“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
It’s a central part of our liturgy and indeed of the Christian faith itself and yet it is perhaps one of the least understood aspects of our faith partly because it is literally unprecedented. It is an event that we simply have no frame of reference for. And yet each time we gather to worship we confess this reality. There it is in the middle of the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” And again as we come to the altar: “Therefore, Father, according to his command, we remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.”
“He will come again in glory.” “We await his coming in glory.” The Church believes, based on the Bible and the teaching of the Apostles, that one day, one hour, the risen and living Jesus Christ will come again, will return, and that he will do so in glory, to judge. Apart from this promised coming—and apart from our acting like it!—the Christian faith and life is impoverished and our witness to the world dimmed. Strange as it may sound, this is a strangeness that the Church must boldly own for the sake of the gospel and of the world.
That’s why Advent, as a season is so important. The English word Advent is derived from the Latin adventus which means “coming.” Over the next four weeks this will be the central theme: Jesus Christ is coming. He has come, yes, as an infant. That’s what Christmas is all about. But Advent, Advent is it’s own time where we await not only the coming of the infant Jesus at Christmas but also, especially, the coming of the king Jesus at the end of the world.
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” About what day and hour? The coming of the Son of Man, Jesus tells us. And what do we know about this day? Well, we know at least two things. It is near and it is unknown. It is coming (soon even!) but we do not know when. I wonder why Jesus does this? Tells them that the day of his coming again is certain but unknowable? Aren’t human creatures prone to worry or to panic. The future holds something important but we have no idea when it is going to happen.
This sort of worrying can distract from what lies in front of you today. Do you find yourself overwhelmed by an unknown future? This week Christina and I were watching a TV show and in it a man was talking about his fear of death, his own death, and how he came to the realization that this had morphed into a fear of life. So afraid of his coming death was he that he was hindered from living the life that was in front of him this day. How about as the Church of St. Mary and St. Martha, are there things about the future that are distracting us from the daily work that God has given us to do this day? The Son of Man is coming, but we do not know when. So, do not be concerned about a particular date, fear not. Rather look at what God has put before you today and do so with an awareness that God has given you this.
As for the coming of the Son of Man, Jesus here likens it to the days of Noah, that is the time before the great flood in Genesis: “For in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.” Everything was totally normal right up until the day that Noah entered the ark and the flood came. The coming of the Son of Man will be like this, says Jesus.
In Noah’s day folks were wining and dining. All seems well! The good life! There was an indifference, a nonchalance about God. An immersion in the everyday without thought for the Last Day (Bruner). Is the normalcy of our day much different? Most people in the world, by and large, live life as if Jesus had not promised to return. Surely Christians, you and I, are not immune to this very same temptation. The difference is, knowing what we do, we unlike the world are without excuse.
Everything is normal and then suddenly it is not. Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. A thief will enter into your home in the middle of the night. Therefore, says Jesus, be ready! Keep awake!
Indeed, this is perhaps the posture of the Christian life: alert, sober, awake, ready, expectant. Everything in our gospel reading this morning can be reduced to a single Christian duty: keep alert for the any-day coming of Jesus (Bruner).
Some of you need to hear this. We as a church need to hear this. Be ready. Keep awake. Listen to the Holy Spirit. Obey. Do not grow weary. Do not fall asleep. Do not give in to sin. Do not give the devil a foothold. Rather occupy yourself with that which is good and beautiful and true. Above all clothe yourselves with love. For the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. And he is coming as judge. Do not fear but only draw near to Christ.
Thus far we have looked at the words of Jesus himself in the gospel of Matthew. It is enlightening, however, to get a glimpse of how, after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, the earliest Christians understood these words. The Apostle Paul, for example, was a man who lived in anticipation of Christ’s any-hour-now coming again. And yet, in light of the risen Jesus who had poured out his Holy Spirit on the disciples, the risen Jesus who had confronted Paul, then Saul, on the road, we begin to understand Jesus’ words in a new light.
Hear the words of the Apostle from our Romans reading this morning and how they echo and expand upon Christ’s words in the gospel. “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near,” (13:11-12a).
You really get a sense of the nearness of the day here, don’t you? It is the time. Now, right now, is the moment for you to wake up from your sleep. Why? Because the night is gone and the day is near. You see, what Paul and the early Christians came to realize was that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, something changed. And that for Christians—those who are united in baptism to Christ in his death and resurrection and filled with the Holy Spirit—it is as if we have come to that great day of judgement, that coming of the Son of Man, already.
In baptism, Christians have already arrived at the end of the world. Or rather, as Paul himself writes elsewhere, the end of the world has come upon us (1 Corinthians 10:11).
Continuing in this line of thought Origen, a Christian in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, wrote, “In a certain sense, the end of the world has already come for the person to whom the world is crucified. And to one who is dead to worldly things the day of the Lord has already arrived.”
And if this day has, in a sense, already arrived for Christians what then? Paul’s exhortation very closely resembles Jesus’ exhortation. Since the night is gone and the day is near, “live honourably as in the day.” Live this way now. “Not in revelling and drunkenness,” that is, be sober-minded, be level headed, wake up! “Not in debauchery and licentiousness,” that is, do not sin but obey Christ. “Not in quarrelling and jealousy,” but rather love one another as God in Christ has loved you.
Church, we all need to hear this. Some of you have been drifting off to sleep. Some of you have been living like it’s still night time. And you need to hear again this morning and be reminded that in baptism you were brought from darkness into what? Into light!
The day of judgement is near and has indeed come. Do not delay. Do not put it off until later on. For, now is the moment for you to wake up!
And yet, the day is not quite here yet. It is near. Very near. Nearer now than when we first believed. But the day of Christ’s coming again as judge is still to come. The call to not only wake up but to keep awake describes the sort of clear-thinking and endurance that is required to be a Christian today. That is, this call describes Christian hope. When Jesus says to his disciples, and to you and I, “Therefore you also must be ready,” what he is actually describing is a process. You must be becoming ready. That is to say, it takes time. It takes time to learn hope. We need to understand this, brothers and sisters. That in all of our longings and failures as much as in our joys and accomplishments we are a community that is learning how to hope. That in all of our prayer, in all of our saying ‘no’ to sin and ‘yes’ to Christ, in all of our sticking-together-even-when-we’d-rather-not, God Himself is making us a hopeful people, a ready people, even now. Looking back on our first year together what is it that you give thanks for and causes you to rejoice? What is it that frustrates, even angers you? What is it that makes you regret we even took this step of faith in the first place? Know that in all of these things God is teaching us how to be a church that is full of hope.
This Advent, may you hear the call to wake up and to keep awake. And may God give you, give us, the hope, the readiness, and the stamina as we await Christ’s coming again and live in light of that day even now.