As If…We Were Paying Attention

As If…We Were Paying Attention November 27, 2016

Matthew 24:36-44

It’s known in church history circles as the Great Disappointment.  Followers of Baptist minister William Miller quit their jobs in preparation for October 22, 1844, when Miller was convinced (and had convinced many others) that Jesus would come again.  He called the impending return “the Advent,” and taught widely and compellingly that Jesus was coming back that day.  After October 22, 1844 came and went, Miller had to revise his theory, of course, and many of his followers were devastated.  One of them, Henry Emmons, wrote: “I waited all Tuesday [October 22] and dear Jesus did not come;– I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I layAngel-Betsy, age 7-1 crop prostrate for 2 days without any pain– sick with disappointment.”[1]

A similar disappointment could be felt in pastors’ studies everywhere when, surrounded by celebrations, preparations for Thanksgiving and Christmas, we opened our Bibles to Matthew 24:36-44, the Lectionary’s suggested gospel text for this Sunday, all set to write a nice sermon about peace and joy and all that stuff, and confronted instead with a text from Matthew’s gospel speaks of the end—some, like William Miller say of Jesus’ second coming.  But whatever its referencing, the passage does not lend itself to cheery Christmas reflection.

That’s okay, though, because it’s not time for Christmas yet.  Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of a brand new liturgical year, and we’re waiting.  In the dark.  For the light to come.  Our Advent practice this year in worship will touch on the ideas in a popular book called The As If Principle.[2]  It’s a self-help book written to appeal to the consumer looking for happiness…and at the risk of being mistaken for my colleague Michael Brown down at Marble Collegiate Church, home of The Power of Positive Thinking (I always like to give Michael a hard time about that; believe me, I know: it’s hard to follow a legend!), I thought the “as if principle” might be helpful for us as we sit in the darkness waiting for the light to come this Advent.

Here’s the basic gist of the book.  Instead of our feelings informing our actions, it could be that it’s really the other way around.  The author’s theory is that our actions can change the way we feel.  He says it’s important not to deny your feelings.  If you’re feeling sad, you should acknowledge it.  You may have some very good reasons for feeling sad.  But he also says that if you are sad and you’re on your way to a party and want to enjoy it, you can act happy until you begin to feel happy.  I mean, you could end up looking like an idiot.  But you could get to the party and suddenly realize that behaving like you’re happy actually makes you…happy.

So I started to wonder if the “as if principle” could work for something other than feeling happy.  What would happen if we started behaving “as if” the reign of God was really on the way?  In Advent we wait, hanging onto hope, peace, joy, and love.  What if this Advent we looked around at our broken world and, instead of feeling defeated, we imagine the world as if God’s highest dreams for who can be together might actually come true.  Maybe it’s the power of positive thinking.  Or maybe it’s the hard work of following Jesus.  In fact, long before The As-If Principle was written, theologian Jurgen Moltmann suggested that this was, in fact, the work of the church.  He writes: “Christians should be a community that waits for the kingdom of God and whose life is determined by that expectation.”[3]

Today we embrace the Advent Sunday of hope by wondering what would happen if we lived as if we were paying attention.  Our gospel passage this morning is, in fact, about people who weren’t paying attention and got surprised by the end of the world.  It’s an apocalyptic text included in Matthew’s gospel for a Jewish group of Christians whose world was getting scarier and scarier around them.

Matthew chapter 24 is part of what is known as the Olivet Discourse—a longer speech of Jesus’, some version of which you can find in the gospel of Luke and in the gospel of Mark.  Jesus delivered this speech on the Mount of Olives, which is where it gets its name.  In each of the three New Testament accounts this speech comes right before the story of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion—so we can imagine that, when he said all these things, tensions were high and people were scared.  If they got nothing else out of Jesus’ speech that day, his disciples knew that something was up—that life as they knew it was shifting—and that however that came to be, well, things were wobbling right on the edge of change…big change.

This passage comes in handy when trying to scare people and also to write a whole series of books and produce several movies about the terrors of being “left behind,” as we like to say Jesus warns.  But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying here, and we may need to take another look at this passage. There’s something powerful and deep and revolutionary, even, about Jesus’ words.

Here’s what he said, something like: “Just like the folks who lived in Noah’s time, some people were just going about their business, life as usual, when a whole segment of the population was swept away to face judgment.  And, just like that turn of events, there were two working in a field and suddenly one was gone…and two women grinding grain but then all of a sudden only one was left.”

The interpretation we have always heard is that Jesus is talking about when he will come again and whisk the faithful up to heaven where they are happy forever after, amen, and the poor unfortunate ones left behind…well, they are in for a terrible time. The worst thing you could be is left behind.

But look closely: that’s not what Jesus is saying. If you read the passage again you can see that it’s the people who get swept away—in the flood, or in the field, or in the process of grinding grain—those are the people who have to face God’s judgment—whatever that means.  It’s the people who are left behind with whom Jesus is concerned, for whom he has set out an important challenge.  They are the ones who are tasked, like Noah and his family, with building a new world, a whole new way of living and being human in this world God created, even in the middle of fear and uncertainty.

So, Jesus wants his disciples to know: your task is to be vigilant.  To watch and to wait.  To live as if you’re paying attention to the ways in which the world that Jesus came to show us is already coming to be, or not.  To attend to the work of caring for each other and healing the world.

Why did Jesus feel the need to have this little heart to heart with his disciples?  Perhaps Jesus, who lived a human life and walked through all the pain and joy of what it means to live on this earth and be fully and totally like you and me, knew that his disciples and everyone who would seek to audaciously call themselves followers of Jesus might have occasion to be sidetracked from time to time by the shear craziness of this world in which we live.

We could, as he described, be just going about our business—working in the field or grinding grain, as Jesus said, or going to class or making dinner or riding the subway to work or washing the dishes or any other regular thing that demands our time or attention, and we could get so sidetracked that we allow hurtful behavior or damaging societal structures to become normalized.  We elect a president who talks openly in racist and misogynistic language, who cares primarily for the needs of the rich and speaks openly of deporting and registering our neighbors. We look the other way when others suffer abuse.  We fail to notice that there is a divine agenda for our world, and it most often is not dominated by the things that you and I find so deeply and all-consumingly important.

This is why we need Advent.  We need to be shaken out of the ordinary, to realize that all is not right with our world, and that we need something bigger than ourselves…we need God, to take us out of what has become routine and mundane and live as if the world God hopes for us must come to be.

Watch, wait, be thinking and acting all the time.  A human community of justice and hope is our responsibility.  To watch out for each other, to seek out and facilitate justice and mercy, even when we’re scared and unsure and the evidence around us seems to say that this world is going to hell in a handbasket.  We live as if we’re paying attention. We live with the conviction that there’s more.  There’s more to imagine.  There’s more to be done.  And complacency and status quo is just not going to do anymore.

This is what Advent is.  In anticipation of Jesus arriving, we practice now how we expect to live then.

Every year the Oxford Dictionary names a Word of the Year.  2016’s word of the year was announced just this past week, and it’s “post-truth.”  Anyone who has been watching this election season will know exactly what post-truth is: an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.  Yes, you may have heard about Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year last week, but you might not have heard that the runner up for 2016’s word of the year was “woke.”  In these days of rampant racism becoming more obvious in our society than perhaps it has ever been before, “woke” has come to mean something like “alert to injustice in society, especially racism.”  “Stay woke,” as the slogan goes.  Live as if you are paying attention.  Because our world is a scary place, getting scarier all the time.  But we can choose to confront the fear with vigilance as we pay attention to the needs of our neighbors and pay attention when justice is being thwarted and pay attention when laws that hurt the poor are voted into being and pay attention when our leaders stand for ideals that do not reflect the radical love of Jesus.  We have to live as if we are paying attention.

The words of Frederick Buechner: “If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”[4]

Some scholars say that today’s gospel passage is about the second coming of Jesus.  I say that whatever you think about the second coming of Jesus, that’s very nice.  But we’re a bit busy this Advent still trying to usher in his first.  This is the work of Advent.  And we do it because we’re living as if….


[1]  White, James (1875). Sketches of the Christian Life and Public Labors of William Miller: Gathered From His Memoir by the Late Sylvester Bliss, and From Other Sources. Battle Creek: Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association. p. 310.

[2] Richard Wiseman, The As If Principle: The Radically New Approach to Changing Your Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012).

[3] Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1993), p. 326

[4] Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, p. 149.


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