Lights are going up all around us as businesses and homes prepare sparkling displays for the season. Where I am visiting in Texas, the live oaks are especially festive as their majestic, wandering branches are festooned with twinkling decoration. A mixture of joy and poignancy are not unexpected as we savor the beauty of additional light in these days of lengthening darkness.
The biblical passages we will follow during Advent reveal such a mixture, also. We hear of hopeful promise as well as stern warning on being prepared for it all to end. In our rush to the cradle, we often hop over (kangaroo exegesis) the bracing texts about keeping watch "because you do not know on what day your Lord will come" (Matthew 24:42).
Scripture readings for the first Sunday of Advent usually include a prophecy about the child to be born as well as the last days, when God will conclude this evil age. Thus Advent has both a historical and an eschatological meaning for followers of Jesus. This year’s readings reveal two possible ways that the age will be summed up.
The prophetic reading is Isaiah’s vision of God’s ultimate intention for God’s people as they inhabit the land of promise. The vision includes renewed worship as all the nations stream to the temple to acknowledge God’s reign. God will instruct in the ways of righteousness and bring disputes and warring to an end. As a result of God’s tutelage,
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore (Isaiah 2:5).
The vision concludes with this exhortation: "Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of The Lord" (v.5). Peace can only come as we walk in God’s light, and this is the preferred ending.
The reading from Matthew, like the tolling of a great bell warning of impending disaster, urges persons to be vigilant. "So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him" (24:44). The scenes are graphic: those carried away during the flood; those going about daily labor and a co-worker is suddenly gone; a thief breaking into one’s house. Devastating events scatter ill-prepared persons.
Because of the excesses of the "left behind" genre, a text like this gets scant notice in our more sophisticated churches. Yet, Matthew’s rendering of this warning from Jesus demands our attention. If we are unmindful of the times in which we live, we cannot hope to be present to what matters most--the imminent presence of God. If we have not been awake to our need of the divine assistance, we will be as oblivious as those "in the days of Noah" when calamity strikes.
Two visions of the end, one of peaceful community and the other of shattered hopes, are offered in these texts. How one attends to God’s light, God’s ways, determines the outcome.
Molly T. Marshall
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