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. 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.”
Matthias Grünewald’ famous Isenheim Altarpiece, the second view, will focus my Advent reflections this year. We will use the gospel readings from Matthew from the Revised Common Lectionary. Grünewald’s painting will provide oblique rather than direct entrees into the messages of Matthew’s text. We begin with the picture of the left-hand panel of the second view printed above. It is a bright, almost garishly colored rendering of Christ’s resurrection.
The reading from Matthew, though, is about the End. Christ’s return. The great finale of history. Or so we have been taught. But what if a scholar like N. T. Wright is correct that this text, indeed none of the texts like this from the Synoptic Gospels, are about that ultimate end but rather passionate warnings about the coming end of the Jewish people in the war with Rome (66-70 a d)? The striking and arresting imagery used earlier in Mt.24 is stock prophetic and apocalyptic language for great upheavals, collapse of empires, historical change of such magnitude that it is no stretch to say are the “end” of the victims of such tumultuous ill fortune.
And there is nothing a first-century Jew would have used such language to describe except the end of Israel as a historical entity, and more, its end as a vehicle for the kingdom of God as promised to the patriarch Abraham in Gen.12:1-3!
Such an end loomed in the offing for Israel. It was coming. It didn’t take a physic to read the tea leaves to see it. Many observers did. Jesus was involved in a struggle throughout his earthly ministry for the proper way for Israel to be Israel, God’s Israel, Abrahamic Israel, the agent of the spreading of God’s blessings to everyone else. Jesus’ message of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom a lá the Sermon on the Mount was his call to all who had ears in Israel to join his movement as that proper way to be God’s Israel and to escape the coming national destruction.
The warnings in our passage reflect the onset of that terrible crisis. One will be taken, one left. Not in a rapture of some sort but by the Roman military laying siege to the city. The tie to prepare is now. Or like Noah’s contemporaries caught up in the normal rhythms of life the Roman flood will catch them unready and overwhelm them. No one knows exactly when this calamitous misfortune will begin but the percipient will hear the truth in Jesus’ proclamation and enlist in his kingdom movement. Their beef is not with Rome per se but with the malignant sinister power who incites the empire to its brutal, oppressive, and authoritarian rule over the world. His followers will flee to the mountains when they see or hear of the onset of these hostilities and wait it out in the mountains (Mt.24:16ff.).
Let’s jump for a moment to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ resurrection. Grünewald’s rendering of Jesus’ victory is highlighted by the spectacular coloring of the figure of Jesus and the prostrate bodies of the tomb’s guards below. Roman and Jewish power were unable to hold Jesus in death. He broke its bonds, and the bonds of death’s dark Master, when he emerged from the tomb that first Easter morning. Matthew paints it with the tearing of the Temple curtain, a great earthquake, and a resurrection of Jewish saints after his death and prior to his resurrection to symbolize the victory Jesus won. His subsequent announcement that “all authority in heaven and on earth” was now his puts the exclamation point on it!
Now back to today’s reading. When Jesus announces the attack of a thief on the Master’s home he likely combines two images. That of the coming Roman military forces and the coming of the Son of Man. For the judgment enacted by Rome on the hard-hearted and disobedient nation is in truth God’s. It is a definitive declaration that Jesus (the Son of Man) was right, validated and vindicated by his resurrection, and now vested will all power and authority, has returned in victory “at an unexpected hour.”
North American Christians and churches live in a similar time, I suggest. Long predominately disobedient in the service of God, domesticating and diluting the gospel and its Lord Christ, recent decades have been a warning to us that looming just ahead is a great fall unless we get our house in order. Our recent election may be a final warning blast, a tipping point, into the nightmare of judgment that awaits us. How so many Christians could get the gospel so wrong and be so insensitive to it is a terrifying and breathtaking thing for us to consider.
But Jesus, the resurrected and victorious Jesus, remains open to in mercy and hope. Staggeringly, he will reclaim and restore us to be his people, refurbish us to our proper service as that Abrahamic people whose mandate after the resurrection to implement and extend Jesus’ victory everywhere they go around this globe. Out of the crucible of neo-pagan North American culture, this Lord can and will raise us up again to be and do what God’s people should be and do.
Read in this oblique fashion, then, I believe this is the Advent message of this first Sunday’s gospel reading for us in this year of 2016. The call is not to look toward a final end in preparation and anticipation but rather to a much closer end, one terrible to behold, but whose reality is already upon us. And we know it in our hearts. We have tried as a church to be the soul of a nation. But we’ve ended up simply a religious reflection of a national soul. We need to remade, from top to bottom, stem to stern. It will be time consuming, painful, and arduous work. But it will also be attended by the gracious and merciful presence of him who sill today has all heavenly and earthly power and is more ready to do for us what only he can do than we are to ask.
But asking for such divine presence and power is just what Advent is about. Such asking positions us to begin anew the journey with Christ through the course of his life in the first part of coming church year and then the journey in Christ of the church into and through the world in second part. No telling what Advent 2017 will call for from God’s people. But I submit Advent 2016 calls for something very like what I have just described. May Advent blessings be yours in full measure. Jesus is Victor!