Matthew 24:36-44 NRSV
The Necessity for Watchfulness
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in the days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so, too, will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken, and one will be left. 42 Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 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. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
Advent is about watching and waiting. It’s an active kind of waiting, a readiness for action. We are watching and waiting for something we are willing to risk everything for, we are looking for the return of the Messiah and the freedom and new life Christ will bring.
The text from Matthew indicates that no one will know exactly when the Messiah is going to return, not even Jesus. This has led theologians to tons of interesting questions about who Jesus is and how separate or united Jesus is to the rest of the trinity. But none of those questions has a satisfying answer. We can assert that Jesus is fully God and fully man but as to what knowledge he has access to, we are not so certain. Is there any comfort in saying, I don’t know and neither does Jesus? Maybe a little. But I think the point is that no one knows and so we shouldn’t spend our time trying to predict Jesus’ return or search Jesus’ teaching for his prediction about when he will return. So, what will we be doing while we wait? It sounds like we will be completing ordinary chores and participating in life events like weddings. And because Christ can come at any of these seemingly ordinary moments, we must always be awake and prepared.
The text we read today is an introduction for the next few parables. These parables illustrate the need to be ready while we are watching. The first parable is about faithful and wicked servants (Matthew 24:45-51). The master leaves and does not return as soon as they thought he would, his arrival is so delayed they cannot predict his return or even if he will return. Left to their own devices, the servants make different choices about what to do while the master is gone. The faithful servant carries out his duties while the master is gone and is rewarded when the master finally returns. The wicked servant is disobedient and even cruel to other servants and is punished when the master returns.
The second parable is the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), the wise ones are prepared for a delay because they brought extra fuel. The foolish ones ran out of fuel. The prepared meet the bridegroom who comes unexpectedly. The unprepared left to get more fuel and miss the wedding banquet.
And the third is the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) in which the master gives different amounts of talents to each of three servants. The first two invest and make more talents and the third buries the talents. The third servant expects that he will be rewarded for keeping the talents safe, but the master thinks he was lazy with what he was given. Those who took a risk were rewarded, and the one who did nothing with the treasure was punished.
All three are concerned with the delayed (or perceived delay) of the arrival of the Messiah, who is prepared and who is not prepared for his arrival, and what will happen when we are examined or judged when the Messiah finally comes and finds us ready or not.
After these three parables, comes the big judgment. The son of Man arrives and separates the sheep from the goats. And if you’ve read your bible, or listened to the alternative rock group, Cake in 1998, you know that sheep go to heaven goats go to hell. The sheep are doing the things we know as our Matthew 25 goals: eradicating systemic poverty, dismantling structural racism, and building congregational vitality to give hope of new life to the community.
Now, I know I’ve treated this section of Matthew with very broad strokes and each of these parables could be its own sermon, but I want us to consider these big themes of the coming of the Christ as part of our advent season. Advent is about watching for something we have seen before and actively waiting for it to come again. We tell the story of the incarnation, the first time Christ came to earth, again each year and we continue to recount Christ’s life, death, and resurrection in our liturgical year.
Advent reminds us that while we are waiting for Christ, we should be doing the work he showed us how to do for all of God’s beloved, especially our neighbors and those who need our care (like the wise servant). We must prepare our own hearts (because we can’t prepare someone else’s heart) for his judgement by confessing our sins and making amends (like the wise virgins). And we should take what we have been entrusted with and invest it for the good of the kin-dom (like those who invested the talents).
We don’t know when Christ will come again, but we certainly know what we would like him to catch us doing, the work of justice and peace, providing love and hope to those who need it, and being ready to risk everything for the freedom and new life found in Christ.
We prepare for the coming of Christ as individuals and as a community of believers. As a community, we are telling the story of Christ over again, starting today with advent, and remembering what it means to actively wait by working for justice and peace.
Our call to worship, Psalm 122 reminds us that we are on a pilgrimage together, a pilgrimage in search of Christ’s justice. At least that’s how we might interpret it as Christians, that wasn’t it’s original purpose.
Psalm 122 is a song of praise and a prayer for Jerusalem. We only read some of it earlier but here is the entire Psalm:
1 I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
2 Our feet are standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
3 Jerusalem—built as a city
that is bound firmly together.
4 To it the tribes go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
5 For there the thrones for judgment were set up,
the thrones of the house of David.
6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
7 Peace be within your walls
and security within your towers.”
8 For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.
Psalm 122 is one of the Songs of Ascents which Hebrew pilgrims would have recited while ascending the uphill road to Jerusalem to attend the annual festivals held at the temple. This psalm describes Jerusalem as a safe place for people to go who are experiencing times of trouble and oppression to find security. The thrones of judgment described in the psalm refer to the monarchy in ancient Israel as the dispenser of justice. Peace in Jerusalem meant well-being for all of God’s beloved. Peace means justice has been delivered.
When Christ comes to judge the world, it will be good news for the oppressed, for they will receive justice.
When Christ comes to judge the world, it will be good news for those who humbled their hearts, for they will receive mercy and forgiveness.
When Christ comes to judge the world, it will be good news for those who have actively searched for God’s kin-dom to break through, for they will see the Glory of God and receive peace at last.
May it be so for us. Amen.
Hymns: Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, Comfort, Comfort You my People, and Watchman, Tell us of the Night