Saturday, December 1, 2007

Nobody Knows, But Some People Guess

Nobody Knows, But Some People Guess
A Communion Meditation

© Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Matthew 24:36-44
First Sunday of Advent: December 2, 2007

One of my favorite editorial cartoons of all time was drawn by Jules Feiffer back in the early 1970’s, a decade that more or less introduced our culture’s now well-developed devotion to self-absorption. In the first frame we see a young man and young woman seated at a table in a restaurant. The young man, earnest in his desire to begin communication with his new friend, utters a tentative and expressive “Me...” In the next frame, he begins to warm up to his subject, saying, “Me, me, me, me...” The young lady remains attentive, so by the third frame, the space is entirely filled with his words: “Me, me, me, me, me, me, me...” In the fourth frame, the young woman tries out her own tentative, “Me...”, to which the young man reacts with a gape-jawed “Yawn...!”

Our era in history is dominated by the sort of individualistic presumption which believes that if I can’t know it, it not only doesn’t matter, it probably doesn’t exist. This makes it exceptionally difficult for us to hear the opening line of our passage for today without difficulty: “...about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven nor the Son...”

What day? What hour? And if Jesus, the Son of Man, doesn’t know about it, what use is there in it for me?

This passage, and others like it, belong to a type of New Testament writing called “apocalyptic.” It simply refers to a time when God’s desire and goal for this world will be accomplished. It is a sort of declaration that a good future is coming which should have an impact on our lives in the present. If I believe that I will be giving a dinner party on Thursday, that future promise works on the present day in all my preparation: I call my friends, I purchase food for the party, I clean up the house, I set my stereo to play music that my friends will enjoy. All this I do because I believe that a future promise will become reality by Thursday, and so it affects my behavior today. I prepare for the consummation of the promised day.

Now, about the apocalyptic words concerning the future in the New Testament, there are two common responses.


There is no particular plan or purpose to the universe. The only thing real in the world is my experience of it. (Me, me, me, me, me...) I have heard this expressed even by pastors in a sort of oblique way when, as we may be sitting, having informal theological discussion on some difficult bit of scripture - you know the sort, the kind of thing that is difficult for modern ears to hear - someone will say, “But that does not fit with my experience of God.” I am always struck by comments which begin this way, because of the observation that if it is God we believe in, we are not called nor capable to make our experience of him the measure of God; instead, God will rather insistently be the measure of us. If his word is difficult for us to accommodate, we cannot claim that it is God who has erroneously taken the measure of us.


The future will not change from the present we know. Each day will come and go pretty much like the last, day by day, week by week. As in the days of Noah, when — though the biggest rainstorm of all time was brewing — the people continued as though their lives would go on forever, eating, drinking, marrying, giving in marriage. It’s easy to be fooled as we sit in this beautiful building which seems so substantial. It’s not crazy to assume that it will stand here for 100 years more. The Christmas lights we will struggle to untangle again this year are the same lights we put up last year and will likely be the very same lights we will be struggling to untangle again next year. Eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, we walk from day to day as if nothing changes, the passage of time is more circular than linear, what goes around comes around. We live as though all the normal things of life will continue on indefinitely, as if there were no future in God’s plan with which we will have to reckon.

But when we go to the twentieth or fiftieth class reunion, does everyone look the same? Flattering comments to the contrary notwithstanding, we recognize that everyone does not. Who are we kidding? To live every day as if there will always be another tomorrow is to live the life of a fool. Yet it continues to be true that a minority of people die having made even a simple will. Life changes as we move along, nothing is a given, each sunrise represents another new statement of faith from the Creator. Life is not lived in circles, each day matters, and each unique day is irretrievably significant. What we do or fail to do in this day has import. If God has a plan for the universe, then God has a plan for this day, for this hour, for this moment in which we sit and listen to words about his plan.


Jesus says this to those who call themselves believers: Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. What is such watchfulness? It is remembering that we are not the measure of all things, it is a reminder that even if, as each day passes, it appears to us to be pretty much like the previous one and likely to be much like the one to come, every day is not the same, every opportunity to be a man or woman for God is an opportunity that will not come again, that what we do in this day and at this time matters, and it matters in an eternal way.

Jesus’ call to be ready is not meant to cause sleepless nights. It is meant to encourage watchful days where we search out ways to be his disciples in the world, the advance guard of a future that is surely coming. In church it is tempting to begin today to sing Christmas carols and pretend that the baby Jesus is on the way automatically, like clockwork, as they are doing over at the mall, as Noah’s neighbors might well have done had they been in our place. But we do not do that, because we celebrate the Lord’s Supper today not only as a reminiscence of a long-ago birthday, but as a statement of faith in the future which God is bringing to pass. We don’t know the day or the hour when the Lord will accomplish all he has in mind. We only know that this is the day and the hour when we may be part of God’s future, or part of a dying past. Therefore we must be ready.