Monday, November 28, 2016

Taken or left?

“O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

Take it or leave it.  I suspect we’ve all had offers like that. But the Gospel reading this morning asks us a harder question – taken or left, which will we be?  “Two will be in the field, one will be taken and one will be left.  Two will be grinding meal together, one will be taken and one will be left.”   If we look a little harder at the passage, it’s not even abundantly clear which I want to be, taken or left.  When the secret police come knocking, it is clear that you want to be left.  There are Christians and others in the world today who fear the knock at the door.  They desperately want to be left.  But when you live in the midst of war and poverty, you want to be taken to another, better place.  There are many in the world today, not least the many refugees, who long to be taken more than anything else.  The hope and the longing of the refugee to be taken is no greater or lesser than the longing of the oppressed to be left.

Taken or left, which are we to wish for in the light of the Gospel reading?  It will probably be no surprise to learn that there are scholars who take each side.  The majority say that Jesus is expecting us to want to be taken.  But there are others who suggest that Jesus is in fact suggesting that we should want to be left. Now, it is important that scholars have things about which to disagree.  But it needn’t trouble us too much.  For, much like the refugees and the oppressed, it all depends for what you are taken!  Those who think we should want to be taken, see those taken as taken for salvation.  Those who think we should want to be left, see those taken as taken for judgement.  Taken or left, for salvation or for judgement.

Salvation and judgement are among the great Advent themes.  They ask us to lift up our eyes and recall the bigger picture of our faith.  In Advent we are reminded of the whole sweep of our faith.  The Gospel this morning reminds us of Noah – about whom more in a moment.  The Advent wreath asks us to think of Abraham and Sarah, of the prophets, of John the Baptist and of Mary.  The themes of judgment and salvation are never far as we look for the coming of Christ to establish his kingdom among us. 

Isaiah calls us to consider the big themes.  ‘In days to come’ he promises, there will be a time when every nation will come together.  It will be a time not of walls, or of separation, but of walking together.  It will be a time not of arming for war, or of striking at enemies, but of turning weapons into instruments of feeding other people.  Isaiah speaks of judgment and of salvation; he speaks of inclusion and of peace.  This is truly a vision that calls us to the big things of faith.

Salvation and judgement, inclusion and peace.  These are things to inspire us, but they are also things that can dwarf us.  What are we that we can have anything to do with such big and important matters?  The great themes of Christian faith can leave me feeling small, impotent, and, well, incapable of making any kind of difference to them.  The danger of Advent is that it makes me feel that I have little to do with the great vision of faith, of salvation and judgement.  Taken or left, I can do little about it.

And that is why it is so good that Jesus draws attention to the days of Noah.  The story of Noah is, as I will say given any opportunity, the Gospel in miniature.  And on a day of such grand themes, miniature is what we need.  Noah fits the pattern of the gospel reading, in that it is not clear if he is taken away from the world, or the only one left behind when the flood comes.  Is Noah taken or left?  I’m not sure we need to decide!

So let’s picture Noah, patiently building an ark while life goes on around him, ‘eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,’ as Jesus puts it.  Ark building doesn’t seem particularly useful while all of that is going on.  Shouldn’t Noah have been confronting the evil around him?  Perhaps he should have launched a political career or organised demonstrations.  But instead, he built an Ark. Surely there were many times when he wondered if he had it right, if this was really what God wanted of him.  There must have been times of doubt and frustration, of bewilderment and disillusionment.  But Noah patiently built the Ark, one plank at a time, even though it wasn’t raining. 

Can Noah, then, be a figure that speaks to us?  Patient building, seemingly distant from everything going on around him.  What will it mean for us this Advent, to see ourselves as patiently building while the world carries on around us?  What will it mean to worry less about being taken or left, but to be ready for the unexpected hour when we will need to go into the Ark? We live, as Isaiah puts it, “in the light of the Lord”.  The great stories of the faith give us the framework into which we put our lives.  But within that framework we need patience and perseverance to carry one, to see those great themes shaping and working themselves out in the daily parts of our lives. 

We are to live lives that make sense of the stories of Jesus, or perhaps better, we are to live lives that the stories of Jesus make sense of.  It is Jesus whose life, death and resurrection gives us the framework to live our lives as Christians.  Perhaps this Advent it would be worth reading through Matthew’s Gospel, and seeing it as the framework for our own lives.  Despite what commercial Advent calendars would have you believe, there are 28 days in Advent this year.  And there are 28 chapters in St Matthew’s Gospel.  It would make a very good Advent calendar.  As we read, let’s ask how we see ourselves in the Gospel stories.  And from that, how we can learn to meet Jesus in our daily lives.

Whether they are to be taken or left, Jesus teaches his disciples to be ready to meet him.  As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, and as we prepare to meet with Jesus when he comes at that unexpected hour, let us prepare to meet Jesus day by day.  My Advent challenge to us all is to read through Matthew’s Gospel, asking how we see ourselves in the Gospel stories, so that we can learn better to meet Jesus day by day.  We begin this morning by meeting Jesus as he comes to us in broken bread and poured out wine.

This Advent, let us prepare to meet with Jesus by learning to meet him day by day.  “O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”  Amen.  Come Lord Jesus.

First given at Derby Cathedral 27.11.18

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