Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 27, 2022

Matthew 24:36-44 Commentary

Comments, Questions, and Observations

Here we are at the beginning of the Christian year; advent has begun, and we are reminded that we are people who are waiting.

If you follow the gospel lectionary, then you know that we ended the year with a celebration of Jesus Christ and the kind of reign he has over heaven and earth. Embedded in the lectionary the week before that was the warning that many would say that they know when the end will come. And yet, here in our passage this week, Jesus repeats twice that we do not and will not know such a thing. Both instances are in the perfect tense—that ability to know ain’t gonna change. Anyone who claims to know otherwise, or have the special skill of knowing, is a false prophet.

What I find interesting in our Advent 1 gospel text is the way Jesus uses these three scenarios to get his meaning across. Noah and the time of the flood, the “rapture,” and waiting for a thief coming in the night—what do these have to teach us about knowing?

I think that the flood story highlights the way we human beings know. People watched and scoffed as Noah built the ark; they knew what he said in warning about their forced ignorance towards God. And yet, they kept on with their lives without a second thought about God. As Dale Bruner says in his commentary on Matthew, “nonchalance about God” was their sin, and it’s the “beginning and end problem for humanity” in general. We have an uncanny ability to go about pretending that we do not know what we ought to know. We can even convince ourselves that we know something that is impossible to know!

The people of Noah’s time failed to integrate what they knew about God into the way they were living. Because their knowing wasn’t an integrated kind of knowing, where the information is put into practice, they really didn’t know anything at all “until the flood came and swept them all away” and knowing the truth was accomplished through a sort of forced integration.

Then, Jesus moves from the flood to describing another experience of forced integration. This time, he goes straight to the heart of the matter: when the Son of Man returns. Two will be present, one will be left. Notice that Jesus does not say it is better to be the one “left” or the one “taken.” Something in our human psyche has established being left behind as the bad lot. Whether it’s the ‘Christian’ understanding of rapture, or the modern non-Christian fictional story, The Leftovers, being the one who turns and sees your companion has disappeared is the beginning of misery. But all of this is to insert things into what Jesus is saying here. (I warrant that certain biblical cases of what happens at the end times can include a “going up” to meet Jesus as he descends, but Jesus doesn’t seem to be teaching about that here.)

Remember, Jesus is talking about how we cannot know when the Lord will come, and he could be simply reminding us that we live our lives and go about our business until that happens.

In fact, if we build upon the example of the flood, we understand that we are going about our business and living our lives best when we are doing so with God in mind, with integrated knowledge: faith and works held together, not in opposition. We go about our “field” work and “grinding” tasks until the Lord comes—we don’t just hole ourselves up in enclaves or in the sanctuary, holding vigil. We keep at being productive members of the world until Christ comes again. The rest will take care of itself. Cosmically, what is going to happen is going to happen.

In fact, we know this to be true. And we integrate this knowledge—even if we don’t know the specifics—by our living in waiting, like a homeowner who knows a thief is coming to rob them. We wait, prepared, active, alert, awake. The homeowner is resolved and by working from that resolve is able to keep the burglar at bay. In other words, their knowledge and the way they integrated it into action, became their power to withstand intrusion.

Integrating knowledge of what is to come into how we live and wait now is our Christian, hope-filled power. It is how, when the Son of Man returns, we will not be swept away, but will be swept into eternity in a way that makes wild, happy, amazing sense—like it’s the thing we’ve always been waiting for but didn’t really know it until we had it.

Jesus’ scenarios underscore the point that even though we don’t know something important (the exact timing of the Lord’s coming), we aren’t helpless. Like the people before the flood, there’s plenty that we know about what we are to be doing with our lives: we can choose to live with God even now. We can go about our lives and live as though they matter in light of what’s to come. We can be awake to a reality that is not readily known by many: we can live with eternity in view so that when Jesus returns to make it the permanent disposition of the cosmos, we’re familiar with at least some of its terrain. We do not fear it’s coming, we know that Jesus Christ is not a thief but the Sovereign one.

Textual Point

In verse 42, Jesus says “Keep awake because you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” The command to be awake is in the present tense, making it a description of a “permanent disposition.” The reason we need to be always aware that this very moment might be the one in which the Lord returns, is because we did not know and will not know when it will happen: the verb know is in the perfect tense. Not knowing means we must always be awake. Arise, o sleeper!

Illustration Idea

There is a part of the Lord of the Rings show “Rings of Power” that is like so many others: a group knows that the enemy is coming, so they work together to prepare as best they can for the siege. Like the owner of the house who knows when the thief will come, the Southlanders know that the Orcs will come at dark because they cannot bear the sunshine. So the humans prepare themselves and fortify their village with all the courage and willingness to sacrifice they can muster. I won’t spoil what happens next… The trope is enough—we have seen and read it numerous times: preparing for what’s to come is full of tension and challenge, it is a stark reminder that only so much is within our control.

The call to readiness of these scenes and our waiting upon the Lord matches, but the way we make ready for Christ’s return ought to feel very different than waiting for a siege, or fortifying our hearts and lives. Instead of fear, we are joyfully anticipating. Instead of hunkering down, we’re going about our lives with purpose and love. We fortify ourselves by casting out fear and living, as Martin Luther is thought to have said, “as if Jesus had died this morning, risen this afternoon, and was coming this evening.”


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