First Sunday of Advent | December 2, 2007
Psalm 122 (1)
Prayer of the Day
Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.
By your merciful protection save us from the threatening dangers of our sins, and enlighten our walk in the way of your salvation,
for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.
Alleluia. Show us your steadfast | love, O LORD,
and grant us | your salvation. Alleluia. (Ps. 85:7)
1a. CONTEXT: Matthew 24:36-44
The first Gospel reading of the Church's new year begins with a
warning and with a large element of surprise. Matthew and Luke share
some of the same source material for this passage, though each has
freely adapted the tradition in the context of each Gospel (Lk.
17:26-7,30,34-5,39-40). The main thrust of the passage is also found
in Mark 13:33 and 35. Descriptions of what it will be like at the
end of time when the Messiah returns are brief and to the point (Mt.
24:37-41) and serve as the foundation for the parables on the coming
reign of God which follow (Mt. 25:1-46). The eschatological bent of
Old Testament prophecy interwoven as it was with the Messianic
promise is echoed here but with a twist: there will be no signs or
further warnings of what is to be. No one, not even the angels or
the Christ know when the time will be (contrast Mt. 24:15-34),
"Watch, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Sovereign
is coming" (24:42).
As often noted, the Noah story serves not to point up God's
judgment in light of human sin and wickedness; rather, transgression
is found in the thoughtless pursuit of everday life and work. Sin
lies in human unconcern and indifference to God's presence and
commands--we go about the occupations of our lives figuring the Lord
has already come (we are saved, right?) or convinced that the day of
judgment is so far away that it doesn't matter. Woe to those who are
oblivious, for like a thief in the night that day will come, and we
are called to be ready.
The theme of watchfulness appears in this Gospel first in 24:42
and is sounded again in 24:53 and 25:13. It is clear that watching
doesn't mean sitting back and waiting for something to happen; rather
to watch is to be actively involved, to be expectant, looking forward
to what is to come and being prepared and ready for it (24:45-6).
Expectation is an active, not a passive state. In that respect, the
Second Coming of Christ is something like childbirth; we know what
will happen but don't know all the details or just when it will take
place. The issue of time loomed large for the early church. Having
preached the imminence of Messiah's return, the church then had to
reckon with history as it continued to unfold and it became apparent
that Christ's return had been delayed. Today we continue to struggle
with interpreting the scriptures in light of two thousand years of
history. The pendulum has swung among theologians from totally
emphasizing the futuristic nature of the Parousia (Schweitzer) to
interpreting Jesus' words and actions as indicating that he
understood the kingdom had already arrived or, at least had begun
with his ministry (Otto, Dodd, Cullman and Kummel, The Oxford
Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 470).In considering this text
it is necessary to keep three things in mind: the time in which
Matthew was writing, and the issues facing the early church; the time
in which we hear this Scripture read and its timeliness for us here
and now; and God's time, which we can't fully comprehend but to which
we can open ourselves to be touched and in which we can participate.
1a. CONTEXT: Matthew 24:36-44
No One Knows That Day and Hour [ESV]
36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son,  but the Father only.
37 For as were the days of Noah, 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 when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
40 Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left.
41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
43 But know this, that if the master 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 hour you do not expect.
36περι δε της ημερας εκεινης και ωρας ουδεις οιδεν, ουδε οι αγγελοι των ουρανων ουδε ο υιος, ει μη ο πατηρ μονος. 37ωσπερ γαρ αι ημεραι του νωε, ουτως εσται η παρουσια του υιου του ανθρωπου. 38ως γαρ ησαν εν ταις ημεραις [εκειναις] ταις προ του κατακλυσμου τρωγοντες και πινοντες, γαμουντες και γαμιζοντες, αχρι ης ημερας εισηλθεν νωε εις την κιβωτον, 39και ουκ εγνωσαν εως ηλθεν ο κατακλυσμος και ηρεν απαντας, ουτως εσται [και] η παρουσια του υιου του ανθρωπου. 40τοτε δυο εσονται εν τω αγρω, εις παραλαμβανεται και εις αφιεται: 41δυο αληθουσαι εν τω μυλω, μια παραλαμβανεται και μια αφιεται. 42γρηγορειτε ουν, οτι ουκ οιδατε ποια ημερα ο κυριος υμων ερχεται. 43εκεινο δε γινωσκετε οτι ει ηδει ο οικοδεσποτης ποια φυλακη ο κλεπτης ερχεται, εγρηγορησεν αν και ουκ αν ειασεν διορυχθηναι την οικιαν αυτου. 44δια τουτο και υμεις γινεσθε ετοιμοι, οτι η ου δοκειτε ωρα ο υιος του ανθρωπου ερχεται.
2. ANALYSIS: Matthew 24:36-44
Mt. 24:37,39 - The parousia, often translated as the "coming" of the
"Son of Man" (AILL: "Human One") literally means "presence" or
"arrival" and is interestingly found only in Matthew. There is an
immediacy or closeness inferred from "presence" which may need to be
lifted up even as we envision what is yet to come--Christ's return to
complete God's plan of salvation and to "create all things new."
Mt. 24:37,39,44 - Scholars agree that few phrases in the New
Testament are more problematic and engender more disagreement than
the title "the Son of Man." It remains very unclear just what this
title originally meant, how Jesus used it in reference to himself,
and for what purpose. He does clearly link the title with the image
of the Suffering Servant. There is not room here for an extended
analysis of various interpretations. The title becomes particularly
problematic as the Church becomes keenly aware of the need for more
inclusive language in reference to God and God's people in order to
more faithfully communicate the message of the Gospels. It may be
useful to remind the congregation that the critical factor in
understanding who the Coming One is has nothing to do with gender
(i.e., "Son" or "Man") but with Jesus' obedience in becoming fully
one of us, fully human. The One who has borne completely both our
sins and our suffering is the Messiah we both joyfully anticipate and
before whom we tremble.
Mt. 24:44 - dia touto kai humeis ginesthe etoimoi, hoti ei ou
dokeite hora ho uious tou anthropou erchetai.-- The KJV is slightly
more faithful to the Greek in this verse: "Therefore be ye also
ready, for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh."
At first glance these words are the same as RSV; however, there may
be a small but significant difference for us today. Are we to be
ready because we've grown lax in our watchfulness and may miss the
hour our God appears (a concern for early Christians) or are we
perhaps addressed as those who may no longer believe the Christ will
really come again anyway? Matthew clearly intended the former
meaning, and we may stretch "an hour as ye think not" too far, but
can we ignore the fact that for some Christians now the second issue
is really the reason for not keeping watch?
3. STRATEGY: Matthew 24:36-44
The opportunity and challenge of Advent preaching lies in weaving the
season together as a whole fabric, intentionally focusing on a few of
the many rich themes which present themselves, and enabling the
congregation to experience and live into those themes in new and
deeper ways. In the swirl and glitter of the pre-Christmas season
the Church has a special opportunity through worship, preaching and
prayer to reveal another path in preparation for the festival of the
Incarnation. Liturgy can be simplified, keeping both the environment
and tone of the worship sparse, sober, yet quietly expectant and
hope-filled. Minor changes in the service format can have a
tremendous effect in creating a climate of watchful preparation for
Christ's coming. For example, festal hymns such as the Gloria are
normally dropped until Christmas, replaced by the Kyrie Eleison.
Vestments, other decorations and music can also be simplified. Some
parishes omit altar flowers and the use of bells during Advent,
making the impact of our Christmas celebration that much more
dramatic. The intentional use of silence and reflective prayer not
only offers the congregation an opportunity to rest in God in
contrast to the frantic rush of the commercial season, but also
begins a listening process by which we can encourage the personal
disciplines of solitude, silence and prayer during the week.
The real meaning of Advent can also be appropriated by creating
new traditions or adapting existing ones to give shape and voice to
the themes of the season. In addition to lighting the Advent wreath,
some families also offer at the table a separate food item to be
donated to the local food bank. The family member who picks the item
for that meal can also remind those gathered of the world community,
offering a prayer for a specific concern (such as peace, justice, the
hungry, the sick, the unemployed, the homeless, for the right use of
Creation). Some households set an extra place which is empty but
which symbolizes their readiness to receive a stranger in need, thus
welcoming their God. Let creativity go in gift giving! Some give the
gift of time spent in community service volunteered on behalf of a
friend. One of the most meaningful Christmas gifts I ever received
came in the form of a note from my brother-in-law saying he had
become a blood donor for the first time in my name.
Advent can be "an invitation to holiness," in Jim Fenhagen's
phrase, a time to perceive the reality of the world "if only
momentarily, through the eyes of Christ" (An Invitation to Holiness,
p. 10).New vision and responses to what God has done and will
do--these are the imperatives and the promises of Advent. We are
invited not only to watch but, as Fenhagen goes on to write, to
participate in the Kingdom itself, "the vision of what God created
the world to be" (pp. 20-21). Is the Gospel message for this first
Sunday in Advent simply a threat, or an invitation? Do we live in
fear, preparing for God's wrath, or in hope and expectation, sure of
judgment that heals and redeems? Do we look forward to the End or to
the Great Surprise? Advent invites us to look for God's coming, as
One made flesh long ago, as One who will come to judge and renew,as
the One whose love is present in the faces and voices of those around
us and in the Creation signs of that presence ("parousia")
everywhere. If we dare to open ourselves to this holy season, the
Advent of Christ will bring with it "new vision and new strength to
use our lives in a different way" (An Invitation to Holiness, p. 50).
It is a sober, reflective, confessional season--it is also a time for
discovering anew who we are and whose we are--thus discovering the
true hope and joy of Advent.
4. REFERENCES & SUGGESTED READINGS - Year A / Matthew
Albright, W.F., and Mann, C.d., Matthew, Anchor Bible 26. NY: Doubleday:
Allen, W.C., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary onthe Gospel According
to St. Matthew, ICC, Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1912.
Argyle, A.W. The Gospel According to St. Matthew. CBC. Cambridge: C.Univ.
Beare, F.W. The Gospel According to St. Matthew. San Francisco: Harper and
Benoit, P. L'Evangile selon S. Matthieu. Paris: Cerf, 1950.
Bonnard, P. L'Evangile selon S. Matthieu. Neuchatel: Delachaux et Niestle,
Cross, F.L. and E.A. Livingston,eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the
Christian Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Fenhagen, James C. Invitation to Holiness. San Francisco: Harper and
Fenton, J.C. The Gospel of St. Matthew. London: Penguin, 1963.
Green, H.B. The Gospel According to St. Matthew. New Clarendon Bible.
Oxford: Ox. Univ. Press, 1975.
Grundmann, W. Das Evangelium nach Matthaeus. Theologischer
Handkommentar I. Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1972.
Gundry, R.H. Matthew: A Commentary on his Literary and Theological Art.
Grand Rapids, MI: Eeerdmans, 1982.
Hill, D. The Gospel of Matthew. New Century Bible. London: Oliphants, 1972.
Kingsbury, Jack Dean. Matthew as Story. 2d. ed. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.
Klostermann, E. Das Matthaeusevangelium. Handbuch zum N.T. Tuebingen:
Lagrange, M.-J. Evangile selon Saint Matthieu. Pars: Gabalda, 1927.
Lohmeyer, E. Das Evangelium des Matthaeus, ed. W. Schmauch. Goettingen:
Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1956.
McNeile, A.H. The Gospel According to St. Matthew. London: MacMillan, 1915.
Schlatter, A. Der Evangelist Matthaeus. 6th ed. Stuttgart: Calwer, 1963.
Schmid, J. Das Evnagelisum mach Matthaeus. Regensburg: Pustet, 1965.
Schniewind, J. Das Evangelium nach Matthaeus. NTD. Goettingen:
Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1956.
Schweizer, E. Das Evangelium nach Matthaeus. NTD. Goettingen:
Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1973, transl. at The Good News According to
St. Matthew. Atlanta: John Knox, 1975.
Stendahl, Krister. "Matthew", in Peake's Commentary on the Bible,
ed.M. Black and H.H. Rowley. London: Thos.Nelson Sons,Ltd.,1962
Stendahl, Krister. The School of St. Matthew and its Use of the Old
Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968.
Wellhausen, J. Das Evangelium Matthaei. 2d ed. Berlin, 1914.
5. MUSIC SUGGESTIONS *
O COME, O COME, EMMANUEL is a powerful Advent hymn which may be used
as a processional to begin the season, then used again with different
verses as a recessional on Advent III (HB 56, LBW 34).COME THOU LONG
EXPECTED JESUS is another traditional selection (HB 66, LBW 30).
Other hymns with fitting texts include:
BLEST BE THE KING WHOSE COMING
IS IN THE NAME OF GOD (HB 74);
LIFT UP YOUR HEADS, YE MIGHTY GATES
(HB 436,LBW 32);
LOVE, DIVINE ALL LOVES EXCELLING (HB 657,LBW 315);
NOW THE SILENCE (LBW 205), if the emphasis of the service is upon
BE THOU MY VISION (HB 488), if the sermon pursues
the "vision" theme. Finally, if the emphasis will be placed on "last
things" or "maranatha" in a paradoxical way, THE KING SHALL COME
WHEN MORNING DAWNS (HB 73, LBW 33) is an interesting alternative.
Exegete: Katheryn Keene-Babcock
Katheryn (Katie) is Rector of All Saints Episcopal Church ion Attleboro, MA
["Once you have lived and broken bread ecumenically, you can't go back." Katheryn Keene '80 M.Div.(Yale), quoted in The (MA) Sun Chronicle, Oct. 12, 2007, in the article "Feeling the joy," about her arrival at All Saints Church in Attleboro, MA:
[ http://www.thesunchronicle.com/articles/2007/10/12/features/feature86.txt ]
* - HB refers to The Hymnbook 1982, copyright 1985, The Church Pension Fund; and published by The Church Hymnal Corporation, 800 2nd Avenue, New York,NY 10017.
LBW hereafter refers to the Lutheran Book of Worship, copyright
1978, Lutheran Church in America, The American Lutheran Church,
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada, and The Lutheran
Church-Missouri Synod; and published by the Augsburg Publishing
House, Minneapolis, MN and the Board of Publication, Lutheran
Church in America, Philadelphia, PA.
Dartmouth, MA 02747-1925