I still remember the tactless rejection letter I got when applying for a teaching position years ago.
"While our search continues, it no longer includes you." Why would I still remember something like after all these years?
Because the fear of abandonment, rejection, not being chosen, being passed over and left behind, and being completely alone to face the future is one of the fears that abides through all the years, through all the centuries, from the last verse of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" to today.
I'm not saying we should be completely without fear. Make no mistake, there is a bite to these texts at the end of Matthew, these apocalyptic panoramas, these readiness parables (ten bridesmaids, 25:1-13; talents 25:14-30), these scenes of sheep and goats (25:31f).
Our Abandonment of God
We should fear, not God's abandonment, but our not being alert and ready, not living in expectation of the return of the Son of Man. We should fear the possibility that we might abandon God. Romans 8 tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Not principalities, powers, height, nor depth. The only one who can separate us from God is ourselves. We can abandon God by our lack of receptivity, by our failing to invite the Son of Man into our lives, and by our failure to get ready for his arrival. It's no good saying nobody told us how to get ready. The whole gospel of Matthew is about that. Be a hearer and a doer of the teachings of Jesus. When the Messiah arrives, it is too late to prepare oneself for the kingdom. Only those who are ready will participate.
Matthew 24:36 prohibits the project of seeking to calculate the times and predict Jesus' return. As Douglas Hare points out in his commentary on Matthew, "Not even the Messiah knows when the end will occur! Not even the highest archangels are privy to the Father's intention! How foolish it is for humans to think they can play with biblical numbers and ambiguous prophecies and discover what was hidden even from Jesus!" (Douglas Hare, Matthew: Interpretation Bible Commentary, 282)
His Name Is Emmanuel
The good news of Advent is that the Son of Man is appearing in the skies of our inner lives right now. The beginning of Matthew's gospel says, "His name shall be called ‘Emmanuel,' which means, ‘God with us.'" Our fears of abandonment are met by our God who comes to make his home in our lives. God is with us when all human supports fail us. God is with us when we experience isolation and rejection. God with us is the hope on which our Advent and Christmas seasons are built; this is the vision of home toward which they point. In this sense Advent is the Hope of Homecoming bumping up against the fear of abandonment.
I said earlier that this text contains three troubling features:
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).
On reflection, these three features of this text seem more helpful than annoying. They seem like a spiritual guide to Advent.
During Advent we make getting ready for the coming Son of Man our priority.
During Advent we ignore false teachers and materialistic priorities to listen to him.
During Advent, we realize that the most unexpected time for the Son of Man to show up is right now. The most unexpected place is right here.
Hope of homecoming (expressed in Isaiah 2:1-5) bumps up against our fear of abandonment. We still have time to be ready. For the Son of Man's return is every time we look up and see the face of the Crucified, Resurrected one appearing in the skies of our lives.
Phillips Brooks wrote the lyrics to "O Little Town of Bethlehem" after a Christmas visit to the Holy Land in 1865. The last verse addresses our fear of abandonment with the hope of Emmanuel.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
Douglas Hare, Matthew: Interpretation Bible Commentary (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1993)
Read John C. Holbert's Old Testament reflection for this week here.