The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Waiting on the Felonies of Jesus

Can we keep preaching these texts, year after year, and expect people to believe he is coming?

by Russell Rathbun

Gospel Reading: Matthew 24:36-44

For Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010: Year C – Advent 1

Nothing raises my holiday spirits like the anticipated threat of Jesus kidnapping someone at work and then breaking into my house and robbing me. And the fun part is, it will all be a surprise! Yeah.

No Need to Fear

This is how we begin the season of Advent. The only thing more fun would be if it could be little baby Jesus doing the kidnapping and the breaking and entering. If it wasn’t a little funny, it would be really creepy. But there’s no need to fear the Almighty’s surprise felony threat. The church has been preaching this for a very long time, and Jesus hasn’t gotten so much as a speeding ticket.

Still Waiting on the Promised Peace

Advent is the perpetuation of a promise that remains unfulfilled. I know it seems like a threat and not a promise in week one’s Gospel text, but the central thrust of the liturgical season is the expectation of the fulfillment of God’s promise of the coming of Messiah—again.

It is the celebration of the fulfillment of God’s Older Testament promise of Messiah and the anticipation of the fulfillment of the New Testament’s promise that Jesus the Messiah will come again to complete the fullness of the Kingdom of God. But why does he need to come again? Why didn’t the lion lie down with the lamb the first time?

“Are You the One?”

The Isaiah and Gospel texts for Advent promise a time when all nations will be at peace, the lion will lay down with the lamb, swords will be beaten into plow shares and this will all we ushered in by a little child, called Immanuel, God with us.

In Matthew 11:2-11 (Advent 3A), John’s disciples ask Jesus a hard question: “Are you the One or should we wait for another?” Jesus answers, “Tell John what you see: the lame walk, the blind see.” In other words, what do you see? What has been promised has been fulfilled.

This Advent we want to take John’s question seriously. When I look around, I might come to a different conclusion. Where is the promised peace? As preachers what do we tell our people?

The Hardest Question

This Advent season contributors will ask: Can we keep preaching these texts, year after year, and expect people to believe he is coming, that peace is ever coming?

Join the Hardest Question community in struggling with deep and difficult questions at time when we are pushed toward the shallow and simplistic. Add your comments; let us know how you read the text; what you might preach.

People are waiting for something . . .

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Tom Paine says:

    I believe we need to approach it much the same way we do to make Easter new or Pentecost new. Christ is coming, one day for all of us, but maybe every day for each of us As the sun both illuminates and warms us through the day, Christ enlightens and saves us as we move through our lives. Advent is both literal and symbolic, communal and personal. We want it to be a literal event that CNN could cover. But maybe it is primarily more personal than that.

  2. CJ says:

    You ever hear the joke “Jesus is coming – Look busy”.

    It stings a little because maybe we’ve been doing too much talking lately and not enough working. We talk about Christ’s return but how often do we really talk about what Christ wants us to be doing when he gets back. I mean Sunday service is nice all but that can’t be all Christ wants us to do.

    Maybe the theme for Advent should be “Time is running out and we have too much work and not enough hands”. Imagine the impact of thousands of Christians making service commitments of 8-20 hours per week. And not just by going to choir practice. But doing what the savior did, spending time amongst the dregs of society, teaching, feeding, healing but most of all loving them.

  3. Eric says:

    I have been pondering this text for a while now, and I realized that we keep waiting and clinging to the hope of Jesus’ return in community.

    Our text this week says that Jesus himself does not know the time of his own return, only the father in heaven does. So how do we keep clinging to this hope? With Jesus himself, parousia = presence, who is with us now, giving us hope to cling to, to keep waiting.

    We have a tendency to go from Good Friday to Easter Sunday all too quickly. We are in the holy saturday of faith. We want to go from Jesus was here, to Jesus here again, forgetting that Jesus is here now as well. That Jesus waits with us, suffers with us, hopes with us, and dies for us.

  4. David says:

    My hardest question is regard to the parousia, especially in the aftermath of the all the left behindness which seems to have overdosed so many with apocalyptic mania is related to 2 Peter 3:1-4

    “This is now, beloved, the second letter I am writing to you; in them I am trying to arouse your sincere intention by reminding you that you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken through your apostles. First of all you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!’”

    How fascinating is it that this 2000 year old text would predict our current malaise? Did they already grasp the seemingly ridiculous nature of their proclamation?

  5. Dave Horsman says:

    @David What if we have got the Left Behind pre-trib rapture wrong? What if He’s is not coming as a thief in the night to snatch his kids to go away to a floaty cloud forever but what if he is actually going to come to the earth to stay and set up a forever rule of peace on the earth.

    “Can we keep preaching these texts, year after year, and expect people to believe he is coming, that peace is ever coming?”

    I think we must keep preaching these texts because resurrection is our central hope. Restoration of the cosmos inaugurated by the Second Coming of Messiah Jesus is what we got to hang our hat on. Peace on earth is not a pipe dream but what Jesus has always been anointed to do and will do in a real tangible way soon. If we believe in a historic bodily resurrection of Jesus and a future bodily resurrection of those who say Yes to his leadership then wether that day of resurrection is 50 or 5,000 years off it must still be our central hope. If we do not have the hope of resurrection and restoration then we do not have good news. If all the good we do now does not have an eschatological hope of wrong made right then what is it? Messiah needed to suffer before entering into his glory. He is delayed but we must believe that it will not always be like this.

    I’m excited now! Maranatha!

  6. Rev. Russell says:

    Tom, I like your dialectical reading, the literal and symbolic, communal and personal. It is a place of tension. I mean, we do proclaim that something REALLY did happen in the first Advent. It seems we are meant to proclaim that something REALLY is going to happen in the parousia. Maybe, perhaps or most certainly what we are meant to proclaim is the sort of something that the literal can not contain.

  7. Jeff says:

    Do we keep preaching these text? YES! Vs. 42 tells us to “keep watch” vs. 44 says “be ready”. Advent is the time of preparation of the coming messiah. We need to prepare ourselves and our flock for just that the coming messiah. There is the essence of Jesus’ advent of his physical birth, the advent of our spiritual birth and the advent of the union of Christ and us in the future. His parousia is never changing, it always was, it is, and it will be! What a great passage for the first week of Advent.

  8. My problem with the “keep watch” and “stay awake” Is that I am more like the disciples in the garden than I am a well trained sentry. And it has been a really long time. In the same way I am not capable of love or faith that is not given to me, I don’t think I am able to stay awake either. If I am going to preach the exhortation, I am also going to preach the confession.

  9. I have never considered that the peace of God is not here now, but that it is something of the future. That it is something we all are awaiting.

    Jesus said, “come to Me”. And when we do go to Him with all our hearts, with all our minds, He has a gift for us. Jesus tells us that His gift is His peace. ”

    My peace is my gift to you”. Jn 14, And He tells us that He does not give peace as the world offers peace. But His is peace of mind and heart. A lasting peace.

    His peace is not one offered to nations and kingdoms, etc.

    His peace comes to individuals. One by one we are drawn into His peace as we come to know that He is the God of all Love, forgiveness, truth,and justice.

    He is The one who gives His peace to those who love,trust and believe. His peace is here now and lives on in millions of hearts.

    “Do not be distressed or fearful”. What a gift. Never to shake in ones shoes. Our God is in charge. Be not afraid. A godly exchange.

    Peace for trust and love.

    Rita Stiffler

  10. Rev. Bost says:

    I think part of the difficulty with the idea of waiting, notwithstanding our general preoccupation with instant gratification, is that is seems so passive. I wonder if our waiting for Messiah is more akin to a parent sitting vigil by the bedside of a child who has only spoken softly recently or has not appeared to have spoken in a very long time. The parent sits there, not passively, but actively, ready to hang on the first word or sign of life. The parent knows that any movement will be enough to sustain them for the next 24 hours.

    The image that comes to mind is that of Robert Louis Stevenson who, as a child, was very ill. One night young Robert was staring out his window, when his caregiver came in to check on him. When asked what he was doing, Stevenson said he was watching the man punch holes in the darkness. Of course, what he was seeing was the person in charge of manually lighting the street lamps.

    Advent for me is, at least, a revolution of light. We dare not forget that the act of lighting a light in the midst of darkness is a profound gesture of hope. If nothing else, the light helps light up the hidden places of our lives, even if sometimes the nature of our “hidden places” is to attempt to overcome the light. Advent is then, also, an exercise in truth-telling.

    How does our live manifest and bear witness to the crucified and risen Christ? Before rushing to the second noel, perhaps we would do well to better appropriate the first. I’m not sure I’m prepared for Jesus 2.0.

  11. Steve Hoerger says:

    There is no physical Jesus coming a second time. Ever. The most I can get from this passage is that we are to be fully mindful of every moment we have. If we spend the majority of our time worrying about tomorrow, hoping in a future rescue, depressed about our past, medicating our mind for relief…then we’re missing the deep, meaningful and joyful life that Jesus was trying to show us. We have a limited time of awareness on this planet and the goal is to fully live it.


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