First Sunday of Advent
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Scripture Reading: Matthew 24:36-44
The Necessity for Watchfulness
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son,[a] but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day[b] your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
- Matthew 24:36 Other ancient authorities lack nor the Son
- Matthew 24:42 Other ancient authorities read at what hour
Sermon: “What Can We Be Sure Of”
I am, many of you know, easily startled when working in my office. I found a kindred spirit on YouTube this week. Behold, the most easily scared man in the world!
This poor man finds himself “blessed” with friends who are always finding new, creative ways to scare him. In today’s verses from Matthew, Jesus warns his disciples not to let anyone scare them with predictions of his return.
Honestly, thoughts like that don’t scare us. Instead we find ourselves in the same situation as those folks in the time of Noah.
“In those days before the flood people were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage until the very day that Noah went into the ark, and knew nothing about the flood until it came and destroyed them all.”
Routines have their advantages. They make life more predictable and less scary. They help us feel organized. They can also blind us, though, causing us to miss things happening under our very noses.
I came across a story that spoke to that very danger in The New York Times. Written by Dan Barry and published on March 9, 2014, it tells the story of a few dozen men with intellectual disabilities who the Henry Turkey Company kept in virtual slavery for thirty years.
Here’s a short clip showing the social worker who first intervened in the case. One of the men’s sisters discovered that, after thirty years of work, her brother had only $80 to his name.
The men got up at 3 AM for breakfast, many of them eating with one hand over their plates to block the roaches that fell from the ceiling of their mice-and-cockroach-infested home.
When got home each night, after a day spent gutting turkeys, they slept on beds stained with mold. Their salary? Sixty-five dollars a month.
The men worked so hard that many developed severe arthritis. The company never saw to their medical and dental needs.
When authorities finally did intervene, one man believed deaf for years, learned he could hear. His only problem was wax buildup in his ears.
The men’s supervisors never received specialized training. They never tapped into Iowa’s social service system. Decades of advances in disability civil rights never touched them.
Neglected and abused, they lived in a bunkhouse that had once been a school for most of their adult lives.
Courts overturned $240 million in damages awarded the men because federal labor regulations limit liabilities for a business with 101 or less employees to two years’ wages.
The nearest I could tell from following up on the article, the men ended up with $100,000 each for thirty years of abuse.
A few of them now live in nursing homes, many more in group or shared homes scattered from Iowa to Texas, the men’s original home state. None of them will eat turkey.
How could no one know? Atalissa has a population of around 300 people. The men shopped in the local convenience store, attended the local Lutheran Church, marched in village parades, and even showed up at the local dance hall now and then. No one knew.
The village has since torn down the old schoolhouse. One of the people interviewed for a documentary about the men said, “Routine can be a dangerous thing for all of us—because we stop looking outside of our to do list for the day. So things that are happening around us—sometimes we miss them because we just weren’t looking.”
The owners of the turkey plant routinely used the men for cheap labor. The citizens of Atalissa routinely saw the men at church and at the convenience store, yet never saw what was really going on behind those schoolhouse doors. The men, themselves blameless in all this, routinely suffered abuse for so long that it became normal.
If anyone had dared step out of any one of those routines, none of this need ever have happened, or at least lasted as long as it did.
Routine consumes us. We slide off into what happened yesterday or what we have to do an hour from now. Few of us live our lives as they’re happening. Cut off from the present, the future is a closet where we hang all the good intentions and plans we’ll never get around to.
In today’s Scripture lesson Jesus instead tells us to be on the alert instead. What does that look like? Matthew lays it all out in chapter 25.
“The king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’
“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
Jesus won’t judge us by how ready we are for heaven, but by how we’ve treated our neighbors. By that measure, we too often fail.
A proposal came out this week that would cut the supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP, by $4.2 billion.
Almost 4 million people would lose benefits in the average month. Millions more will see their benefits slashed. One million students will lose access to free or reduced lunches. What does being alert mean under circumstances like that?
- It means contacting your elected officials to protest the planned cuts.
- It means not tolerating everyday abuses around us with eyes and hearts closed to God’s inbreaking Kingdom.
- It means not being so caught up in “eating, drinking, marrying, and being given in marriage” that God’s judgment bears down on us and sweeps us away.
It means, as Barbara Brown Taylor wrote in The Christian Century:
Every morning when you wake up, decide to live the life God has given you to live right now. Refuse to live yesterday over and over again. Resist the temptation to save your best self for tomorrow. There’s no time for that, no matter how much time is left. Go ahead and make the decision, write the letter, get the help you need, find someone to love, give yourself away.
“That’s why you must always be ready,” Jesus said, “for you don’t know at what time the Son of Man will arrive.”
If we live prepared, that shouldn’t scare us. It should instead give us hope. As the days grow shorter and the nights longer, we light advent candles to remind us that we don’t face the darkness alone.
The light of the world has come, shining in the darkness, and leading us into a future not of fear, but of joy, not of closed hearts, but of lives open to Christ’s service, whatever form that takes.