A Different Type of Story

The Rev. Joseph Winston December 2, 2007

Grace and peace are gifts for you from God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.1 I do not know about you but when I first heard today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew I thought to myself that this reading must be for another Sunday of the Church year. Maybe when you heard this account about the end of the world you thought the same thing too because there is absolutely nothing in this text about the Christmass story that we all love. There are no shepherds out in the fields watching over their sheep, the Christ child is not in the manger, and both Mary and Joseph are completely missing from the scene. Looking at the official schedules of the Church proved that I was wrong. This is the correct lesson for the day the First Sunday in Advent. After listening to the lesson from the Bible, I felt like asking someone, “Well,
Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:3, 2 Corinthians 1:2, Galatians 1:3, Ephesians 1:2, Philippians 1:2, 2 Thessalonians 1:2, Philemon 1:3


what should I do? What needs to be done since Jesus might pop in at any minute?” Do you feel the same way also? I think that we all had this same thought since it sounds like the end of the world is coming and if Christ is going to appear then we need to go out and do something. Do you not think so? Perhaps a little bit of cleaning around the house needs to be done along with ending a few of our bad habits. It seems that we are having all of these different feelings about today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew because we are hearing two competing stories. The loudest and the most obnoxious message comes from the stores who are shouting out at us, “Buy! Buy! And then buy some more!” To give us plenty of time to make all these different purchases, the department stores and the malls have expanded their hours. It goes with out saying that they now are open later to sell more goods. But, the change in the way they work goes much deeper than that. All the retailers have dramatically extended the time that they advertise Christmass presents from a few days before the birth of the Savior to a period starting before All Saints Day up to, and now often including Christmass Day. It is simple to see why every storeowner wants to add hours to the Christmass season. This time of the year is by far their most profitable period, so to capitalize on this fact they will lengthen Christmass as long as possible to maximize the time they have to sell; thus, maximizing their profits. In the almost innumerable items found in the stores, you can find just about everything that you would ever want. Children of all ages can find every electronic toy that your heart desires. Lovers of clothes will have the ability to get what 2

you want. In addition, there will be no shortage of food and drink to satisfy your hunger. The other story that is competing for our attention is as different from the first story as night is from day. This message directed to each of us is quiet and unassuming. There will be no flyers stuffed in your mailboxes, no catalogues crammed inside the weekend newspapers, or shouting salespeople on TV. Rather this Word comes to you and I by Word of mouth. Today’s auditory installment, found in the Gospel of St. Matthew, tells us how this Word comes to us. As you listen to the story once again, pay careful attention to see how this interpretation differs from other tales that you might have heard. The first message in today’s Good News is that we are to stop trying to figure out when the world will end (Matthew 24:36). Now, this may not be a newsflash to everyone here today but for some televangelists and their followers this is news indeed. Think of all those people on late night TV who tell you that we are in the end times and if you just send 19.95, they will give you a booklet that explains everything. If Christ does not know when the world will end, then there is no way that they have any idea of what will be happening in the future. Even more importantly, the action of trying to determine when the world will end means that we are acting just like Adam and Eve who wanted to have something just out of their reach (Genesis 2:16-17). This action of grabbing for an item that is not ours is wrong. Instead of trying to reach for the forbidden fruit, Jesus wants us to focus on what is important to Him: bringing the Word of life to everyone and giving what is necessary for life to those who need it. 3

Immediately next is the message from God that all of us need to set our priorities correctly (Matthew 26:37-39). In these few verses, Jesus reminds us that some things are more important than others. This news may surprise some people. There is nothing wrong with living life to the fullest by going out to parties and enjoying yourself at these affairs. Christ is only concerned when this activity becomes more important than God’s will. This happens when we let the allure of the celebration drown out the Word of God. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with marriage unless the wedding becomes more important than God. This is why the Church traditionally refuses requests for weddings on Sundays, Holy Days, or during the season of Lent since these times are reserved to worship God and to reflect on the cost of our salvation. The final message in today’s Word is that we are to be on watch. The passage clearly tells us that we need to be on the lookout for Jesus at all times, both during the day and during the night (Matthew 24:40-44). This observation of the surrounding environment begs the following question, “Where will we find Jesus?” Some people have even been told that we are looking for the second coming of Jesus. The problem with this idea is that the phrase “second coming” is never used in the Bible. In fact, the word translated in today’s lesson as “coming” is a poor choice because this word in its original language literally means “being beside.”2 Now why would Jesus use a word that signifies He is right next to us rather than saying that He is coming again? The answer to this question is given to us in the
The name παρουςία literally means “being” (ousia) + “beside” (para). Note that this is the Latin word adventus.


start of Matthew by the angel of the Lord who says to the virgin Mary, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” This sentence, “God is with us.” spells out where we can find Jesus. Right here, right now God is present and God stays near us through our entire life. This work by God never changes. He was close for our grandparents and He will be right beside our children and their children. These verses also contain two accounts that have been used to justify an idea called the “rapture” where people float up into the air to meet Jesus. One major issue with this interpretation is that the original language does not support this idea at all. The phrase that appears to support this incorrect assumption “will be taken” would be better translated as “will go along with.”3 Knowing this bit of information, we now can correctly look at the two men in the field and the two women working at home. What is happening in both cases is that one person ignores Jesus while the other does not. Maybe the man had a field that needed to be plowed before the end of the day and perhaps the women was making meal for her family. No one would disagree that this work is important. Once again it boils down to a matter of priorities. Jesus comes and wants you to go with Him. Would you tell Him to come back later when you have a bit more time or would you follow Him? Unfortunately, the knowledge that Jesus is here with us still does not tell us what He looks like. In other words, “How would you know if God was knocking
The Greek ε ς παραλα βάνεται would be better translated as one will go along with. Thus, all that is happening when one leaves their work or another leaves their home is that one person sees Jesus and follows Him while the other does not.


at your door in the middle of the night?” This question, answered throughout the Gospel according to St. Matthew, is seen most clearly in the chapter that follows today’s lesson. In the final discussion that Jesus leads on Heaven, He tells us that everyone will be separated into two groups. The group given the privilege of going to Heaven are those Christians who served Jesus by providing food, drink, and clothes, by welcoming the lost, and by visiting the sick and those in prison. The other group, who did not help those in need, is condemned to eternal punishment. This means that Jesus looks exactly like someone who needs our help (Matthew 25:40, 45). The dissonance between the story that the stores would have us believe and that of the Christ is due to one basic element. The stores want us to do one thing only, which is to buy merchandise. And to entice us to part with our money, they tell us that we will be happier once we have made the purchase. While the association between material things and happiness is dubious at best, the real problem occurs when we follow the same practice that the stores advocate in our walk with Christ and we try to do something in order to purchase God’s attention. God loves you, not because you did anything for Him, rather God loves you because you are His child. This love can never be bought nor sold. The never-ending relationship with God can be summed up in one word: Emmanuel. God is with us. He is there when we serve others. He will be with us during His meal. He is with us in this church. He is with all of us here. And unlike others, He will always be with us: in our pain, in our suffering, and in our loss. He is not leaving us. 6

The discord that we hear because of today’s Gospel lesson is real. The world through it stores that sells us just about anything is telling us one story that sounds like this, “If you buy what I am selling then you will be happy.” The message from Jesus is different. He does not know when the world will end and He is not making people disappear before our eyes. Instead, Jesus reminds us that God has given everyone of us the time and the opportunities to serve Him by helping others who have been hurt. It will never be easy since the world is full of thorns but we all know that no matter where we go God is already there bringing life into a world full of misery and pain. This is the true message of not only the Advent season but of the entire Church year. Go in peace and serve the L ORD. “The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”4


Philippians 4:7.