Advent 1A: The Days of Noah
For some reason, our minds don’t deal well with uncertainty. We find it difficult to live today if our thoughts are bent toward some misty future horizon. On September 11, 2001, the people of New York City were going about their usual Tuesday morning routines. Parents were driving their children to school. Breakfast meetings were underway. Bakeries were delivering that morning’s baguettes and scones to area coffee shops. The first firefighters to arrive at the World Trade Center had been in the neighborhood because they had been out on a routine call, checking out a possible natural gas leak.
It was, in a sense, like the days of Noah that Jesus refers to in Matthew 24. On the various anniversaries of the 9/11 attack, news agencies replayed some of the footage of that fateful day as it unfolded. One clip I remember was the opening of the Today show at the top of the 8am hour. As always, the upbeat music played the Today show theme song, the camera panned down Rockefeller Center to the eager crowd outside Studio 1A even as Katie Couric cheerfully said, “Good morning on September the 11th, 2001, it’s a beautiful day here in New York City and we’ve got a nice crowd of folks gathered in the plaza.”
It was all so typical. It was the days of Noah. But before that hour was finished, Ms. Couric, along with everyone else, would look ashen. Within months of the attack that day, a new Department of Homeland Security was formed and among their first actions was a color-coded “Terrorism Alert” system. Ranging from green to red, from low risk to severe risk, this chart was meant to help people be warned in case another attack seemed imminent. But eventually that chart just kind of went away. No one paid it much mind. You just cannot live with constant uncertainty.
If the church were ever to develop a similar color-coded alert system predicting the likelihood of Jesus’ return in glory, I suspect that most of us would pay as little attention to that on a day-to-day basis as we did to the terror alert system even before it was discontinued. Based on Matthew 24, I’d say Jesus would not want us to develop such a thing in the first place. Mostly such prognosticating is the provenance of loopy preachers on cable TV.
As we say every year on this first Sunday in Advent, this church season is only partly about remembering the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Advent means “arrival” but the only reason to celebrate that first advent of Jesus 2,000 years ago is because he was God’s Son in the flesh. And if that is true, then the second advent of Jesus will also be true, and so we are supposed to spend some of this month longing for and pondering that upcoming advent. Mostly we don’t do that. Jesus’ return in glory is not part of the holidays for most of us.
There is a reason why all of our Christmas cards, most of our Christmas carols, and every single Christmas decoration you put up at home are all about Bethlehem and not the second advent of Christ’s return. The reason is simple: it’s more natural to celebrate what was than what is not yet. On your first wedding anniversary, you look at the pictures and re-watch the video of your wedding day. You look back and celebrate the day that was and you do this naturally. How odd it would seem on your first anniversary to spend more time looking forward to your tenth anniversary than looking back on the wedding day that made your marriage a reality to begin with.
Yet Christians are called to live with a certain bent toward the future. Because of what we believe to be true in the past, we have firm ideas on what the future holds, too. But because of the past’s reality and the future’s certainty, our lives in also this present moment are to be somehow changed. Even so, the last thing Jesus intended to suggest in Matthew 24 was that people who believe in his future return on clouds of glory must become starry-eyed sky-gazers who twiddle their thumbs in anticipation of Jesus’ second advent.
In fact, the first part of this chapter says that figuring out the precise timing of the end should not be our concern. Jesus says that even he himself does not know the precise day and hour when this will happen, which means among other things that neither has he been giving a secret code for us to crack. If your college roommate assures you that he has no idea what will be on your final exam in biology class, it is fruitless nevertheless to scrutinize your roommate’s every word so as to draw a bead on what the exam will be about. If he doesn’t know, he’s also not dropping hints.
Jesus isn’t trying to help us fix a calendar date. At the same time, however, he is telling us that there must be no doubt that such a date will arrive. When it does arrive, there will be no missing it. The first part of Matthew 24 makes that much clear. That’s why Jesus warned the disciples earlier not to be taken in by people who claim that Jesus made a secret return somewhere. When the end comes, you’ll know it. Everyone will know it. But until then, it will be like the days of Noah.
For all we know, the day before Jesus returns will be like that September morning in New York City: typical. Normal. Even Christian people will set out to work that day as usual, praying during their commute that their kids will have a good day at school, that Jill will do well on her algebra test, that Charlie will make the basketball team. Even Christian people will go into work thinking less about their Lord and Savior and more about getting that PowerPoint presentation ready for the next day’s important meeting. If that presentation goes well, you’ll have a shot at that mid-level management position that will open up soon.
When you live in the days of Noah, even as a Christian, your thoughts about the future are more likely to be about basketball teams and sales meetings than the return of Jesus. The days of Noah are the inevitable context in which we live. The Christian challenge is to live in the days of Noah but even so have a hope that transcends the typical routines of those same days.
The Christian challenge of Advent is to live lives every bit as typical as that of our unbelieving neighbors and yet even so provide a witness that demonstrates we don’t believe that the typical routines of our Tuesdays are all that there is. To say that the set-up for Jesus’ return will be extraordinary, the complete opposite of the days of Noah, is a cop-out. It relieves Christians of the need to point forward to Christ’s return during the days of Noah. But that is exactly when we must witness. It’s not on the day when the stars fall from their orbits that we need to live out the reality of our gospel hope but on the days of algebra tests, on the mornings when you hurriedly throw that evening’s meal into the crockpot before you dash out the door for work.
How difficult this is. “Therefore, keep watch” Jesus implores in verse 42. Keep watch he says, and that much is easy to understand. But then he adds that verse’s kicker: “for you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” We know what it is to keep watch. When I was a teenager and so old enough to babysit my younger brother, I can remember many evenings when, long after my brother was asleep in bed, I was keeping watch for Mom and Dad by the dining room window.
One snowy New Year’s Eve they were very late in returning home. In those days before cellphones, there was no reaching them. And so I watched. I strained my eyes to pierce the snowy darkness of the country road where we lived, eager to see the headlights appear over the rise of the hill just up the road from our house. I watched vigilantly and nervously but I did so because despite my concerns that they had slid into a ditch, at bottom I anticipated them at any moment.
We understand that kind of watchfulness. We also know that when it is tinged with nervousness or excitement, then such watchfulness can become all-consuming. When you are really watching for someone, you find it difficult to do much else. Watchfulness becomes your passion when you have a pretty good idea when the watched-for event is supposed to happen. But when watching goes on for a long time, when there is as a matter of fact no certainty as to when something will happen, then it’s pretty hard to keep watching.
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 case 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 over: 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 as our Lord says we must? I think the concept of “the days of Noah” provides the answer. Did you notice something curious about the analogy of the servant that Jesus gives in verses 45-51? There is one little line in there that struck me last week: it’s the phrase in verse 45 about the head servant giving 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 a corporate scandal 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.
When we opened this sermon, I said that we find it difficult to live bent toward an uncertain future. Even after the advent of a 9/11 we don’t typically orient our lives around the terror alert status any given day. But that’s the good news part of Matthew 24: the way to live into the future ends up being lives of simple faithfulness in the present. We never forget that Jesus is coming again. And we show this every time we take good care of our children and serve up a nice dinner. We show our watchfulness every time we perform an act of compassion for someone in need, every time we bring a bag of food to stock the larder at Ramoth House, every time we quietly tell a coworker about the hope we have in Jesus.
It’s difficult to be incessantly watchful in the most intense sense of that word. But sometimes it’s enough to demonstrate watchfulness through no more than never letting hope get extinguished in your heart and allowing that hope to shape you every day.
A few minutes ago I told you about Pauline, the character in the Anne Tyler novel. I hate to give too much away about a novel, but suffice it to say that although Lindy returns in some fashion eventually, 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.” Oh, 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. This year at Calvin Church we’ve had to bury some of our dearer members who died without ever seeing Jesus’ second advent. But that hardly makes their, or our, watchfulness a vain thing. 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.” Amen.
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