“No one knows…” | 1 December 2013


Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44

In some ways Advent is one of the least surprising and mysterious seasons there could be.  Because we’ve been here before.  We’ve gone through it many times.  We know the words, the songs, the stories.  We know exactly what’s going to happen, how this is all going to unfold.  Jesus is going to be born to Mary and Joseph in the most humble of settings, will be heralded by angels, visited by shepherds and stargazers from the East, and honored as the savior of his people.

You know this story, and there’s a great comfort in knowing it, and hearing it again.

Advent means “coming,” and this is a time when we look again for the coming of Christ.

What always strikes me about the first Sunday of Advent, is that the texts each year seem intent on unsettling us from what we think we know is supposed to happen.  Instead of preparing us for the coming of a gentle birth – a memory of something long ago, something from out of the past – we are confronted with words from the adult Jesus, spoken in future tense, declared in his final days, spoken as if the world, or at least the world as we know it, is about to be shaken to its core.

“Many will come in my name claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will lead many astray.  And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed.”

“The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.  Then the Son of Man will appear in heaven.”

“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.”

“Keep awake, therefore.”  The Son of Man is coming like a thief in the night.

All of these words come from Matthew chapter 24, and are part of Jesus’ response to his disciples’ question: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the signs of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Just as we’re getting ourselves situated to enjoy the goodness of the season, or to settle in for a long winter’s nap, here is Jesus getting all apocalyptic on us and telling us, urging us, to stay awake.  Rather than give us assurances and certainties, we are beckoned into a state of unknowing and mystery.  “But about that day and hour, no one knows.”

The Coming of Christ that the first Sunday of Advent concerns itself with is not the birth of Jesus, but the so-called Second Coming.  An unfortunate phrase.  As if there were only two.

There’s all kinds of problems with how these words have been interpreted, a lot of them having to do with people attempting to assign dates and times to the end of history.  I’m not a biblical literalist, but when Jesus said “No one knows the day or the hour,” I take him at his word.  Especially since he said even he doesn’t know.

A bigger problem with how passages like this have been read is that the Christ of the future is imagined as one who represents the very things Jesus spent his whole life trying to undo.  A message of forgiveness, actions of healing, and welcoming the prodigal sons and daughters with open arms – the Jesus of the parables and the Sermon on the Mount – seems to be replaced with a representative of vengeance and a final shutting out of those who don’t qualify.  There’s something wrong with this picture.

Jesus’ favorite name for himself, showing up throughout the gospels, is not Savior, or Son of God, or even Messiah or Christ, but the Son of Man, or, more simply, the Human, the Child of Humanity.  It’s a title he preferred so much that even when he asks his disciples who they think he is, in Mark 8, and Peter answers by saying, “You are the Messiah,” Jesus tells him not to say this to anyone, and, in the very next verse, goes right back to calling himself the Son of Man, the Human One.

It sounds cryptic, but it’s not something Jesus pulled out of thin air.

It’s a title Jesus borrows, samples, from the book of Daniel.  The book of Daniel comes out of the Jews’ experience of living under the control of empire, and the book contains different stories of how to live humanly in the inhuman conditions imposed by empires.  Daniel is a dreamer, and in one of his dreams, in Daniel chapter 7, he sees four different beasts.  The first was like a lion, with eagle’s wings.  The second was like a bear.  The third like a leopard, and the fourth, the most terrifying beast of all, had teeth like iron and devoured everything in its path.  Each of the beasts corresponds with one of the empires the Jews had lived under – the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, and the empire at the time Daniel was completed, the Greeks.

But there’s more to the dream.  It continues and morphs into another kind of dream.  Not just the kind of dream you have when you sleep, or day dream, but the kind of dream Martin Luther King spoke of when he said, “I have a dream.”  Daniel’s dream full of the symbolism of past traumas – the wild beasts of empire – now becomes a dream, a vision, of what can be, a realm in which things are set right, in which justice is enacted.  The dreamer sees a future infused with redemption.

Daniel’s dream continues like this: Power is taken away from the beasts, and then a fifth figure appears.  “I saw one like a son of man, like a human being, coming with clouds of heaven.  To him was given dominion and authority.”  In Daniel’s dream it is not the beasts of empire who have the final say or power in history, but it is the human being.  And just as each beast was an image of a collective realty, the human being is an image of a collective humanity – a humanity who lives humanely.

Daniel’s dream is not unlike that of Isaiah’s, who saw a day in which people will beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks.  In the days to come, the raw materials that humanity has manipulated into instruments of war will be whipped into shape in a redeeming way, refashioned as instruments for producing and harvesting food – swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks.   Tanks get turned into combines, guns become spades, razor wire fencing gets remade into tomato cages.  Soldiers become gardeners, and the energies and resources and human capital that were dedicated to war making are redirected to community building.  “Nations shall learn war no more.”

It’s a beautiful vision, one much of humanity can affirm as desirable, but when does this happen?  When should we expect it to come?  What will be the signs?  Isaiah’s agenda is not to predict a date, to get stuck in a linear timeframe.  He only says “In days to come.”

When, where, does the Human Being of Daniel show up?

The Son of Man, Human Being, is Jesus’ preferred name for himself.  He is the Human One who comes and teaches us how to be human.  And in Matthew 24, in his final days, he talks about the presence of the Human Being extending beyond his own lifetime.  This section of Matthew is laced with the apocalyptic imagery from Daniel, of the collapse of the old and the breaking in of the new.  Matthew 24:15 even mentions Daniel specifically.

The coming of the Human One, he says, isn’t about days and hours.  If we’re caught up in that kind of linear time, we’re asking the wrong question.  Jesus redirects our attention away from an undetermined future, and back to the present moment.   Jesus says to keep awake.  Keep alert.  We’re going to be going about our daily lives, like in the days of Noah, when people were eating and drinking, marrying, normal every day stuff, shopping, making lists, running errands, but they weren’t awake to this greater reality that was about to happen.  Two people can be side by side, and one gets taken, and one gets left.  Contrary to popular belief, and rapture theology, in this case you don’t want to get taken.  To stick with the metaphor of Noah, being left behind means that you didn’t get swept away by the floods of things that can turn our attention away from the Human One.

The whole point of the gospel is that this “coming” is good news and should not be perceived as a threat.  The “coming” of Christ isn’t held over us as a punishment to watch out for.  The “coming” of Christ, the Advent of Christ is this forgiving presence –  the Human One – self-giving love.  That power which topples empires.  And we’re supposed to live so we don’t miss it, don’t get swept up and flooded out with less important things.  Because apparently this can be missed.  Jesus says, “Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Human One is coming at an unexpected hour.”  The thief in the night isn’t coming for your flatscreen TV, he’s coming for you, and this is a good thing.

We live in time such that each hour is, in some way, that unexpected hour.  That time when Christ could burst into our lives in the form of forgiveness that overcomes vengeance, love which overcomes hatred, peace which overcomes anxiety.  In the form of another human being.  Be alert.  Be ready.  Stay awake.

I’m a little late in getting around to it, but about a year ago I figured it was about time I read The Grapes the Wrath, and watch the movie.  And there’s a scene at the end that fits well for some closing thoughts here.

The story goes that Tom Joad has been released from prison, and returns to his family’s farm in Oklahoma, only to find that the whole family is about to move to California.  It’s the Depression, and Dust Bowl, apocalyptic times, the properties are being foreclosed on by the banks, and there’s promise of work and good pay further West.  They make the long trek to this promised land type place, only to discover that there’s not near enough work, wages are barely enough to live on, and law enforcement favors the large landowners rather than the masses of laborers looking to take care of their families.

Tom Joad has witnesses all this and gets more and more disaffected with the way things are, drawn into solidarity with the striking workers and impoverished people.  Toward the end of the story he is being hunted by the authorities.  He decides to become a fugitive and tries to sneak out of the camp at night where he is staying with his family, but his mother hears him and asks him what he’s doing.  He tells her he needs to go away, and she fears she’ll never see him again.  She says: “How am I gonna know about ya, Tommy? Why they could kill ya and I’d never know. They could hurt ya. How am I gonna know?”  It’s a question that sounds similar to that of the disciples: Tell us, how will we know?  What will be the signs of your coming?

Speaking out of the shadows of the night, Tom Joad tells his Ma:  “I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”

Advent has begun, and the Human Being – a humanity yet to come – is surely on its way into the world – infiltrating our present, our time, pressing in from both the past and future.  Breaking into our here, our place, from everywhere, wherever you can look.  Our task is to stay awake to this great mystery.