Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-15; Matthew 24:36-44
Snow globes. I love them - cute little scenes and you shake them and sparkly snow falls gently down. They’re very calming to watch, don’t you think? On Monday I was killing time in the airport in San Antonio, Texas and I saw a snow globe for the Alamo, the historic site of a fight for Texan independence from Mexico. The snow globe made me laugh, because the Alamo is as far south as Tampa, Florida. There is no snow there. Snow falling on the Alamo would be as apocalyptic an image as you could imagine. Although, for nineteen dollars and ninety-nine cents, someone clearly imagined it.
When I was a kid, I used to look at snow globes and imagine that there were teeny-tiny people living in them, who would hang on for dear life when I held the globe upside down and shook it really hard. I imagined that they would be screaming or waving their hands around or bracing themselves in their teeny-tiny doorways. Now that I’m older, though, I don’t find it as much fun to imagine that. Maybe because as an adult, I know what it’s like to have your world upended. I have a better sense of what it feels like when everything is turned upside down and shaken.
The first Sunday in Advent is always a time when our Bible readings talk about how upended and shaken our world is. Every year, as the days get shorter and the nights get longer, as it feels like we’re descending into darkness, we hear Scripture that tells us that yes, the world is as we feel it to be. It is getting darker. We hear about nation against nation, about floods and thieves in the night, and we can identify with the feelings that rose during those times - feelings of unrest and uncertainty. Feelings of fear.
And then we look at our lives, and things seem the same way - dark and upended. Whether it’s on a personal level, or a community level, or even a global level, we can point to those things that make it feel like someone is holding our world upside down and shaking it. And we feel what those first Jewish Christians felt during the time when our Gospel reading was written. That everything was falling apart and that a flood was about to sweep everyone away, and that we had better be ready because something cataclysmic was happening.
Back to the snow globes. I remember once going into a store where there was a huge selection of snow globes. And I remember trying to turn each one of them over and shake them as fast as I could so that all of them had falling snow at the same time. Because that’s the point of snow globes, right? That they are the prettiest when the snow is falling. Without the falling snow, they’re just another plastic trinket. It’s the snow falling that makes them magical. Which means that we have to turn them upside down and shake them. It’s the upending and the shaking that transforms them from kitschy to beautiful.
This is, I think, what our reading from Matthew is trying to get at. That sometimes, in the process of making the world beautiful, it’s necessary for God to upend things. I know that I’ve always found this particular reading from Matthew to be somewhat fear-inducing. Floods! Thieves! But when I consider it more deeply, I remember that the flood was actually a good thing. Setting aside the whole issue of animals drowning, a part of the story that makes me wonder why we tell it so often to children, what we have here is the story of God wiping away all of the injustices and oppressions and evils of the world. If you’ll remember, the eating and drinking and marrying that Matthew talks about as happening before Noah and the flood was gluttony and drunkenness and the Nephilim marrying human women. As Genesis says, “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” God sent the flood to wipe away that evil. At its foundation, the coming of the flood was necessary. And indeed, today, if God were to come and wipe away corrupt governments, and the evils of poverty and racism and greed and exploitation, and all of the heart-break and loss and pain that they bring, we would be glad. We would welcome the Son of Man coming as a flood.
But what about the Son of Man as a thief breaking into the master’s house? Well, here we have to turn to historical criticism of the Bible and interpret it in light of what we know about when and why the Gospel of Matthew was written. And in the last few decades, it’s come to light that the Gospel of Matthew was written about four or five decades after Jesus’ death as a political Gospel, to resist the power of the Roman Empire. The Romans had destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, pillaged the city and murdered most of its inhabitants, and tried to obliterate the Jewish religion. And so the Gospel of Matthew was written to that first community of Jewish Christians that was struggling to live in this new Empire-controlled world, wondering where God was in the midst of all the chaos. And in our reading today, we can understand the house that was broken into to symbolize the power of the Roman Empire, with an Emperor who was asleep to what Jesus’ coming into the world meant, and that Jesus was the thief who was breaking into the Empire, overturning its oppression, upending it and shaking it, stealing its power and replacing it with his own. If the Empires we see today, political or economic, were to broken into and dismantled, we would be glad. We would welcome the Son of Man coming as a thief.
Of course it would be simplistic, and hurtful even, to say that every time our world is upended it is because God is shaking us in order to make our lives better. That just doesn’t fly when we’re going through personal crises - when we’ve been diagnosed with cancer, or just lost a loved one, or experienced some kind of personal tragedy. How God is involved in these moments is an issue of what theologians call “theodicy,” and there’s just not enough time this morning to get into all of the nuances of that, but I assure you that God’s desire for God’s children is not to cause suffering.
But what I am trying to say this morning, what the Good News of Advent is, is that these times of upending and shaking are not meant to make us afraid. They are not meant to keep us cowering in our beds, like when we hear a thump in the middle of the night. When our world is tipped upside down, we are not meant to scream and and wave our hands around and hang on for dear life in the doorways of our lives. Instead, as Paul says in our reading to the Romans, we are supposed to take heart, to turn to the light, and to trust that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” In other words, we are to live not as if our world were ending, but as if, in God, it is just beginning. As if dawn is approaching.
Which means we live as if we are children of hope. As if we have a reason to look forward. We live by putting aside fear. We live by choosing to go through this time as children of love. We support those whose lives have been upended by caring for them, by reassuring them, by comforting them with the promise that, in God, things will get better.
Because they are. This is the point of Advent. Things will get better because God is working in the world. Indeed, God has already come into the world, incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. And despite all of the upending and shaking, or maybe even because of it, God is turning this world into a place of beauty. Swords will be turned into ploughshares, and spears into pruning-hooks. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” The houses of those who exert their power in evil and oppressive ways will be emptied. Heart-break and pain and loss will be washed away in a flood. The world will be the right way ‘round again as the love of Christ falls gently down around all of us. And so we say, in this time of Advent, Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen.