Living in Hope
Isaiah 2: 1-5, Romans 13: 8-14, Matthew 24: 36-44
Any of you find yourselves lying awake at night or in the early morning alert feeling any movement. Waiting for the next earthquake. Possibly the big one.
Not only do you not know when… but you really don’t know what it will be like.
We’ve had earthquake, and flooding, and Trump and now its Advent and we are waiting for something, we don’t know when or what it will really be like.
Advent just means coming. And the first Sunday of Advent is on the theme of hope. So the tradition is that on the run up to Christmas we celebrate the many ways in which Christ comes to us. Today it’s hope… something that is sometimes called Christ’s ‘second coming’ or his ‘coming again’.
There’s a lot of craziness, a lot of fantasy surrounding this idea of the ‘second coming’. So part of what I think we need to do at this time is question the craziness… to take a fresh look at these words of Jesus.
Jesus is famous for anticipating disaster. He warns his followers that the temple would be destroyed. It happened in 70ad. The future he talks of is filled with both disaster as well as hope.
But the first thing I want to say is that in spite of this he is very conscious of what he doesn’t know (v 36) “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.” So if Jesus is very conscious of his ignorance, we probably should be too, don’t you think?
A lot of people want to know the future… they want to secure their lives. They don’t like lying awake at night waiting for the big one – for something they can’t control. So they are ready to believe anyone who likes to tell them a story about the future. But Jesus pushes back against that. There is a future… for sure… but how much do we really know. What can we say about our hope?
In Romans 13 Paul says “You know what time it is”… He’s not talking about 10.30 on Sunday morning. He’s asking about how they locate their lives in time, in relation to the significant moments of God’s coming to them. It’s not about numbers and dates. What matters is how our lives are located in God’s time and in God’s purposes with the world. It’s time to wake up. With the passing of time salvation has become nearer. What time it is? Wake-up time.
Here’s a question. Maybe you know what it means to have hope … but what does it mean to live in hope?
Christ has come… the world will never be the same again. Christ is coming again. We live in between. That’s the main thing we need to know about what time it is. And we don’t need to look at our watches to know it. Everything in our lives that matters, matters because Christ has come. But all that Christ came for is not complete. Wake up time is also pushing towards ‘salvation time’. That’s what hope is all about. God will act. God will complete what God has started.
Jesus stood firmly in a great tradition of hope. He was a fanboy of the great prophet Isaiah. Jesus read from Isaiah in his first sermon. We read of Isaiah’s hope as one of our readings today. … “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” The destination will look something like that. We may not know what that will be like, but this is probably the vision that inspired Jesus to call his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. This is what God is working on.
Last week in Auckland our government hosted a conference of weapons manufacturers for companies like Lockheed Martin. People who make their living manufacturing and selling the technology for drones to drop bombs on crowds. Companies who trade in cluster bombs and nuclear weaponry. During the week protestors surrounded the conference and shut it down. Like Jesus protesting at the temple, they didn’t shut down the arms industry for good… but is that one of the ways that living in hope looks like.
Jesus has quite a bit to say about what the coming reign of God looks like… but the question of how the change from now till then will actually happen … how we will move from the time of Christ’s hiddenness to the time when all the world will be confronted irreversibly with his reality. From wake up time to wide awake, remains a great mystery.
One thing he is clear about… he is clear that the change is dramatic. You can see it in the kind of language Jesus uses to describe this future coming. In one passage, one we didn’t read, he uses the language of apocalyptic. For apocalyptic writers great events are described in terms of natural disasters… ‘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’. This is a kind of poetry of crisis, that Jesus is drawing on in his language. These are metaphors that others have used before him. Some readers don’t appreciate that kind of poetic exaggeration that is just part of this tradition. It’s a metaphor… but what it’s about is a whole new world coming. God’s new world order of peace.
And then Jesus doesn’t stop with those metaphors, he goes on to give us two more metaphors – two parables of the transition, one about Noah and one about a thief. He says the coming of the Son of Man will be like the days of Noah… it will be like a massive crisis in human existence… life will be going on as usual, people will eat and drink and get married… and then rains and rains and rains – a clear and public disaster – the word in Greek is cataclysm. And everyone will be in danger of being swept away with the passing of life as we know it… but some will remain…(metaphor of disaster) ‘two will be out in the field and one will be swept away and one won’t be’. The Greek translation of those phrases sometimes translated ‘taken and left’ is very tricky. Perhaps the most we can say is that, whatever else is involved (remember Jesus doesn’t really know what’s going to happen) there will be a sorting out of people. A bit like the parable of those who build their house on the rock… Jesus hope for his disciples is that they might remain awake to the coming of Jesus, and to the reign of God. He hopes that they will remain strong in the chaos and disaster that will surround the appearance (coming) and not get caught up and swept away. He wants them to be ‘left behind’. (That’s how I read it). To use the words of Leonard Cohen. “Things are gonna slide, slide in all directions” … But even if they do, perhaps particularly when they do, something better is coming.
Interesting when Genesis tells the flood story, twice it says that the world was filled with violence. Here we have a world that sounds to us quote civilised: ‘eating and drinking and getting married’. We don’t usually think of these as violent. And yet perhaps it makes sense … Maybe that’s precisely the kind of world we live in. Maybe the economy of ‘eating and drinking and marrying’ sits like the cap on top of a volcano of violence and racial tension and the inequality that makes the gap between rich and poor get larger and larger. And maybe that volcano will let fly. Don’t get swept away.
Maybe the world that is doing its best to distract itself from the violence and destruction it is itself creating for other human beings and for nature will be caught completely by surprise. I think that’s the point highlighted in verse 39… and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them away.
‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’
So Jesus first image is of a flood in which the faithful stay alert and hopeful, looking for what no one else can see – the coming of Christ again – the completion of Christ’s work
The second image is of a thief coming at night to a household. All is calm, all is bright, everyone is asleep. And when the householder wakes up in the morning the TV has gone. Like Santa at Christmas, only he takes the presents rather than gives them.
Jesus says to his disciples ‘stay awake, be ready’. Why? If his disciples are the householders who don’t want the thief to come that would make good sense? But they are not. They are waiting for thief. They are waiting for the Son of Man to return. For them the coming reign of God is not a bad thing. It is a good thing.
Those who run the household, those in power, don’t want the household invaded. Maybe this is what Jesus means when it says that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Those invested in the status quo, the winners in this world are the last ones to welcome in the thief.
What does it mean to be ready for the end of the world as we know it?
Here’s what I think. I think it definitely doesn’t mean to sit around and waiting, singing songs in circles looking inwards. It means practicing together the new world now. It means to beat swords into ploughshares now. Refusing to practice war now. It means to live with the poor now, to share our lives with the poor now, to share our lives with those losing on the margins and in the streets. To wake up to the future and to live in hope means to take the enormous risk of living the life of Jesus now – the one who, for our sake became poor.
To live in hope is not simply to have hope. It is not simply to feel hope. It is to have the courage to practice the future now, at a time when the powerful will do everything to make it difficult, at a time when it looks like a sure recipe for failure.
Jesus says wake up. Out of the chaos a new world will be born. A world of peace and shalom, a world where the dead and the living, will be raised to a new possibility. Thanks be to God.