Third Tuesday of Advent
December 13, 2011
“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as 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.” (Matthew 24:34-42)
I once worked with a man who had escaped from Russia in the late 1970’s when he was twenty-one years old. He told stories of being harassed and beaten by agents of the KGB, who were not shy about showing up at someone’s house in the middle of the night to take them away for interrogation or torture.
Jesus’ words about his future coming have often been interpreted as a warning that the faithful will be taken up into heaven while others will remain on earth to suffer whatever fate awaits them. He clearly states that no one but God the Father knows when all this will happen, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying to lock a date on the calendar anyway.
Like my Russian friend, the Jewish people of the early first century knew what it was like to live in a police state. During times of rebellion there would be nothing to stop the Romans from hauling people off in the middle of the night, leaving others behind. In that situation, being left behind would be the better option. When Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans just a few decades later—costing more than a million lives—being taken would mean slavery or crucifixion. Happy would be those who were left behind.
Like his coming at his birth, Jesus’ return is expected to be to a world that is still broken and dangerous. Matthew 24 describes all the dramas that will continue before he comes back, and they are dramas that have been played throughout human history. Things are not expected to get better.
Regardless, Jesus says to keep awake. The shepherds who were awake at the angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth could have focused their eyes only on the sheep in their care. Instead, they became awake to a new reality, the birth of a child that signaled the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. We too can stay awake to all the turmoil of national politics and disasters while sleeping through the coming of the Son of Man. Plenty of people were awake when Jesus was around, but not all were awake to him.
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