Harrowing Of Hell
December 3, 2013

Give Joy

Preacher: Holly Boone, Epiphany Parishioner

Matthew 24:36-44

Jesus said to the disciples, “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 those 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 unexpected hour.”

Let’s talk first about the sensational bits of today’s Gospel:

“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.”

These verses of course are among those some Christians use to buttress their belief in something called The Rapture.

If this bit of popular culture has somehow escaped your notice, let me fill you in. As commonly portrayed, The Rapture is like a corporate-wide performance review. We’ll be going about our ordinary business of the day, and without warning the good faithful will be promoted and vacuumed bodily up to Heaven, leaving behind the unproductive goof-offs with their awful manager the Antichrist.

This belief has inspired a small industry of novels, art, movies and some pretty funny bumper stickers. My favorite: “When The Rapture comes, can I have your car?”

Today’s Gospel reading is part of a larger discourse spanning Chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew. This message was meant to reassure first century Christians who were disappointed that Jesus had failed to show for the Jewish rebellion against Rome and to prevent destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. The message is in summary: Jesus is indeed coming again. Only God knows when. Until then don’t stand around watching the clock until quitting time. Be prepared and make use of your talents in works of mercy and compassion for our neighbors, who are not just those people like us whom we know and love.

Scholars, at least those represented in the Christie House library, say that the passage “one will be taken and one will be left” refers—sorry, Tim LaHaye—simply to the ordinary sort of rapture we know too well:

A beloved wife and mother doesn’t make it home from her commute. The fit young man collapses on the gym floor. The biopsy is positive. Loved ones are taken from us and we are left behind.

For me a perplexing thing about today’s Gospel reading is, why is it today’s Gospel reading? Today is the first Sunday in Advent, and in this season, don’t we look to His first coming?

So let’s talk about this coming of Christ. Let’s talk about Christmas. I imagine that in the next few weeks many sermons will be preached along the lines of “put Christ back in Christmas.” As believers, we should indeed celebrate the miracle of the incarnation, and not the miracle that puts retailers in the black.

Christians often bemoan the commercialization of Christmas, but plenty of us are still enthusiastic participants in the commerce. I think the excesses of this this season, however, aren’t due only to the cunning of marketers and retailers, although there is plenty of that. I think that Christmas has gotten so commercially out of hand in part for a very understandable reason: We love those we love and we want to make them happy.

It might be helpful especially this month to remember what we really long to give our loved ones when we give them any kind of gift. When we give them the fancy scarf, darling earrings, iPhone—you name it—we’re really trying to give them joy. The thing in the merrily wrapped box could be anything. What the giver ardently hopes is that the gift becomes, in the heart of the receiver, joy.

Retailers know this. Remember that famous perfume Joy, once the world’s costliest perfume? It is still the second most popular, just behind Chanel No. 5. Surely its name played a part in the success of this fragrance.

Of course, for children often joy really is the thing in the box. At least it’s joy for a little while until the next thing in a box comes along: newer, better, more. That’s what gives me pause.

This past summer my two teenage nieces came to visit. Their luggage included two enormous checked bags; various backpacks, purses, and totes of that wildly patterned Vera Bradley brand; and way too many clothes. Most appalling was their umpteen bottles of nail polish—eight pounds of it. Even with forty fingers and toes between them—eight pounds of nail polish?

During their visit they seemed to enjoy most not the easy hike at Mt. Rainier or walking the beach at Kalaloch, but their shopping sprees at University Village. Now my nieces were not raised as secular hedonists. At their conservative Baptist church, my brother is a deacon; my sister-in-law, the director of music. My nieces spend a lot of time at church.

Their rapt consumerism was very distressing. I wanted to tell them, as I would have told their younger selves not to run with scissors, “More is not happier. Happy is enough; happy is less.” I wanted to save them all the years of their lives it would take them to learn what I know now at sixty.

Not so long ago, I thought I would be significantly happier if only I had certain things: Cole Haan loafers; a Mont Blanc fountain pen; linen shirts in beautiful colors. Once I had acquired these items and the honeymoon was over, they of course became just stuff. The loafers didn’t make me look like Katherine Hepburn; the fountain pen didn’t make me write more or even improve my penmanship. The linen shirts needed ironing.

Maybe these kinds of lessons can be learned only by and for oneself, by and for a particular heart and soul. Maybe the kind of knowledge that resides in the heart and soul can’t be imparted like arithmetic.

Still, I wonder if there is some way as a Christian community we can’t model for our children a better way of living in a world of material abundance. If we don’t, who will? Nothing on the Disney Channel or social media or billboards or the web is telling them “Happy is enough; happy is less.”

This past week, the “Science Times” section of the Tuesday New York Times was devoted to the changing American family. I was especially struck by two bits of information: Americans own more material goods per household than any society in history. And: Even when all members of a family are at home and awake together, they were in the same room only 14 percent of the time.

Should we be concerned about this? I don’t know. There’s nothing inherently evil about the stuff junking up our homes. But the danger is letting it also junk up our souls and the souls of the children we love. Could all this stuff affect us in ways that that we don’t even yet understand? Might it be like apparently “safe” levels of pollution that nevertheless do subtle but accumulative damage to our DNA?

For sure stuff can be mightily distracting and a waste of time. Think how often you have cleaned out the garage or basement. In striving for the top school and top career and top salary and top neighborhood, we spend less meaningful time with those we love. And we spend less meaningful time with God.

So how do we model for our children how to live in a world of material abundance? One way might be to give each other joy and to give it more often and to more people, both to our loved ones while we still have them with us and to people we don’t even know. Say a family in Ecuador whose life could be transformed for generations by a single goat from Heifer.

And if the thing in the gift box, our stand-in for joy, if that can be anything, how about nothing in the box? Just give joy, the pure article.

  • Spend time with an elderly friend or relative and write Christmas Cards together.
  • Read to children. Your children. Anybody’s children.
  • Load the kids in the car some evening and drive east of the Cascades so they can get a good look at the Milky Way.
  • Send a card to someone you know must be lonely.
  • Make dinner for the young couple who just had a baby. You get the idea.

Give yourself joy. Recently social scientists conducted an experiment. They gave people a twenty dollar bill. Half were instructed to spend it on themselves. Half were told to spend it on others. Both groups were then asked to evaluate their overall satisfaction. Not surprisingly, those who spent the money on themselves reported less satisfaction. Those who spent the money on others reported more happiness. Those of you who emptied the YWCA Giving Trees last Sunday will certainly give your adopted families joy on Christmas morning. Chances are you will feel that joy as well. Thank you.

Give God joy. Even if He has everything, God wants our gifts. He wants what all parents want from their children, especially their grown children off leading busy lives very far from home: They want a phone call. A visit. A long chat. When these things are addressed to God, we call it prayer.

Perhaps begin your gift to God by coming to Epiphany next Saturday for the Day of Quiet. In the next few weeks, look for opportunities to visit God. When you are stuck in holiday traffic, say a prayer. When you are waiting in line at the check-out, check in with God.

In a few Sundays we will sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” Each time we hear this old carol in the next few weeks—on the radio, as Muzak in Safeway, here in church—remember that while we wait for Christ, whether for his first or his second coming to this world, we are meant to be agents of love, mercy, kindness, and compassion. And joy. How else are we to repeat the sounding joy? How else are we to share the wonders of His love?