“The whole message of the Gospel is this: Become like Jesus.” – Henri Nouwen
This is an old sermon of mine based upon the gospel text for the First Sunday of Advent, Year A – Matthew 24:36-44.
“For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man," writes Matthew.
The season of Advent is upon us, this being the first Sunday.
Advent, like Lent,
is a time or preparation,
a time of getting ready,
And I don’t mean preparing for Christmas celebrations or family get together.
And I don’t mean getting ready by buying all your presents in the next few days before all the good stuff is gone and the parking lots at the malls or shopping centers get too full.
Advent is about preparing for and getting ready to meet Christ,
and so it is no surprise that our scripture lessons speak of the need to get ready,
to stay awake,
to throw aside the evils we hold onto and take upon ourselves Christ.
What might be a little surprising, though, is that our gospel lesson doesn’t speak about Jesus coming as a baby so many hundreds of years ago.
Rather, it speaks of Jesus second advent, or second coming.
Now I don’t want us to get too caught up in the particulars of Jesus’ return.
I won’t outline for you a time-line of prophetic events,
nor will I give you ten easy ways to determine the day Jesus will return.
I’m not even going to talk about the Left Behind series of books that have become best sellers.
Besides, it seems to me that these verses from Matthew go a long way to dispute the kind of thinking seen in these things anyway.
In fact, in this passage Jesus doesn’t tell us when he is going to come back at all,
and instead he tells us how we should be living when he does return.
And it is here that Jesus tells us that his coming among us,
whether for the first time or the second time, or any time,
will be as it was in the days of Noah.
For as the days of Noah were,
so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
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,
and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
Now, notice something about these verses:
in them Jesus does not accuse the people of Noah’s day of doing anything wrong.
He does not go into detail and draw up a long list of their crimes and misdemeanors,
and neither does he condemn the people in the days of Noah for their great sins.
All Jesus says is:
They were eating and drinking and getting married.
Now there is nothing wrong with that.
Everyone needs food and water,
and most everyone needs companionship.
These are not sinful activities.
The problem, we find out,
is not what the people were doing.
No, the problem was what they failed to do.
On the one hand they were unprepared for what was about to happen to them.
They did not expect that a flood would come,
and so they did nothing to get ready for that watery day of judgement.
I am reminded of Monty Python’s sketch, "The Spanish Inquisition."
In it a man is being questioned in such a surprising way that he finds himself saying,
"Look, Mr Wentworth just told me to come in here and say that there was trouble at the mill,
that’s all –
I didn’t expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition."
And then, as if on cue,
inquisitors burst into the room and one of them says,
"NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition!
Our chief weapon is surprise.
surprise and fear.
fear and surprise..
Our two weapons are fear and surprise.
and ruthless efficiency..
Our three weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency.
and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope..
Amongst our weapons..
Amongst our weaponry are such elements as fear, surprise..
I’ll come in again."
The inquisitors exit the scene to re-enter and begin the speech again.
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
As Jesus said,
"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" (Matthew 24:43).
The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour,
just as the flood was itself unexpected.
But even more than the flood being unexpected,
there is am ignorance that seems prevalent,
which Jesus acknowledges when he says:
"they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away."
You see, there was something that they did not know,
and it was this something that Jesus felt was crucial.
What was it?
What were the people of Noah’s day not doing?
What was the something they did not know?
And the question could as easily be:
What is it?
What is it in our own day,
that people often do not know such that when the floods come they are swept away?
I want to suggest this morning that what the people in Noah’s day,
in Jesus’ day,
and in our own day do not know is that the nature of life is basically spiritual.
At the heart and ground of our being is our spiritual existence,
our eternal nature.
Before we are anything at all,
we are first creations of God into whom God breathes the Spirit of life,
and without that breath of God,
without that spirit,
we are nothing and life holds no meaning.
I want to suggest that the problem then and now lies with our assumption that life consists primarily in eating and drinking and marrying and all the rest,
while all the time ignoring our true nature as children of the living God.
Some wise person once said that most people look at religion the way a pilot sees a parachute.
They are glad it’s there,
but they hope they never have to use it.
As in the days of Noah,
people do not know God;
they do not know that their eternal souls are all that really matters,
when the rain falls,
the wind blows,
and the flood comes;
they are swept away on its waves.
While I was at Saint Mark in Trenton,
I once received a call from a hospital asking if I could come right away.
Someone was dying and the family wanted a minister.
I got to the hospital as quickly as I could,
but the woman had already died a few minutes earlier.
Now the family at this time doesn’t particularly want to talk to me,
or ask for prayer,
or any such thing.
So I asked how long the loved one had been in the hospital.
And it turns out she had been in intensive care for over a week,
but it was only when the doctor said she was almost gone that they called for a pastor to come over.
And now that I, the pastor, have arrived,
they really don’t know what to do with me.
It just seems that when death is at hand,
and you don’t know what else to do,’
then you call a pastor.
The family took my phone number,
in case they needed someone for the funeral,
and that was the end of our relationship.
I never heard from them again,
And afterwards when I thought back on the experience,
my only response was basically to say to myself,
"What a shame."
This family seemed to me to be like
the people in the days of Noah,
eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage,
and "they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them away."
They knew nothing about the fact that they and their loved one are children of God,
they knew nothing about prayer being the heart and center of true human existence,
and they did not know that when death comes,
you commit your loved ones faithfully into their creator’s hands,
and that you call the pastor early in the process,
so that scriptures may be read,
and the faith may be shared,
and prayer may be used to unite everyone together.
They just did not know -
I want you to contrast the spiritual poverty of that situation with the words of Marvin Franklin,
a fellow minister and once good friend of mine.
In one of his reports to the charge Conference of St Mark,
he once described his ministry of visitation to the sick and wrote about those he visited:
As many suffer the ravages of time and disease,
As mortal ills of the flesh prevail,
their continued spiritual growth enables them to
be more than conquerors through Christ who loves them.
They are fighting the good fight,
and are keeping the faith as they suffer loss after loss,
enduring many deaths,
but experiencing the resurrection triumph.
I remember the words Marvin once said, of a parishioner he visited while she was on her death bed.
After he had sat with her awhile,
read some scripture and prayed with her,
the woman, just hours before her death,
looked up at Marvin and said:
"You can go now. I will be alright."
I will be alright, she said.
When the flood of death finally comes,
I will be alright
because I know the God who has conquered death in the resurrection of my Lord, Jesus Christ.
Marvin died not too many years after I left St. Mark for Eastern Pennsylvania,
and I felt his death deeply.
For between his customary greeting,
which was always, “Happy Day.”
And his love of God,
I have met few Christians or pastors who were more in touch with the spiritual core of their existence.
My friends, the people in the days of Noah were not doing anything wrong.
According to Jesus,
they were just eating, drinking and marrying and all the normal things people have been doing since they came into being.
The trouble was that they were not in touch with God and what God was doing.
They were so wrapped up in their own agendas,
so captured by the physical and material dimensions of their lives,
that they missed the only dimension which counts in the end,
the eternal, spiritual dimension.
Now if that sounds like a description of modern life during the Christmas season,
rest assured I intend that way.
The shopper’s countdown is on – only 27 more days left to buy and buy and buy some more,
just so much time to do all the things that make up a successful commercial holiday.
The days of Noah are upon us once again,
and we are caught up in the usual flurry of eating and drinking and shopping and partying and traveling and visiting,
and just as the people of Noah’s day did not know,
so many people in our own day do not know what is most important at this time.
And even some of us who do know,
who have no excuse whatsoever,
even some of us who know will forget in the midst of our busy lives.
And in the end a great many people will arrive at Christmas day concerned and worried about whether the gifts they bought were right,
or the dinner they gave got good reviews,
or simply glad that the hassle is over with.
But the weeks ahead offer us a special opportunity to know the wonder of Christ’s coming among us;
to marvel at the gracious love of our God who enters our world as the child of peasants;
to see one another and all people as God’s children –
our brothers and sisters.
But will we?
Or will we be like those in days of Noah?
In Thornton Wilder’s play, "Our Town,"
the main character Emily,
who has died giving birth,
is given the opportunity to return to her life and home on earth and observe the happenings of one ordinary day from her childhood.
As she watches the events of that day unfold,
she breaks down and cries
"I can’t go on.
Oh, it goes so fast, and we don’t have time to look at one another.
I didn’t realize.
So all that was going on and we never noticed!
Take me back – up the hill – to my grave.
One more look!
Goodbye Grover’s Corners,
Goodbye Mama and Papa,
Goodbye to clocks ticking – and my butternut tree!
Goodbye to Mama’s sunflowers and food and coffee and new-ironed dresses and hot baths and sleeping and waking up!
Oh, Earth, you are too wonderful for anyone to realize you!"
And then Emily asks:
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it – every, every minute?"
And off to the side,
the stage manager answers softly,
"No – Saints and Poets maybe – they do some."
The challenge is for us to realize life during the Christmas season.
The challenge is to be one of those Saints or Poets,
like Marvin Franklin,
who can say throughout any day "Happy Day!"
The challenge is for us to wake up to the wonder and beauty that surrounds us throughout the Advent of Christ.
How can we do these things?
The scripture says:
"For as it was in the days of Noah,
so will it be at the coming of the Son of Man with
everyone eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage,"
and never knowing the God in their midst,
the God who was made known to all in the birth, life, and sacrificial death of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We can make a step in the right direction this morning,
we can move away from the days of Noah,
and we can do it through the very things those people were so caught up in.
You have before you a table spread.
You are invited to come and to eat and drink,
not just physical food, however –
most of us have enough of that already.
But we have here before us the presence of Christ,
spiritual food and drink which can sustain us through the floods of life when all other things fail us.
This sacrament of communion, of the body and blood of Christ offers us the opportunity to know Christ as we enter this Christmas season.
Let us prepare for Christ’s coming,
that the flood may not sweep us away.
Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And a woman was there who had a spirit of disease for eighteen years. She was completely bent over and was never able to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he summoned her and said, “Woman, you are set free from your disease.” Then he laid hands on her, and at once she stood up straight and praised God.
But the leader of the synagogue began to speak with indignation because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath. He said to the crowd, “There are six days on which it is proper to do work. Come on those days and be healed, but not on the Sabbath day.”
Then the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or his donkey from the stall and lead it away to give it water? Then shouldn’t this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set loose from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”
When he said this, all his adversaries were put to shame; and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.