Week of Sunday 1 December - Advent 1
Gospel: Matthew 24:36-44
36 ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But 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. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
People thought Jesus would return very soon. Acts 2 records the selling of possessions; people were expecting him in days, weeks at the most. In one Thessalonians 4 starting at verse 13, Paul is reassuring people. It is clear that people have died before Jesus has come and this has been a struggle to understand. He concludes in verse 17, "Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord together. Therefore encourage one another with these words."
By the time of 2 Peter the delay in the Lord's coming has extra bite. Chapter Three says," First of all you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging in their own lusts and saying, "Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were the beginning of the creation!" (3:3)
How are we to understand the texts which bear witness to the first Christians' conviction that Jesus would soon return? What do we think will happen?
Sometimes we worry that Jesus has not come. When will it finally happen? In the West where we are generally relatively secure and safe, this question contains nothing like the pain of those who suffer even with their lives for their faith. But even here in Australia for a woman living with violence, or a parent sinking in the endless struggle of caring for disabled child, or for someone living with severe depression, the desire and need for Jesus to rescue them can be urgent and real. Why has he not come? Why does God let this go on?
For some folk it is a great problem that Jesus was apparently wrong. An uncritical reading of the text sees that Jesus said these things will happen. Matthew chapter 24, including today's reading, clearly indicates that Jesus will come again. There will be a day and an hour verse 36 tells us, even though it is not for us to know which hour it will be. How can Jesus be wrong?
When we preach a sermon on Sunday, or while we are critiquing the exegesis of the preacher, there will be people in the pews next to us, who are longing for Christ to come soon. There will be others who are afraid that his delay— or should we call it his 'not coming'— means that Jesus was wrong, and they will question whether or not he is to be trusted about other things.
From an exegetical and interpretive point of view the issues about what Jesus knew and whether he can be trusted, begin to fade when we let Jesus be fully human. Of course he will make mistakes. Of course he could not know everything. If he didn't make mistakes, and if he did know everything, how could he be fully human and, therefore, how could he suffer like us? If he were not human like us, how could we possibly follow him and carry our cross? If he were not fully human he would be an impossible act to follow.
The problems begin to fade when we let the Bible be what it is. It is a book which records people's struggle to understand and to respond to the God they have met. It catalogues their responses, and their hopes, and their misunderstandings and shortcomings. It is truly inspired; struggle with this book and meet the Presence to which it bears witness, and your life will be turned on its end and changed forever.
Such an answer is likely to cause even more consternation for those who are worried about the authority of Jesus and the authority of Scripture! We meet the cost to congregations whose clergy have been too afraid to tell the truth about biblical studies and their implications. In truth, I think some of my colleagues have been too afraid to admit the truth even to themselves. Which is not to say that it is easy to teach people new ways of reading the bible; Congreve (not Shakespeare!) infamously said there is nothing like the anger of a woman spurned. He was wrong. Ministers know the anger, fear, and hysteria of a person whose biblical idol has been up-ended is far greater.
I could be wrong about all of this of course. One day of the Lord may return in the sky. I sincerely doubt this, and hope it will not be so. What kind of God has the capacity and the brute power to override all the physics and chemistry we understand, arrive in the clouds, and defeat all the empires and all the evil of earth, but waits for over 2000 years before he does anything? And waited how many millennia before Jesus?
Perhaps there is some deep underlying mystical reason to which I am completely blind. But on the face of it, God's delay means only one thing. If God has waited this long, God is a monster. To let 2000 years of unspeakable suffering, of horrific tortures, and of unspeakable evils, continue when you could intervene is just evil.
Tell me yourself, I challenge you— answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death one tiny creature-that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance— and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect of those conditions… And can you admit the idea that men for whom you are building it would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim? And accepting it would remain happy forever? The Brothers Karamazov pp269
The hope and idea of the return of Jesus, based deep in the Jewish traditions of apocalypse, is a longing for justice, and for God to set things right. It is a good hope, but it cannot happen according to our traditional expectations. If it did happen in the way it was traditionally accepted, it would leave us thinking rather less of God.
Does this mean the whole tradition of Advent, of Christ's coming, is an erroneous waste of time? Does it mean that today's reading warning about watchfulness and being ready is simply an historical artefact— perhaps we should preach on something else this Sunday?
No. If we ever lose sight of the deep suffering of the whole earth, and of the horrific injustice which is too often the rule rather than the exception of human experience, then we have lost our humanity, and we have lost our faith; we have become blind.
The longing for a return of Christ, an act of God where the startling healing work of one man in transforming the people around him spreads to the whole earth, is fundamentally healthy. It is all some people have.
Those who are rich, secure and comfortable, and unworried by injustice, are blind. They have lost a part of their humanity. They have become part of the problem. They do not know that they are complicit in evil and injustice. They do not know that their riches are for the healing of earth, not for themselves. They are lost.
The only healthy humanity, the only true discipleship, is to hope for the return of Christ, for the creation of a new earth with the overthrow of evil, injustice, and fear. What monsters have we become if we do not long for something like this? The means and the method do not need to be 'one like son of man coming in the clouds,' but if the vision is not there in some form, we have already perished. There is no hope left.
The warnings about not being deceived, that no one knows the day or the hour, still stand. The Harold Campings of the world lead to people sell their houses, and be utterly deceived about the nature of life and of the future. False prophets long for the petty power of holding our attention and stoking our fears. Some are honestly sincere, too. But no one knows the day or the hour. Don't listen to them.
For those of us who still do expect that we, or our descendants, will one day see 'one like a son of man descending on the clouds' this word is true. We can only live "ready." We must be ready for him to come after lunch, and yet ready to continue our entire life without him coming, and training our children to live their entire life without his yet coming. We do not know the day or the hour.
In the meantime life will go on as it always has, eating and drinking, and giving in marriage. And we will go along with it, like the exiles in Babylon, seeking the welfare of the city where we live. We are called to live differently, to live for justice, to love, and to have mercy.
Bill Loader says, "Not knowing is to face one’s vulnerability." There is another way to say this: accepting that we do not know is to live faithfully. Calculating the day and the hour betrays a deep lack of faith in the justice of God.
For all of us, although this was not Matthew's point, the Lord will come at an unexpected hour. A cancer diagnosis, the death of family member, or a last few days or minutes as we lie dying ourselves; we will meet our maker one day. What will we do then?
To ask in agony, "Why me God? Why this?" is natural; it's the human response. But to have lived a life for ourselves, without discipleship and the wisdom and the transformation it brings, leaves us not only without answers when our world begins to end, but with the most naive theology of God, without the mental and spiritual equipment to face our struggles.
Until then, we 'live ready,' for we do not know on what day our Lord is coming (24:41, 44) In Matthew 25 it is clear that he often comes to us in guises we do not expect or recognise, hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, alienated, even in prison. (25:36) If we are ready for him then, and accept him, we become part of the Coming of Christ. We are co-creators of a new earth. Are we awake, or simply dreaming? (24:43)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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