Sermon for Sunday, November 28th, 2010 || Advent 1, Year A || Matthew 24:36-44
Dr. John Seel
Dogs reflect their owners.
This is what we learn from Ceasar Millan, the popular TV dog whisperer. Many dog owners – he shows – love their pets without establishing proper boundaries. As a consequence, the love of the owner tends to reinforce the dog’s bad behavior. It is just one illustration that we live in a world more inclined to accept than hold accountable. But such is an inaccurate understanding of reality. We will reap what we sow. We will be held accountable. Our behaviors never lie. We will be held accountable for our behaviors.
So it is with overeating, smoking, and fast driving. In time, we will face the consequences of our choices and will have to do so in a manner where there will be no potential for blame shifting or excuses. The choices and consequences will be fully our own.
This is what it means when we repeat week to week the phrase during the Eurcharist, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” It is a reminder of the nature of reality: we must be ready at any moment to give a full accounting of our lives.
The passage today is part of the prophetic literature of the Bible. For new Bible readers, the Bible is divided into thirds: a third doctrine – what ought and can be; a third history – what is; and a third prophecy – what will be. Some of us tend to shy away from prophetic passages as we have been made uncomfortable by the overheated eschatological expectations of some high profile fundamentalist preachers. As staid Episcopalians, we know too much to go there. But our lectionary reading today does not give us that option. This is an End Times passage and there is much that we can learn from it.
Jesus teaches us three lessons here: 1) We do not know when he will return. 2) But he will and until he does we must stay alert. 3) There is genuine value in staying alert.
1. We do not know when.
This passage is best understood in the context of the preceding chapters, in fact as far back as Matthew 16:21, “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” As Jesus walked to Jerusalem, he was reminding his disciples the big picture of redemptive history – his death, resurrection, and return. “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
This made his disciples confused. Was his coming immanent or to be delayed? To this Jesus basically told them that it was the wrong question. When Jesus is coming again is less important than your attitude toward him when he does?
For those who are inclined to read apocalyptic tea leaves, Jesus is emphatic that even he doesn’t know when and neither will we. “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” This much we are told, it will happen in the routine course of daily life without warning. It is this very routineness that makes our ongoing alertness so very difficult. Like the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, we are prone to fall asleep like them at the most inopportune time.
2. We must stay alert.
The central implication of this passage is that you and I must stay alert or keep watch. Uncertainty demands watchfulness. In the parallel Luke passage we are told to stay alert even to the second or third watch – which is the darkest hour of the night when the excitement of dusk has faded and the graying of dawn has yet to appear. “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night.”
But let’s be clear on what we are to keep watch. It is not the events of the Middle East, but on the nature of our relationship with God. His charge is not an academic one – knowing the signs of his return, being able to quote passages from Daniel or Reveleation, but a relational one – knowing the experience of his embrace. It is the difference in looking for abstract signs of marital strain versus keeping short accounts so as to maintain ongoing marital intimacy. Keeping watch is a charge to maintain intimacy with God.
Loosing intimacy with God is not typically like falling off a ladder, but gradually drifting away. It’s incremental distancing. The same is true in our marriages. There is a long process of uncoupling that takes place long before divorce is considered an option. Keeping watch is not attending to the decision of divorce, but addressing these growing patterns of uncoupling.
3. There are benefits to attentiveness.
Attentiveness can keep bad things from happening. The example Jesus uses is home invasion. If the owner of the house had known the time the thief was coming and stayed awake, he could have avoided the break in. There are benefits to alertness, just as there are consequences for inattentiveness. An alert couple can save a marriage. An alert believer can avoid spiritual sloth.
Sloth is one of the least understood of the seven deadly sins. It is not merely laziness. Peter Kreeft claims that sloth is the most distinctively modern of the deadly sins. The big distinction is not between those who have found God and those who have not, but between those who seek him and those who do not. Blaise Pascal writes, “There are three kinds of people in the world: those who have sought God and have found him and now serve him, those who are seeking him but have not yet found him, and those who neither seek him nor find him. The first are reasonable and happy, the second reasonable and unhappy, and the third unreasonable and unhappy.” Sloth is a mortal sin because it puts us into this third class – the nonseekers. Sloth is a sin of omission, not commission. Sloth is the failure to hunger and thirst for righteousness. It is spiritual indolence. We can be causal about a lot of things in life. But here Jesus warns us about being casual about our relationship with God. We are to be active seekers, spiritually attentive, and relationally alert.
How is this possible when it is so easy to be lulled into inaction? How do we stay alert? The simple answer is to build into our lives structures of accountability. And regarding our walk with Jesus, few are more important than making regular church attendance an established habit. By coming to church, the routine of our busy daily lives is interrupted and we are reminded of the big picture, of what is ultimately important, and where we stand today in relation to it.
Catholics are often quoted as saying that there is no salvation outside of the church. There is a great deal of truth in the statement. For example, the single greatest determiner of whether a student in college will maintain their faith during their college years is whether they make the effort to go to church on a weekly basis. We are forgetful people. We need the constant reminder of first things. We need the weekly encouragement to stay alert. We need it in all our relationships – with our children, our friends, our spouses, and yes, with God. Spiritual casualness becomes overtime spiritual distance and finally spiritual rebellion. We are called to be alert to all forms of uncoupling. Only then will we avoid having our spiritual and relational treasures stolen.
We live in a “no-fault” culture that minimizes accountability. Our passage reminds us that reality is not “no fault.” Reality will hold us accountable – Jesus will come again. We will have to face our Maker. And in the meantime, we need to encourage structures of accountability so as to help us stay awake and avoid a low-grade spiritual casualness that is the first step in an incremental uncoupling in our intimacy with God.
“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” It is best to keep this in mind, as we do here each week. Amen.