Matthew 24.36-44 (and staying awake for Santa)
to the series: Isaiah the prophet anticipated the fall of
to the cruelty and violence of
song, praising God for a deliverance so unexpected as to be an entirely “new
thing” and describing a kingdom come of restored Jerusalem and renewed
faithfulness for the people of God. The
New Testament and the early church fathers quote liberally from this prophet,
particularly using the text to interpret the person and work of Jesus Christ,
so much so that Isaiah is described as a fifth “Gospel” to stand along side of
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This year,
during Advent, we will be focused in our messages on selections from the
have a sword. A samurai sword that has
been in our family for 3 generations, almost 70 years. Hold sword and scabbard together, press the
release, and unsheath a still sharp and deadly weapon. It is an officer’s sword, from an era in
which they were more than decorative, in which they were still designed for
battle. It was surrendered to my
grandfather in a Chinese port city at the end of World War II.
we hear the beautiful song or poem from Isaiah 2 (swords to plowshares), we
tend to think all cuddly and cute, all gentle and kind. The vision, the word, is glorious. Nations not only do not go to war, they do
not even “learn war”, they don’t play war games, they completely disarm. When it is all cuddly and cute, we actually
diminish the glory of the vision. The
vision presupposes war. The word of the
prophet assumes destruction. And, its
glory lies in the fact that it sees not simply the next cease-fire, but the end
of all battle, the end of all war in a lasting peace.
is the context of Advent and the context of Isaiah. We are in the first Sunday of Advent, the
four weeks of preparation for the coming of the Lord. And, the coming anticipated is not that of
“infant holy, infant lowly”, the Christ Child in a manger, but the Son of Man
in glory, in final victory, in judgment, and in peace. The traditional gospel reading this year is
from Matthew 24. It reminds us to stay
awake for the generally unexpected coming of the Son of Man, a coming that will
be like the great flood in the time of Noah or like the arrival of a thief in
the night. There is violence and
destruction in the imagery, not because our God loves violence, but because our
world is in desperate need of a make-over – not a fresh coat of paint or simple
repair, but a renovation that begins with sledgehammer and bulldozer.
is the context of Advent and the context of Isaiah. Isaiah prophesies when folks can’t imagine a
coming day of destruction. But, he sees
the signs in the faithlessness of the people, in politics that clearly depends
on guile and human alliances rather than on the presence of the LORD. He warns them in chapter 1, “If you refuse
and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has
of that sledgehammer and bulldozer. “The
faithful city has become a prostitute! … Righteousness lodged in her – but
now murderers! … your wine is mixed with water. Your princes are … thieves. They do not defend the orphan and the widow’s
cause does not come before them” (1.21-23).
destroyed by the LORD in a catastrophe of fire.
And he proclaims that the powerful of the new
will likewise perish: “They and their work shall burn together, with no one to
quench them” (1.10, 31).
Christmas to you too!
gears with me: Cities. In the language
of Timothy Keller, a city is any place of density, diversity, and cultural
energy (video presentation 1, from Gospel in Life: Grace Changes Everything). If you look at a map of the world colored by
population density, you will see red hot clusters at cities. It is as if cities have a gravitational
field, drawing people in, calling to them in ever-increasing numbers. The Bible story is bookended by two
cities. The first is
Isaiah imagines here in chapter 2 – a city in which God’s dream for the city is
is often a fearsome place. It is
imagined to be a violent place, with racism and classism magnified by proximity
and density. It is a place to go to
escape from God and hide from the law.
It glorifies excess, pride, and over-work. And it puts its faith in all kinds of false
beliefs, particularly the God of Mammon, the love of money. God’s dream for the city is described here in
Isaiah 2 and elsewhere in the Scripture as a place of refuge and safety, a
place for justice, a center for cultural development, and a center for seeking
and finding the one true living LORD (Keller).
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God
of Jacob” (2.3).
of the prophet Isaiah will be destroyed.
Devoured by the sword, burnt with fire (1.20, 31). But there will be survivors, and, “in days to
come”, there will be a new Jerusalem, in the image of her Creator, in all
justice and peace (1.9, 2.2). It is a
message of hope, not the movie version of apocalypse, but the promise of God.
reality. We love to live in the vision,
in the word of the prophet. We don’t
like to deal with the “brutal facts”.
Collins, in his book on organizational transformation, Good to Great,
devotes a chapter to this theme. He
titles it, “Confront the Brutal Facts, yet never lose faith”. He tells the story of Admiral Jim Stockdale,
imprisoned for 8 years and tortured for over 20 times in
prisoners of war, encoded intelligence into his letters to his wife, disfigured
himself to avoid being used on video as a “well-treated prisoner”.
it out [of the prisoner of war experience]?”
“Oh, that’s easy. The optimists. They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to
be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by
Easter.’ … And they died of a broken heart. … You must never confuse faith
that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with
the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality,
whatever they might be” (Collins, 83-85).
most brutal facts of our current reality are that our world is not friendly to
widows and orphans. Our world profits
from the poor. Our world profits from
war. Our world normalizes dishonesty,
unfaithfulness, and anger. It is a
beautiful world, filled with glimpses of glory, in the image of God carried by
each human being. And yet, it is broken,
and we are broken. We take up our sword
to protect ourselves. We take up our
sword to fight for justice. And with
every sarcastic remark, every manipulative ploy, every power play, we and our
cities, we and our nations, we and our neighborhoods, become more and more
violence and violent men take hold of it” (Matthew 11.12). He was speaking about his kingdom, and he was
speaking about himself as King. He would
suffer violence. He would die at our
hands, at the point of our swords. And
all the destruction necessary to cleanse and remake this broken world was
visited on him.
is love the idea, live in faith, but ignore the brutal facts of our current
reality … then we will be complicit with injustice, accomplice to evil, ever
at war with God and with ourselves. We
must hear the word of the prophet: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the
light of the LORD!” (2.5).
are we to participate in this transformation now? How can we, even now, live into the realities
of the renewed Jerusalem Isaiah describes?
How can we “walk in the light of the LORD”, practically?
to the mountain of the LORD” (2.2). This
is witness by invitation. And, it is an
invitation given as equals, not as a superior.
We’re in this together, and we have the opportunity to learn God’s ways
together. One practical and easy
opportunity is coming up for all of us: Christmas Eve! Even folks who don’t go to church think about
going to church at Christmas Eve. So
begin now to pray for your friends, neighbors, coworkers, teammates, family
that you want to invite.
shall arbitrate for many peoples” (2.4).
In the large context of this passage, it is clear that on the
individual, local level, this includes serving and advocating for the poor and
oppressed, making room for widows and orphans, welcoming and treasuring people
that the culture rejects. When you sense
yourself taking advantage of someone, profiting through their weakness … that
is the moment to make a personal change.
And, when you have the opportunity to make a tangible difference for
good in the life of another, do so. I am
so excited that our youth have adopted a local family for Christmas. It is one dimension of the practice of
justice – care and acceptance. Another
dimension is advocacy – speaking up, acting up, making the system different.
“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn
war any more” (2.4). Forgive those who
have sinned against you. Seek the
forgiveness of those you have offended.
Even in the church, we “suffer violence” from one another. It should not be, but it still is. We are not yet in that future city, and yet
even now it is breaking in. Practice
peace: “The peace of Christ be with you.”
sword for another. Surrender ends
war. Surrender is an act of trust: What
will the victor do with me? When we
surrender our swords, we disarm, unilaterally.
If you want to “go up to the mountain of the LORD”, you must lay down
your swords, you must disarm, you must surrender everything to God in Jesus
Christ. Once we do, we discover not an
enemy to fight, but a lover and friend to embrace and a God who turn swords
into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks.
we come to the table of our Lord, the feast of thanksgiving. As we remember the story, we discover that it
was Jesus who surrendered to us at sword point, it was our violence that Jesus
transformed into our deliverance, and it was our injustice that God used to
bring us true peace. Truly, swords to
plowshares, spears to pruning hooks. It
is an amazing miracle, an incredible gift.
And, it is ours to receive today.
Keller. 2010. Gospel in Life: Grace Changes Everything. Session 1: City, The World that Is. Video curriculum. Zondervan and
Brueggemann. 1998. Isaiah 1-39.
2001. Good to Great.