The Advent of Vigilance – Hopes and Dreams

Year C: First Sunday of AdventMatthew 24:37-44: 37 For as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 In (those) days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. 39 They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be (also) at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. 42 Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. 43 Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. 44 So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.

What disciples should be doing. The practical conclusion to be drawn from vv. 36–41 is that of constant readiness, which will also be the focus of the rest of the chapter and of 25:1–13. The point of vv. 36–42 is summed up in a little parable (paralleled in Luke 12:39–40). If house-breakers (broken into is literally ‘dug through’, an easy mode of entry into a mud-walled house) gave prior warning, no-one would be caught out.  In a rather bold analogy, the Son of man, like the burglar, does not advertise the time of his arrival. The only precaution, therefore, is constant readiness. In view of such plain statements as this it is interesting that some Christians still attempt to work out the date of the parousia.

But this is Advent… So far we have looked at this gospel in its Matthean context. But what about it use on the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of the Liturgical Year?  If last Sunday (Christ the King Sunday) represents a culmination of things – when Christ reigns above all – then what are we to make of the First Sunday in Advent?  Do we go back to the beginning and again work our way through the year until Christ is again King?

Yes…in way. The beginning is not the birth of Jesus. The beginning is the advent (the coming) of Jesus as the fulfillment of the promise of God and thus the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people. This is the first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Expectation and Hope. The Old Testament Lectionary reading for this first Sunday of Advent is Isaiah 2:1-5.

This is what Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come, The mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us climb the LORD’S mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, That he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Israel had a troubled history. She was a tiny nation wedged between huge and ambitious empires that were constantly vying for superiority. Israel had few times during her 700-year history in which she did not live under threat. Wars were almost constant, some were devastating. For much of her existence she lived under the sovereignty of some other nation, unable or sometimes unwilling to establish her own existence in the world as God’s people.

In the time of Isaiah of Jerusalem, Judah was a vassal state of Assyria. During Isaiah’s lifetime the Assyrians would sweep in and totally annihilate the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and threaten to do the same to the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Judah had weak leaders who saw it more politically expedient to appease the Empire than to be faithful to God.

And yet there were those like Isaiah who could envision a different reality, who could hope for a time when Israel would be faithful and allow God to be God. Israel was weary of war and threat, weary of the divisions that had torn her country apart after Solomon, weary of the instability of a world in which power and the oppression that it brings were the controlling factors in the world. Some like Isaiah knew that God’s vision of the world was much different. They knew that the God they served was the same God who had heard the cries of oppressed slaves in Egypt and entered history to relieve their oppression. And they knew that because God was such a God, he would not forever tolerate oppression in the world.

And so they hoped. And they dreamed. They dreamed of a time when God would enter the world and bring an end to war and suffering, when he would establish his reign on earth and restore all creation to what he intended it to be. They dreamed of a time when the division that had torn their people apart and divided them into north and south might be healed, and they could once again be a whole people under God.

This is the context of the cautionary tale of Matthew’s gospel on this first Sunday of Advent. Those things hoped for and dreamed about are at the door – so “Wake Up!” and be prepared for the time when we will “allow God to be God.”  And be prepared that God will be God – even if it is in ways we cannot imagine. A King in swaddling clothes.  Who’d have thought.

Notes

Matthew 24:37 it will be like it was in Noah’s day. Humans living in the days preceding Jesus’ return will be as unaware of it as Noah’s contemporaries were of the flood (Gen 6:5ff; Isa 54:9; cf. 2 Pet 2:5; 3:6). The timing of God’s judgment in both instances is totally unanticipated. The analogy with the days of Noah suggests that judgment is to be a feature of the coming of the Son of man. But the main point is the unpreparedness of Noah’s contemporaries. Whereas Noah and his family were ready, everyone else carried on oblivious to the threat of judgment, and so, while Noah was saved, they were swept away. The implication is that it is possible to prepare for the parousia, not by calculating its date, but by a life of constant readiness and response to God’s warnings and teaching. There will apparently be only two categories, the prepared (and therefore saved) and the unprepared (and therefore lost).

Matthew 24:37 coming: parousía  The general meaning of parousía is “presence,” specifically “active presence” (e.g., of representatives or troops, in person; cf. 2 Cor. 10:10). In Hellenistic writings it referred to the visit of rulers or high officials. The word has no exact parallels in Hebrew, but similar terms (“to be present” and “to come”) are plentiful and point to the coming of the end of time (Lam. 4:18), end of evil (Prov. 1:27), or of the day of redemption (Is. 63:4) or recompense (Dt. 32:35). Above all, God comes draws near to his people. (e.g., Gen. 16:13–14; 28:18; 2 Sam. 24:25). The entry of the ark is God’s coming (1 Sam. 4:6–7). But God is not tied to places; he may come in dreams (Gen. 20:3), theophanies (18:1ff.), clouds and storms, visions, the quiet breath (1 Kgs. 19:12–13), and in his Word or Spirit (Num. 22:9; 24:2). The OT refers to God’s coming as World King (Dt. 32:2ff). He is king forever and ever in Ex. 15:18. He will finally assume full kingship (Is. 2:2). His coming as world king will mean the creating of a new heaven and earth (Is. 66:15) and universal peace and joy (Is. 2:2ff.; 65:21ff.; 66:10ff.). The concept also refers to the coming of the Messiah whose main task is to establish peace (Zech. 9:9–10). This coming has a universal sweep and is historical, but with eschatological aspects (Dan. 7:13). In the Psalms the stress is on God’s coming, not that of the Messiah. The place of the parousía concept in the NT is that Jesus has come already, but so strong is the hope of his coming in glory that the word is not used for his first coming. There is not a twofold parousía.

Matthew 24:37 Son of Man: In Matthew, as in all the other Gospels, the title which Jesus uses to describe his own mission is usually ‘the Son of man’. Matthew’s recording of this title differs little from that by Mark and Luke. None of them use it themselves in narrative or comment, but all agree that Jesus made frequent use of it, and, most remarkably, that when the title ‘Christ’ was offered to him, he substituted ‘the Son of man’ (26:64).

This is not the place to give a full account of the voluminous and continuing debate about this title. Even the description of it as a ‘title’ is controversial, as the phrase ‘a son of man’ in Hebrew and Aramaic means simply a human being. When God addresses Ezekiel frequently as ‘Son of man’ (Ezek. 2:1, 3; 3:1; etc.) it is as ‘man’ in contrast with God, almost meaning ‘little man’! (Cf. also Pss. 8:4; 80:17.) In later Aramaic a similar phrase came to be used sometimes, rather like the English ‘one’, to refer to oneself or (occasionally) someone else, in contexts where modesty or prudence made a direct statement undesirable. But the phrase ‘the Son of man’ seems to demand a more specific content than that, especially when it is seen that Jesus uses the phrase predominantly in discussing the nature of his specific mission, not the lot of men in general.

But there is no clear evidence that the phrase ‘the Son of man’ was used thus as a title in any Jewish literature before the time of Jesus. It is therefore likely that Jesus developed this strange usage himself, perhaps deliberately in order to avoid a familiar title (such as ‘Messiah’) which would already have carried its own meaning for Jesus’ hearers.

It is a strange usage: the Greek phrase ho hyios tou anthrōpou is as unnatural as the English, and the Aramaic phrase bar-nāšā’ would not normally be used, as Jesus always used it, with a definite article. It seems most likely that Jesus ‘coined’ the title on the basis of the vision of ‘one like a son of man’ in Daniel 7:13 (a passage to which he frequently referred in explaining his mission: see on 10:23; 16:27–28; 19:28; 24:30; 25:31; 26:64; 28:18); in Daniel this is no title, simply a description of a human figure (as opposed to an animal) in a vision, but Jesus’ definite article functions virtually as a demonstrative, ‘that Son of man’, i.e. the one described in Daniel 7:13–14, which Jesus clearly saw as a figure for his own mission.

But while the phrase was probably derived from reflection on Daniel 7:13f., Jesus’ use of it as a title for himself extends far beyond what that passage suggests. In addition to the future glory and triumph depicted in Daniel 7:13–14, Jesus uses the phrase particularly in predicting his own rejection, suffering and death, a theme which Daniel 7 alone would not have required. Further, he speaks of his ministry on earth, both in its humiliation (e.g. 8:20) and in its authority (e.g. 9:6; 12:8), under this title. It is, then, a wide-ranging term whose content is fixed not by any predetermined meaning as a title (for it had none), but by the breadth of Jesus’ own understanding of his unique mission. [France, 46-47]

Matthew 24:41 taken: paralambánō. the term is used for the reception of Christ by the world (Jn. 1:11) and for acceptance into the kingdom of Christ

Sources -Commentaries

  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) pp.
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000)  pp. 486
  • R. T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) pp.351-2
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 341-47
  • Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) p.897
  • John P. Meier, Matthew, New Testament Message 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990)
  • D. Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) pp. 319-20
  • G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI;  Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic;  Apollos, 2007) pp. 373-76
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com

Dictionaries

  • G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, eds. ,Theological dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).
    G. Delling, paralambánō, 4:5-15.
    A. Oepke, parousía, 5:858–71

Scripture –  Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC.

Admonition Eighteen

Who among us wants to be considered condescending? Merriam-Webster defines “condescending” as showing or characterized by a patronizing or superior attitude toward others. I suspect no one is soon volunteering.  In the Franciscan tradition it is a good thing to be condescending or at least condescendere.  St. Bonaventure wrote about the condescendere of God in the Incarnation of Jesus who “stepped down” from his divinity, took on our humanity, took off his cloak and put on a servant’s apron and washed our feet.  It is from that “condescending” position we are called to reach up to our neighbors and serve them.  Such is the posture of compassion.

Admonition Eighteen: Compassion for a Neighbor

1 Blessed in the person who supports his neighbor in his weakness as he would want to be supported were he in a similar situation.

2 Blessed is the servant who returns every good to the Lord God because whoever holds onto something for himself hides the money of his Lord God within himself, and what things he has will be taken away from him.