When it comes to dealing with Scripture, Jesus does not appear as a rigid literalist. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, he repeatedly makes reference to some command from the Hebrew Bible only to expand and deepen its significance. “You have heard that it was said. . . . but I tell you. . . .”
Something similar happens in today’s Gospel. Jesus recounts the story of Noah and the building of the ark. Yet he tells its differently 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. As with the Sermon on the Mount, what he does here expands and deepens the significance of a text we thought we had figured out.
Jesus cites the Noah story to illuminate 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.
Many of you know that this fall I spent time in our nation’s capital. 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.
One reaches a number of Metro stations by taking escalators deep down beneath the surface of the city. Some of these escalators, I am told, are among the tallest in the world.
Once you reach the appropriate track, the train you seek will come within only a few minutes, unless it is there already. The train platform is a remarkable place. Why? 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 utterly 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.
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The Christian is someone who recognizes a single reality like that. Not trains, but the Christ who has come, is here, 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 Human 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. Thus 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, as I call them, 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 secret place in our heart where Christ encounters us, 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 for help.
The neighbors of Noah stand as a warning during this Advent season and always: Don’t miss the Metro moments! We are gathered all 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 prayer to God, and when we move out of ourselves in service to others.
Take time, during the month ahead and always, 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 for free and takes us on, home to glory.
And make room on your Christmas list for people whose names you do not know, but in whom you can meet Christ alive. Expand your generosity to include those who have nothing to give you except a blessing. Offer gifts this season to the Christ who awaits your kindness in the person of the poor and the hungry and the prisoner, the disadvantaged family, the AIDS orphan in Africa.
For whether you see them or not, they stand beside you. There is only one platform, and there is only one train, that has come, and will come, and comes at this moment.
We leave the one platform and we crowd aboard the one train, and we ride together, the poor and the hungry and the prisoner, the disadvantaged families, the African AIDS orphans, all of us together, thundering through the darkness of this world, awaiting the bright light of eternal day.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright for this sermon 2007, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).