Expect the Unexpected
One of the most overused pieces of advice is expect the unexpected. It's thought trendy, modern, even postmodern. But it goes back to Heraclitus in the 5th century BC. "If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail" (http://www. brainyquote.com/ quotes/ keywords/ expect_the_unexpected.html). I'm using the cliche to highlight that what we expect at the beginning of the Church Year is not what the world expects at the end of the calendar year.
We expect Christ. This is not what the world expects. I know this is called the CHRISTmas season. We have CHRISTmas presents, trees, foods, and parties, but Christ is not expected. What the world expects is a year end festival of neighborly good will common to most societies ancient or modern. And there is nothing wrong with these. It's just we're expecting what is not on the world's radar.
We're expecting that Jesus who came once to redeem us will come again to judge the quick and the dead. In both the Apostles' and Nicene creeds we confess "He shall come again." The new translation softens the confession by putting "will" for "shall." But whether "will" or "shall" the world has no expectation that Jesus will ever come again let alone to judge anyone. At this time of year they may grant that Jesus was here once after all many Christmas carols that they hum confess this but "come again" to judge them? Get real. That's more of a fairy tale to them than flying reindeer.
The world is expecting a yearend festival of good will and gift giving, and so it acts accordingly buying, selling, eating, drinking, giving and getting. We're expecting that Jesus "shall come again" in glory to judge the living and the dead. We expect that we shall individually stand before the Judge of all mankind to give an account for all that we have done, said, thought, and so we prepare accordingly.
We prepare for the expected return of Jesus by receiving His first coming in Word and Sacrament throughout the year. Out liturgy is filled with elements of Jesus' first coming. We sing the song of the Christmas angels in the Gloria in Excelsis. Before Communion we stand in the Palm Sunday crowds chanting, "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord." And we are John the Baptist in the Agnus Dei pointing out that in Communion "the Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world" is present. The Communion liturgy ends by going back to the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple chanting with Simeon that we are ready to depart in peace for our eyes too have seen the Lord's salvation.
We expect Christ; the world expects a celebration called Christmas. We expect that there are only 2 groups in the world. Some in the world expect that there are 3, but most expect that there is only 1. Let me explain.
In the text, the 2 groups are those welcomed or sent away by Christ or perhaps it's taken away in judgment and sent away forgiven. You could translate the first group as taken or welcomed and the second group as left behind or forgiven. The fact that these 4 things can be understood either positively or negatively emphasizes that there are only 2 groups.
This is not what some in the world expect. Some Christians expect that there are 3 groups. One is made of those not so bad, those to be given another chance, those neither good enough to be welcomed nor bad enough to be left behind. Hey, things aren't black and white you know. There's a lot of gray. One is taken; one is left; and one, I guess, just hovers in between. You can see why Purgatory, though unmentioned in Scripture, is so popular. It gives you a 3rd place. Neither taken to hell nor not sent to heaven.
However, most of the world of our USA doesn't expect that at the end of the world there are 2 or even 3 groups. Nope most Americans expect there is only 1. If they expect anything at all after this, they expect we're all going to the same place. The military holds memorial services after a combat action, and do you think anything else is hinted at other than they have all gone to a better place? When a gunman wreaks unspeakable tragedy, a curse be on anyone who dare say not everyone goes to heaven.
The irony here is that the first time Jesus came He came for all. Christian art around the world depicts Baby Jesus as looking like the people in that place. Asian folks have an Asian Baby Jesus; African people an African, Hispanic people a Hispanic one. Nothing wrong with that. It expresses the Scriptural truth that He came to save us all. Galatians 4 says, "He was born under the Law to redeem those under the Law." You know a man, woman, or child anywhere not under the Law?" And Isaiah says, "The iniquity of us all was laid upon Him." John emphasizes the point saying, "Behold the Lamb of God that carries away the sins of the world." Know anyone without sins? Know any way to exclude someone in the world from the world?
The first time Jesus came there was no distinction. He came for all, to redeem all, and He did it. God the Father proved to us, proclaimed to us that He accepted the perfect sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of the world by raising Him from the dead on Easter. But the second time Jesus comes we expect that there will be distinctions because He tells us so. Jesus will divide all nations into sheep and goats. All people will be separated as being inside or outside Christ, as being in the Ark of the Church or outside, as believing or unbelieving, as saved or damned. The people of Noah's day after 120 years of sermons did not expect the flood that separated them from salvation, but that didn't stop it from happening.
The world expects Christmas at the end of the month; we expect Christ at the end of the world. The world expects if there is something rather than nothing at the end, we're all going to the same place; we expect something glorious for some and something horrible for others. Finally, if the world expects any sort of judgment, they think they will see it coming. We expect the presence of a Judge who is here even now.
The world that mocks and parodies Judgment Day; the world that believes a valid, powerful way of expressing itself is to send people to hell and to declare that God must damn this or that, can protest all they want that they don't expect a Day of Judgment by a Divine Being, but their comedy and their expressions of anger say otherwise. And they think they will see it coming. Sort of like in the 70's when America breathed a sight of relief that they had decreased the time needed to prepare for a Soviet nuclear strike from 15 minutes to 2-3 minutes (World Book, Year Book 1972).
I don't think there is really any way to prepare for a nuclear strike, and I know there is no such thing as last minute preparations for Judge Jesus. I can promise you that the person who says to himself I will prepare later will not be prepared. They will be taken away in judgment or left behind like those outside the Ark.
Because we do expect the Judge, and we don't in accordance with Jesus' words here, expect to have any warning of His arrival, we expect His presence now. Let me explain. The Greek word translated by your insert and by virtually all English translations as "coming" is parousia. The first meaning of that Greek word is "presence." So Jesus says, "For just as in the days of Noah, thus will be the presence of the Son of Man." We are not expecting that Jesus is coming from far away in heaven and will finally arrive on the Last Day. No, we expect that He is present right now and on the Last Day will make that presence visible in something other than Water, Words, Bread and Wine.
This fact helps you read Revelation rightly. The Book of Revelation is not about revealing clues to the Second Coming of Christ. No the Greek word "apocalypse" doesn't mean "reveal" but "unveil." The Book of Revelation is about unveiling to persecuted, beleaguered, martyred Christians the Christ who is present now in the pain, the sorrow, the sadness, and even the death.
Expect the presence of your Savior, Redeemer, Friend, Physician, and Lord every hour of every day at every stage of your life. No, He's not a made up, invisible childhood playmate. He told you that He was present in the Waters of Baptism so that as many of you who have been baptized have put Him on. He told you that He breathed His Spirit into the apostolic Word so that He who is forgiven by that is forgiven by Him. He told you that this Bread here is His Body and this Wine here is His Blood. As sure as you see, touch, taste, and smell Bread and Wine present, so sure is He present here.
Yes Jesus comes at an hour not even Christians expect, but He doesn't come to you as a burglar but as a Friend, and He comes as One stepping out from behind a veil not as One who has been far away. Jesus promised before ascending, "Lo I am with you always even to the close of the age." I expect that He will, has, and is keeping that promise.
So I expect that Jesus is present now as Judge. This leads me to confess my sins daily. I Corinthians 11 says, "But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged." Daily I plead guilty of all sins in the Lord's Prayer, not excusing, defending, or keeping one as a pet. And as I expect that He is present now as my Judge, so I expect that He is present now as my Savior. I remember I have been baptized into His death and resurrection, so daily in my Baptism He drowns my sinful nature and resurrects a forgiven, holy, new person. And because I expect that in this life I will have tribulation, suffering, doubt, and pain, each week I come to His presence in Bread and Wine. There by means of all 5 senses He preaches to Me that He is present with me in my struggle and guarantees me victory.
We expect what the world around us does not, but there are greater expectations still. What eye has not seen; what ear has not heard; what has never entered into the thoughts of man. Standing before Jesus no Christian will be told, "You expected too much." Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
First Sunday in Advent (20131201); Matthew 24: 37-44