Sermon by Jason Gerlach on Matthew 24:36-44
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On December 1st my parents remove two tattered boxes from the hallway closet. Both boxes contain bundles of old (faded and yellow) newspapers. Inside the bundled up newspaper are ceramic figurines: sheep, donkeys, camels, shepherds, maji, Mary and Joseph, and an elaborate stable.
This was a day I cherished while I lived in their home.
Along one family room wall there was a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf made from stained walnut. The bookshelf displayed a full-set Encyclopedia; family pictures; a few books, including one written by a relative named Horst Gerlach, which captivated me to no end. And there were other keepsakes, mainly from vacations.
Two-thirds of the family room wall was shelves. The middle third, however, was different. Toward the bottom, the shelf jutted out to create a square protuberance. It was almost the size of a folding card table. Inside the square, my parents kept their television. And, on top of the television was a large shelf. Throughout my childhood I spent a lot of time, especially the first day of each December, staring at the figurines displayed on the large shelf. I wasn’t allowed to touch them because my older brother had chipped one in his childhood. (IDK, something about a broken camel’s ear). But, I’d slide my hand along the green felt below the figurines, which either resembled my parents’ well-manicured lawn as fill-in for Bethlehem terrain or, simply, was included so the figurines didn’t scratch the shelf below. I’d stare into Joseph’s face, considering his thoughts and misgivings. I’d wonder how anyone could sit atop camels for days and whether that was wise. It looked like it would hurt. I’d ask myself why all the visitors were from the fields or distant lands and not the surrounding, nearby homes. I’d ponder whether the star had been there all along or had actually moved through the sky.
Most of all, I was perplexed that in my parents’ nativity scene there wasn’t a figurine for baby Jesus. Each morning I’d check (and I can remember the anticipation I felt those first days of December every year), but the space between Joseph and Mary remained vacant. It was, as if, the expectant mother and father set aside all month to await their child’s birth. (I know that, along with many other months, that is exactly what they did.) But, a nativity scene without baby Jesus for all those December days throughout my childhood felt unfinished. Something was missing. In all of my friends’ homes baby Jesus smiled up at Mary & Joseph each December day. I knew this was true because I checked. There he was in the Snavely’s living room; on the Guidi’s kitchen counter; even a large plastic representation in the front yard at the Yanefski’s home. Couldn’t my parents see that?
“So, what was going on?” I wondered, “Why didn’t our nativity scene include baby Jesus?”
It wasn’t until Christmas Day that baby Jesus appeared. He was the smallest figurine. Even smaller than the two lambs. But, there he was for that one day.
I later figured out that for each December day leading up to Christmas the baby Jesus figurine was hidden behind a set of children’s books from the 1920s three shelves above the nativity. He was nearby all along but a part of the scene for just one day.
With Christmas over, the following day was spent re-wrapping the figurines, carefully placing them in the tattered boxes, and returning the boxes to the hallway closet for the year.
Out of many days of searching, anticipation, uncertainty and worry both for myself and everyone else… after all those days, all of a sudden there’s one day that’s different. One day set aside for Immanuel, God with us. One day until next year. But, one day. Why? It’s a question I’ve wondered about for sometime. So, this Thanksgiving, I asked my parents about it, “Why only one day?” I asked, “Was it representative of your theology? Did you decide together that you’d keep the baby Jesus figurine hidden away until Christmas because it would reinforce a mindset that in this life we’re always watching and waiting and someday that’ll change but it hasn’t yet. One day things will be different. Was that your rationale? Help me understand.”
Over the years I’ve become aware of my go-to anxious behavior at family gatherings. I’ll bring up funny mishaps from previous years as a form of deflection. I’ll ask a lot of questions. In moments of frustration I’ll feign being deaf to solidify a posture of avoidance. But, this time I wanted my posture to be more mature. I wanted to listen better. I wanted to share about my life rather than interview everyone for no apparent reason. My parents’ responses led to a time when around the table each of us shared what we are awaiting. Once around the table it became clear that we are waiting for different things. In their 80s my parents are waiting for something very different than me and Wendy; and they are awaiting almost the inverse of their grandchildren.
Outreach Commission recently responded to an invitation from MennoPIN (Mennonite Palestine-Israel Network) to consider whether our congregation might work toward establishing a fraternal relationship with a church, mosque, hospital or school in Gaza. For November’s Monthly Gathering, Joe Roos, chair of MennoPIN, created a powerpoint presentation about the Gaza Twinning Initiative and invited Dorothy Jean Weaver to present it on behalf of MennoPIN.
Here are a few facts shared that evening: two million people currently live in the Gaza strip. It’s borders are tightly controlled by Israel. Gaza’s off-shore fishing rights have shrunk because Israel wants to exploit gas fields near the coastline, severely limiting Gaza’s fishing industry. Their water is undrinkable; fuel supply restricted; they have access to electricity for only 3-4 hours each day. The movement of goods and services in and out of Gaza is subject to Israel’s discretion. (And, all of these things have been going on for over ten years.)
It’s impossible to travel to Gaza because Israel allows access to very few outsiders. A long-distance twinning relationship is the next best thing. MennoPIN hopes that through establishing fraternal relationships congregations in the United States can share in the suffering of the people of Gaza as well as express care and love.
That evening of the Monthly Gathering about forty people attended. Afterward, nearly half of them expressed that they were ready to establish a fraternal relationship with Gaza. The following Thursday, Church Council processed the idea and approved that Outreach Commission could move forward in this direction. I relayed this information to Joe Roos. He informed me that we’re one of eight congregations who’ve responded to the Twinning Initiative. He seemed overjoyed but explained that it’ll take time to establish a fraternal relationship. He wrote, “We have direct contacts in Gaza, but two things are making it difficult to get a relationship set up in a timely manner. The first is communications. For us in the United States, communication via email is straightforward. We receive an email immediately and can quickly respond to it. But for people in Gaza it is not so easy due to the limited electricity and unreliable computers. It is difficult to maintain quick and reliable contact. It will, of course, be a reality in your communications once your twinning relationship has been established. This is part of the reality of life in Gaza. The second is the people of Gaza are under constant threat from Israel's blockade (for over 10 years now). Poverty is rampant. Israel severely limits the amount of food coming into Gaza. Drinkable water is scarce. The persistent presence of overhead drones with tear gas and bombs plus the bombing attacks by Israeli jets present an ever-present risk to life and limb. These serious distractions are having a limiting effect on our ability to communicate as well. Again, this is the reality of life in Gaza.”
In closing he wrote, “The time it takes to establish a twinning relationship is one way of getting to know what life is like in Gaza. Thank you for your patience and understanding. We will be in touch again when the relationship is ready to go!”
Advent is a season of asking questions. I anticipate that one day we will have an established fraternal relationship with a church, mosque, hospital or school wherein we will know questions that some Gazan people are asking? Until then, I will not venture to guess at their questions. We have our own, which may be similar or very different.
So, too, Advent is a season of waiting for God to break into our lives. Where is it that we’re waiting for this to happen and in what ways? I find that I often wonder: Is the world supposed to be like this? Or is something wrong? Why is it that so many of the people I know, deep down, have this sense that something isn’t right? How can the world can be filled with such beauty and good, and yet be filled with the opposite at the same time? It shouldn’t be like this, should it? God what are you waiting for? Why don’t things get set right? We could hope that it gets better. We could wait for it to get better. One day it might. But, I want a God that’s active now! I need a God who teaches me about today. I need a faith that guides how I live and helps me understand the world around me.
There are historical indications that some followers of Jesus settled into the expectation of a protracted historical period. They touted that Jesus raised from the dead but the world goes on; that the Temple was destroyed but still history goes on as before. But, Matthew warned against this attitude. In this morning’s passage, Matthew calls for attentiveness. Be aware! The passage is a composite group of sayings (through intertextual study you can see how Matthew pulled together these verses from the previously written gospel of Mark and other sources); a composite highlighting the suddenness and uncertainty of the hour of judgment. The aim is to motivate those listening to do the will of God while they still have the opportunity, before the judgment comes upon them. Matthew seems to recognize liminal space, but, even so, the reality of the final judgment is crucial for Matthew.
Here, in Matthew 24:36-44, there’s a call for action. For Matthew, doing good deeds is the authenticating expression of one’s discipleship. Throughout his life Jesus gathered disciples and taught them to exemplify their fidelity through good deeds. Disciples are, in the very definition, followers who learn to be a certain kind of student. Over time they represent their teacher more and more. They are measured by how well they remain faithful. Disciples learn to be a certain kind of presence in the world. They continually work to become people of peace, mercy and hope and they commit to partnering with God to make this world as God originally intended it to be.
In this passage Jesus pointedly describes ordinary, everyday activities, such as growing and making food for our daily survival. It is in the midst of those quite ordinary activities that God will come to us and call us away. One ordinary day people were tending their crops in the field. One ordinary day people were grinding meal together. People will drink and dance and eat and get married like they have always done, Jesus tells us. Into that very ordinariness God comes to us. Be aware!
That’s the story of Advent and Christmas. The mystery of God’s incarnation in the child Jesus is very much an ordinary event — the birth of a baby, just like so many other babies. Be aware! When all around us life seems ordinary we risk overlooking God’s extraordinariness. Be aware!
Our questions may not be answered during Advent. How can the world can be filled with such beauty and good, and yet be filled with the opposite at the same time? The season of Advent may not heal our frustrations, uncertainty, and hopelessness in the midst of situations that anger us to our core, but my hope is that we can live our lives in extraordinary ways in recognition that our lives are different, very un-ordinary, because of the presence of Jesus. As Christ’s disciples may we work to become people of peace, mercy and hope and may we commit to partnering with God to make this world as God originally intended it to be.
By the way, I now know why my parents’ nativity scene didn’t include baby Jesus except for that one day each year. It’s less about their theology than I expected. See they feel a connection with Mary and Joseph for they too expectantly waited for the last nine months of 1961 until, on Christmas morning, they rushed to Lancaster General hospital where my brother, John, was born.
In Advent we wait… for one day is not like every other.[/otw_shortcode_content_toggle]
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