Sometimes people say that the Old Testament God is a God of fear, judgement and punishment, while the New Testament God is a God of love, forgiveness and welcome. Today’s Scripture readings show just how mistaken this is. The Old Testament reading from the Prophet Isaiah is a message of hope and fulfilment, of peace and light. In the second reading St Paul is being stern and firm and just a little bit grim. And in the Gospel reading, Jesus’ message is positively doom-laden and threatening. In fact, the way God is pictured in Scripture is much the same throughout the whole of both Old and New Testaments. Scripture is the story of God’s dealings with us, his rebellious people; and if there are differences in Scripture, they are differences of our reaction to God, our growing understanding of Him at different times of our history, not differences in God Himself.
Isaiah is writing as he does because he is taking a very long view. He is looking forward to ‘the days to come’, to the future when God will finally establish his Kingdom, which he calls ‘Mount Zion’, that is, Jerusalem. All the nations of the world will stream to it, to worship God in His Temple, to know His ways and to walk in His paths. It will be a time of justice and peace, a time of total fulfilment for all. No swords, only ploughshares. In saying this, Isaiah is using images from his own time, to describe what God will bring to pass in the ultimate future, in the beatific vision, though it is partially fulfilled at times in the history of the Church. Sometimes people have flocked to the Church, sometimes they have persecuted it, and sometimes they have just ignored it.
Paul and Jesus on the other hand are taking a much shorter view. They are concentrating on how we should live now, in the present. Paul says ‘the time has come’, that is, the time of Jesus, when God’s final salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus is offered to us; but we can still either accept it or reject it. So he urges us to live determinedly in the light and life of Christ, for only in that way will we find fulfilment and happiness.
Likewise, in the Gospel reading, Jesus warns us to be ready for what he calls ‘the coming of the Son of Man’. This means not just an event in the future, but also his continual presence with us, even now, though we often fail to recognise him. So he is urging us to be aware. In the days of Noah, he says, people went about their ordinary business unaware of the judgement hanging over them. They were quite unprepared for the flood, which came and swept them all away. In a similar way, the coming of the Son of Man is a crisis hanging over us, but a far more important one. Some will be ready for it, some will not. Two men will be working in the fields as they usually do; and two women grinding corn, part of their regular work. In each case, one will be ready, the other not. That’s the heart of it: being ready, prepared. You never know when the burglar will break in. If you are not prepared, you will suffer the consequences.
So Jesus is talking about our own awareness and decisions, our own acceptance or rejection of God. Each one of us can be either prepared or unprepared for this coming of the Son of Man, and that is the most serious decision of our entire lives. If we are prepared, if we accept Him, then he will welcome us into beatitude, which is the gift of God. If, on the other hand, we are unprepared, if we reject, then we reap the consequences: frustration, misery, hate. Jesus had told parables about the threat the hung over the Jewish people if they failed to welcome him as Messiah. He warned them that the consequence would be the destruction of Jerusalem; and that is exactly what happened 40 years later. So his words of threat and warning were referring in the first place to that Jerusalem crisis. They remembered what he said, and you can imagine people saying afterwards: ‘He was right; He could see it coming’.
But His words apply just as much to the ‘coming of the Son of Man’, not as a future event, but as His continual presence with us now. All the time the Son of Man is coming to us. He is present with us, and all the time we are being challenged to accept or reject Him. Advent is the time when we think about this especially, when we try to open our lives to his coming, to the inflowing of His love and forgiveness. It is a time when we strive to accept the good and reject the bad, so that we become more and more like the Son of Man and share His life.