The Fear of Abandonment: Advent Reflections on Matthew 24:32-44

This is the first reflection in our Advent Series, "The Hopes and Fears of All the Years," by biblical scholars and preachers John C. Holbert and Alyce McKenzie. For an overview of the series with links to all the reflections, click here.

First Sunday in Advent:
Matthew 24:32-44

Snow Globe Scene or Live Nativity?

I've always been fascinated by snow globes. First made in France in the 1800s, they quickly became a staple in gift shops around the world. Snow globe scenes can run the emotional gamut from trivial to touching. They portray angels, Easter bunnies, Smurfs, Teddy Bears, Halloween haunted houses, Santa in his sleigh, etc. They range in price from affordable by everyone to pricey globes made by Spode and Lennox. Some are motorized so the snow is battery-circulated. Some include a music box.  

I found one on EBay whose base is the city of Bethlehem, and whose contents are the Holy Family. It plays "O Little Town of Bethlehem" when you wind the key on the base. And that's how many people view the stories and scenes of Advent. As timeless and irrelevant tableaus, encased in glass. That's how many view the people who show up in the stories and scenes surrounding Advent. They don't seem real. They seem like extras from the some first-century actors' guild. Like still figures in a snow globe scene.

This Advent series seeks to do them justice as people with real hopes and fears and therefore, with a real connection to us and to our hopes and fears.  

The Necessity for Watchfulness

My NRSV Bible gives our text for November 28 from Matthew (24:36-44) the heading "The Necessity for Watchfulness." It is sandwiched between Jesus ‘ teachings about how to recognize signs that the Son of Man is about to arrive and several parables that commend readiness for the imminent judgment that awaits (ten bridesmaids, talent, sheep and goats).

In between comes this weird text that features barren fig trees, people snatched from their plowing, and a thief casing out your house, figuring out the best time to break in.

We could probably make a snow globe with a barren fig tree in it, with the scene from the field or mill, or one that has a little Thomas Kincaid type cottage and a thief trying to break in. These might make nice holiday decorations. Or not.

This text expresses our common human fear of abandonment, our fear of being "left behind." It tells us that we need to be keeping watch so we don't miss the Son of Man's return and get "left behind," abandoned.

What snow globe scenes of abandonment are on the shelves of your memory?

Sad Snow Globe Scenes

A friend moving away, the moving truck pulling up in front of his house.

A relationship ending because the one we love "wants to see other people."

Kids going off to college.

Young adult children moving to another state with the grandchildren.

Parents divorcing; loved ones dying; isolation in prison or another institution, where, for the third visitors' day in a row, no one comes to call.

These scenes from our lives evoked by this text would make depressing snow globe scenes.

The text includes three features that make it very difficult for us not to fear abandonment as we wait for the Son of Man:

1)   This task of staying alert for the Son of Man's coming is to replace all other priorities

2)   Yet that task is made very difficult because there are convincing false teachers who also produce signs.

3)   On top of all of that, the Son of Man is deliberately choosing the most unexpected time to show up (24:44).

We're afraid we're the fig tree that is tough and leafless even though summer is near.

We're afraid we're animals not judged worthy of survival, or not part of a pair, when the Ark pulls up.

I know the text talks about people partying, but as a child I worried more about the animals that didn't make it. (They showed us a cartoon in Sunday school, which apparently exacerbated my 6-year-old fear of abandonment.)

We're afraid we're the householder asleep beside the door while the thief is breaking in.

We're afraid we're the one left in the field, now working alone. Or the one grinding meal, only now working alone. We don't want to be abandoned. We want to make the cut, get the invitation, receive an acceptance letter, make the team, and be part of a family. We don't want to be abandoned.

I heard of a grown woman who still tears up at the memory of being 7 years old on a family trip and being accidentally left behind at a gas station as the family station wagon drove off. She remembers the feeling of the concrete under her thin-soled sneakers, the smell of gasoline, the family car growing smaller and smaller in the distance, the sound of someone crying that turned out to be her. They came back as soon as they noticed she was missing, but the memory of those minutes remains.