“What Are We Watching For?”
Advent begins today. Happy New (Church) Year! Literally, “Advent” means “coming” and it is a time when we wait and prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus into our world at Christmas. At the same time, we think about how we are also waiting and preparing for Jesus to come again as he promised, and to finally make things right in our world.
The readings provided for us in the Revised Common Lectionary for this First Sunday of Advent in Year A are not so much about getting ready for a birthday party for Jesus. They are much more focused on anticipating Christ’s second coming and the end of the world as we know it. The Gospel text, in particular, is pretty dramatic – warning us to “keep awake” and “be ready” because “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
It may be helpful to know what Jesus is talking about when he tells his disciples that “no one knows about the day or the hour, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
At the beginning of the chapter (chapter 24) Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. When the disciples point out the wonderful, big buildings, he tells them that these structures won’t last: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” And they ask him, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
If you read through the whole chapter, you’ll see that he describes many signs – wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, false prophets, lawlessness, and thankfully, also the proclamation of the good news to all the world. He tells them that these things will happen soon. But he is clear, he doesn’t know the date, and no one knows when it will happen except God.
Commentator, Raj Nadella, points out what he calls a basic but essential clarification for reading this text: “Although the words themselves are attributed to Jesus, the concerns and the perspectives expressed in the text reflect the historical context of the Matthean community in the late first century.”
For the early Christian communities, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple was an event of the past (around the year 70 CE), and wars, famines, persecution, and the other things mentioned by Jesus were the reality of the world in which they lived.
These folks heard the words of Jesus not as bad news that all kinds of terrible and difficult things would happen to them in the future, but as good news, because all those terrible things were happening, and Jesus was promising that he would come in love and power to make things right and save them from the troubles and trials of this warring world.
The early churches definitely thought that Jesus would be coming back soon. In verse 34, just before today’s passage, the Gospel writer has Jesus say, “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” And the Apostle Paul writes to the Church at Rome saying that “it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.”
But Jesus also says, “About that day and hour no one knows,” and he uses several analogies to emphasize how unpredictable his coming will be. It’ll be like the days of Noah when all the people were going about their daily lives, eating and drinking and marrying. But then suddenly the flood came and swept them all away.
It’ll be just as surprising as if two people were working in a field, and one of them is taken away. You might imagine that as one of them suddenly dying, or one of them being kidnapped to become a slave, or something equally traumatic.
It’ll be like a thief coming in the night to break into your house. You don’t know what time he’ll show up and sneak in the back window. The point is that it’s sudden and unpredictable, and the possibility of such a thing happening prompts us to want to be prepared.
In our Bible study this week, some of us heard this passage as an encouragement to be prepared for our own lives to suddenly end. We found ourselves talking about whether we had prepared a will, organized our affairs, or left instructions for our funerals.
And we talked about if we were to die tomorrow, would there be things we would wish we had done, words we should have spoken, relationships we should have mended, gifts we should have used for God’s mission in the world before it was too late for us to participate.
The end of your life is similar to Jesus’ second coming in that you don’t know when either of those things is going to happen. But just as you can be quite sure that you’re not going to live forever, the Scriptures assure us that Christ will come again to make all things new.
I am hoping for a new world that looks like Isaiah’s vision for the days to come. The prophet describes many peoples and nations coming together to learn God’s ways. And after the wise judgement of God regarding their relations, “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Oh, how we need that kind of radical peace-making today! We need it for Ukraine and Russia. We need it for the Korean Peninsula. We need it in Myanmar, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Ethiopia and Sudan and Nigeria, in Syria, and in Israel and Palestine.
Together with the Psalmist this morning, we prayed for the peace of Jerusalem. And it’s a prayer that is not just for one physical location and the people who live there. But it is a prayer for all of God’s beloved children, no matter our religion, culture, or status. It is a prayer that we will all live together in peace, and that God’s wisdom and guidance will move us to not only put down our weapons, but to transform them into tools we can use to feed the world.
Now, Christians might observe the wars and famines and earthquakes and persecutions happening in our world today and wonder if they are signs that Jesus is coming again very soon, perhaps even within our generation. After all, what we see happening around us sounds a lot like Jesus’ description of the signs. Some might even try to match up the details in the biblical texts with contemporary events, in vain attempts to figure out the date of the end of the world.
But the preparation and watchfulness that we are called to has nothing to do with obsessing over numbers, signs, and meanings. Jesus said, “No one knows the day or the hour.” He didn’t say, “If you try really hard to figure it out, you can know the date.”
What Jesus’ words did say to the early Christians in Matthew’s community and others was that when things seem to be really terrible and awful in the world, Jesus is going to show up. It’ll probably surprise you how he’ll do it, but Jesus will come again to bring justice and peace and love into the world once more. Your job as Jesus’ followers is to watch for Jesus, and be ready to welcome him.
Paul said something similar to the Christians in Rome. He told them to wake up and pay attention to what God was going to do. He told them to lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light. He told them to live honourably and to avoid indulgence, recklessness, vulgarity, indecency, quarreling, and jealousy. Essentially, he told them to be ready to meet Jesus at any moment, because Jesus was coming soon.
Of course, some folks would say that Paul and the other apostles were wrong about that prediction. They thought Jesus would come again in their lifetimes, but he didn’t, did he? Are you sure?
Keep reading through Matthew’s Gospel from today’s passage, and you might come up with a different answer. Because the next chapter is #25 in which Jesus describes all the people of the world gathered before the Son of Man on the day of judgement. You may remember how he separates the sheep from the goats, putting the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
And he says to the goats, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
And the goats are confused, of course. They hadn’t realized that Jesus had ever come to them needing food or drink or welcome or care. Perhaps they were watching for the possible signs for the end of the world coming, but they weren’t watching for the signs of Jesus coming to them right then and there in the midst of their daily lives. If they had been watching, they would have seen him coming in “the least of these who are members of his family” and they would have been prepared and ready.
Friends, this Season of Advent is a time that we often spend getting ready for Christmas. We practice for our Christmas plays and concerts. We decorate our homes and plan menus for special gatherings. We buy gifts and make invitations to spend time with people we love.
But the Scriptures today call us to be aware of the trouble and turmoil in the world around us, and to watch for Jesus’ coming. I am not only convinced that Jesus came among that first generation of early Christians, but that he will come in our generation too. In fact, I’m quite sure that he’ll come during this short Season of Advent that we are beginning today.
Jesus’ coming will be unpredictable, but it is sure to happen. And as sheep of the Good Shepherd, we are called to keep awake and to watch for his coming among us. If our eyes are open, we’ll be sure to meet him. And if our hearts are open, we’ll be sure to welcome him too.
Jesus said, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”