Surprise! Is 2:1-5; Rm 13: 11-14; Mt 24: 36-44
Matthew’s Gospel reading today is filled with images of the end of the old world and beginning of the new—fitting for this first Sunday of Advent. After all, this is like the New Year’s day of the church calendar. But these images are not of champagne and balloons; they are disturbing. The end Jesus describes here to his disciples will come like a cataclysmic flood or a thief in the night. Clearly the message is that we must be prepared for Christ’s return at all times because it will sneak up on us.
You may recognize Matthew’s use of of apocalyptic images to communicate challenge and to encourage his audience to remain faithful despite internal and external threats. This is the kind of mysterious and alarming symbolic language in which we’ve been steeped for the past month or so. I admit, I’m getting a little tired of apocalyptic messages. I really wish that on this first Sunday in Advent I could preach the comfort and joy of the impending arrival of Baby Jesus in the manger. Instead, here I am again, warning everyone to keep busy doing God’s work no matter how risky it becomes or how pointless it seems since God will return as unexpectedly as a thief in the night. There’s probably a reason this is not an image we’ve ever seen in stained glass windows in any church.
Still, maybe this isn’t such a bad metaphor for us in a world full of surprises. We navigate our days in unpredictable times, and there are worse things than knowing that Jesus intends to return with no advance warning. Sometimes surprises are delightful. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy surprises like, “You know that sold out show you wanted to see? I got us tickets!” Then again, we all know surprises can also be along the lines of “I know you just brought in your car for an oil change, but our mechanic noticed a few things…”
I don’t know what this past week held for you; sometimes holidays include some difficult surprises. Perhaps your family Thanksgiving gathering was less than joyful—or maybe you had no gathering. Or no family—or none with whom you could (or wanted to) gather. Perhaps you were overwhelmed by reports on the news, or from a doctor, or your boss, or your bank. Maybe you received a reminder of the precarious and unpredictable nature of life in a way that threatens your sense of well-being.
No amount of life or medical insurance shields us from disappointment and pain. No techniques for avoiding the pain of others because it haunts us with the possibility of our own loss can protect us from being hurt. Though we may dread what the future will bring, we cannot stop it from coming with all its good and bad surprises.
And now I remember why I like apocalyptic texts! They remind us that God draws near to people who are battling defeat, judgment, and all manner of crises on a personal or global scale. God promises a day when glory will outshine shadow, when joy will extinguish sorrow, when peace will silence violence. As Matthew’s Gospel puts it, God “will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (24:31). Come hell or high water—literally, in some cases—Jesus will be at our side, granting us courage in the face of life’s adversities, remaining with us even through death, drawing us into new life.
However, God’s promise doesn’t protect us from experiencing challenges or exempt us from needing to reform our lives to be more aligned with Christ-like values. We all must prepare to meet Christ face to face, beginning by acknowledging the truth about ourselves, then taking steps to push aside our false gods so that when Christ returns he will find us visiting the lonely, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and in every way living as Jesus calls us to live.
When Christ comes again, the oppressive systems of this world will be overturned, and all nations will stream toward God. As the prophet Isaiah describes it, at that time, no one will point their swords at each other anymore, but instead will curl them into gardening tools for the collective caretaking of the earth. In a glorious surprise, the earth and all its people will work for the advancement of life and creation, and not the destruction of it. When Jesus makes his surprise return, vicious cruelty will disappear from our universe, replaced by harmony.
This glorious vision of the future enables us to embrace this Advent season joyfully rather than fearfully. We can actively anticipate Christ’s future coming, in all its glory and absurdity, knowing that God will gather us in and hold us forever. And because of this, we can dare to live radically, deeply, and fearlessly. We prepare for Christ’s return by engaging in similarly surprising acts of blessing for the world God so loves, a foretaste of the feast to come.
One example of this kind of living is the creative activist and artist Pedro Reyes, who embodies courageous dreaming for me. His art transforms objects that seem to be broken into installations that offer a new perspective. In 2008 he began a project called Palas por Pistolas in Culiacán, Mexico. Culiacán has often had the tragic ranking as “the city with the highest rate of gun deaths in the nation.” For this art installation, Reyes invited residents of the city to hand over their guns in exchange for a coupon they could use to buy electronics or household appliances.
He collected 1,527 weapons—40% of which were high power automatic military-grade weapons. In a powerful public event, everyone was invited to witness these guns being crushed by a steamroller. The metal fragments were then taken to a foundry, where they were melted and made into 1,527 shovel heads, mounted on wooden handles. Those shovels were then used to plant 1,527 trees in a the city of Culiacan. In Palas por Pistolas he demonstrated “how an agent of death can become an agent of life,” quite literally.
Pedro Reyes told BOMB magazine, ”If something is dying, becoming rotten and smelly, I think there is a chance to make a compost in which this vast catalog of solutions can be mixed in an entirely new way.” After the exhibit in the public gardens in Culiacan closed, the shovels were sent to schools and art galleries around the world—including one near us, in Vancouver.
How might we turn broken things into instruments of life as we enter this Advent season? How might we resist life-crushing forces like gun violence in creative new ways? After all, we are people who gather every week around brokenness. We sip grapes that have been squashed into wine and eat grain ground into bread. We consume these broken things in remembrance of one who lived and died to bring wholeness out of suffering, life out of death, hope out of destruction, and creativity out of despair. We trust that this act of faith knits us closer to God, to one another, and to the world God loves. Children of the light, let’s be alert to this and to other surprise sightings of God’s unlikely and wonderful work. And let us pray in word and action, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Amen.
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