Anticipation Beats Anxiety
Old Testament: Isaiah 2:1-5
Epistle: Romans 13:11-14
Gospel: Matthew 24:36-44
How do you feel about the end of the world coming soon? Luke warned us in the reading from last week that at some point, Jesus would return, and there would be a new world order. That world order would not be a democracy, but would be a world of peace with the shared love of God evident in every aspect of our awareness.
We begin Advent preparing for the invisible God being apparent in a physical way; both in the birth of the infant Jesus, and especially in these early weeks, the return of Jesus at the end of the age.
This week my son-in-law released a recording of one of his most recent compositions for symphonic band. The piece is a nocturne, evoking the middle of the night feelings. He has two infant sons who provide him many opportunities to be awake for the middle of the night experience. In the quiet of the dark night, the wonder of new life in his arms he senses the endless possibilities both evoke: some fear - for all that is unable to be controlled; and some excitement - for all the joy that is just beginning to unfold.
As the child begins to crawl, everything within a foot of the floor suddenly becomes a potential danger. Even the hot oven presents a potential threat. But we do not want the child to stop progressing. And we still have to eat.
As the child develops verbal skills, there are cranky days as teeth begin to break through the gum line. There can seem to be so little we can do to provide real relief. And the poor child has no idea what is driving him crazy. But we cannot develop without passing through this time as well.
All of life contains these steps of progression. We confront pain and discomfort moving through the stages of change that define real life. It does not come to an end when we are infants. Even mature adults confront a series of challenges. In the church, pastoral change evokes uncertainty. Choosing a pastor to walk into the rapidly changing future, is hard when you cannot guess what skills might be the most useful.
In a personal sense, our more mature days are better characterized by a series of losses. Our hair thins, our hearing weakens, our balance cannot be trusted to be the same day after day. Change is by itself unnerving.
Our spiritual awareness is a part of our living. As our minds and emotions are stirred by the events of the world, we are distracted from the promises of God. There is anxiety over the proposed radical changes with a new president-elect. We can easily spend more energy on worry and anxiety than we ought to. Into our spiritual awareness breaks the season of Advent.
In the last twenty years or so, this text from Matthew has been promoted as a foundational piece of the “Left Behind” series. In that series of novels, the apocalyptic texts of the Bible are interpreted as a prediction of “The Rapture” where select individuals are taken up into paradise, while the those left behind endure a dramatic series of hardships.
This kind of elitism is a recurring problem for all religions. There is a powerful human hunger to lord it over others, define holiness in such a way as to exclude others, and make the insiders feel special. The final words we heard from Luke last week, encouraged us to keep our own sinfulness in mind, seeking the salvation of forgiveness that Jesus so readily dispenses to the humble and repentant.
So what could Matthew be talking about if not “The Rapture?” Advent is the beginning of a new church year. As we follow along in the Revised Common Lectionary, we follow a three year cycle of readings with a year devoted to the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. We are entering into the year of Matthew.
The focus of this passage is to emphasize that there are no markings that the end is near, so it is not wise to try to time our repentance with the grand finale. With that thought in mind, we should turn to God right now, because anytime, any day, could bring the end of the world as we know it.
We opened with a reading from First Isaiah, preaching before the defeat and Exile imposed by the Babylonians. Much of Old Isaiah is a call to give up your love of sin, make room for God within, and learn to believe God is good. Here, Isiah offers a sense of the ideal; an understanding of God, not as a punishing God, but a God of wisdom. This image of God is the one who arbitrates peace, and brings out the best in all of the people from all over the world. Here we see Zion as the embodiment of the ideal relationship between God and all of humanity. Embodiment is another word for incarnation.
In Romans, Paul tells us that this is the hour to become aware and attentive to the coming of the Kingdom of God. We are closer now to the kingdom than we have been at any time in our lives.
These words, now almost 2,000 years old, seem to lack the sense of immediacy that characterized Paul’s frantic ministry. Paul was driven by the sense that Jesus would return within his lifetime. Paul was compelled by the need to turn all nations to Christ, so that everyone would enjoy the coming salvation.
You and I arrive at Advent, and our enthusiasm is quieted by the intervening years. Yes, the end might be near, but based on the experience of 2,000 years of waiting, it seems like we ought to pay the premium on our health insurance.
Having said all of that, we should take it a step further. We are not likely to achieve perfection in our lives. It then becomes important for us to maintain a position of humility and repentance in prayer before our God.
The ideal of nations traveling to the holy mountain in Jerusalem in order to have differences arbitrated in peace, seems counter intuitive, knowing how the sacred mount of Jerusalem is so hotly contested by the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims. The physical reality of today mocks the wisdom of these ancient scriptures.
But we know that nothing on earth lasts forever. There is no turn of politics or economies that is not subject to radical change. Issues that seem insurmountable and divisive, may not even seem important ten years from now. The reality of the life of a creature is lived within the context of short-term awareness.
Let us turn our attention to the divine and the infinite. The God who is, was, and ever will be, is likely amused by all of those things that make us so anxious. God may be amused that we cannot understand the temporary nature of this existence, while offering us the grace to be faithful.
I believe that grace is the power to put a cap or limit on our anxiety, trusting that God’s love is sufficient to promote a spiritual awareness that includes this eternal God, and anticipates our own personal and communal relationship with that God.
Just as life with infants reveals both danger and hope, we contemplate the end of the age, that both seems uncontrolled and terrifying and the embodiment of the promises made for thousands of years to the faithful.
Our own lives are lived within a sea of anxiety promoting realities. My own response is to intentionally focus my heart and mind on the spiritual ideal. Rather than spend all of my attention on the divisions that complicate the physical reality of Jerusalem, I focus some healthy part of my prayer attention, on the glory of Jesus returning to bring that sense of peace and joy.
Faith is the antidote to the sin of anxiety. Confidence that God will clothe us in Glory Robes, and be pleased as we approach the throne, puts a joyful note in our songs and prayers. Our season of preparing for the coming of the presence of God in an embodied human form, should call us to remember to trust in God, and rejoice in the peace that the Christ brings, today, and every day in the future, world without end, Amen.