are spent replaying old dramas, remembering past glories, and even trying to re-capture bygone energies because they have more faith in the past than in new possibilities for the future. But Jesus did not call us to such a faith. We are called to live looking ahead.
One difficulty in holding a forward-looking faith, as anyone knows who has taken a long journey with children by automobile, is we want to know when we will get “there.” We want to travel down the King’s Highway and arrive wherever God wants us to be, but it needs to happen soon, the trip shouldn’t be bumpy, and we should travel with people we like. It’s been a long time—more than two thousand years in fact—since Jesus went away. That’s a long time to travel anywhere. After awhile, even patient children stop asking “Are we there yet?” and eventually begin questioning whether “there” exists and whether the trip is worth the wait and trouble even if it does exist.
Jesus didn’t make things any better. He said that only God knows when his return would happen. Jesus didn’t know when he’d return. Angels didn’t know. It’s one thing when the children don’t know when they’ll get “there,” but when the driver doesn’t know it can be pretty unnerving.
This may explain why some people aren’t thinking about the return of Christ and are trying to live for now. This is the only life they’ve known and the only life they expect. They expect—and even may want—the future to be more of the same stuff that defined the past. The notion of a different future may even seem subversive or wicked (inspiring people threatened by it to “want my ___ back). And yes, some of the people who live this way self-identify as Christians—followers of Jesus. Remember, however, that Jesus doesn’t claim everyone who self-identifies with Jesus (see Matthew 7:21-27).
But that “what’s in it for me now” approach to life doesn’t square with what Jesus promised. Jesus promised to return. Either we believe him or we don’t. If we believe him—meaning if we have faith in Jesus and his promise to return as Righteous King and Judge—then we should be living for the future he promised, not the past he’s going to overthrow. People committed to maintaining the system Jesus will overthrow not only aren’t looking for him to return. They don’t want him to return.
For starters, they don’t want the life that the Bible associates with the return of Christ. The Hebrew prophets foretell that the messianic age will be one of piety and devotion. At Isaiah 2:2-3, we read: In days to come, the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
The prophet isn’t foretelling some private, individualistic, and self-centered piety concerned mainly about personal salvation. No, the piety and devotion of the messianic age Isaiah and other Hebrew prophets foretold is always associated with economic, social, and global justice. At Isaiah 2:4 the prophet speaks of the Lord when we read, He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
The Hebrew prophets promised the Messiah will reign over a world that is just and at peace, not the kind of world we have now and have always known. The people following that ruler are not busy marketing a private consumer salvation. They’re trying to usher in an age of social and global justice, harmony, and peace because that’s the kind of world their promised ruler will lead.
People who are personally, politically, financially, socially, morally, and emotionally invested in a system built on inequality, conflict, and exploitation of vulnerable people and our planet want more of the same, not an end to it. So they’ll gladly embrace the theology of Glenn Beck and share his disdain for social justice, liberation theology, and all that goes with it. The world that Jesus and the Hebrew prophets promised is a threat to people addicted to and profiting from cruelty, exploitation of the vulnerable, abuse of power, and suffering by others.
Advent followers of Jesus embrace a future that’s very different from our present and our history.
• We claim an inclusive faith in an age of harmony for people of diverse histories, cultures, and experiences.
• We’ve been captured by a faith that is socially just and ordered by piety and devotion to God.
• We believe in and are determined to create a future where people are dedicated to peace-making, not war mongering.
• We believe in and want to create a world where the poor, sick, wounded, and abandoned are welcomed as equals to the wealthy, healthy, comfortable, and powerful and are comforted, healed, and honored as neighbors, not treated as underlings.
And Advent faith inspires us to do more than sit around waiting for Jesus to show up and magically manufacture a new world. Noah wasn’t sitting around in his prayer group waiting for God to deal with his age. Noah spent years teaching, preaching, and building. His neighbors kept on eating, sleeping, working, and partying. They kept investing in the status quo while Noah was preaching about God’s imminent judgment. Like Noah, you and I are to be building for the age that God has promised because we believe the promise of God’s Christ.
The issue is whether you and I, like Noah, believe in God’s promised future of justice, inclusion, love, and peace so much that we are preparing for it now or if we, like the people of Noah’s time, don’t believe it, don’t want it, and won’t live to create it. As Jesus mentioned in the reading from Matthew 24, because we don’t know when the Messiah will return, we must always be alert and preparing for it.
We’re not waiting for Christmas; we’re waiting, watching, and working for the Christ! We’re living for the Christ. We’re confronting injustice for the Christ. We’re challenging violence, cruelty, and militarism for the Christ. We’re tearing down corrupt systems and working to create and establish honest and fair systems for the Christ. We’re taking care of vulnerable people and the creation for the Christ. The timetable for the return of Christ is God’s business. Our work is to believe in that return and live to prepare the world for what Christ and the prophets promised.
What Jesus said about “the days of Noah” is paired with watchful living to remind us of something else. The return of Christ will be a separation. The existing regime of injustice, violence, corruption, exploitation, and suffering won’t be tolerated by the Christ, nor will the people who chose to believe in it. If we won’t live watching and working for the world the Christ will lead and rule, we’ll be judged and banished as outlaws by the Christ who is Righteous King and Judge.
Christ promises to return and rule over a changed world. The redeemed—those who are watchful and working for the righteous and just world the Christ will rule—will be at home in that world. Those who aren’t watchful and working for that righteous and just world won’t be part of it, just like the people in Noah’s age who weren’t watchful and working for God’s righteousness.
We aren’t redeemed so Christ can evacuate us when he returns. We’re redeemed so we can cooperate with the righteous and just and peaceful age that Christ will rule. That age will be here, on Planet Earth, not some celestial place. The will of God will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The kingdom will come here. Anyone who doesn’t believe in the promised return of Christ as Righteous King and Judge won’t be watchful and working with God to establish justice, truth, inclusive harmony, and peace. And like the people who didn’t believe Noah, they’ll be locked out of the world Christ will lead.
We are called to be watchfully working to prepare a righteous and just world so we will be welcomed in that world by a Righteous and Just Christ. This is the faith we hold, proclaim, offer, and live at Advent and always. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a circuit court judge in Arkansas.