A Reading from the Gospel According to Matthew:
“But the exact day and hour? No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father knows.
“The Arrival of the Son of Man will take place in times like Noah’s. Before the great flood everyone was carrying on as usual, having a good time right up to the day Noah boarded the ark. They knew nothing—until the flood hit and swept everything away.
“The Son of Man’s Arrival will be like that: Two men will be working in the field—one will be taken, one left behind; two women will be grinding at the mill—one will be taken, one left behind. So stay awake, alert. You have no idea what day your Master will show up. But you do know this: You know that if the homeowner had known what time of night the burglar would arrive, he would have bene there with his dogs to prevent the break-in. Be vigilant just like that. You have no idea when the Son of Man is going to show up.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
Today’s Advent reading has us looking beyond the manger, past the cross, beyond the Ascension and even beyond today. It has us looking for the King to return in fullness. It takes us to the top of the Mount of Olives into one of Jesus’ most often quoted (and most often misunderstood) discourses—The Olivet Discourse.
Let’s begin here: The Olivet Discourse was not given for us to speculate about who is in and who is out, or about dates and times, or even to scare us into living right. Jesus’ purpose in this discourse is to encourage His Followers that even in the midst of the ugliness and mess of the world (after all, He is largely predicting the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and ultimately Israel as they knew it), He is still the King. Further, He seeks to use this encouragement for us to live our lives to bring His Kingdom even in the middle of these messes and uglinesses. He challenges us to align our lives with Him and His Kingdom. So that when He returns in the fulfillment of His Kingdom, we will see it and know it and embrace it.
When we read these “end-times” passages in the scriptures, it is important that we remember four key points as we read.
First, Jesus wins. He is the King. He is the One whose coming was foretold from the beginning of time itself. He is the one who sets all things right. He is the One who will return to bring heaven (in all of it’s splendor and glory) to earth.
Second, suffering and pain are still present in the world. Jesus came to set all things right, but not all things are yet set right. We, as His followers, are called to continue this partner with Him i this work of setting things right. Yet, because not all things are set right, there is still pain. There is still suffering. Death still happens. Divorces still occur. Far too many children still get cancer. Too many elderly people face dementia. These things still happen.
Let me pause here. I will be the first to admit that I have no good answers to the problem of suffering. I don’t.
I live in a land where there are more than 3 million people who have fled their own homeland due to war and violence. I see them in town begging for bread. I seem them on the bow of the coast guard boats that enter the harbor below our front window after they’ve been rescued from the cold waters where their makeshift boats sank as they sought a new and better life in Europe.
I don’t know why a friend has to watch as his parents suffer with dementia.
I have no explanation for why dear friends had to sit helplessly through surgery after surgery and then ultimately bury their five-year-old son.
I struggle to understand cancer.
I don’t have answers for these questions.
But, here’s what I do know. We are called to do something about pain and suffering. We are called to cry with those who are crying. We’re not called to offer up hollow platitudes about “God being in charge” or “God wanting another angel.” We’re called to suffer with those who suffer. To cry with those who cry. To listen to those who need to yell and scream and cuss. To sit silently and hold a hand. To mourn with those who mourn.
Suffering and pain are as real today as they were when Jesus sat on that mountain and delivered the discourse from which today’s text is drawn. I don’t know why he didn’t heal every sick person that crossed his path. But, I do know that when his friend Lazarus was in the grave, before he raised him from the dead, Jesus stood alongside his friends and neighbors and wept.
Third, evil is real. Even though Christ has come. Even though the Kingdom has begun. Even though for two thousand years men and women have worked tirelessly to bring more and more of the Kingdom to bear. Evil still exists. Evil is still a reality with which we must deal.
Fourth, we must struggle against evil. We are called to stand in opposition to the things that are not as they should be. We stand in opposition to people being mistreated—even if it is by their own government. When children go to bed hungry, we stand in opposition by bringing food. When cities are overran by evil people, we do all we can to share the overwhelming love of Jesus—even at the risk of our own life.
That’s what Kingdom people do.
And, that is what Kingdom people have done for centuries.
When the ancient Romans used the horrible practice of exposure as a means of birth control, it was the Kingdom people who took these unwanted babies and gave them new life.
When a lady was told to change seats in a bus simply because of her skin color, it was the Kingdom people who peacefully protested until she was allowed to sit wherever she wanted.
When young girls and boys are kidnapped and sold for sex, it is the Kingdom people who find them and rescue them.
When poor people were left out in the streets to die alone, it was Kingdom people who took them in and cleaned them and nursed them and loved them and then buried them.
When millions were being taken away from their homes and interned in camps, it was Kingdom people who hid them from the authorities.
That’s what Kingdom people do.
We work to bring the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed into its fulfillment. Knowing that there will come a day, when Jesus will return and say “Well done, you good and faithful servant” to those who have feed the hungry, and sheltered the homeless, and spent time with the widow, and fathered the orphan.