In the Meantime, I: The Already and The Not Yet

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November 27, 2022

In the Meantime, I: The Already and The Not Yet

Passage: Matthew 24:3–44 Selected Verses

This Advent at Kenilworth Union Church, Katie and I want to preach this sermon series called “In the Meantime.” We’re going to be using the common lectionary passages and for the first Sunday of Advent the lectionary suggests a passage from Matthew 24.

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus answered them, “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.

 “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 the 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 hour you do not expect.

People are fascinated by the end of the world. This is true inside the Christian Church and outside of it. I guess that’s not so surprising since it will be an event of some significance for all of us.

Thus our apocalyptic literature is robust and expansive in every culture around the world.

“Apocalypse,” by the way, is a Greek word which means “revelation,” or “unveiling,” or “disclosure.” “Apocalypse” or “Revelation” is the name of the last book of the Bible, and the adjective “apocalyptic” refers to the end of the world.

So what’s the greatest book or movie about the end of the world? I Am Legend, The Road, World War Z, Children of Men, The Stand, The Handmaid’s Tale, A Quiet Place, 2012, Greenland, Armageddon? According to one website, the greatest apocalyptic film ever is Mad Max: Fury Road.[1] Personally, I am partial to Don’t Look Up.

My preacher friend Scott jokes about walking into a bookstore and finding a sign reading “Books on the Apocalypse Have Now Been Moved to the Current Events Section.”[2] You see what he means. A pandemic has turned into a tripledemic. Three multiple homicides these least two weeks in the United States. Blue Americans hate red Americans, and vice versa. The Kremlin is misled by a miscreant who is at once both malevolent and incompetent. He’s all Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse rolled into one: Death, Famine, War, and Conquest. It’s all Current Events, and it’s all a little ominous.

One day near the end of his ministry, Jesus teaches his disciples about the end of the world. “There will be wars and rumors of wars,” he says. “Nation will rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be earthquakes and famines.”

But then he gets to his main point and says, “But about that day or that hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor even myself. Only the Father knows. It will be like the days of Noah. People are going about their normal business, eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, and then suddenly a few rain drops sprinkle the earth and it doesn’t stop raining for 40 days and 40 nights.

“Therefore,” says Jesus, “Therefore keep awake, for you do not know what day your Lord is coming.” He wants us to remember that we do not know when the end is coming, the end of our puny little lives, or the end of the whole cosmic order itself.

This is the passage the Common Lectionary gives us to think about on the First Sunday of Advent every year. Now you know why I frequently abandon the Common Lectionary to choose my own Scripture Lessons. There’s some weird stuff in there.

But you see why the Common Lectionary wants us to think about this apocalyptic literature on the first Sunday of Advent every year. “Advent” is a Latin word which means “to come,” “to arrive.”  And the Lectionary wants us to remember that Jesus is the one who came and will come again.  He came long ago to that feeding trough in Bethlehem, and he will come again on clouds of glory as a thief in the night. Christians live between the two Advents.

The thing is, it’s been 2,000 years. As year succeeds to year, and century to century, and millennium to millennium, that spectacular Advent, that glorious future arrival seems unlikelier and unlikelier. So I want to think this morning with the mind of the Christian Skeptic, who takes his Bible seriously, but not literally.

Because passages like the one I just read have elicited all kinds of empty, futile speculation about the Anti-Christ, 666, and the rapture, which is a word, by the way, that never appears in Scripture.

Barbara Brown Taylor notices all the bumper stickers which read, “If the rapture happens, this car will be driverless.” But then she notices other bumper stickers which read “If the rapture happens, can I have your car?”[3]  Some people think it’s all a big joke, and it probably is.

So let me skip all the idle speculation and cut to the chase and reduce Jesus’ wise words to their distilled essence: Keep awake, because you do not know when the end is coming. One sharp raconteur asks, “How many people in your life have you already had your last conversation with?”[4] Do it now. Don’t put it off.

Life is short. You don’t have time to indulge your animosities, nurse your grudges, swagger in your fraudulent superiority, avoid the lonely, or scorn the different. Cultivate your best self now. Magnify and multiply your virtues now. You don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, because he’s coming back—literally or figuratively—he’s coming back, like a thief in the night.

On our recent Alabama pilgrimage, we visited The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, founded by Bryan Stevenson who wrote Just Mercy. The Legacy Museum tries to teach us what it was like to be white or black in 1960’s Birmingham or Montgomery.

The museum has all these photographs and video clips of beautiful, smiling, runway-ready white teenagers in bobby sox and letter jackets. They look like fraternity brothers and sorority sisters luxuriating in their privileged, youthful camaraderie.

“Two-four-six-eight,” they chant. “Two-four-six-eight, we don’t want to integrate,” like it’s a fight song or a cheerleader routine.

It’s what the mob chanted at Ruby Bridges when she integrated that elementary school in New Orleans in 1960. “Two-four-six-eight, we don’t want to integrate.”

These kids were well-dressed, well-coiffed, well-raised, nice, and polite. They look just like your New Trier son or Northwestern daughter. They went to church every Sunday, every single Sunday of the year. They confessed Jesus Christ as their ever-loving Savior.

Some of them are still alive today. They would be in their 80’s now, but that image is how they’ll always be remembered. It’s frozen in time. It is never too soon to get it right.

Pam Burrell attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, in the 1970s. She was the only Black woman in her entering class. When she arrived, she discovered that her dorm room had been configured so that she and her roommate wouldn’t have to share a bedroom. When she asked why her room was built that way, they said, “We thought you would be more comfortable.

In her sophomore year, Pam volunteered with 11 other students to visit the Washington State Penitentiary, maximum security. She went every week for two years. She says, “It was the place where I felt most at home.”

One week, Pam discovers that she is only volunteer to show up for that visit. It turns out that the smash group The Ohio Players is visiting the campus that night, and everyone is going to the concert. So she drives the white van by herself to the prison.

When she arrives at the prison, the inmates ask why she is the only one. She explains that all the other volunteers are watching The Ohio Players. The inmates poke gentle fun at her. “What’s the matter? You don’t like The Ohio Players?” She says, “It’s my favorite group.” “Then what are you doing here?” they all ask. She says, “Because I love you guys, and I want to do everything I can to help you thrive.”

The room goes suddenly quiet; no one makes a sound. Then one guy starts to cry. He finally says, “Nobody’s ever told me they loved me before.” Then the other guys start to weep, then they all start to weep, including the prison guard who is watching them. Even Pam is crying.

Later, she says, “I don’t know if that program helped those guys, but it sure helped me.”[5]

What will he find you doing when he comes back like a thief in the night—literally or figuratively? What will you be doing when the world comes to an end, your own personal world, or the cosmic order itself?

Christians live between the two Advents. He came long ago at Bethlehem, and he’s coming again—literally or figuratively, he’s coming again, like a thief in the night. We live In the Meantime, “mean” as “in the middle,” and sometimes “mean” as in “cruel and unkind.”

Theologians are fond of talking about “The Already and the Not Yet.”  Jesus has already come but is not yet finished. The world has already been saved but is not yet whole. Satan is already crippled, but not yet defeated. God’s plan has already been enacted, but not yet fulfilled. The slant of history is already toward the light, but the full light has not yet arrived. You’re leading 38–23 and then you intercept the Buckeye quarterback. 38–23! But there are still 4:19 left in the game. You’re already on the verge of victory, but the game is not yet over.

All praise and glory and honor to Jesus the Regent, who has already come, but not yet returned. Stay awake, keep watch. When he comes again, let him find you visiting the prisoner, loving the unlovable, and welcoming the stranger.


[1] Matthew Mahler, "Best Apocalyptic Movies, Ranked," from Movieweb, https://movieweb.com/best-apocalyptic-movies/

[2] Scott Hoezee, “The Days of Noah,” a sermon for Advent 1, https://cepreaching.org/written-sermons/advent-1a-the-days-of-noah/

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Don’t Say When: Expecting the Second Coming,”  The Christian Century, September 21, 2004, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2004-09/dont-say-when?reload=1669422150719

[4] Jonny Sun, author of "Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too," Ted Radio Hour, December 18, 2020, https://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/947666071/making-sense-of-2020

[5] Pam Burrell, “My Unlikely Brothers,”  a story for The Mothhttps://player.themoth.org/#/?actionType=ADD_AND_PLAY&storyId=11550

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