Advent 1A (Dec 1, 2019)

Maybe it’s the onset of the holidays. Maybe it’s the realization that we really did eat that much this week. Maybe it’s the gathering darkness. I don’t know. This Gospel text is troubling, but it resonates with this time of year. It’s about something disturbing that we are supposed to want. It’s unsettling. I think it’s unsettling because it is out of our control. We probably think of this gospel story in terms of the Rapture, the idea that God will remove the righteous before the Tribulation. It bears mentioning that Jesus never heard of any of this. As interesting as End Times theories are speculatively, and as well as they sell, they are a waste of time according to Jesus. Jesus says, “But as for that day and hour no one knows, not the angels in heaven, not the Son, but only the Father.” There’s no point trying to predict it. That’s out of our control. And, that’s only half of it. We cannot separate Jesus Christ from The End. By being Christ, he is The End. This makes things even weirder. The End is already and not yet. Not yet: the date is not posted, and has not already come, so be prepared. Already: Jesus Christ, The End, lived and breathed, conquered death, and was the main character in the bestselling book of all time. The last judgment is happening. That’s beyond our control. I think the tendency to want signs and guideposts to The End speaks to our desire to control our lives.

            Maybe we are tempted to view the life of faith as a game: whoever is ahead at the end of the game wins. And there is going to be a winner and a loser in the game. It says two will be in the field; one will be taken. I love you, but I intend to be the one taken. Spots in heaven are limited. We are tempted to think of our deeds as points for or against. I want my good to outweigh my bad. If I know when The End is, I can make sure to be ahead, then. Mainline Protestantism likes to think it’s moved beyond this. Nowadays we think of ourselves as good people. Our innate goodness outweighs the bad stuff, as long as we are good with God. For some this comes down to right beliefs. Do I hold the correct doctrines or not? I need to know when The End is so my correct beliefs outweigh any sins, or, even, my correct beliefs about The End will outweigh any sins. None of this works. The Already side of Already/Not Yet means the End is now. The End runs through all of time. Every moment is a matter of judgment: “How do I serve God?”

            Another way of putting this is to say we cannot control how our past gets out. I want to control the narrative about Tim. I’ve said a lot of things where, if we were gonna talk about them, I’d be all, “Now, I need to give you some context.” And the context is not gonna fix anything; I come off badly in this story. I’ve done a lot of things that make me cringe just to think of them. I’ve thought things that I can hardly recognize as my thoughts, but I’ve thought them, and recently. There’s a lot of bad stuff, there. It says in Matthew two will be grinding meal together; one will be taken. My past needs to be better than the other person’s. I’d really like for none of those bad things I did to affect God’s judgment. But I cannot go back and undo any of those. The past is lost to us. We have to live with it, which is why we want so badly to fix it. Can’t. We can only go forward, with no control over our past.

            The Gospel presents a scenario in which we do not have control, and God does have control. Not even the Son knows the day or the hour. Matthew did not have a Fifth Century doctrine of the Holy Trinity, so we should take care not to overthink this. Nonetheless there is God who is human—Jesus—and God who is unknowable to us—the Father—and the unknowable is not spilling the beans regarding The End. Won’t even tell Jesus. That is God in control and humans not in control. So is Noah’s Ark, the story Jesus mentions. Trust God, stay in the boat, this is going to happen and you can’t do anything about it. So is people taken up unexpectedly, in the examples Jesus gives. You’re walking with someone, “Hey! I hadn’t finished telling her my story!” Yes, you had. So’s plotting a burglary, which Jesus suggests God is doing. God’s not telling you when God is sneaking in; that would defeat the whole point of sneaking in. We’re not in control. God is in control.

            God is who we want in control. God is the one who remains faithful to us despite all those things in our past that should affect God’s judgment. God is the one who promises us a place in the kingdom regardless of the score when time expires. God is the one who comes to us as Jesus. God is the one who gives of themselves so that all are fed, welcome, and whole. God is the one who takes all our sins to the cross and leaves them there, but rises from the dead to be with us. That’s the God who keeps putting off the End and won’t tell us when it is.

            God in control is Grace. Each moment we have, we have by the grace of God. God is not ending the world right now? Maybe it’s because God loves you and prefers you living. Each moment is a moment God is gracious to us. And, each moment is an opportunity for us to be gracious to others. God in control is more room. I’m not competing with the other guy in the field or the other woman grinding meal. I’m not jockeying for one of eight spaces on Noah’s Ark. We are all in this together.

            God in control is, in a word, forgiveness. Forgiveness. God forgives. God does not forget. Your past? It’s still there. The bad things you’ve done? Yeah, they looked bad from where God was, too. God forgives them. For our part, it’s repentance. Classical Lutheranism says there are two parts to repentance. There’s contrition—knowing you have sinned and have hurt others—and there’s faith that God forgives. Your past, your story? Own it, and let God forgive it. Own it, and let God forgive it.

            This has been something of a traumatic Church Year, here at Trinity. Maybe it’s the old “Pastor’s Fourth Year Is Always the Wacky One.” That’s a thing in this line of work, if you didn’t know. I’ve now had my fourth anniversary, so, the wacky can stop any time! Maybe it’s the anxiety in our world, which seems set to idle on mild panic. Maybe it’s just what was going to happen as we continued discerning how to be Church in Twenty-first Century North America, and more specifically at the corner of Washington and Chicago Streets in Valparaiso. There’ve been anxious moments over the budget—though not as many as we’ve sometimes had. There’ve been anxious moments…or months, over the direction of youth ministry and how it fits our understanding of mission. There’ve been anxious moments because beloved members moved away, and anxious moments when visitors showed up, and collectively said, “All right, don’t blow this. Just be cool and play your cards right….”

            That Church Year is now behind us. It’s the First Sunday in Advent. New Year’s Day in the Church, baby! We cannot go back and redo anything. It’s still there. Anything you’re pretty sure looked bad, yeah, it looked bad from where God was, too. But God comes as Jesus and takes all our sins to the cross and leaves them there. God does that in our life together. God does that today, the Already side of the Already/Not Yet. Were here today in part to own it and let God forgive it.

And we have this neat tradition—I’ve never been a part of a congregation that does this—where we sign a big parchment together each year, pledging to be part of God’s work together. I don’t know if you all go back and look at the parchment as it hangs all year. I do. Each signature has a past, a story. Some of the pasts I don’t know. Some of the names I don’t know; visitors signed or something. Some of the pasts I do know, some in part, some well. The pasts, the stories, they intertwine with each other. Each signature has a past with other signatures on the parchment, and with the whole community. Sometimes that past is joy, sometimes that past is pain. Nothing that happens this morning can reach back and change that. Instead, we’ve signed the parchment and gone forward.

This morning we’re going to sign a new parchment for the next Church Year. It does not erase 2019 or Church Year C or however we choose to name the last twelve months. It does say we’re in this for 2020 or Church Year A or whatever we choose to call the next twelve months. Maybe for us it can say, “I own it, and I’m going to try my best to let God forgive it.” Whatever “it” is. Whatever “it” is that we need to own and let God forgive. Because we cannot control “it.” It’s past. God is in control. And God exercises God’s control by not yet bringing The End, instead being gracious and calling us to graciousness, saying, “Yeah, what you did looked bad from where God was, too.” And God exercises God’s control by already being The End, Jesus Christ, who takes our sins to the cross and leaves them there, saying, “You own it, now let God forgive it.”