To a people shaken by events and facing a very uncertain future, Isaiah offers a stirring vision of hope – hope of restoration – restored worship and renewed journeying with God. The time that Isaiah speaks of is “in the last days”, a destination we too are journeying towards. In that time, we will ultimately see hope realised, hope of a world in which swords are beaten into ploughshares, and wars confined to the past.
We often see partial glimpses of that hope, like God’s Kingdom breaking through; for example, in the healing and reconciliation stories of countries such as Rwanda and South Africa. These provide inspiring examples of what can happen when machetes are laid down and enemies work to become friends. Is it a coincidence that at the heart of these narratives we also find prayer and faith? Sometimes in life, the journey we make is as important as our destination, and this I think is something we are reminded of in the season of Advent. We are encouraged to be filled with expectant hope as we journey together remembering the first coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and hopeful of His second coming.
On that journey though, it is important to bear in that even if we might be focussed on the future and that future hope, we must also be mindful of the present. That’s important because there will be times when we encounter suffering and hardship in life. By their very nature, shocking events in life tend to take us by surprise. Around this time last year, Strasbourg in France was shocked to the core when gunman opened fire just outside the Strasbourg Christmas Market, killing 5 and injuring 11. The most common question people ask is ‘Why?’ Sometimes we need to bring that question into our worship and faith, to name our fears and uncertainty honestly before God. I’ve been in times and places on my journey when I’ve done just that – I’ve had to. Likely there will be times in the future when I will do that too. I don’t think it’s wrong for us to ask “Why?”. In a world demanding instant answers, sometimes God seems silent – there are moments when silence is the gift we need to offer as we wait for wisdom to emerge.
I know many of you have asked that question too, and waited in silence. Job said “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21). Job went on to say later “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27)
One thing is clear. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. The ‘second coming’ of Christ is a theme rarely explored in detail, although it is frequently affirmed in worship. The problem is, as the Gospel reading makes clear, that no one knows much about it. What we do know is that it will be sudden, like Noah’s flood – no warning, no time to escape. This uncertainty, coming from the lips of Jesus himself, counsels against dogmatic interpretations or predictions. All we can do – indeed, what we must do – is be ready at all times. We need to stay awake on the journey, be prepared and keep watch.
Matthew does not give any explanation as to why some are taken, and others left. We need to exercise great care when it comes to matters of judgement or salvation. At the end of the passage Jesus says, ‘you also must be ready’ – so that’s all of us! As human beings we can be very quick to envy, judge, idolise or condemn others. Perhaps the message here is, don’t be so quick to pass an opinion on others; rather make sure that our life, our relationships, and the way we do our work are all in order.
We live in the ‘in-between times’, between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’. It is only when we experience a power cut in the evening or the failure of street lights outside our home that we are reminded of the difference between day and night. Because electric lighting makes it possible for us to live in the light 24 hours a day, Paul’s contrast between night and day loses something of its impact for us. However, darkness remains a powerful metaphor for evil in books and films. What emerges out of the dark and what is done in the cover of darkness has the power to shock us in the name of entertainment. We seem to feel instinctively that darkness is dangerous and daylight is safe.
We notice the period of daylight shortening through the autumn and when winter is fully established we look forward to the longer days of spring and summer. It is easier to wake up and go about our lives if it is light when the alarm goes off.
The readers of Paul’s letter would have shared his feeling that they were living in a brief period between the resurrection of Jesus and the final coming together of everything in God. Mark tells us that Jesus preached that the kingdom of God was at hand (Mark 1.15). They felt that they had everything to look forward to and it was coming soon. We do not share the same urgency but arguably we should and the hope should certainly still be there.Paul encouraged his readers to live in the present as if the promised future were already present. Our electric lighting can help us live at night as if it were daytime but, as we can see by what happens in our well-lit city centres late at night, that image is only partly useful. If the future that God promises us is about the quality of our relationships, with one another, with God’s creation and with God, then that is how we should live now. We are challenged to live the values of justice and peace in hope, to be Christ-like, even though the world has not yet changed. We are called and challenged to wake up and keep watch. Let’s do this together as we enter into this season of Advent. Amen