Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 27, 2016
Matthew 24:36-44 Commentary
In Anne Tyler’s novel, The Amateur Marriage, we witness a sad series of events. The book’s main characters are Michael and Pauline, a pair of World War II-era sweethearts who get married and eventually have three children. But then one day their oldest child, Lindy, just disappears. She runs away from home and promptly falls off the face of the earth. For the first days, weeks, and even months, they watch for her return. They seize on any and every clue as to her whereabouts. The pace, they peer out windows, they listen for a key scratching at the front door’s lock, they sit bolt upright in bed each time they think they hear footfalls on the driveway.
But Lindy does not return. Over the years, her absence becomes just another part of life. They never finally give up on the idea that they’d see her again, but they stop watching for her. At first they were certain she’d be back soon. They would not have been at all surprised had she walked back through that front door. Years later, though, the surprise flipped: after a while, they would have been surprised if she had come back.
When you’ve got at least some idea of the day and hour of something, you watch for it. When you have no idea, even if deep-down you still hope it might happen by and by, you even so find it difficult to watch. So what does it mean for us to keep watch? I think the concept of “the days of Noah” provides the answer. The Lectionary technically cuts off the reading of Matthew 24 at verse 44 but the final half-dozen verses of the chapter go on to provide an analogy about household servants. In verse 45 Jesus mentions that a commendable servant would be the one who gives the other servants their food at the proper time.
In other words, the good servant is commended for making dinner! It doesn’t say that what is commendable about this servant is that he set up a huge telescope on a mountaintop to keep scanning the heavens for the first sign of the master’s return. It doesn’t say that he became an itinerant preacher who held rallies to teach people that the end was near and so they had better shape up or else. It says simply that what made him a good servant was that he made dinner and served it at the usual time. In other words, he did what he had to do in the typical days of Noah.
Can it be possible that being faithful to our Lord in our everyday routines demonstrates holy watchfulness for his return? Is being an honest office manager, a careful school bus driver, an ethical attorney, a thoughtful housewife or househusband really a sign that we are aware that Jesus is coming back? Yes, it is. And if you doubt that, look at the lives of those who do not share an awareness that there is a cosmic Lord named Jesus.
Look at all the ethical and moral shortcuts that are available and that many people in our society take all the time. Whether it’s something big like the corporate scandals that brought on the financial crisis some years ago or something comparatively smaller like the employee who uses company equipment to make invitations to her son’s birthday party; whether it’s resolving the consequence of having quick and easy sex by getting a quick and easy abortion or taking the easy way out by pouring mercury into a river rather than going through the expense of disposing of it properly–whatever the scenario, people all over the place live like there is no tomorrow and as though no one who cares is watching them anyway.
The days of Noah are our inevitable context, and according to Jesus this will remain even the church’s context right up until the end. But within that setting we display our watchfulness by living as fine of lives for our great God in Christ as we can. In big things and small ones, at work and at home, in what we do with our body parts as well as what we do with our income, we do everything in the context of a God-infused world. True, no one will ever write a best-selling novel about ordinary Christians going through typical days and being faithful in preparing dinners and putting in an honest day’s work, but when history’s curtain at long last rings down, the first thing our Lord will talk to us about will be the days of Noah and how we experienced and displayed our Lord’s grace during all that time.
In the Anne Tyler novel mentioned above, Lindy returns eventually, although her mother Pauline never lives to see it. When Lindy shows back up, her father says to her, “Your mother never gave up hope, I could tell.” Of course, Pauline had gotten on with life. But she just had a way of glancing out the window that let you know the hope was still there. When she had the chance to take a cruise with a group of friends, she refused. She came up with a dozen excuses but everyone knew that deep down the real reason was that she didn’t want to be gone . . . in case Lindy came back.
We may not live to see our Lord’s return. But as we go through our routines in these days of Noah, we certainly want it to be true that as people look at the shape of our lives, they can say of also us, “Those Christians never give up hope. We can tell.”
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
I have to admit to feeling yanked around a little bit by our Lord’s words in Matthew 24. In verse 43 Jesus says that if someone knew at what hour a burglar was going to come to rob the house, he would keep watch. Yes, he would. Yes, so would we all.
It reminds me of that scene from the movie Home Alone in which the little boy Kevin—accidentally left behind when his family took a trip to Paris—is peering out an open second-story bedroom window. As he looks down, he sees and then overhears two cat burglars saying that they’d be coming back to rob Kevin’s house around 9pm that night. Now Kevin knows when they are coming and so he spends the rest of the day setting up one booby trap after the next to foil the thieves who, indeed, show up promptly at 9pm.
If you know when a burglar is coming, you get ready and watch, Jesus says. True enough.
But then in the very next verse Jesus encourages our own readiness and watchfulness on account of the fact that we do not know when he will return. Huh? What’s the linkage here? Knowing when something is going to happen makes you watchful. But doesn’t it follow that not knowing makes us less vigilant, less able to watch when we are supposed to? The analogy does not work. Or is the point that we have to assume that the burglar could come any night and so we have to sit up in the living room with a baseball bat every single night for the rest of our lives?
If you tell me burglars are coming next Wednesday around 1:30am to smash through my kitchen window, I am going to be there and be ready. This is useful information. But if you tell me that my house is going to be robbed—certainly robbed—at some point in the dead of night sometime in the next 15 years, I am going to start to wish you had never told me because I wonder if I will ever sleep again. This is not terribly useful information.
Let’s assume Jesus is trying to be useful, however, and is not trying to trip us up. How then are we to understand his words and his analogy? Perhaps what he is saying is that if you did know when, you’d for sure do something. In the case of the return of the Son of Man, we do not know when but we do know that it will happen—no matter how long it takes—and surely this information is useful on some level, too. Because we over-extend Jesus’ imagery if we make Jesus’ return out to be something as bad and unhappy as a burglary.
Jesus’ return will be a profoundly good thing and so living with an awareness that this is going to happen need not make us nervous or sleepless but it is intended to make us simply faithful. We don’t need to perform heroics—walking humbly with our God will do. We don’t need to spend our days calculating time charts for when the Lord will return (as some, alas, do)—living with the hope of the New Creation will do. We don’t need to quit our jobs in order to devote ourselves 24/7 to praying—faithfulness in our callings as a witness to the kingdom will do.
In this sense, Jesus’ telling us that this is going to happen (even if the when is unspecified) is perhaps like telling a desperately lonely person, “I cannot tell you when but I can assure you that you are going to meet someone very special one day. You will be married, you will have children, and you will be very happy.”
Knowing that will not erase the loneliness that will continue until that happens, but it will prevent the loneliness from having the last word. And if the lonely person believes your prophecy, despair will never take over, either. Instead, hope will remain. And vigilance will continue—Mr. or Miss Right is out there. Maybe today will be the day I meet him/her. I will, therefore, get out of bed, keep my eyes open, be the best person I can be, and wait.
The Greek text of Matthew 24:36-44 is not particularly remarkable. One item to note is that throughout this passage when Jesus refers to our not “knowing” the day or hour of the Parousia, he uses the Greek oidein verb, which is the verb to perceive or understand. Only in verse 43 when Jesus makes the analogy to the homeowner “knowing” about the hour of a burglary does Jesus use the Greek verb gnoskein. According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, there is not a great deal of difference to be observed between them, though insofar as there is a little difference it may be that oidein can convey the more intimate kind of knowledge that believers are to have about God and Christ (versus for fact-based knowledge of the “gnosis” variety). Probably there is not much to be made of this point but it could be alleged that the “knowledge” we have about Jesus’ return is that it will happen even if we have no clue when. What’s more, we know that it will happen only because we do have a close, intimate relationship of faith with Jesus and it is that relationship, even during “the days of Noah,” that makes all the difference for us.
Note: Our Year A Advent and Christmas Resource page is now available for you to check out sample sermons and other ideas for the Advent Season.
Can you be surprised even when expecting something? Of course! Just ask many women who have had children. A common phrase to refer to a woman’s pregnancy is that “she is expecting.” Indeed she is. She is expecting the child and makes many preparations to be ready. A nursery is created. Baby showers are given at which lots of useful items are collected: strollers, toys, clothing, baby monitors, car seats. It’s no secret the baby is coming.
Yet it is not at all unusual to hear a story that goes like this: “Boy were we in for a surprise! There we were, nearly 3 weeks out from our due date, stuck in traffic during a terrific thunderstorm on I-75 just outside Detroit. Out of nowhere I went into labor! I ended up having the baby in the backseat of the car with two police officers assisting while my husband was about going berserk!! We sure never expected anything like that!”
They had been expecting. But they had not “expected” it just then and in just that way. Surprises can come even when we know what’s coming. And so, Jesus said, it will be when the Son of Man returns. True believers won’t be surprised that it happened but they will almost certainly be shocked when it does even so! But as with the birth of a child, because what we had been expecting was a good and joyous thing, once the surprise of just when and how it happened wears off, we’ll be left with just the joy.
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