November 27, 2016

Advent 1 Year A

Jesus recounts the story of Noah and the building of the ark. Yet he emphasizes something different than what we find in Genesis. There the world is corrupt and filled with violence in God’s sight. That is why God sends the flood.

But as Jesus tells it, people in the days of Noah were occupied with eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage: ordinary and acceptable human activities. The problem lies not in these activities, but in how the people of Noah’s time “didn’t know until the flood came, and took them all away. . . .” They were sufficiently distracted by the usual business of life that they ended up losing their lives.

The two versions of the Noah story can be reconciled, but let’s consider how Jesus tells his version and why. What he does here expands and deepens the significance of a text we thought we knew.

Jesus cites the Noah story to illustrate how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man at the end of history. The separation of those taken and those left does not depend on people’s behavior, whether good or bad, so much as on their awareness, whether they are capable of recognizing Christ when he comes like a lightning flash that rips across the sky. What’s called for is not perfect behavior, but alertness. What’s required is not abstaining from ordinary life, but maintaining in the midst of the ordinary a sense of the extraordinary, a recognition of the holy.

This summer I made a trip to the Washington DC area to meet with our Capital Campaign consultant and to experience the Celtic Eucharist that we begin this evening. One of the great things about Washington is the Metro system, a network of public transportation, much of its underground that serves the District of Columbia and a growing area round it.

You get to a number of Metro stations by taking escalators deep down beneath the surface of the city. Some of these escalators are among the deepest in the world. Once you reach the appropriate track, the train you want will come within a few minutes.

The train platform is a remarkable place, because it is governed by a single reality: the coming and going of trains. The people gathered there, whether many or few, have this common point of reference, and all of them are aware of it. There on the platform the coming and going of the trains is inescapable. The train has either left; or the train has stopped, however momentarily; or the train is expected to arrive.

People on the Metro platform have an awareness which sets them apart from Noah’s distracted neighbors. Those neighbors were preoccupied by the ordinary business of life, enough to miss the train, or in their case, the ark. People on the Metro platform, however, are governed by the single reality of trains gone, trains that have stopped, and trains still to come.

The Christian is someone who recognizes a single reality like that. Not trains, but the Christ who has come, is here among us now, and is yet to come. As Christians, we must avoid the distraction that spelled disaster for Noah’s neighbors. We need the sense of awareness, a shared awareness that characterizes the people on the Metro platform. We can have our Metro moments when we recognize that the common point of reference, the determining reality, is the Holy One, Jesus, who has come, will come, and is present now among us.

This Advent season, which starts today, is an invitation to such Metro moments, not only during the weeks up to Christmas, but through the entire year. This Advent season is a model for living the Christian life, living in the awareness, the collective awareness, that Christ keeps interrupting the ordinary cycle, and that these interruptions give life significance.

Some Metro moments take us utterly by surprise. Others occur when we open ourselves through some practice of prayer, a retreat from distraction that leaves us susceptible to God. As the Washington, DC commuter descends down long escalators to the station far below the surface of the city, so sometimes in prayer we descend to a hidden place in our hearts where we encounter the Holy One, the Christ who was, who is, and who is to come.

But Metro moments happen elsewhere too. Today’s Gospel belongs to a section of Matthew that ends with a scene of the final judgment. There King Jesus makes it clear that we meet him in other people, in the sick, the poor, the prisoner. He counts our service to his majesty through what we do, or fail to do, for them.

So there too we experience a Metro moment, when what prevails is not the distractions that beset us, but the Christ who was and who will be, meeting us now in some other person whose hands are open, seeking help.

Noah’s neighbors stand as a warning during this Advent season: Don’t miss the Metro moments! We are gathered on the same platform to which the Holy One comes like a glorious train, its headlight piercing the darkness.

We meet this Holy One when we move out of ourselves in silence waiting for God, and when we move out of ourselves in service to others.

Take time, during this Advent season to recognize that sacred Reality which is far grander than all our absorbing preoccupations. Dare to wait, to wait for the train which reliably and unexpectedly thunders through our existence, which brought us here and meets us in the midst of our ordinary lives, calling us to an extraordinary existence.

There is only one platform, and there is only one train, that has come, and will come, and comes at this moment.

Amen.