Sunday, December 01, 2013

Advent 1

Matthew 24
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son,[a] but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day[b] your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

I confess I’m much more likely to buy something if it includes a bit of poetry on the box. This, from Fisher-Price:

Noah, using all he knew,
built himself a floating zoo
With lots of animals, all times two,
ready to come and play with you.

“The ark includes Noah, two elephants, lions and zebras and giraffes – all pieces store inside. Look for more Little People animals to fill the ark. (sold separately and subject to availability).” Okay, so the last part kind of falls flat.

66 customer reviews on give the Little People Noah’s Ark five stars, and at $29.99 it seems like a pretty good deal. Of course you have to scroll through all the positive reviews to finally learn that this ark doesn’t actually float, which seems to undermine the overall message of the toy.

Now, perhaps Fisher-Price is a bit too pedestrian for you, so I might recommend Playmobile with 13 sets of animals and a working crane for $249.99 And just in case you are wondering what Warren Buffet’s grandchildren can look for under the tree this Christmas, I give you Hansa’s Noah’s Ark with the tag line “24 plush animals in total rocking in a mechanical ark!” It costs a mere $6,200. It’s hand sewn, and includes more exotic animals like a marmoset, but sadly the animals come one-by-one. Seemingly the rich don’t trouble themselves with the point of the story.

So what is the point of the story? The Fisher-Price version comes with a little Noah with a little dove perched on his shoulder, which seems to underline the end of the story. In spite of the mass destruction of all of humanity, Noah and his family, along with four sets of animals (other sets sold separately) survive the flood and repopulate the earth. In other words, buy the toy but please, share the story later.

For me, the most remarkable part of the reading this morning is that this story, this mythic narrative, is being quoted by Jesus and recorded by Matthew nearly 2,000 years ago. And a thousand years before that it’s an important bit of oral history, finally codified some time in the pre-exilic period, perhaps 800 years before Christ.

So here’s a story that’s been with us as long as our forbears have been sharing stories in an organized way, recorded in scripture, cited by Jesus, and still resonating in our culture quite apart from the religious meaning. Few stories can make the same claim, and few stories generate so many additional symbols, such as the rainbow, the dove and the olive branch.

So how is a mythic narrative and not history? I imagine the first few chapters of Genesis to be something akin to a set of answers that might be prompted by a child’s questions. Think of the Seder meal, and the tradition of the eldest child asking ritual questions such as “Why is this night different from all other nights?” And then imagine what might prompt Genesis 1 through 11:

Who were the first humans?
How did the animals get their names?
What was God’s response to all that wickedness in the world?

Okay, that last question might be a stretch, but it illustrates the idea that much of this pre-history is written to explain something, and while it may not be factual, it can certainly be true. In other words, the point of the story can ‘ring true’ in our hearing without being verifiable or scientifically valid. Of course, in one of the great ironies of history, the earth’s response to the wickedness of manmade climate change may be a great flood.

So why does Jesus share this story in a farewell conversation with the disciples? It more-or-less falls in the middle of the last two chapters before the passion story begins. Chapters 24 and 25 begin with the predicted destruction of the temple we looked at a couple of weeks ago, and conclude with the remarkable description of “what you did for the least of these my brothers and sisters you did also for me.” In between, is a lesson in watchfulness, waiting for the end of the world.

So the moon will perish and the stars will fall, and like in Noah’s day most will be unprepared. And when will this happen, this thing for which we need to prepare? Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

I think you see the problem. Beginning shortly after these words were written down, as that first generation of believers began to depart this world, the story of the end of the world become a story of disappointment. Not disappointing for those who ignored Jesus’ teaching—but a disappointment for those looking forward to Christ’s return. And this theme has continued down to this day, some waiting, some no longer waiting, and some puzzling over the meaning we can find in these words.

Maybe it’s time for a little more poetry, this time from T.S. Elliot:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Maybe “The Hollow Men” is about the Gunpowder Plot, or the end of the First World War—whatever the meaning—it inspired another poem a couple of generations later:

It's the end of the world as we know it
It's the end of the world as we know it
It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

This update is by Michael Stipe of REM and seems to get us closer to the point of our lesson this morning: while Jesus tells us to prepare for the end of the world as we know it, it may not happen precisely as planned. And without dipping too far into “what did he know” and “when did he know it,” I think it’s fair to say that the real world-ending activity, the real ‘end of the world as we know it’ comes once a year.

In other words, in the absence of the end times, we are still confronted by the world-altering and life-changing reality of the incarnation. Even as we listen to the farewell discourses recorded in these last chapters, a small voice says ‘yes, but the real end of the world as we know it happened at the beginning of the story,’ when God chose to enter the world in a new way. Jesus is the flood that swept away the wickedness of humanity, overwhelmed by forgiveness and love. Jesus is the melting moon and the falling star, ending everything we thought we knew about the cosmos. Jesus is the ‘end of the world as we know it,’ and for this we feel more than fine.

The rainbow promise, that never again would God destroy the earth, still stands as one of the few constraints we know binds the hand of God. How God acts in human history is a mystery to us all, but we know that the rainbow covenant is perpetual legislation. And so it happened that God would need to find new ways to deal with our inevitable disobedience: giving the law at Sinai, sending prophets major and minor, giving us the gift of scripture as comfort and guide.

But then something else happened, and the impetus remains as much a mystery as providence itself: a young woman, a baby, and the growing sense that God is with us. May we continue to explore this mystery with open hearts, now and always, amen.


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