‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, (var. lacks "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 (var., hour) 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.
How do we live in a dying world?
As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2Then he asked them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. 5For many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Messiah!”and they will lead many astray. 6And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: 8all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
That's from Matthew 24:1-8, just before the reading for today. It's a terrible prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the temple.
But Jesus' first teaching words, which set the agenda of the Gospel are way back in Chapter 4, where he says
‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (Matthew 4:17)
Change direction. Don't live like the world. There is a better way to live, he says. If you won't live the right way, then judgement will come.
Don't look for a way to kick out the Romans. Ignore them. Step around them. Live God's way and you will find that alongside the Empire of Rome there is another Kingdom, another Realm, a Different Reality, which is close to you. You will see glimpses of the Kingdom of Heaven. It has come near.
Chapter 24 begins with Jesus coming out of the Temple and going away. It's a sign of leaving the place to judgement. And he sits down— that means he is making a serious pronouncement— he sits down to make his prophecy from the Mount of Olives. That's the place where the Prophet Zechariah thought the Lord would stand in judgement over the nations and over Jerusalem. (Zechariah 14)
That prophecy was true. The Temple and much of Jerusalem was destroyed in 70AD.
By the time Matthew is writing, Jerusalem had already been destroyed for 15 years. The people of many cities across the empire, including Antioch where Matthew is likely to have been written, had launched persecutions against Jewish people. The Christians were included in these— people considered that they were Jews, because many of them were— but the surviving Jewish synagogues were also kicking out their Christian members. They were on their own in a hostile world.
It meant families were split down the middle: Matthew 10 says, "21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name." Matthew 10:21-22.
These were terrifying times, full of war, and full of racial and ethnic hatred. People must have wondered how to live in a world that seemed to be falling apart. The prejudice and the hatred that is being stoked by President-elect Trump, in the United States, would have been quite at home. Pauline Hanson, and others like Peter Dutton, who incite Australians to hate their fellow Australians, would have fitted right in. Everybody was afraid, and their answer to their fear was to blame others, hate others, and be violent towards them, just like today.
How do we live in a time of fear like this? How do we resist becoming haters? How do we keep going— how do we keep living with some kind of hope and purpose— when climate change looms as a catastrophe that may well destroy our civilisation, or even lead to human extinction?
It really might be that we live in a dying world. It is certainly difficult not to think that we live in times of impending catastrophe. Matthew says about this in today's reading, "Wake up! Stay awake!"
For 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.
If we focus our life on getting the next model phone, the latest Hollywood gossip, and just looking after ourselves, the flood of the world will sweep us away before we know it. And we will not see the reality of God's kingdom near to us.
There was a tension in Matthew, and in the early church, and it is still here. People were looking to a future kingdom, a future salvation, but Jesus was saying that future was already at hand; it had already come near. It was now. The Son of Man was already here!
In Jesus' time, because they were looking to the future— and let us be clear, sometimes that is the only hope left to people— many people believed that just as things were getting really unbearable, God would intervene and sit in judgement over the world. They would remember the vision of Daniel in Chapter 7:
As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One (or an Ancient of Days) took his throne…
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.
10 A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousand served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgement,
and the books were opened.
And after the judgement Daniel saw…
one like a son of man (or: like a human being)
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
Since Jesus called himself the Son of Man, the early church made the connection between him and Israel's long awaited salvation. They were sure he would come back as judge and king and saviour.
After his death, people thought Jesus would return very soon. Acts 2 records the Christians selling their possessions; it seems that at first, people were expecting him in days, weeks at the most. But by the time of First Thessalonians 4, starting at verse 13, Paul is having to reassure people. It is AD 52, and Jesus has not come back.)
In that text it is clear that some Christians have died before Jesus has come, and this has been a struggle to understand. Paul concludes in verse 17 that when the Lord comes, "… the dead in Christ will rise first. 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."
But by the time of 2 Peter— now it is sometime between 100 and 150AD— the delay in the Lord's coming has extra bite. Chapter 3 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 from the beginning of the creation!" (3:3) (Quoting from here) People were really worried. Was he ever coming back!?
And some folk are still waiting today. Jesus will come back any day soon… I've been hearing that during my whole life in church. I hope it's wrong!! What kind of God has the power to come back and set the world to rights, and relieve all the suffering… but chooses to wait two thousand years and let millions suffer starvation, rape, and other violence? Only a tyrant of the worst kind.
Perhaps there is more than one way of reading the Bible.
Perhaps the Bible is a description of something like two overlapping realities; two different ways of seeing the world.
In one reality, God is not present; we are in charge. You simply stay alive as long as you can, and hope you have better luck than the Muslim family next door that everyone is picking on.
Or maybe, there is a God who is on your side… although that God is absent at present, and has been for a long time. But he will come back for you one day, and get rid of all the bad people. But as the columnist Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
In the other reality, we experience the great gift of discovering that God is here with us. Jesus is already with us. The kingdom has already come near. There is a way of living which is in tune with God— which is very out of tune with the world— but in tune with God. And in this way of living we see constant glimpses of just how good life with God will be.
But… says Jesus, in today's reading, "you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." If you are not watchful of the way you live, if you focus on "eating and drinking" and getting rich, you won't see him. The person right next to you will, but you won't!
Christian faith is a trust that living as Jesus lived— living with love and compassion for all other people—
Faith is a trust that this living shows us kingdom now, and lets us see the action of Jesus now.
So how do we live in a dying world?
We trust God for the future.
We trust that the Kingdom is near; that it is at hand.
We live as Jesus lived.
It is all we can do. It is all God asks of us.
If we will seek the welfare of the city in which we live, by living with love and compassion for all other people, (Jeremiah 29) we will find ourselves near to the kingdom, stepping into the other reality, the real reality. We will find ourselves in the presence of the Son of Man, at unexpected hours. In all its horrors, life will be found to be gift….
And Matthew, the Gospel for this year, shows us Jesus' understanding of that way of living. It shows us how to repent and to live another way, to live God' way. Amen
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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