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What, When, How?

This is the sermon I preached for the First Sunday of Advent, Dec. 1, 2019, at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The text was Matthew 24:36-44.

When on a road trip, do you find yourself being just a little antsy—wondering how much longer it will take to get to your destination—checking your watch? It’s hard to wait.

I don’t like to wait either. When I’m on a road trip, I frequently check on my phone just how much longer it will be until I arrive at my destination. I enjoy watching the minutes and hours decreasing. And I do take a certain perverse pleasure when traffic is flowing along well and I make good time. After all, I do have a lead foot. Just ask Ray.

This is one type of waiting, but there are other, less pleasant types of waiting. It’s not easy to wait for medical test results, especially if something is wrong. My daughter, Sarah, has spent the last two years having every kind of test imaginable to find out why she is tired all the time. Finally…there’s a diagnosis or two—fibromyalgia and narcolepsy. The fibromyalgia has to do with pain she’s been experiencing while the narcolepsy explains her continual exhaustion. Throughout this ordeal, we worried and found ourselves scared of the unknown. If we can at least name it, we can begin to deal with it. It is the unknown that is so hard to handle.

Early in this chapter of the gospel, when the disciples were alone with Jesus, they asked him when the end times would come. I think of small children asking, “Are we there yet?” They were looking for the glorious reign of God that would end the Roman occupation of their land. They wanted the king to come. Jesus responds to their question by talking about wars, false messiahs, signs of the end of the age, coming persecutions, the coming of the Son of Man, and then today’s passage. I don’t think this is the answer they were looking for. I don’t think it’s the answer we’re looking for either.

Can we live with not knowing? Can we live in mystery? Jesus said that no one knows when his return will be, except the Father. Look how many times not knowing is used in this passage. The Son does not know when these things will happenIn Noah’s day, the people knew nothing until the flood came. Jesus’ audience did not know when the Lord is coming. The owner of the house, did not know when the thief would come. This is a lot of not knowing.

The people of Noah’s time were just living their lives like we are: eating, drinking, getting married, and working—there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things. These are normal everyday activities. It’s not the actions per se, but the place of importance they take in our lives. Is there room for God? In Noah’s day, the people were too preoccupied with these things to hear the warning God issued through Noah. They knew nothing until the cataclysmic flood came. Then they understood that their lives would never be the same.

When our Lord returns, we will still be living our lives. Men will be working. Women will be working. Jesus speaks of one being taken and one left behind. We don’t know if the one taken is taken off to judgment and the one left behind is the faithful one or vice versa. It’s not clear from the text alone and scholars don’t agree. It’s another one of those “we don’t know” things, another mystery. And it really doesn’t matter because as many unknowns as we have before us, Jesus’ message is to be ready. 

The final verse in this passage neatly sums up the gist of our entire gospel lesson for today, “you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” It doesn’t matter when or how Jesus comes if he returns as glorious king in our lifetime, or if he comes for us as we close our eyes in death. 

God isn’t asking us to suspend our daily lives to sit and wait for Jesus to return. We are still supposed to work, eat, and live. The Lutheran Study Bible says that watching and being ready have “surprisingly simple” meanings. “Faithfully carry out the tasks set before you [as the verses following today’s gospel reading demonstrate] and use the gifts God gives you wisely and faithfully.” 

There was an interesting conversation in our new Facebook group, “Let’s Talk About Sunday’s Reading.” One person asked, “What does it mean to be ready?” I responded, that it may mean different things for different people, while someone else chimed in, “Loving our neighbor as ourselves, perhaps?  Living with the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount?”

So, what DO we know? Jesus is coming. And if we are in relationship with him, we know this grace-filled savior who is coming. We know his nature, his faithfulness. 

We don’t know the how. We don’t know the when. We do know the who. With our confidence in Jesus who knows us and loves us best, maybe we can live with the unknowns.

One commentator writes:

We may never know when we may encounter the living God waiting for us around the next bend. Indeed, each unexpected meeting, each moment of holy surprise, is but an anticipation of the great climax of all human history and longing, when the world, seemingly spinning along in ceaseless tedium, will find itself gathered into the extravagant mercy of God (Thomas Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).

Do you realize that this falling into God’s extravagant mercy happens every time we gather here around the table? Jesus comes to us in Word and Sacrament, in Holy Communion. If Jesus is part of our lives now, his “coming” shouldn’t surprise us. After all, we already know his voice and we hear his message. 


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