Anticipation is an essential part of biblical faith. But it goes far deeper than just our liturgical anticipation of Christmas. None of today's readings originally had anything to do with Jesus' birth. They simply reflect a basic belief that Yahweh or the risen Jesus will enter our everyday lives at unexpected times and in unexpected ways.
Though Jews during the 8th century B.C.E. expected Yahweh to break into their lives and rescue them from their Gentile enemies, no one expected God to do it the way Isaiah predicts. Israelites won't have to worry about being hassled by Gentiles; the Gentiles will convert to Yahweh. "Come," the nations proclaim, "let us climb Yahweh's mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways and we may walk in his paths."
Once Gentiles actually walk Yahweh's paths, "they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again."
The prophet's most significant statement is at the end of our liturgical passage. "Let us walk in the light of Yahweh!" It sets the stage for Paul's instruction to the Christian community in Rome. "The night is far spent; the day draws near. Let us cast off deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us live honorably as in daylight . . . ."
In both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, light imagery is a classic way of expressing the unique frame of mind with which people of faith view reality. Even today we talk about a "light turning on in our mind" when an insight suddenly comes to us. In Paul's theology, the light of faith directs us away from everything which destroys life, especially "carousing and drunkenness . . . sexual excess and lust . . . . quarreling and jealousy." Such actions are off the radar for Jesus' followers.
It's clear from today's gospel pericope that many early Christians questioned why they were drawn to and by this light of faith while others in their lives never seem to have been "taken" by that phenomenon.
Though Matthew frames this oft-asked question in the context of Jesus' delayed Parousia, he doesn't give us a precise answer. He simply states the issue in an intriguing way. "Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding meal; one will be taken and one left." To "be taken" here seems to mean taken by faith. Why, in the same set of circumstances, for similar people, does one person choose to imitate Jesus while another chooses a different path? There appears to be no answer. Confident in his or her call, one need only follow the road the risen Jesus points out, no matter what others do.
Here the evangelist believes such a faith endeavor takes place against the background of an anticipation of Jesus' Second Coming. "You must be prepared . . . . The Son of Man is coming at the time you least expect."
Of course, we surface a huge problem when we hear this warning today. Jesus never came in the way Matthew and his community anticipated. By the time the next evangelist, Luke, writes, Christians are beginning to believe Jesus won't make such a return in their lifetime. A few years after Luke, John contends the Parousia has already taken place among us in a way no one in the first two generations of the faith anticipated.
The scriptural lesson is clear: followers of God must always "hang loose." Though we have specific ideas of what God will accomplish in the future, God almost always does it in a way no one could have predicted.
Today's three sacred authors are our witnesses to that unexpected phenomenon. After all, part of experiencing God in our lives is coming face to face with God's unpredictability.