This is the first Sunday of Advent, the season of Christmas. It is the beginning of the church year. Isn’t it interesting how many years we have? There is the fiscal year, July to July, and the academic year, September to June, and of course all the ethnic years, Jewish and Chinese, for example. And there is the church year, or liturgical year. The liturgical year is from Advent to Advent. Last Sunday was the celebration commonly called Christ the King, the end of the church year, and this week marks the beginning of the Advent season and the beginning of the Church year. Church’s have some funny traditions, don’t they?
The Roman Catholic Church, for better or worse, is the oldest of all the Christian churches. That doesn’t make them more correct or anything. It just makes them oldest. The early church back in the first century was a very loose confederation of churches from all around Asia Minor. And for 400 years they were separate. Then, after the emperor Constantine called together the council of Nicea, the church coalesced into what we now think of as The Roman Catholic Church, with the presiding Bishop of Rome as head of the church. The Greek Orthodox Church never agreed to this and is separate to this day.
Right after the departure of Jesus, it was his brother James who was considered the leader of the early church in Jerusalem. Of course, that does not necessarily make him the head of the church. The gospel story points to Peter as the one with whom Jesus entrusted his mission. “You are Peter, and on this rock I shall build my church.” The Greek word Petros means “rock”. This is actually a little (very little) joke on the part of Jesus. Jesus would have called Peter, Cephas, the Aramaic name, which means “pebbles”. So Jesus was sort of saying, “Okay Pebbles, now you are a rock, and on this rock I’m going to build a church.” Okay, I said it was a little joke. Tradition has it that Peter eventually went to Rome, so it was decided that leadership of the church would fall on whomever was the bishop of Rome.
It was at that Council of Nicea that it was decided among all the bishops, which of the hundreds of early church documents would be included in one uniform “bible”. There were many gospels floating around. There was a Gospel of Nicodemus, a Gospel of Mary, a Gospel of Peter, a Gospel of Thomas, the now infamous Gospel of Judas, and even a Gospel of Pilate. And of course, there were the four that are included in our modern bibles today, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I first took you all through the gospel of Mark, and then last year, I took you through the gospel of Luke. This year, I’m taking you all through the Gospel According to Matthew.
The Gospel According to Matthew is one of the oldest. Mark is considered the oldest generally, being written somewhere in the 50’s CE. Then comes Matthew, generally considered to be written somewhere between 55CE and 70 CE. This is argued, however. We know that much of Mark and Matthew are identical. So the question arises who copied from whom? Since Mark is shorter, and generally considered the observations of Peter, it is argued that the author would have most likely borrowed from Mark. We know that Matthew was written before 70 CE, since Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans, and there is no allusion to that, which would be odd in light of Chapter 24. Matthew reproduces about 90% of Mark. It was mentioned in the writings of the Bishop Papias of Hieropolis in Phrygia around 130 CE, so we know it was around before that date.
While both Mark and Luke were written for a gentile crowd, Matthew was certainly written for Jews. It quotes the books of our Old Testament more than sixty times, and makes no attempt to explain Jewish culture whatsoever. So obviously it was expected that the readers were already well acquainted with Jewish tradition. It was the purpose of Matthew to prove that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah prophesied by Isaiah, Daniel, and various other writers in the Old Testament books. Matthew even begins with a genealogy to prove that Jesus was a direct descendent of the famous King David. For those who doubt that Jesus existed, I have to say that it would be really foolish for someone to write a book about a guy when there would be people around in the same place who could say, “Hey wait a minute, this is all bullshit!” Matthew and Luke are the only gospels to provide the “Christmas” story of the birth of Jesus.
And since you are all well acquainted with the Christmas Story, I shall continue in my cheerful discussion of death and the end of the world, this time through Matthew’s eyes. Matthew tells the exact same story that I gave you from Luke a couple of weeks ago about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus and the disciples were walking through the temple area when his pals started to talk about how beautiful the temple was. Now we should remember that these guys were expecting Jesus, as the Messiah, to return the temple and Jerusalem to the Jews. So imagine their surprise when he says, “You see all these things, do you not? Look, I say to you, there will not be left here a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” That must have absolutely floored them. They still thought he was talking about some kind of earthly kingdom and some kind of earthly idea of glory. How could the master be saying that the temple would be destroyed? That was close to blasphemy right there. This upsets them so much, that later on, when they are resting on the Mount of Olives, they ask him when all this is supposed to happen.
He proceeds to tell them, since they insist, about all the things that are going to happen comes the end of the world. And things are going to get mighty bad. Jesus says there will be tribulations unlike any the world has ever seen. He says there will be wars and earthquakes. He says that they will be persecuted and killed. He says the sun and moon will no longer give light. In fact, what he describes sounds a lot like a nuclear winter. But who knows? Jesus goes so far as to say they better hope that this doesn’t all happen on the Sabbath. Now what could that mean?
Well, what that means is that Jesus knew his buddies, being good Jews, would follow the law, and the law said you couldn’t travel on the Sabbath. So he’s kind of chiding them by saying, “You idiots better pray this doesn’t happen on the Sabbath because you’d be too tied to those damn laws to try and save yourselves.” So all of this discussion by Jesus is a jab at following that set of laws and thinking that gives you some sort of spiritual pass. He’s telling them that their beautiful temple is going to end up as ruins and that everything will one day come to an end, and your “Laws of Moses” aren’t going to save their asses. So there is no point in worrying about when this end is going to happen. You live your life correctly day by day. And when I say “correctly”, I don’t mean by following a set of rules and regulations. I mean with an eye toward understanding your connection with the divine and each other, which is really the same thing.
In fact, Jesus goes so far as to tell them, regarding the end:
“For as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the son of man. For in those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking and getting married right up until the day that Noah went into the ark. They didn’t know the flood was coming, and you won’t know when the son of man comes. Two men will be out in the fields. One will be taken and the other one left behind. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and the other left behind. So stay awake! If the master of the house knew when the thief was coming, he’d make sure everything was locked up tight. So you too, should be prepared, for you do not know the hour the son of man is coming.”
And all this talk about the temple, the horrible end times, the analogy of the people out in the fields is as much as to say, “Look, don’t think that because you are “God’s holy people”, that you are protected from bad things happening to you.” That great temple was destroyed. All those apostles and followers of Christ were persecuted and killed. And “God’s Chosen People” have been persecuted now for two thousand years! It’s all random. One gets taken; one gets left behind. Every single day good people die. Bad people die, too. It has nothing to do with God rewarding or punishing anyone. That’s not what it’s all about. That’s why it’s so crazy for possibly well meaning idiots like Pat Robertson to tell everybody that God is punishing America because of the gays. In the immortal words of Bob Dylan, “Everybody must get stoned!”
Follow all the rules of your church or don’t, either way you’re going to die. Your car is going to break down. You are going to have money worries from time to time, and you’re going to get sick. That’s just the way it is. Jesus continues, “But if the wicked servant says, ‘My master is long delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eat and drink with drunkards, the servant’s master will return at an unexpected day and an unknown hour and will punish him severely.”
So you don’t behave nicely because you think God is coming. You treat people with love because it’s the right thing to do. When I was a little boy of six or seven, the old lady who lived in the apartment behind us asked me to help her carry her groceries into her home. I helped her and she gave me a nice shiny dime as a reward. I was so happy and proud that I took it to my mom to show her what I had earned. My mom, in a most loving way, explained to me that you don’t accept a reward for helping someone. You do that out of kindness, and she made me take the dime back to the old lady. I have tried to live my life by those words ever since. I don’t help people expecting some kind of reward. In fact, just as Jesus told his followers, when I try to help people, often as not, I find myself being punished for my efforts.
Jesus told his followers that if they followed all his teachings and did everything he told them to do, they could expect to be persecuted and even killed for their trouble. You don’t do what is right because some deity is going to reward you. You do it because it’s the right thing to do. And this came as big news to those people who were reading Matthew. They had always been taught that God rewarded the righteous and punished the wicked. You don’t reach God from the outside in. You reach God from the inside out. First, get in touch with your divine spirit, and then all those good actions will follow. Get in touch with the divine and you cannot be cruel or selfish or greedy or mean spirited or judgmental. Follow the rules all you want; it won’t help you connect with God.
Everything here will come to an end. The temple will come to an end. Religion will come to an end. Nations and laws will come to an end. Even you, will come to an end. But God, that spirit of the divine, the creation, the Atman, the Tao, will never come to an end. And you are a part of that spirit. And God is eternal.