This season before Christmas we’re focusing on the theme Listening for the Promises. Each week, we’ll explore a different aspect of the promises God gives us surrounding the birth of Jesus. Our readings this week speak of a promise, and they tell of how we who follow Jesus are to live as we await the fulfillment of this promise.
The picture Isaiah paints of this promise is grand:
In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains. (2.1)
This is no mere sanctuary renovation project of reorienting altars and rearranging pews. By no means; this is major earth moving! The mountain of the Lord’s house is the Temple Mount, not a very high hill in Jerusalem. But the promise is that God will do a marvelous, miraculous thing: God will make this Temple Mount the highest mountain in the area.
But there’s more:
All the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” (2.2-3)
God established Israel to be a light to the nations. God blessed Abraham and Sarah and their children so that they could be a blessing in the world (Gen 12.2ff). And the promise from Isaiah is that, finally, they will accomplish this purpose. All the nations will come to Jerusalem, to learn about God and to follow God’s teachings.
But there’s even more:
[God] shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (2.4)
What a grand vision!
God, not human rulers, will judge between the nations, and as a result, true peace will come between peoples. The image for this will be that implements of war will be recycled into farm implements, and the nations will take a page from our Mennonite sisters and brothers and learn peacemaking.
What a grand vision!
And based on the newspaper headlines, oh how far we are from seeing that grand vision realized!! Sure, we had an agreement with Iran last week over reported limits on their nuclear program, but I don’t hear any swords – or uranium centrifuges – being beaten into plowshares. While it’s true that we are drawing down our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, I don’t think that qualifies as nations not lifting up sword against other nations or not learning how to prosecute war any more.
Matthew reveals another aspect of this promise in our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus is speaking to his followers on the Mount of Olives, that place where Jewish tradition said Messiah would come in glory to rid Jerusalem of its oppressors. There, Jesus tells his friends that he, the Son of Man, would return ‘at an unexpected hour’ (v. 44). In fact, he’ll return at a time only God knows.
The spiritual challenge, of course, is that we might miss Jesus’ return. Jesus tells his followers that his return will be like the days of Noah. The people will be focusing on their every day lives – nothing inherently wrong or evil about that. But we’ll be distracted by our everyday cares and we’ll miss Jesus’ return.
How do we stay awake? How do we keep alert?
After all, the first disciples believed Jesus would return before very long at all; certainly before they died. But he didn’t. It’s been nearly 2000 years, and he’s still not back yet.
How do we keep alert for his coming as we wait?
It’s not a matter of figuring out what day he’ll return; Jesus is clear that no one knows that date. It can’t be discerned by reading tea leaves or decoding parts of the Bible. The promise we have this Advent season shows us another way, a gospel way:
First, it’s not really helpful to become anxious about any of these questions. You do not know on what day your Lord is coming, says Jesus, and for Christians that’s the watchword for thinking about all these things. We do not know, cannot know. We face a good deal of life with that attitude, don’t we? There’s an old prayer, said to be of Scottish origin, which expresses this well:
We know not what a day may bring forth, but only that the hour for serving Thee is always nigh.
Second, the gospel way of approaching life is based on trust. It keeps coming back to this, doesn’t it? In all the mysteries of life, all the joys and sorrows, the challenges and rewards, the life of faith is a life of trust. I don’t know who said it originally, but you’ve no doubt heard it:
I know not what the future holds, but I know Who holds the future.
The Christian lives in trust, knowing that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And third, the gospel way of approaching life settles for living the challenge of this moment. Paul’s advice is just right here:
Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 13.13-14)
There is enough to think about in living for Christ this day. There are enough challenges here and now. We take one step at a time, and that’s how we meet the future.
There’s a funny little thing going around on the Internet, and while it is part urban legend, it actually is based on something true. Back in 1976 an English graduate student named Graham Rawlinson demonstrated a remarkable thing about reading. He showed that as long as the first two and the last two letters of a word are correct, the letters in the middle can be scrambled just about any way and a reader will still be able quite easily to interpret the word.
It’s an interesting linguistic phenomenon, but it has a great symbolic meaning as well. For Christians, life is like this. We know the beginning that God loved the world so much he sent his Son; and we know the end that the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. The stuff in between may be jumbled and confused; it may appear to be utterly random and unintelligible. But when we know the beginning and the end, we really have all we need to know. We can read it, understand it. It somehow makes sense, in spite of the confusion. In the darkness of the world, there is a light, and the light is Christ. This is the light that is coming; may it come unto us as well. Amen