Advent: It's About Time

MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Idylwood Presbyterian Church

December 1, 2013

Matthew 24:36-44


“Advent: It’s About Time”

24:36 "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

24:37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

24:38 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,

24:39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.

24:40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.

24:41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 24:42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

24:43 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. 24:44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.


When I was researching my book on Sabbath, I became fascinated with different ways that people understand time: the passage of time, the counting of time, and so forth. I ran across a number of cultures who view time in very different ways than we do in the United States.

For the Aymara people of the Andes, for example. time flows front to back. The past, which was known and therefore seen, lies in front. The future -­‐ which is unknown and unseen -­‐ is behind us, beyond our vision.

Over in Australia, the timeline of the Pormpuraaw, a remote Aboriginal community, runs along the east‐west axis. The past is east. The future is west.

Then there are the Yupno people living in the village of Gua in Papua New Guinea. There are no roads in this remote region. The Yupno have no electricity or even domestic animals to work the land. They live with very little contact with the western world.

For the Yupno the past is always downhill, in the direction of the mouth of the local river. The future, meanwhile, is towards the river's source, which lies uphill from Gua. This was true regardless of the direction they were facing.

What language do we use to describe time? We are accustomed to thinking about time as something behind us as we move forward into the future—the exact opposite of the Aymara.

What about this time of year? How do we think about the passage of time? Andy Williams assures us that it’s “the most wonderful time of the year,” though many would disagree. Others would say it’s just a busy time. There’s not enough of it. Time is flowing too quickly—Christmas will be here before we know it. (The young people among us may feel it can’t come quickly enough!) Time is a tricky thing.

Today is the first day of Advent, which when you come down to it, is a season about time. It’s a time to get ready. You must be ready, Jesus says. The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. We don’t know when. It may be while we are eating or drinking or grinding meal or celebrating a wedding: Christ will come again. Or in the midst of decorating the Christmas cookies or untangling the lights or addressing the cards or grumbling because that buffoon took your parking place at the mall… Christ will come again when we least expect it. 

That’s what Advent is about. We’re not just waiting for a baby to be born in meager circumstances and nestled into a manger. We are waiting for the coming of Christ. Because as the ancient affirmation goes, Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. He will come to inaugurate a new reign of peace and shalom, not in some distant heaven, but here and now. We pray for this new reign every week when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

But do we believe that Jesus will come again? Jesus’ words seem so archaic to our modern ears. Images of people being raptured away to heaven are fine for fiction—the Left Behind books continue to be big sellers—but we scientifically minded Christians know better. Or do we? According to the Pew Research Center, around 40% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ will either definitely or probably return to Earth before 2050. source

I’m not interested in taking a poll to see what we think. Because our views of the rapture are not a central element of our faith, as I see it. What matters to me, and what IS central to our faith, is whether we are willing to expect Christ’s coming among us right now, and to act as if he really will show up… as if he really does show up.

It was almost a year ago that Adam Lanza walked into a Newtown elementary school and wreaked havoc on the students there, and to a lesser extent, brought havoc on people of good will everywhere.

Do you remember the sick feeling in your stomach that day?

Do you remember the anguish, the utter disgust?

And do you remember the sense from people everywhere that maybe, finally, at last we will have a real, intelligent, and productive discussion about mental illness, and the myth of redemptive violence, and, yes, a conversation about guns?

If you had told me on December 15 last year, the day after Sandy Hook, that a year later absolutely nothing would have changed—no new national gun laws, no new focus on mental health, no nothing—my jaw would have been on the floor in utter shock.


…there’s also a part of me whom, if you’d told me nothing had changed, would have been completely… unsurprised.

Come, Lord Jesus. I need the message of Advent. I need the promise and hope of Advent.

And so we wait again.

But it’s a particular kind of waiting that Jesus calls us to. It's not about looking up, waiting for Jesus to beam us up to a place where Newtown doesn’t happen anymore. Instead, we are called to look around. The Son of Man comes in the midst of ordinary life: in the midst of us eating and drinking, working in the fields or in the mill.

We are in the midst of a “kindness experiment” at IPC, in which we are challenged to practice acts of (preferably anonymous) kindness toward someone else. I was asked last week why we have this emphasis. Aren’t we called to kindness all the time? Yes, we are. And one would hope that we aspire to kindness among people we see every day. But what the kindness experiment asks us to do is look beyond the obvious situations that fall into lap, to those situations that require a little more effort and foresight on our part. Alternatively the experiment may call us to think beyond the regular cast of characters whom we serve—instead looking to the stranger, to the co-worker who drives us crazy, to the cousin we haven’t talked to in years.

What the kindness experiment asks us to do is to live today’s text.

Christ is coming among us.

Will we see him?

Many of you know that we’ve had a health scare in Robert’s family. A few weeks ago, his stepmother was having severe leg pain, which turned out to be a clot. Through a series of tests, it became clear that open-heart surgery would be necessary.

The night before the surgery, my father-in-law, a reserved Presbyterian pastor who’s not known to wear his heart or his faith on his sleeve, wrote this on Facebook: A gospel song keeps going through my head, it’s called “I Know Who Holds Tomorrow.”

It wasn’t one I knew, so I looked it up:

I don't know about tomorrow;
It may bring me poverty.
But the one who feeds the sparrow,
Is the one who stands by me.

Many things about tomorrow
I don't seem to understand
But I know who holds tomorrow
And I know who holds my hand.

That is the promise of Advent. When we baptize little ones here, I often say, “We don’t know what the future holds for this child, but we know who holds her future.” We have hope, not in everything going our way, but in a good God who promises never to leave us… who in fact was born among us as a defenseless infant just to make sure we got that message.

So maybe we’re like the Yupno people—those folks from Papua New Guinea who look toward the future by facing the top of the hill, where the river begins. Like them, we look to a future we cannot see. And like that river rolling down the hill, bringing water and life and refreshment for the people, the tomorrows that Christ holds for us are coming toward us. Let us wade into that tomorrow, knowing that there we meet the risen and reigning Christ.


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©2013 MaryAnn McKibben Dana. These sermon manuscripts are provided here for personal use, and are not to be redistributed or otherwise reproduced without permission of the author.