Introduction: The Unexpected Guests: Although it seems to be less frequent in the digital age, “drop-by” visits by neighbors, family or friends often leave us unprepared. We haven’t had time to vacuum the floors, puff up the pillows, or put the kettle on. Our Advent text this week presents another surprise, perhaps a bit more significant than an unannounced guest: that this life could end at any moment.
And while an apocalyptic text may seem an odd choice for the season of Advent, we are to remember that our waiting is not only a waiting for the Christ child to be born, but for Jesus to return in glory to “judge the living and the dead.”
But who wants to hear about the end of the world other than intense street preachers and the occasional mentally ill person living on the streets of our cities? Most of us avoid these people like they have the proverbial plague…and yet…it is the one we call “Lord” and “Savior” who speaks these words to his disciples…and therefore to us.
Jesus’ words here are clearly meant to knock us out of our complacency and to remember just how dependent we are on the gracious gift of life, which could end at any moment.
Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?
This section of Matthew’s gospel is focused on the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, which fights against Satan’s forces.
Ultimately, God’s kingdom will be victorious, with the coming of the eschaton: the return of Christ in his second coming. This will be the end of the world as we know it. Jesus’ advice to this fledgling Christian community: be ready, vigilant, and watchful.
Historically, the early church took Jesus’ words very seriously and literally, believing the second coming was just around the corner. Paul deals with this explicitly in 1 Thessalonians 4, where there was some concern among the Christians in that community that as they began to die, that they would not be included in Christ’s kingdom:
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. (1 Thess. 4:13-14, NIV)
So the second coming was essential to those early Christ-followers, believing that Jesus would return as the just judge to oversee his kingdom.
Ἰησοῦς Lens: How do we point to Jesus?
Just as Jesus’ earthly ministry had a revelatory character: that is, a way of showing the true motives of those he interacted with, so too does his return.
“Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.” (Mat.24:40)
In other words, the second-coming of Christ will show us the true nature of our discipleship. Are we true Jesus-followers? Or are we going through the motions, putting on a show, but really remaining lord of our own lives?
Jesus compares his unexpected return to the days of Noah. Some have wondered if this is because of the evil generation in which Noah lives. Most commentators seem to think probably not. The connection to Noah is made to show how everything can seem to be normal, only for a life-changing event to quickly disturb the status-quo. If you were not ready, as those outside of Noah’s family were not, unfortunately you were set up for destruction.
In the next parable, Jesus likens his return to thieves who come in the middle of the night. What are we to make of this analogy? Is Jesus saying his return is similar to a thief who robs us of everything we own. Not exactly…and yet perhaps in this sense: if we are not ready, if we are not truly his followers, than when he does return, nothing will be left. So it’s in that sense that Jesus compares his return to a thief who comes, not when everyone is awake, but when everyone is sleeping. The metaphor of “being alert” and “staying awake” is meant to remind us that we never know when it might be our last day on earth. At some point, Jesus will return, and the question for us is, will we be ready?
Modern Lens: How does this touch my heart, life, emotions, thoughts and relationships today?
The Call to be Ready: So what are we to do? It would seem foolish to completely ignore Jesus’ words. Whenever I come across Jesus’ apocalyptic teachings in the gospels, I am convicted of my own need to remain watchful, to remember that God holds all time in his hands, and that, as Jesus makes clear both implicitly in the parable, and explicitly in his explanation, we are to be ready for the end of all life as we know it, as the king returns to “judge the living and the dead.”
So the call is a paradox: how to prepare for being unprepared? How to prepare for the fact that, like an uninvited guest, sometimes there is beauty and spontaneity and connection that we would not have otherwise expected otherwise. Because one truth about Jesus’ return is certain: this world is not perfect. Its brokenness seeps into each and every aspect of life.
This life was never meant to be the end of the story, only the beginning of a narrative that will continue beyond our earthly life. So does taking this text seriously mean we have to shout on city corners, “the end is near!” No, probably not. But it does mean we are to remain watchful. To remember that, whether for us it is because our time on earth is at an end, or Jesus does return in our lifetime, that we are to be ready. To wait for the uninvited guest, because we never know when they might show up on our doorstep, calling us home.
A question we might ask is, “why should we be ready?” Isn’t our salvation already assured by our faith through grace? Couldn’t you argue “being ready” is a form of works-righteousness, the very opposite of living according to God’s grace?
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but my guess would be that remaining vigilant in our waiting for Jesus’ return is one more way we get to rely on God and not ourselves. If we really believe that time is in God’s hands, that at any moment this world could cease to function, then we are more likely to live as Jesus describes in the beatitudes as those “poor in spirit,” who rely upon God completely for everything they have.
This is at least in part the message of Advent in general and this passage in particular. Sure, it can be a bit of a surprise to welcome a guest into our homes who tells us the world might end at any moment.
But are we willing to listen if that guest happens to be Jesus himself? Can we even wait expectantly for the lord of the universe to return, righting the wrongs of this broken world with perfect justice. It might just be one of the most important questions we ask in this Advent season.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
When will he come
and how will he come
and will there be warnings
and will there be thunders
and rumbling of armies
coming before him
and banners and trumpets
When will he come
and how will he come
and will we be ready.
Madeleine L’engle, First Coming
A Watchman at the Gate
Editor’s Note: The following was an imagination exercise used while preaching on Matthew 24:36-44, I began by inviting the congregation to close their eyes.
Imagine you are a watchman (or woman) standing guard of an ancient city. You are currently under siege, because, as you may know, most ancient battles took the form of a siege, with a foreign army camped outside your city, you, inside the city are protected by your gates, your city walls, but they are waiting, hoping, praying, that you will give up because you have run out of water and food.
You’ve been on guard for 32 straight days and the work is getting to you, you hope that the invaders will give up, but you don’t really know if you have enough supplies before your sister city can bring reinforcements, but will they have the courage to face such a formidable foe?
And so really, more than anything this has become your new normal, it’s slightly boring, monotonous, just watching, hoping they don’t try to enter by your entrance to the city. And so, you just kind of doze off, you didn’t mean to, but you’ve been doing this for over a month now and it just kind of happened.
You wake up to the sound of grapples catching the top of the bulwarks and the sound of crashing lumber, as ladders clank against the wall. All of sudden, the monotony of the last 32 days has been transformed into the most desperate, intense moment of your life, as you realize you have fallen asleep and everything is about to change.
This is a glimpse of the picture Jesus is painting in this morning’s passage (Matthew 24:36-44).
The picture of the second coming is one where normal life is interrupted in a moment, and then everything changes, and the question is: how will we respond?
Stuart Strachan Jr.