When my older brother, David, first moved out of the house and was living on his own, we looked forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas, in the hope that he would come home for a day or two, and our family would be together for the holiday. To understand how much this meant to us, you need to have a little background. My brother was the eldest child in our family. He was my only brother. We four girls adored him. As a young, single adult, David enjoyed driving the latest, fanciest car he could afford. I remember well his first Corvette, a white 1959 model with a removable hard top. Then he moved up to a midnight blue 1963 Stingray with the fiberglass body and the headlamps that rotated out of sight when not in use. By 1972, he was driving a Porsche. So, whenever David came home to visit, part of the excitement was discovering what he was driving, and arguing over who would get the first ride in his new car.
But the real excitement came with trying to figure out just when David would arrive. You see, David liked to play tricks on our mom. He would call a day or two before we expected him, and sadly explain that he just couldn’t come this year. He was really sorry, and he wished he could get away, but it just wasn’t going to happen. Then, he’d pull into the driveway the next day, and we’d run out to meet him with shrieks and squeals, our disappointment turned to instant joy.
One year, he called on Christmas Eve, and mom started the conversation with, “Don’t tell me you can’t come home for Christmas!” He assured her that he would be there, but he was still about an eight-hour drive away. Five minutes later, he was walking in the door. He had called from a gas station less than eight blocks away.
One of the reasons this ruse worked so many times, however, was that sometimes, David really didn’t show up. Some years, he didn’t even call. So we never knew. Is he coming this year, or not? And if he comes, when will he arrive? We just never knew.
A couple of weeks ago, we heard Luke’s take on a conversation between Jesus and his disciples, as they asked him “When will these things happen? What will be the sign that the end is near?” As we begin a new church year with this, the first Sunday in Advent, we move from Luke’s gospel to Matthew’s, and his version of the story asks the same question. How will we know, Lord? What will be the sign? When will your Kingdom arrive? Jesus answers that we must stay alert, because we just never know when the Lord will return.
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24:36-44)
In music, we call the form this passage takes a “rondo” – the main theme keeps coming around again. There may be other ideas tucked in between repetitions, but the main theme keeps coming back over and over. It becomes very familiar. You’ve probably figured out by now that the main theme in this passage is:
No one knows when the Son of Man will come again.
It must have been difficult for the disciples to understand that even Jesus didn’t know when the second coming would take place. They knew that Jesus was certainly the Messiah, the Christ that God had promised to redeem Israel. They had seen God’s power working through Jesus as he healed and performed miracles before their very eyes. They had just begun to grasp what it meant to be following the Son of God, and they believed with their whole hearts that Jesus could do absolutely anything. So, why couldn’t he tell them when the end would come? How could he possibly not know?
Jesus tells them that the day and the hour cannot be known, but there will certainly be signs that point to the time as it draws near. For example:
Just as in Noah’s time, people were carrying on their daily business and were surprised by the flood, so the coming of the Son of Man will be a sudden surprise.
The reference to Noah hints at the work of God in the baptismal waters that welcome us into the family of God. But the same water that held up the ark, saving Noah and his family, also destroyed those who were unprepared for the disaster of the flood. Remember that Noah had been building that ark for many years when the flood finally came. Though he had been faithfully telling them to get ready for it, people ignored him. Then the floods came, and there was no time for the people of Noah’s day to change their minds, to repent and turn to God. As they went about their daily business, they failed to notice that the ark was getting finished, that the animals were gathering two by two, that dark rain clouds were forming in the sky. The signs were all there, but the people didn’t see them. They weren’t prepared.
No one can know the day or the hour, but there will certainly be signs that point to the time of Christ’s coming as it draws near. For example:
Whether working in the field or the kitchen, those who belong to Christ will be separated from those who do not, and there will be no time to change camps then.
Just as the people in Noah’s time had their daily routines, so people will be going about their regular tasks when the Son of Man comes. Jesus gives examples of men working in fields and women grinding grain, so we know there is no gender advantage at play here. We will all be about our daily work when the time comes.
A lot of attention in this passage has been given to “one taken and the other left” but we must be careful about how we interpret this example. I don’t think Jesus meant that exactly half of the world would be saved, and half of the people would perish. I also don’t think that the “Left Behind” series of books and movies, with their focus on a “rapture” of believers and a frightening portrayal of life on earth after that event, did much to help us understand the point Jesus is trying to make.
Jesus is speaking, once again, in parables, to help his listeners understand a deeper truth about the coming of the Son of Man. The point is not to speculate about a final day of judgment some time in the future, “but to confront us with God’s radical claim on us here and now. Each day is a day of judgment, so I should always be asking myself, “Am I living in the way of Christ? Am I trusting in him alone?”
Whatever you are doing when the time comes, you won’t have a chance to change your mind about Jesus then. It will be sudden, and it will be final. Since we have no idea when it will occur, we need to start living our lives right now for the possibility of that moment. We need to make sure that the daily tasks we are performing when Christ comes again are the sort of tasks that will prepare us for that time. As we work our fields and grind our grain, we need to be doing it as faithful followers of Jesus who are eager for him to come again. As we go about our daily routines, those routines should reflect our hunger for God, and our desire for his Kingdom to come in its fullness.
Jesus warns us to be alert and faithful, so that we will be ready when it happens, because – here comes that main theme again – “you don’t know when that day will be.” And in case we still haven’t understood the message, Jesus gives one more example:
Just as a person’s constant vigilance protects his home from a break-in, you must be vigilant, for the Son of Man will come at an unexpected time.
While the homeowner’s vigilance may be born out of fear of being robbed, our vigilance is more like new parents expecting their first child. They don’t know exactly when their lives are going to abruptly change, but they look forward with joy, watching with care as they prepare the nursery. Even when the house is ready to welcome the new baby, they wait in anticipation of those first labor pangs, the sign that birth is about to begin.
So, how do we get prepared? How do we stay awake? How do we watch for the Lord to come again?
We go about our daily work, filled with expectation. We do not live in anxiety, afraid of being left behind, but we live in a state of joyful preparation, as we anticipate Christ’s coming. We do not wait passively, but we are actively engaged in the work of the Kingdom, our hearts and lives reconciled to God, living out our faith in expectant hope. We trust in the future, not controlling or even knowing the details of what is yet to come, because all our hope is founded in God alone.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. – Romans 13:11-14
We are expectant and hopeful – this first Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of hope, after all. We live into the hope that God will keep his promise, just as God has always kept his promise. We develop the art of watchful living, as we faithfully pursue the purpose to which God has called us here and now. It is from this here and this now that we remember the history of God’s promises kept, even as we look ahead toward the time beyond time, when Christ will come again in glory and all things will be made new.
In the meantime, we are being made new. We find a renewed hope that God has something in mind for us. We must live into that hope, as we look expectantly for what that something might be. Jesus tells us three times in this passage that the burning question isn’t “when?” but rather, “are you ready?”
Are you ready to let him change you into a new person? Are you ready to give up quarreling and jealousy, greed and anger, gratifying your own desires? Are you ready to give up the habits that keep you from living a life that is rich and full of hope and promise? Are you ready to give up everything that keeps you from giving your life to Jesus? Are you ready to do that every day, and every hour of every day?
If you aren’t ready to turn over your life to Christ, what’s keeping you from it? I invite you to examine your heart, and to surrender to God anything that is causing you to live in fear instead of hope.
Because this is the good news, people! God loves us so much, he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes on him will not perish, but will have eternal life (Jn 3:16). Eternal life isn’t something you have to wait for. It doesn’t start the instant you die, or when Christ comes again, whatever day and hour that might be. Eternal, abundant life can begin right now, right here.
For “you know what time it is,” the Apostle Paul writes, “how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we [first believed]; the night is far gone, the day is near.”
No one knows when Christ will come again, but he’s coming. We can wait in fear, and ignore the signs that tell us the time is near. Or we can wait, faithfully prepared and expectantly ready, living into the hope that God will, once again, keep his promise.
Even so, come, Lord Jesus! Amen.
 John P Burgess, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, 24.
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