Slip Slidin’ Away (11/27/16)
Evgeniy Viktorovich Vuchetich, Let Us Beat Our Swords into Plowshares
I borrowed my sermon title from Paul Simon this morning. It was the first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Hope. Yet hope seems to be elusive in our world today, so the title seemed appropriate.
Good morning! So, by a show of hands, how many of you put your Advent cards in the mail so that the cards would be delivered before today? Any of you? I’m talking about Advent cards, not Christmas cards. None of you? Wow, you’re slacking off! Twenty years ago, you’d all be done with your Advent cards by now. One for each Sunday: hope, peace, joy, and love.
Now of course I’m just kidding. Nobody sends Advent cards. We don’t have Advent greetings or wishes for one another; there are no phrases like, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy New Year.” For those of us who were raised inside the church, we’re very used to the phrase, “watching and waiting.” Those don’t make for a good greeting card message. Think about it. If you got a card in the mail that said, “Be watchful!” Would your first response be, “Aw, thanks for thinking of me!”? Or would you ask, “Should I call the cops?” I don’t think I’d know what to make of that card. Would you?
When I first looked at this morning’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew, I didn’t quite know what to make of that, either. Let’s face it, when we think of Advent, we can’t help thinking about the birth stories from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. We want to start the story from the beginning, but that’s not what we get in this morning’s gospel lesson. We get Jesus offering a piece of his final discourse to the disciples. It’s worth noting that in the Gospel of Matthew, this lesson takes place in Jerusalem, on the Tuesday after Palm Sunday.
In this final discourse, Jesus offers several parables about God’s judgment and about Jesus’ return to earth. They “function as warnings to be alert” for Christ’s return. Jesus reminds the disciples that only God knows when Jesus will return, “neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Even Jesus doesn’t know when he’ll return! He may return like a thief in the night!
What an odd way for Jesus to describe himself! And this is our gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent. It’s a curious choice. Today’s reading concludes with Jesus telling the disciples that they must be watchful for his return: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” And we, too, have to be ready for the coming of the Christ. This is why we’re hearing this story today—Advent is the season of watching and waiting. Like the disciples, we need to be ready for something big.
It’s important to remember that each gospel tells the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection a little bit differently. Each gospel writer had a different audience and each one structured his gospel a little bit differently. Some stories appear in all four gospels, some stories are found in two or three gospels, and a few stories are unique to a particular gospel. For instance, the story of the Good Samaritan only appears in the Gospel of Luke; it’s unique to that gospel. Similarly, the stories of Jesus’ birth can only be found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Neither Mark nor John felt the need to tell the story of Jesus’ birth or his ancestry.
The Gospel of Matthew was composed between the years 75 and 100. This is at least 30-40 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Matthew’s gospel comes after Paul wrote his letters, after Mark wrote his gospel, and after the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem. Matthew’s audience was probably a Jewish-Christian community, likely in the city of Antioch, it what is now Turkey, only a few miles from the border with Syria.
When Matthew wrote this gospel, Christianity was almost indistinguishable from Judaism. It was more like a splinter group within Judaism than a separate religion unto itself. Some scholars speculate that this community might have been perplexed that Jesus had not yet returned; perhaps Matthew structured this gospel so that Jesus’ words could comfort this particular community that was eagerly awaiting Jesus’ return. Perhaps it was helpful for that congregation at Antioch to hear that no person knows when Jesus will return; only God knows. It also serves as a reminder to this early Christian community that they have to get busy doing the work that Jesus set out for them. It’s a warning to: “live an authentic life devoted to deeds of justice and mercy.” Rather than sitting around and waiting for the second coming, they are supposed to keep on working, so that they are ready for Jesus’ return. The season of Advent, “is an annual reminder of the importance of faithfully doing what Jesus said.”
The truth is, we’re still waiting for Jesus’ return—and we’re still perplexed by this. We know that our hope is in Christ and we yearn for his return, but every year it seems farther away. I borrowed my sermon title from the song by Paul Simon because that’s sort of the feeling I get during Advent. It’s like we were making progress toward a goal, but then something happened. As Paul Simon said, we “believe we’re gliding down the highway when in fact we’re slip slidin’ away.”
I always get a feeling of nostalgia when I hear that song. I was about six years old when “Slip Slidin’ Away” was released. I remember hearing it in the car. I was riding in the back seat. It was at night and we were going to South Hills Village. Maybe we were Christmas shopping.
The truth is, during Advent, I’m always looking backwards. Maybe it’s because I don’t have kids of my own, but my mind always runs to all of those Christmases of my childhood. Of course I remember all the presents! I also remember all the people who are no longer there: my grandmothers, my aunts, my dad, and a great big extended family. I miss the house where I grew up. I miss my old neighborhood, and I miss playing with my friends and all the new Christmas toys. My past has been slip-slidin’ away for years. I’m not busy doing the difficult work of self examination. I’m not busy being watchful. No. I’m looking to get back to my personal past.
How many of you are looking backwards, too? Or maybe you’re too busy shopping or decorating. Maybe you’ve got a bunch of parties to go to, or you’ve got to get your house ready for guests. This is the season for watching and waiting, the season for preparing ourselves for the new things that God is doing in our lives and in our communities. Are we busy watching and waiting? Or are we just busy?
I’m not trying to beat up on you and scold you for not doing the right thing. I’m as guilty as the next person. When we focus on what we don’t have, or if we focus on material fulfillment, we miss God’s grace in the midst of our lives. It’s important to remember that this is the first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Hope. Our hope is in Christ, the new creation. Our hope is in the new things that God is doing in and through Christ. Matthew is telling us to be watchful, because none of us knows when Christ will return. This is the word of grace that God speaks to us through the Gospel of Matthew.
Again, I’m reminded of Paul Simon’s words:
And God only knows.
And God makes his plan.
The information’s unavailable to the mortal man.
We don’t have to try to figure out why Christ hasn’t returned. We don’t have to guess when Christ might return. All we have to do is get busy living as Jesus instructed us. We have to love our neighbors, work for justice, act with mercy, and walk humbly with God and with our neighbors. None of that is easy, but we know it’s what we have to do and Jesus is reminding us to get to work.
There’s one last thing about this morning’s gospel lesson that I need to point out. Jesus isn’t speaking to you as individuals. Jesus is speaking to the disciples. Matthew is using this story to address his entire congregation. We, too, must approach this story as the community of believers who are gathered to follow Christ’s call. This is for all of us together.
It seems to me that Advent is the perfect metaphor for this period of interim ministry here at Rehoboth. You are called, as a congregation, to watch and wait until such time as you are ready to call your next installed pastor. To make this congregation ready to receive its next pastor, you will have to do a lot of self examination. This isn’t easy, and it won’t go quickly, but you’re not alone in this. I’m here to guide you through the process. And the process is very important, just as the season of Advent is very important.
At the same time, you’re still going to have to be busy doing the work of being the church. You are still called, as the church, the body of Christ, to feed the hungry and provide water to those who are thirsty. You are still called to visit those who are sick and those who are in prison. And you are still called to welcome the stranger, the foreigner, the refugee. Again, you are not alone. I am here to guide you as you figure out how to live into those calls in the twenty-first century.
More importantly, you also have the Holy Spirit and the witness of Scripture to help you figure out who you are and how you are called to be the church. That is how watching and waiting become active tasks for this congregation. In doing these things, you will come to know who you are right here and right now. This will inform your search for your next pastor and if you do the work, you will get to the place where God is calling this congregation to be. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Now, Beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that watching and waiting are active tasks. Remember, too, that our hope is in Christ. So look for the ways that Christ is calling us to be the church. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. This is the truth and the love in which we were created. Go forth and live fully and abundantly into that love. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 M Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VIII, (1995, Nashville: Abingdon Press), p. 444.
 Ron Allen, “Commentary on Matthew 24:36-44,” retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3089
 Boring, 429.