36 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 37 As it was in the time of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Human One. 38 In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. 39 They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away. The coming of the Human One will be like that. 40 At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. 42 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. 43 But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. 44 Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know. (CEB)
An Unexpected Hour
The season of Advent is, by and large, an intrusion. Yes, it’s a new season in the Christian year, it’s the beginning of a new year, new time, and new life. We know that, with Advent, everything begins anew. We know! But, doggone it, we don’t care. We want Christmas! We want to sing Christmas carols and hear about baby Jesus! (For some reason that phrase always reminds me of Talladega Nights). Most of us, if we had our druthers, we’d rather skip Advent and get right to Christmas. Advent is just in our way. We often think of it as a season of preparation for Christmas. And, while that’s true, the message of Advent is its own thing. Advent is as different from Christmas as Lent is from Easter.
The word Advent means coming, and its meaning during this season is really two-fold. On one hand, we are preparing ourselves for the celebration of the First Coming of Jesus Christ into the world at the incarnation. On the other hand, we are anticipating the Second Coming of Jesus Christ on the Day of the Lord. There is an apocalyptic message to Advent. That’s why the Gospel readings are all about an adult Jesus or an adult John the Baptizer preaching messages about the coming of God’s kingdom. In fact, it isn’t until the Fourth Sunday of Advent that we hear about a pregnant virgin named Mary. So, before we celebrate the birth of Jesus, Advent’s message is one of apocalypse and Messianic anticipation.
Matthew 24:36-44 begins and ends with declarations that the hour of the Human One’s coming is unknown. (By the way, it’s “Son of Man” in other translations). Yet we often hear about new calculations and timetables. Such speculation only reveals human arrogance and pretense. We are told quite plainly that not even the Son nor the angels know the day or the hour when Jesus will return, but only the Father knows. It’s not that the future is mysteriously shrouded so that the armchair apocalypticists have to break the secret code to discover when the end will be. It’s that we don’t know and we won’t know until it happens. What’s more, we are not supposed to be living as calculators and speculators who guess about the future, nor are we supposed to be prospectors hunting for golden nuggets that might reveal the time of Jesus’ return. We are supposed to be living today, in the now, as those to whom a promise has been given. We count on the reliability of the one who gave us the promise by anticipating the advent of the Son of Man.
Yet, when we’re anticipating something we prepare for it. When Joy was pregnant with Kara, we were both busy getting things ready for her advent. We got a crib, and a glider, and diapers, and bottles, and wipes, and clothing. We put the nursery room together so we would be prepared when she was born. Then, when Joy was pregnant with James we got busy getting ready for his advent. We were in a different house, so we stripped the wallpaper off the wall and painted his room, we transitioned Kara to a bed so we could use the crib for James, we got more diapers, more wipes, and more clothing so we would be ready when he was born. We did similar preparation while awaiting Charlotte in yet another house.
What do you do when you’re anticipating a wedding? There are endless things to do! There’s the date, the dress, the tuxedos, the pastor, the counseling, the rehearsal dinner, the invitations, the decorations, the music, and I’ve probably missed a few things there. There are lots of things that have to be done when preparing for a wedding.
What do you do if you’re expecting company at your house? I’ll tell you what we do, we go into helter-skelter turbo cleaning mode, that’s what we do. We’re getting ready, hoping to high heaven they don’t show up five minutes early!
Jesus brings up the image of Noah and the people of his day. In the story of the flood, Noah is contrasted with the people who lived around him. Different writers in the Biblical books have interpreted Noah and the flood in different ways. Isaiah spoke of the days of Noah in terms of a new day when God will never again abandon God’s people, saying, “These are like the days of Noah to me, when I promised that Noah’s waters would never again cover the earth. Likewise I promise not to rage against you or rebuke you” (Isaiah 54:9, CEB).
Ezekiel mentions Noah alongside Daniel and Job, saying that their own righteousness would save them, but they wouldn’t be able to save their sons or daughters if their children had no righteousness of their own. There are no coattails on which we can ride to salvation. When God’s judgment comes, we are judged by the life we, ourselves, have lived. (c.f. Ezekiel 14:12-20).
In Hebrews, we’re told that Noah responded to God’s warning of the impending flood with belief in God’s word. His faith in God caused him to believe what no one could yet see, and he built an ark to save himself and his family. (c.f. Hebrews 11:7).
First Peter uses the salvation of Noah and his family as a metaphor for baptism in that their lives were rescued through water (c.f. 1 Peter 3:20-21). Second Peter tells us that God’s judgment falls upon everyone. The whole world was judged in the flood, but only Noah and seven others were judged as righteous. He reminds us that God’s judgment is an active thing that has been happening throughout history and is continuing right now, and we can trust that God knows how to save the righteous (c.f. 2 Peter 2:4-10).
What’s interesting about Jesus’ use of Noah is that he focuses on those who failed to be prepared. Noah’s neighbors were eating, drinking, getting married, and giving their children in marriage. And who could blame them? If we lived in that day, do you think any of us would have been expecting a catastrophe like the flood? Noah was busy getting ready for the fulfillment of God’s warning by building a boat while the people around Noah simply assumed that life would continue forever with business as usual. The people weren’t preparing for the flood God warned about. Noah didn’t know any more than they did exactly what the future held. The difference is that Noah believed God and prepared for what God had said would be coming. When the flood came, Noah and his family entered the ark and the people were all swept away.
Then, Jesus moves into images that immediately makes us think of “rapture” and being “left behind.” The images of two men working in a field where one is taken and one is left, and two women grinding meal where one is taken and the other is left has been given a rather one-sided interpretation in recent years with popular books and movies. The only problem is, we have no idea which person is saved in Jesus’ parable: the one taken or the one left.
We think the ones who are taken are the fortunate ones, and there is some evidence to support the idea. In Matthew’s birth narrative of Jesus in chapter two, the verb taken is used four times when the child Jesus is taken to safety (c.f. 2:13, 14, 20, 21). Jesus also takes his disciples aside to teach them (c.f. 20:17) and to watch while he prayed (c.f. 26:37).
At the same time, a different verb meaning take up or raise up, is used to describe those who were “swept away” (24:39) in the flood. This is the same verb used when Jesus tells us that his followers must “take up their cross” (16:24).
We should also remember that in other scenes in Matthew’s Gospel where these kinds of divisions of the faithful and unfaithful occur, it is the wicked who are taken first for judgment. In the parable of the weeds and the wheat, Jesus explains that the weeds will be gathered first and burned. Afterward, the righteous will shine like the sun (Matthew 13:37-43).
In the parable of the net that follows, Jesus says, “That’s the way it will be at the end of the present age. The angels will go out and separate the evil people from the righteous people, and will throw the evil ones into a burning furnace. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth” (Matthew 13:49-50, CEB). In these examples, it’s better to be the one left behind because it’s the wicked who are taken away for punishment.
The point of the images is that judgment is universal. Every man and woman will face God’s judgment but we don’t know when it’s coming. It might happen when we’re in the midst of our daily work and come so suddenly that we don’t realize it has happened until it’s done.
Another figure Jesus brings up is the householder who lacks vigilance enough to protect his house. The thief is able to break in and rob the owner because the owner had no idea the thief was coming.
Jesus commands us to be ready for his advent. No one knows the precise time of his coming, yet Jesus has declared that his advent is certain. His coming will be unexpected, as was the flood in the days of Noah. It will separate people in judgment. We Christians are to be ready because we don’t know when the Lord is coming.
So what are we doing to prepare for that which we anticipate: the second Advent of Christ? How are we getting ready? What kind of things ought we be doing? Later in Matthew, Jesus tells us three parables that give us an idea. The parable of the ten bridesmaids (25:1-13) tells us to be prepared for anything. The parable of the Talents reminds us not to be idle but to actively work for the Kingdom (25:14-30). The parable of the judgment between the sheep and the goats tells us that we need to care for the hungry, thirsty, friendless, naked, sick, and prisoners (25:31-46).
I think Jesus’ message to us about judgment is that we have work to do in the here and now. We don’t need to worry about the future if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do now. We don’t know when the day of the Lord is coming, but if we are living our daily lives in righteousness by caring for the least and the lost, we’ll be prepared for the advent of Jesus Christ.
The message of the First Sunday of Advent is a reminder to us that the Day of the Lord is coming. Our responsibility is to live in accordance with God’s definition of righteousness by doing what we can in a spirit of hope and trust. We don’t have to worry about timetables. We only have to do what is right in our daily grind. That’s what it means to be prepared.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!