The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley
It was a sunny, Tuesday afternoon, rather late in the day, when a rare, 5.8 magnitude earthquake rattled the eastern United States and caused $34 million in damage to the Washington National Cathedral in D.C. whereupon statuary fell from the parapets, thankfully causing no injuries. My mother’s house was shaken, with a host of items cascading to the floor. Me, somehow I managed to miss it all. How can a person miss an earthquake? Well, I was getting into my car to drive across the parking lot from a grocery store to a hair salon in Frederick, MD. I started up my car, noticed a slight undulation and chalked it up to my car starting. I drove to the salon, only to be met by shocked customers and hairstylists claiming an earthquake. I knew there was construction in the area and told them I was certain that was it. A cataclysmic event—a once in a lifetime experience and I missed it! What’s more—even when I was told of the experiences of others, I managed to discount what they were saying. Earthquakes—in Maryland and Virginia? Surely not. What they felt must have been the trucks and cranes across the street. Turns out that people in cars often do not feel an earthquake as it occurs. The tires, shocks and motion of driving mask what is happening around you.
One of the great themes of this holy season of Advent upon which we embark today is Watchfulness, Alertness…Being Ready. The Gospel puts it thusly: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 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 et his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Reading the Gospel lesson for today, we might imagine that no one could miss the coming of the Son of Man. There it is, sandwiched between Noah and a Thief coming in the night—neither of which are particularly comforting images. It references what has come to be known as the rapture. “Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” It’s an unsettling image—ripe for a horror movie. Or maybe not.
Greek Scholar, D. Mark Davis, translates this verse of the Gospel: “For just as the days of Noah, so shall be the Parousia (the coming) of the son of Man. The word Parousia, is an English transliteration of a Greek verb meaning “to be present”. Let’s face it, we Episcopalians like the word “Parousia”—it sounds educated—so we can talk about the coming of Christ without sounding like a religious kook. But here’s the thing. The word Parousia doesn’t actually hold any overtones of an end-of-the-world scenario. In St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, the word Parousia is used to refer to the “arrival” of Titus.—hardly an earth-shaking event. But this reading, Davis points out, it certainly takes on the feel of an impending crisis because Jesus has set it within the interpretive context of the dates of Noah, and later a thief who sneaks in during the night.
Here's what I find fascinating. Those two references in this verse mean that the Parousia—the coming of the Son of Man, can be cataclysmic or it could be undetectable. Rather like me—missing the earthquake.
Imagine, living your life, going about your normal daily routine and being unaware that a seismic change is imminent. Think of Noah’s contemporaries. They didn’t know that their last day was their last day. It’s enough to inspire nightmares.
But think of this. Although there is an implicit threat in the unexpected coming of God, ultimately, what this passage is about is the importance of mindfulness, of being alert and and paying attention to what is going on all around us—above, beneath and all around. It’s a clarion call reminding us not to sleep through our lives. Don’t miss those holy moments which occur about us every day. Me, I think about that rolling undulation I felt beneath the wheels of my car and wish I had hit the brakes and paused in my going about and paid more attention.
This echoes in my mind as I consider the impact of Jesus upon the world in which we live. Our Savior’s arrival, while heralded by angels singing in the heavens that Christmas night, went unnoticed by most everyone save the shepherds and some wise men who were assiduously studying the stars. All things considered, if we’re honest with ourselves, Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem wasn’t much of an affair. It didn’t make the headlines, it wasn’t broadcast by powerful or remarked on at cocktail parties. It was a birth among poor people--admittedly taking place in a stable, but otherwise unremarkable and unnoticed—at least among the people whose opinions counted in society. If I were to liken it to anything today it would be a baby, born in a refugee camp on the outskirts of a war torn country. Hardly a newsworth moment.
But God’s coming among us as Emmanuel (“God with us”)—make no mistake—it was an event of universal significance. Jesus’ arrival must have shaken the heavens—but most people in that sleepy outpost of Bethlehem, they simply slept through it all. Oh, maybe a few of them noticed something different that. Night—perhaps a sense of holiness, an unexpected feeling of hope, a the fluttering of angel wings or the sound of music far away. But not having trained themselves to expect the unanticipated, they simply rolled over, took a deep breath and went back to sleep.
Today’s lessons urge us to forsake complacency and engage the world with a sense of wonder and anticipation. We are to prepare our hearts and minds for the time in which God will come again. As the lessons today suggest—there is an edge to the second coming of Jesus that should leave us unsettled; however, as alarming as this Gospel might be, I suggest that repentance (the act of making our hearts ready) and joy in the arrival of the Son of God need not be in opposition.
May we keep Advent and Christmas in such a way that we are never surprised by the coming of the Son of God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.