11/27/22 – Alert but Not Afraid

ALERT BUT NOT AFRAID

November 27, 2022
1st Sunday of Advent
Isa. 2:1-5; Ps. 122; Rom. 13:11-14; Matt. 24:36-44
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

Advent may have sneaked up on you this year, but that is probably because Nov. 27 is the earliest the first Sunday of Advent can occur. As to Christmas, Madison Avenue began its season of Christmas merchandising in September. Black Friday sales began a month ago. The beauty of the liturgical church year calendar is that we are given time to anticipate and prepare for the real reason for Christmas … God entering the world to bring us back to Godself.

What God gives us is represented with the 5 candles of the Advent wreath we light each worship service this season: hope, peace, joy, love, and God-With-Us – the Incarnation. We start with hope because nothing can be accomplished without hope. We must imagine what we desire before it can become a reality. The Bible warns us that when what we imagine and hope for is counter to God’s good intentions for us, all kinds of evil and destruction ensue. But when we are in sync, the impossible becomes possible.

Our text from Isaiah today contains one of the most beautiful descriptions of God’s kingdom on earth. It is a vision of peace and the end of world hunger: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isa. 2:4) It is such a life-affirming description of what God desires for the world that it appears twice in the Old Testament. It is written almost word for word in the book of Micah. Biblical scholars believe that it was part of an early liturgy in the Jewish temple.

In Isaiah, the servant-king who was prophesied to restore the kingdom of Israel to its former glory was given the title, “Prince of Peace.” In our time, when death by violence in wars, in public places, and within homes is commonplace, a vision of peace strains our imaginations. Today, far more Americans are killed by weapons wielded by other Americans on our own soil than American soldiers in foreign lands. On average, we have two mass shootings a day – the definition of a mass shooting is the killing of four or more people at one time.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the word translated as “plowshares” was used as a metaphor for food, which to the Hebrew people meant economic security. (1) You weren’t going to be spending time out in the fields with your plow, preparing to plant food for the upcoming year, when you fear you are going to be attacked by sword-wielding enemies at any moment. But in peace time, you could prepare for the future by planting crops to feed your family for the coming year. For the ancient Hebrew people, peace and being fed went hand in hand.

The book of Isaiah spans the time when three different Middle Eastern nations conquered what was once the great nation, Israel. Peace and being fed were critical issues facing the Jewish people then, and they are no less critical in the world today. The plowshares, provisions of food and economic security for the people, are in the hands of a small number of nations today. Comparing the meager budget for international humanitarian assistance to our defense department budget tells the story that desire for swords and spears far outweighs our desire for plowshares and pruning hooks.

Because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, known as “the breadbasket of the world,” there are food shortages around the globe, particularly in poor, drought-stricken, and war-torn countries. While we might complain about higher food prices, in vulnerable populations the war in the Ukraine means hunger and starvation. The Russian army’s evil acts of targeting civilian infrastructures, such as hospitals and power installations, will cause tremendous hardships this winter. Bomb-carrying drones will keep up the Russians campaign of terror and destruction without having to drive tanks through the ice and snow. As our advances in technology have made our lives easier, we have used our knowledge to dominate and destroy one another.

The world into which Jesus, the Christ child was born, didn’t look any more like the kingdom of God than it does now. Every time we have another tragedy wrought by human violence, I see these words from the psalms posted by my Facebook pastor colleagues: “How long, O Lord?” This is the question people were asking in our gospel reading for today. In Matthew’s day, the audience hearing or reading his gospel had suffered war and the destruction of the Temple, leaving the people with endless questions about the future of the world. The author of Matthew recounts Jesus telling his disciples not to expect the temple will remain standing forever. He foretells the temple will be destroyed with not one stone left standing. They can’t rely on a building.

Jesus also warns his disciples that false prophets will appear to try to lead them away from the ways of Christ. Today we have political demagogues and social media personalities barraging us with hateful speech. Divisive words and lies are their swords and spears. They tell us to fear our neighbors. They sow distrust and bigotry and reap conflict and violence.

Jesus tells his disciples he will return after his death and resurrection to usher in a new age. They ask: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3) The signs Jesus tells the disciples are anything but peaceful — “wars and rumors of wars, nation fighting against nation, famines and earthquakes. You may be thinking: “Well, these are happening today. Is the end near? Jesus tells his disciples these are merely signs of the beginning of the end. Only God knows when Jesus will return. The illustrations Jesus offers are pretty frightening: the people washed away in Noah’s flood; being suddenly zapped away while going about daily chores; a thief coming into your house at night. It sounds like Jesus is telling his disciples to live in a state of constant fear; yet one of the most repeated phrases in the bible, including the gospels, is “do not fear.”

This is an existential question we all face: how can we be alert to potential dangers without being overcome with anxiety? There’s a fine line between being prepared to face challenges to our health and well-being and living in constant fear of unexpected calamities. Jesus did not want his disciples to be paralyzed with panic, he wanted them to live the abundant life God had given them and use their time to share the good news of God’s kingdom with others, that they too might live in the fullness of life.

Jesus explains to his disciples how they should be prepared for the second coming with a parable:  45“Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? 46Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.” (vs. 24: 45-46) The disciples’ work is to feed the people hungry for food, hungry for love, hungry for forgiveness, and hungry for God.

What is that work that prepares us for the second coming?  The Apostle Paul answers that question more fully, beginning with Jesus’ own words: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  (v.13:3)  Paul addresses the issue of how to make the best use of the time God gives us. And he stresses being alert and prepared to meet our maker. He writes: “you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.”  (vs.13-11) He assures the Roman congregation they do not need to worry about whether or not they are living lives worthy of salvation if they simply follow Jesus’ command to love their neighbors as themselves. He further explains: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (v.10)

We can also drive ourselves to distraction from the abundant blessings God has given us by worrying if we are good enough to satisfy Christ’s high standards. If we know that Christ will be our judge, we also know that Christ has promised to be our Advocate before God, who is merciful, gracious and loving. This gives us hope. This gives us peace.

Each year we begin anew preparing for Christ to enter our hearts. May we be alert to the opportunities to witness to Christ’s coming into the world by demonstrating our Christ-like love for our neighbors.

Amen. May it be so!

 

  1. Ryland, Leland, Wilhoit, James C. and Longman, Tremper III, ed. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, USA. p. 27.

 

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2022, All Rights Reserved
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