My Dad said the other week he and my mom were at the mall window-shopping and I guess they passed a ladies’ clothing store or whatever, because he paused there looking at the display and said, “You know, honey, that would look really good on you.” So, good job, dad, right? Until he turns to his side and the woman standing there isn’t my mom.
You know that feeling. When you’re in your own little world, but not totally oblivious to your surroundings, you sense somebody at your periphery and maybe assume it’s somebody you know…but oops. It’s awkward, a little funny. Can be a little scary if, say, you were a little kid with the same experience — wandering in the mall or grocery store and feel somebody at your side, assume it’s still mom or dad standing there, but you turn and look up into a stranger’s face. Not cool. But hang onto those feelings for a minute.
They may get at what’s at stake in Matthew 24:36-44, where Jesus continues on in this little convo about the end of time. I think he’s trying to answer people’s questions about when/how he’ll come back, and how we prepare. If you read it, he focuses on the idea that no one knows the when, not even him apparently (which is hard to deal with, umm, ’cause it’s Jesus), or the angels. And he compares his coming to the days of the flood with Noah, where people went about life’s normal tasks — working, surviving, partying — right up until the water swept them away.
So today the Sunday with the theme of Hope, wondering at Jesus coming back, his own words don’t produce simple feelings of joy and rapture, rainbows and unicorns. We’re looking towards Christmas, but where are the sugar-plum fairies and what-have-you?
Russell Rathbun has this to say: “Nothing raises my holiday spirits like the anticipated threat of Jesus kidnapping someone at work and then breaking into my house and robbing me. And the fun part is, it will all be a surprise! Yeah.”
Welcome to Advent. Welcome to Hope?
Alyce McKenzie wonders, where are the festive Christmas decorations that depict these sorts of scenes that Jesus offers us? Can you imagine a snow-globe of the Noah story? Not the cartoony one in kids’ Bibles with animals hugging each other and Noah smiling on top of that big boat. Imagine a scene more like what we saw from Hurricane Katrina, with the earth rocked, muddy water churning around filled with debris, peoples’ homes, and, above all, human bodies. Quite a snow-globe, eesh.
Or, my family likes to put jigsaw puzzles together around Christmas. Whenever you get bored you can go plunk a couple pieces down. And you know how they are, with the kind of pictures they create — there’s a whole Thomas Kinkade set with like little cottages covered in snow, that have warm light coming through the frosty windows, and chimney smoke puffing outta the chimney. There’s a wreath on the door and you know people are inside drinking cocoa, with kittens curled up warm beside balls of yarn.
Okay, so take that picture, and throw in that Jesus is on the front porch creeping around trying to find a way to break in. The thief.
Yeah, that’s an exaggerated image, but maybe it gets closer to the kind of tone that Jesus uses for the days when he’ll return. Why? Why talk like this? Does he want us scared? Or, even more, paranoid? Are we to constantly, fearfully, full of anxiety, look over our shoulders for the day Jesus appears?
I can’t think that, because he loves us. And because he loves us, he’s being very real about the nature of the days when he returns. It’s not exactly party time…God leaves us all to make choices about what we believe and how we live, and Jesus’ advent will be a reckoning with that.
Jesus’ instructions aren’t: “be afraid, be very afraid.” That’s usually how we hear it, almost…be afraid if you get caught in what you shouldn’t. Like, if you’re in the middle of the wrong word or the wrong drink when Jesus pops back in on the world, oooh, it’s bad news. I’m not so sure. I’m not calling that untrue, but just not deep enough. Because Jesus actually said: “be ready.”
How to be ready? For me I think it means to stop trying to assert when there’s no way Jesus is coming back. You know what I mean? Some of us spend time guessing at when Jesus will show back up, 2012 or whatever. I bet all of us, one time or another, guess at when Jesus will definitely NOT show up.
Not out loud. Not even consciously, probably. But we promise ourselves, “No way Jesus will interrupt this.” Or at least we hope not. That’s right, the most devout of the devout, there are times we are just wishing Jesus will leave things be.
Thanksgiving last week is a great example. It’s a good time. Nationwide people gather, they fellowship, they try to get along (maybe). The central theme is giving thanks. In general, God probably pretty much likes Thanksgiving, yes? Many of us make preparations around Turkey Day, we’re cooking and traveling, or eating and napping. It is the last time we’d expect Jesus to show up, and some of us would even say, “Nah, Jesus, not right now” if he chose to.
I’m saying, imagine that your table is set, the family has gathered and prayed, you’ve slaved for hours over pumpkin pie and the first bite of sweet turkey and gravy is on your fork. And Jesus rolls in on the clouds for judgment and justice and to set all things right. Our first reaction might be a little resentment, I’m just saying. Those times, those family times, those that we plan most for, where our idea of life is already good and occupied, that’s when I’m usually assuming, “nah, Jesus ain’t coming now, he’s not interrupting this.”
What’s the danger in thinking that way? What’s the big deal? There’s not just a lack of readiness for the end of time… sometimes there’s a lack of respect, understanding, connection or love for God. Sometimes when I’m surrounded by family, it’s almost like I choose not to worry about God, speaking to God or hearing from God, because I’m doing something I think God must like and God should just leave me to it. Or when I’m doing something I’ve planned a lot for… God can just leave me alone for that. And so on.
There are huge chunks of my life when I just black out, or shut down, or take a quick break (or a looong break) from connecting with God. And when I let myself notice God again, it’s almost a little awkward, less familiar, less intimate. I don’t think God wants us to live that way, not day to day, and not on that ultimate day when we finally have a much more face-to-face meeting with God, either when Jesus returns or when we go to see him in death.
I don’t think Jesus would have his followers suddenly look up from what they’re doing, glance up and find that they don’t recognize this person at their side. I don’t think Jesus wants us to be taken by surprise, or stricken dumb with fear, or even feel a little awkward. Let’s have none of that stranger-at-the-mall feeling. I think Jesus wants us to be ready so that when he comes we can recognize him and love him. So we can recognize him like an oldest, closest friend returned. That is worth hoping for, for later at whatever time the reckoning comes, and for now.