Sabbath Day Thoughts “Your Lord Is Coming” Matthew 24:36-44
The Christmas preparations are underway. No sooner had the Thanksgiving dishes been washed than the Black Friday shopping began. We can’t wait for Sparkle Village crafts next weekend. We are hanging wreaths purchased to benefit the Youth Center, the holiday decorations are emerging from their attic lair, and our Nutcracker or holiday concert tickets have been purchased. We are emerging from our COVID cloud and seeking a little holiday normalcy.
Here at the church, the signs of a new liturgical year are evident. The paraments have gone purple, the Advent devotionals are ready for your perusal, and the Advent wreath has a first purple candle glowing. The church calendar is bristling with Advent Study and kid’s pageant, special services and an evening of music and storytelling. It’s beginning to feel a lot more like Christmas than it has since 2019.
Not everyone is ready or eager for Christmas this year. In fact, these Advent weeks of preparation and anticipation may feel at odds with inner feelings of loss, fear, or even hopelessness for some. Some of us are mourning the loss of beloved ones. We are bitterly and painfully aware of who will not be at the holiday table this year. Some of us are living with big health concerns that leave us feeling lousy and a little cranky and not in the mood for all the falalalalalalalala. Others of us are feeling the pinch of inflation and economic hardship. We wonder if we can afford a merry Christmas without taking on a mountain of debt. For some of us, this year’s holiday season confronts us with grief, uncertainty, and perhaps even hopelessness.
When Jesus first shared the unsettling words of our gospel reading, his disciples were gathered around him on the Mount of Olives. They looked out across the Kidron Valley to see the Temple, perched at the apex of Jerusalem. The Passover was near. Jesus had been teaching and preaching some powerful sermons on the southern teaching steps of the Temple, and already it was clear that things weren’t going to go so well that week. Powerful enemies were plotting to kill Jesus. Just that afternoon, Jesus had given his opponents the perfect reason to sign the warrant for his arrest by foretelling the destruction of the Temple by the Romans.
Jesus’ friends welcomed the apocalyptic words that he shared in today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel. They would have felt comforted by the promise of God’s coming kingdom. The disciples were powerless against Rome, Herod, and the Temple, but the promise of the Son of Man coming in glory to prevail over the powers of this world must have stirred hope in their hearts. God had a plan and would ultimately prevail.
Nowadays, hope might not be the first thing we feel when we hear Jesus’ promise of an unexpected Second Coming. It sounds scary, like a zombie apocalypse or a scene out of that Christian fantasy series “Left Behind.” Some of our discomfort stems from the images that Jesus used to describe the advent of the Son of Man: destructive flood waters, mysterious disappearances, and thieves breaking into our homes. Any one of those metaphors might set our hearts racing, but sandwich all three together to make a point, and it’s downright frightening. It’s important to remember that Jesus was using a first century teaching style called hyperbole; he was ratcheting up the rhetoric to stress the importance of his point.
Jesus knew what awaited him at the end of the week – arrest, trial, abuse, and execution. He also knew what his friends would undergo in the days and years to come. They would be persecuted: driven from Jerusalem, thrown out of the synagogues, and viewed with increasing hostility by the Roman Empire. Most would lose their lives for the sake of the gospel: stoned, beheaded, beaten, or crucified. As Jesus’ friends questioned when he’d be coming back in glory, Jesus realized that the greatest danger his friends would face in the difficult times to come was hopelessness. Overwhelmed by the powerful forces that would oppose them, they could forget the promise that Jesus would return.
In the years to come, it would be imperative that they remember that God wasn’t finished. God had a plan and God would be with them in all the chaos, rejection, and persecution to follow. On some days, the promise that Christ would come again would be the only thing that kept his friends from giving up, going home, and abandoning the gospel. That apocalyptic promise encouraged the disciples to be vigilant and faithful no matter what.
That biblical-historical context of Jesus’s words to his disciples sounds completely disconnected from the world of our Advent and Christmas preparations. Today’s reading is at odds with the world out there, where the shopping and partying juggernaut has left the station. It’s also at odds with our world in here, where we are eagerly counting down the Sundays until Christmas and chomping at the bit to ditch the Advent hymns and sing some Christmas carols.
But Jesus’s apocalyptic promise might be exactly what those among us who are hurting need to hear. We who mourn hear in the assurance of Jesus’s second coming the reminder that God has won the victory over death. On the far side of the grave, we will rise. We can trust that we will again hear our name on the lips of the beloved one whom we so dearly miss. When the Son of Man comes at that unexpected hour, our mourning will turn to dancing.
Those who struggle with illness and disability find in Jesus’s apocalyptic promise the comfort of God’s unstoppable power and final victory. We may feel completely powerless in a healthcare system that treats us like a disease, rather than a person. Yet God is always and ultimately all-powerful. In the end, we are in God’s hands, not the hands of hospital, doctor, or hospice worker, and God’s hands are the very best place to be. When the Son of Man comes at that unexpected hour, our healing will abound.
For those of us who feel the financial pinch of an uncertain economy and rising inflation, Jesus’s promise of his presence may bring the reorienting perspective that we need to step off the Christmas express. Jesus, who was born into poverty and lived with a radical simplicity, won’t mind a bit if we forego the shopping extravaganza and instead celebrate his birth with simple, heartfelt gifts that are given with great love. Perhaps it is only when we celebrate a Christmas of want that we begin to know the enormity of God’s great and loving gift to us in Jesus. When the Son of Man comes at that unexpected hour, the simple values and limitless love of the Kingdom will prevail.
At the end of Jesus’s apocalyptic discourse is the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matt. 25:31-46). The Lord reminds his friends that, in this time between his first coming and his second coming, he would come to us daily. He comes in our neighbors who hunger and thirst. He is known in those who live in poverty and struggle as outsiders. He is seen in those who cope with illness or languish in prison. Jesus cautions that how we will fare in that promised second coming will be bound up in how we loved the hidden Jesus, who walks among us even now.
For I was hungry
and you gave Me something to eat;
I was thirsty
and you gave Me something to drink;
I was a stranger and you took Me in;
I was naked and you clothed Me;
I was sick and you took care of Me;
I was in prison and you visited Me.’
‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.”
In this Advent season, Jesus would put us to work. His apocalyptic words invite us to turn away, at least for a bit, from the decorating and baking, the buying and partying. It’s an encouragement to turn with understanding and compassion to those among us who yearn for the second coming, who are hurting and grieved, sick and disabled, broke and oppressed. In our love and care, perhaps we can impart a foretaste of that glorious apocalyptic day when every tear shall be dried and the eternal alleluia shall resound across the heavens. May it be so.
Matt Skinner. “Advent Attentiveness” in Dear Working Preacher, Nov. 20, 2022. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Arland Hultgren. “Commentary on Matthew 24:36-44” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 1, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
O. Wesley Allen, Jr. “Commentary on Matthew 24:36-44” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 1, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, 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 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.