As a teenager I had all the books in the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. I even had the first movie! Along with the teachings of my home church, this series shaped my view of judgment and the end of the world and was responsible for a great amount of anxiety. This series interprets prophetic and apocalyptic books of the Bible literally, proposing that at the end of time, true Christians will be “raptured” or taken to heaven instantaneously and that those who do not believe in Christ will be left behind in a world that will be in shambles. The setting of the novels is post-rapture, and one of the main story lines centers around a secretary general of the United Nations who is actually the anti-Christ. Some characters become Christians after the rapture and try to convert others and prepare for the coming tribulation, the judgment of God that will last for seven years. LaHaye and Jenkins weren’t the first to write about the end of time in this way. Hal Lindsey wrote a similar storyline in the seventies entitled, The Late, Great Planet Earth. Some of you may remember that novel, particularly because it was adapted into a movie in 1976 that was narrated by Orson Welles. I used to have visions of folded up clothes lying on the ground on top of a pair of shoes, a sign that the rapture had come and taken someone but left their clothes behind! Even though it happened in the blink of an eye, somehow they had time to neatly fold their clothes before they were taken! I had these visions because I was afraid that somehow, even though I had given my life to God, that I would be left behind. When I hear the words in our text from today – “But about that day and hour no one knows,” I can’t help but think about my misconceptions about judgment day and the fear that filled my being as I thought about how I might be the one who was left behind.
There’s another extreme when it comes to ways of thinking about judgment, and that’s the line of thinking that dismisses judgment all together. I think many of us are closer to that position. When we hear this passage, we aren’t sure what to do with it. It doesn’t sound anything like the Jesus we normally speak of, and we think, “Really, what in the world could this possibly mean?” The Bible is such an interesting book. I’m not sure this text really matters in the grand scheme of things. You know, God loves everyone. Matthew needs to tone it down a little and not get people so anxious and make people feel so judged. The word judgment has such negative connotations for us that we try to avoid it at all costs. We think it’s morally wrong to judge anyone for anything so we’d like to sweep the passage right under the rug. But perhaps we need to wrestle with this text a little longer to understand what Matthew is trying to say when he tells us we need to wake up!
Right before our text, Jesus has just left the temple, foretelling of its destruction, and has returned to the Mount of Olives, where he is having a hard and serious conversation with his disciples. They want to know when the temple will be destroyed and what will be the sign of his coming and of the end of the age. He warns of false messiahs, of wars and rumors of wars, of nation rising up against nation, of kingdom rising up against kingdom, of famines and earthquakes. He warns them of their coming persecution, how people will betray and hate one another, and how the love of many will grow cold. He warns of the coming crisis, the desolating sacrilege that was spoken of by the prophet Daniel. He warns of suffering, of a darkened sun and an unlit moon. Then, he says the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven. The disciples don’t understand yet but will soon learn that the temple that will be destroyed is Jesus’ body and that the desolating sacrilege he speaks of is that the empire of the world will see fit to crucify the Son of Man. Jesus himself will be desecrated. His crucifixion is the coming crisis. It is he who will suffer.
This is where our text picks up. But about that day and hour, no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor even the Son, but only the Father. At this point, Jesus takes a turn and tells his disciples to wake up! They may not understand what it means that the Son of Man is coming but they need to prepare for his coming. They should not be like the people in the days of Noah who were eating and drinking and marrying, completely unaware that God’s judgment was coming down upon them in the form of a flood. Ignoring the coming judgment came at a great cost. The disciples are not to get swept away by the coming of the Son of Man for they may not know when or how he will come but they do know he is coming. People will be going about their ordinary lives when he comes; they will be working in the field and grinding meal. Unlike the house owner who gets robbed by a thief in the night, the disciples know the Son of Man is coming, so they are not to go to sleep as if nothing is going to happen. They are to stay awake and be prepared. As he has warned them, they will be persecuted and hated by the world because he will be persecuted and hated by the world. They will betray one another. The kingdom of Rome will rise up against the kingdom of God. They must be ready.
It’s an odd text before us on this First Sunday of Advent when we begin waiting and preparing for the Christ child to be born among us. But yet it’s perfectly fitting. The baby we wait for is the baby who will bring God’s kingdom nearer than it’s ever been. It’s the same baby who will grow up and be persecuted by the world. It’s the baby whose teaching and preaching and pronouncement of God’s judgment will land him on a cross. We wait to celebrate again the advent of God in the flesh of a baby born to a poor, peasant girl. We know he is coming and we seek to prepare our hearts for him, to make room in our lives for him. We seek to remind ourselves again what he is really all about. The weirdness of Advent is that we wait for someone whom we know has already come. But as we wait for the baby Jesus, we also wait for his second coming. We wait for his judgment at the end of time. We are the ones who live between God’s coming in the flesh and the time where the Son of Man will appear again. It’s not a mystical time like LaHaye and Jenkins describe, where some people disappear into the clouds in a distant heaven. It’s a time where God comes to us again and fully brings the kingdom to earth. Just like the disciples did not know the day or the hour when the Son of Man would be fully revealed to them through his suffering and dying on a cross, we do not know the day or the hour when God is coming again. But one thing is clear, the work of Advent, invites us to consider again what our purpose is in these in between times. We are not to go on living as if God has not already changed everything. We are to be ready and keep awake. We are to work alongside God to continue birthing that kingdom in our midst. And we are to keep our hope alive for the day when God’s kingdom will be fully realized.
In our every day lives, we too often trade in our hope for apathy. We get in rut, mindlessly going about our daily routines. We are bombarded with pain, with the news of death, war, poverty, and natural disasters. We feel hopeless about the divided nation we live in, the acceptance of blatant hate and racism. After a week spent with family, we may feel hopeless about the destructive patterns of our families, believing that nothing will ever change. We know we should cling to hope along with those first disciples. We want to be faithful, but sometimes we wonder if what we do really matters. Sometime those small glimpses of the kingdom in our midst aren’t enough to shake us out of our apathy and into a space of spiritual alertness. It is into our state of numbness that Jesus reminds us of God’s judgment. Theologian Anna Case-Winters reminds us that judgment that is not coupled with redemption is not the kind of judgment God offers. God’s judgment is ordered toward redemption. She says, “If there is no judgment, there is no justice. Judgment is finally about setting things right: establishing justice. The coming of a just judge is something to be received with gladness – especially by those who have been oppressed or excluded by injustices.”[i] There is no hope for God’s kingdom to be fully realized on earth without judgment. We have to be open to judgment because it is through God’s judgment that we can “confront the truth about ourselves and our brokenness and receive God’s mercy and [be] made whole.”[ii] It is through God’s judgment that we can be renewed. It is through God’s judgment that new creation is made possible. If there is not judgment, there is no justice; and without justice, there is no kingdom of God; and without the kingdom of God, there is no hope.
The fact that we are able to remain numb to the suffering in the world around us is a good indicator of our privilege. Far too often, many of us can choose the pain we pay attention to. The phrase “stay woke” has become a hashtag phenomenon, encouraging people to be aware of the injustices happening all around the world. The idea of a person being awakened or “becoming woke” began as a phrase used by socially-minded black activists on social media. It was brought into the mainstream through Erykah Badu’s song, “Master Teacher (I Stay Woke)”, which begins with these lyrics: “I am known to stay awake; A beautiful world I’m trying to find.” The chorus repeats the words, “I stay woke.” It’s a phrase that got picked up again in the wake of the numerous shootings of black men across the country as a way to challenge police violence, to encourage people to pay attention to what’s really going on around them. The hashtag “stay woke” started being used alongside the hashtag “black lives matter” as a way to hold up the injustices that people of color continue to face in our country.
Actor Jesse Williams made a documentary entitled “Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement.” He attempts to document a movement that is still early in its history, hoping to catalogue its origin and backstory. He wants people to know that while the people in the movement have many different opinions about what actions should be taken, the movement is about love. He says, “I consider this movement a love movement. My experiences as an activist and educator are that all of our work and experience is, regardless of how [opponents] try to frame it, about love. Love for self, love for us, love for our people. Love for humanity and love for the real great potential we have as a culture but also this nation has by putting its best foot forward.”[iii] He also says that the movement at its core is about justice. He says, “The black community has been in a state of emergency and crisis and pervasive traumatic stress disorder since 1619...there hasn’t been a week in the history of this country where innocent, well-meaning human beings haven’t been treated as subhuman by state agents. We have been conditioned to believe that black people are subhuman. No matter what we do, we’re late. We are late because the emergency has always been there, it’s just taken a long time to break free.”[iv] Williams makes clear that the time we live in is a time of crisis.
Theologian Kelly Brown Douglas, in her book Stand Your Ground, a book written in response to Trayvon Martin’s death, says that the time that we live in is not just a time of crisis but also a time of opportunity. She writes,
“This time in the life of the country is a kairos time. Kairos time is the right or opportune time. It is a decisive moment in history that potentially has far-reaching impact. It is often a chaotic period, a time of crisis. However, it is through the chaos and crisis that God is fully present, disrupting things as they are and providing an opening to a new future – to God’s future. Kairos time is God’s time. It is a time bursting forth with God’s call to a new way of living in the world. It is God calling us to a new relationship with our very history and sense of self, and thus to a new relationship with one another, and even with God.”[v]
As people of God, we are called to be awake to the injustices of our time. We are called to listen to the voices of those who are marginalized, to those who are not in power, to those who have been abused. Our text from Matthew today reminds us that Advent is always a time that invites us into the time of crisis and chaos because it is a time of judgment. In fact, the word for judgment in the Greek is “Krisis.” Judgment presents with an opportunity for a decision as all crises do. It’s not judgment in the retributive sense. The kind of judgment that Advent calls us into is judgment that invites us into restoration, judgment that invites us to live more fully in the presence of God, judgment that invites to live more faithfully with each other. If we stay awake to the possibilities before us, we have the opportunity to disrupt the status quo and make our world look more like the kingdom.
No one knows not the day or the hour. Are we ready? What injustices in our world do we need to wake up to? The Son of Man is coming to bring judgment and justice. Will he find us already about his work? Will he find us trying to continue to birth the kingdom in our midst? Or will he find us numb, apathetic, hopeless, withdrawn from the world in which he has called us to live, the world in which we are to work the field and grind the meal, to bring hope in the mundane, in the ordinary? Are we known to stay awake? Are we trying to find a beautiful world? A world where there is hope for all of God’s children? Long before activists of our day and time were urging people to stay woke, Jesus was urging his disciples to wake up! Will Jesus find us doing deeds of mercy, forgiveness, and peace, deeds that make it clear we are kingdom people? This Advent, don’t get lulled to sleep by the Christmas music blaring through the speakers at the mall. Don’t get distracted by trying to fill your loved ones lives with things. Don’t stuff your souls with your frantic holiday to-do lists and leave no room for God. Don’t eat and drink and be merry and ignore the coming judgment. The day and hour is surely coming where we will be invited into God’s presence to bear all of who we are and all we’ve failed to be. Get ready. Wake up. Be filled with hope that the just judge is coming. No one will be left behind.
[i] Anna Case-Winters, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible – Matthew, 282.
[ii] Ibid, 284.
[v] Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, 206.