Advent 1A Sermon (1998)

1st Sunday of Advent
Texts: Matthew 24:36-44;
Is. 2:1-5; Rom. 13:11-14


The question that scores of people will be trying to answer in the next couple years is: When is God coming to bring judgment? When is the Son of Man coming? We’ll have loads of answers from all kinds of crackpots as we move into the next millennium.

Notice that Jesus himself gives us an answer in today’s gospel, which begins very straight-forwardly: “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” You can’t get much clearer than that, can you? No one knows, not even Jesus.

Jesus does go on, however, to at least hint about it. Basically, he says that “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour,” like a “thief in the night.” We don’t know when, but it will be unexpected. By and large, people will simply be going about their everyday business, “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,” and working, whether in the field or in the mill. Yes, he’ll come like a thief in the night.

Today we begin the season of Advent, a time of waiting, both for the celebration of Christ’s first coming at Christmas and for his Second Coming, we know not when — only that it will be unexpected. Or do we know something more? After all, this will be Christ’s Second Coming. Shouldn’t we at least know a little about it from the first one? It couldn’t be totally different, could it? He’ll come like a thief in the night, unexpectedly, yes. It will surprise and shock many, but then so did his first coming. How so?

Let’s go back in time, for a moment. Jesus, in today’s gospel, goes back to the beginning, to the days of Noah. I’d like to go back instead to humanity’s first two sons, Abel, and Cain who murdered him. Let us imagine Cain: he’s sentenced to wander forever over the face of the earth, unable to find a lasting home, always with fear of some vengeance for his brother’s murder, and only half-protected by the laws designed to contain the vengeance. Let’s imagine Cain is getting on now, and feels that death draws close. He looks back with remorse over a wasted life. What he knows is that he has been wandering all over the face of the earth, without managing to settle anywhere. He has had to fight bloody wars to protect himself; he has helped others to build sacred frontiers to protect themselves, also, against the violence which spreads everywhere (which is the violence which had spread everywhere by the time of Noah, bringing a flood). We might say he even began religion — someone had to. Cain spread a theology, in which God is worshiped by people upholding strict laws separating good from bad, pure from impure, so as to keep God safely in place as the guarantor of social order. This God is keeper of the sacred violence, one might say, the threat of God’s violence so as to keep a lid on the human violence. But now Cain feels, he knows not how, that things are winding down, coming to such a end that neither he nor anyone has a real protection against the threat.

Let us imagine him in a hut, not very well built, trying to sleep. Sleep does not come to him easily, because he always has a feeling of danger, and at time stays half-awake through the night. This night is no different, but suddenly he is fully awake when he realizes that someone has entered, like a thief in the night. Cain is frightened: is it a thief? a murderer? He can see it’s a young man, in the shadows of the first hours of dawn, and this intruder seems unalarmed by having been detected, confirming all the old man’s fears that, at last, he will perish defenseless, as he has made so many others to perish.

However, the young man, on whose face can be glimpsed certain half-healed scars, says to him: “Fear not, it is I, your brother, Abel, don’t you remember?” He has to help the old man to remember that strong and handsome youth whom Cain adored, and who was his brother; so much did he adore him, loving him so much that the only way of being like him was to be instead of him, and so he killed him, not out of hatred, but out of envy. His presence forces Cain to remember these terrible things about his life, seemingly putting his whole life on trial. And now it will end with the proper vengeance, with an execution. His younger brother has come back, somehow risen from the dead to be victim, attorney and judge all rolled into one.

But what’s that look in his eyes? Hatred? Judgment? No! Love! And then he speaks a loving word, too. “Don’t be afraid,” he says. Yes, his brother has come like a thief in the night, but not for vengeance. No, instead he has come to grant forgiveness! Can you imagine that! Talk about unexpected! The slain brother who has every earthly right for vengeance has instead risen from the dead to offer forgiveness.

What I want to suggest from this story is that, in a very real way, this is exactly what happened when Jesus came the first time: he was killed like Abel, by all of us Cains, and when he rose from the dead, he came offering forgiveness instead of vengeance. Talk about unexpected! Not even his disciples were ready for it. In the twilight of that first Easter morning he caught them with the surprise and fright of a thief in the night. He had to come saying, “Don’t be afraid!” After all, they had been Cains, too. They might not have actively joined in with the lynch mob, but they had passively joined in. They had all run away at the crucial time. They had abandoned him and denied him. His coming on Easter morn must have been a lot like our story of Abel popping in on Cain like a thief in the night.

This is exactly what the Christian faith is all about: it is the return of Abel as forgiveness for us Cains. And it is the return of Abel not only as a decree of forgiveness for us Cains, but also as an insistent presence which gives us time to redeem our stories. However each of our stories is to finish, between this arrival of our brother like a thief in the night and the end of our days, we can be hard at work in the construction of the story of one who can look into his brother’s eyes neither with fear nor with shame. We can look instead with the gratitude of persons who have received our lives back, at the hands of the one we ourselves killed.

We might call our lives as Christians the time of Abel. It is the time in which the innocent victim is made present to us as forgiveness, and thus, little by little, allows us to see the truth of the lives we build up as Cains. Of course, this process of seeing the truth takes awhile. We don’t want to see ourselves as descendants of Cain. We don’t want to see that our civilization has been built on Cain’s ways of trying to contain the vengeance. Even now, we don’t want to see that the truth of the Gospel has been working for almost two thousand years, so that it becomes harder and harder to live lives based on vengeance. The mechanisms for vengeance in our social order have been slowly but surely been breaking down for almost two millennia.

What do I mean? It has come so very close to home these past couple of weeks. I’m talking about the high school students in Burlington who planned that blood bath of vengeance on teachers and fellow students. We shake our heads and wonder how this could have happened. Well, I have a suggestion to make to you today, and I’m sure it’s one you haven’t heard from the commentators and news people: This tragedy, or near-tragedy, happened because we live in the time of Abel. We live in the time since Jesus rose from the dead and popped in on us Cains like a thief in the night, not to wreak vengeance like we would, but to forgive us. He takes away our way of vengeance so that when we still try to live by our old way, we increasingly wake up with a moral hangover. An example here might be our current troubles with Iraq. We can no longer easily use threats of violence without a moral hangover — in this case, folks who won’t let us forget the innocent victims who would likely be killed in any use of force. Our leaders can’t think of anything else to do with someone like Saddam Hussein other than the threat of military force. But Jesus our brother, who was an innocent victim, won’t let us easily forget the innocent victims.

So how does this relate to understanding the Burlington situation? Because our mechanisms for vengeance are slowly breaking down, people on the fringes, like those troubled high school students, experiment with vengeance on their own. Do you see? The official structures of vengeance are whittling away, so these high school students were going to try to free lance it. Sure, it doesn’t make sense to us. It is reprehensible to us. But, if the truth be known, what they did was simply as old as Cain. Over the years we have found ways to dress up our vengeance so that it looks ‘civilized.’ But when our civilized versions are taken away from us, then these ‘uncivilized’ versions, such as the one in Burlington, pop up and scare us half to death. The deeper truth we need to see, however, is that our civilized versions won’t work any longer because our brother Abel — Jesus, our truly innocent brother — was raised from the dead, came upon us like a thief in the night, but then forgave us. He ultimately took away our way of vengeance, so that we’ll never quite be able to go to it in the same way.

There are plenty of news pundits and talk show folks who will talk ad nauseam about the breakdown of our institutions and societal structures. But I’m suggesting much more here. For one thing, I’m proposing that the main factor behind the breakdown is the Gospel. Again, talk about unexpected! I know that sounds crazy. But the deeper truth I’m talking about has to do with realizing that there is always an element of force, or the threat of force, of retaliation and vengeance, underlying our institutions and societal structures. And Jesus’ first coming into this world slowly takes those away from us, because he has established a new way based on forgiveness. And so, while most of the pundits and commentators will lament the breakdown of cultural standards, I’m saying that the Christian should perhaps have mixed feelings about it. Jesus came to eventually take our way of building culture away from us, because it is a way of building culture that goes all the way to Cain, to both his murder and to his need to protect himself from vengeance. So the breakdown is good to that extent. The final breakdown is what we ultimately hope for, since it will be replaced by Jesus’ alternative way of peace founded on forgiveness. But most people still stubbornly cling to the old way, and so, as these structures break down, you get a lot of episodes like the one in Burlington

Is this a scary thing? Yes! That’s why the New Testament has plenty of passages like the one today. It doesn’t back down from the consequences of Jesus letting loose the way of forgiveness and love into the midst of our comfortable arrangements based on force, retaliation, and vengeance. As those arrangements slowly erode, there might be more violence for a time, not less.

But the New Testament is also full of words of encouragement. It tells us that while Jesus did come to take away our old way of doing things, and even though that’s a scary thing, he also came to give us a new way, a way based on love and forgiveness. So we also have words like those from St. Paul today that encourage us to wake up and put on Christ. And in the weeks ahead, as we prepare for celebrating Christ’s first coming at Christmas, we will hear many words of prophecy like those from Isaiah this morning, assuring us that God has sent his anointed one into the world to bring about a new way of peace. This peace will win the day!

Is it a scary world? Yes. But that makes it all the more important for you and I to share the Good News, to help people to see the light, not only the hard truth of our being more like Cain than Abel, but also the blessed truth that Christ’s coming means that we can begin to be more like him. His Spirit can truly guide our feet into new ways of peace. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, November 28-29, 1998


1. The title, much of the wording, the fable, and the whole general idea of this sermon are based on the section “The Time of Abel, or the Inhabitability of Time,” pp. 132-138 in James Alison’s Raising Abel [New York: Crossroad, 1996].

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