Jesus said to the disciples, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 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, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 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 let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” — Matthew 24:36-44
This past Sunday’s Gospel reading from Matthew, quoted above, is a bit weird. Jesus talks about “the coming of the Son of Man” (himself) — an arrival that is unexpected. At that moment, Jesus says, “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” What is that supposed to mean? The whole passage ends rather cryptically: after exhorting us to stay awake, he says, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
This story has often been interpreted through the lens of a “rapture theology”, in which it is believed that Christ will come again, and that when he does, those who are judged worthy will be “taken” with him into heaven, and those who are judged unfavorably will be left. In that theological frame, this is just the beginning of a long period that constitutes the end of the world. But I am not a “rapture theology” kind of guy.
This year, this passage has taken on new meaning for me, as I found myself looking at it not through the strange lens of rapture theology, but through that of current events.
There have been a number of people in my circle who, as a result of the election, have been thinking that perhaps the world IS coming to an end. And in what is, for them, understandable anger, fear, and/or anxiety, it seems that a number of people are veering into hopelessness. And, I get that. I have in my own life heard the creeping footsteps of hopelessness pacing just outside my door from time to time. And it is tempting, especially when feeling overwhelmed, to open that door and let hopelessness in. But — and I know that this may sound harsh at first — that is not what Christian people, at least, are called to do.
And in this present moment, when so many are tempted by hopelessness, I heard this passage from Matthew’s Gospel as being all about hopelessness.
Whatever else it may be, the arrival of the “Son of Man” — the arrival of Jesus himself — is nothing less than the arrival of Hope. When Jesus makes reference to the “days of Noah”, he is pointing to a biblical story that stands as the symbol of a world that has absolutely abandoned the dream of God for God’s people. Things were so bad that the authors of the biblical story could imagine God attempting to wipe out the whole of humanity. But, as people of faith themselves, those same biblical authors could not quite bring themselves to a point of utter hopelessness. Noah and his family are the symbols of hope in that story — or, perhaps more accurately, the fact that God rescues Noah and his family along with all else that lives is the symbol of hope in the story.
And so Jesus, pointing to this biblical moment when all seemed lost, imagines that he himself will show up when the world seems again on the brink of losing it all. And he comes as the symbol of hope, as the bearer of God’s hope, as the reminder that we human beings, who presume to have the last word about things, in fact, don’t. That is the divine prerogative, and for Christians, Jesus is that last word — and it is a word of hope, a word of life, a word of compassion, a word of justice.
We are promised that in those hours or days or weeks when we feel that all is lost, Christ shows up bearing God’s hope to us. The question is, are we willing to make ourselves see it? Are we willing to grab on to it and refuse to let go? If we do, then we are the ones “taken” in the parable — taken with Christ into a reign of hope that then becomes the basis and energy for our thoughts and actions. But if we don’t, if we choose hopelessness, then we are the ones who are “left” in the parable. Not by any arbitrary decision on God’s part, but by our own choice.
Therefore, Jesus counsels us to stay awake. Much of the Christian spiritual tradition has understood this call to stay awake as a call to maintain a guard over our hearts and souls, to remain vigilant to the creeping footsteps of hopelessness so that it cannot come up behind us and capture us. Jesus asks us to remain watchful, so that hopelessness does not steal our hope. The whole of this passage, at least for me, at least for today, is a call not to lose hope. Is a reminder that as Christian people, we live under an obligation to bear hope for the world.
I have quoted him before, but it’s worth quoting him again. Once, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa (he’s Episcopalian! Well, Anglican, but it amounts to the same thing) was asked if he was optimistic about the world. He responded that no, he was not optimistic. But he went on to say that he was a Christian, and so that meant that while he was not optimistic, he was hopeful. Because, as a Christian, he had to be hopeful.
I understand completely that willing yourself to be hopeful when you feel that everything around you is crashing down is a very hard thing to do. There are days when I have trouble remaining hopeful myself. But one thing that Jesus never said was that doing this stuff would be easy. In fact, he made it quite clear that it would be very hard, indeed. But just because something is hard does not mean we don’t do it. In fact, it usually means that it is very much worth doing.
In this season of Advent, as we contemplate the birth of God’s word of hope into the world, we might consider that the spiritual practice that we most need to focus on in this moment is the practice of hope. It may be a difficult practice, and we will surely not do it perfectly, but it seems to me we must attend to it.
And one of the consequences of attending to it is to be empowered. When people have hope as the basis of their thought and action, they can move mountains. They can do things they never thought they could. Hope is a source of strength and power. Hope is what carries movements of justice forward. Hope is not, as is sometimes thought, the result of putting on rose colored glasses and refusing to see reality as it is. Hope is a sacred power that sees the world as it is, inspires our vision to make it better, and gives us the energy to work to make that vision a reality.
Which is why the evil ones of this world prefer that we remain hopeless. Because hopelessness takes way our strength, and leaves us unable to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Hopeless people tend to lie down and be quiet. And that is not what we need in this time.
So, my friends, this is a time for courage. This is a time to refuse to open the door of your life to hopelessness and, if you have, now is the time to tell it to go home. Because you are a follower of Christ, God’s word of hope to the world, and you choose to be a powerful bearer of hope to a broken and disillusioned world.