A Sense of Urgency
Talk Given at Our Advent Mini Retreat, 2007
“No one knows the day nor the hour of the coming of the Son of Man, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. For as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man.
Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.
Matt 24, 36-44
Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left.
Mt. 24, 40-41
I don’t know how it is with you, but when I read this scripture passage I can’t entirely drive out the thought that I’m going to be the one who will be left behind while the one next to me is taken up into glory. This worry leaves me with an uneasy feeling and I come away from this reading with a vision of God that is much more exacting and punitive than the vision I usually have. Generally, the Bible teachings I spend the most time thinking about are ones that are more comforting. I prefer to think about God as He is depicted in the fifteenth chapter of Luke — a shepherd who leaves behind ninety nine secure sheep in order to search for one sheep who is lost and when that shepherd finds that lost sheep he carries it up on his shoulders and shouts with jubilation. A God like that would leave no one behind, and that’s the God I want.
Like it or not, there are things in the Bible that can be easily misunderstood. There are times, like in today’s reading, when we come across something that can really head us off in the wrong direction. Why should this be? I can’t help but notice that these eschatological prophesies, that is, prophesies that have to do with the end of time, bring out the very worst in some Christians. Who hasn’t bumped into ardent believers who have told us that we were outside the reach of God’s salvation because we don’t go to the same church as they do, or because we hold a different opinion on theological questions, or because we have to struggle to avoid a sin that they claim to be free of, or even because they insist that something we do is sinful when it really isn’t. Such believers hear today’s reading with the assurance that they are among those who are going to be taken up. These are the people who gravitate to the eschatological teachings and who find in them a reason to believe that God’s love extends just so far, but no further. It reaches them, but it doesn’t reach me. There are plenty of people around who are like that, and I believe they do more to confuse the gospel message than they do to promote it.
Jesus taught us that God is like the woman who sweeps her house clean in order to find a coin she has misplaced. Jesus wants us to know that each one of us is like that coin, and God sets everything aside in order to retrieve us. This same Jesus, however, gives us a glimpse of the last days by telling us about the men in the field and the women at the grinding mill. Does he expect us to identify ourselves with the ones who are taken, or with the ones who are left behind? If we’re as precious to God as that lost coin is to the woman we can’t be left behind. Can we? Doesn’t God’s offer of salvation extend all the way to where we are? If so, why are we given readings like the one we just heard?
The thing about love is that it longs to be reciprocated. We need never worry about the reality or the reliability of God’s love, but it’s good sometimes to think about our response to that great love. It’s a wonderful thing to be sure that God loves us, but too much security can lead to complacency. It turns out that this work of salvation is an urgent bit of business, and Jesus wants to appreciate that fact. We can’t be passive in the face of God’s work in our lives. We have to be transformed. We need to become people who are full of gratitude and humility, praise and joy, mercy and forgiveness. That’s the only way to demonstrate that we ‘get it’, that we have accepted God’s offer to be the object of His love.
If God is with me, who can be against me? Well, there is one who can be against me and that is myself. It’s possible for me to be sluggish in my response to God’s urgent wish to be with me. I can be exposed to God’s love, but never let it in. I think that’s why Jesus directs us to think about the possibility of being left behind. We’ve got to become sharp, we’ve got to become as passionate about God as He is about us. It’s not a good idea to be too sure of ourselves. A little bit of healthy anxiety can be a good thing.
Advent is a time of preparation and of waiting. We’re waiting for the one we love most. Doesn’t it seem natural that we’d be a little bit nervous in this situation? Doesn’t it seem natural that we’d be a little bit insecure? Have we really done enough to show God that we appreciate what He’s done for us? Have we allowed the confidence we have in God’s fidelity sour into presumption? That would be a tragedy indeed!
Am I the person who is taken up, or am I the one who is left behind? Am I the person who is fired up with love for God, or am I the one who takes it all for granted? Am I on edge, waiting for the Author of Life to take stock of me, or am I certain that I’ve got it all figured out? The truth of the matter is that I can be either, and I can be both. God is searching out the nooks and crannies of my personality and finding out just how much He truly means to me. I’m being confronted, every day, with the reality of my own shortcomings. In doing this, God gives me a great blessing. I’ll be fine as long as I get out of my own way – but what a hard thing it is to get out of my own way. I’m lucky that God keeps prodding me, day after day, year after year, to be the person He created me to be.
It turns out that salvation is a big deal, a very big deal; but human nature being what it is we don’t always appreciate what is going on. It sometimes turns out that we can’t see what we’ve got until we imagine what it would be like to lose it.