Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church, on 28th November 2010, the First Sunday of Advent.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and as Advent comes every year, we know with a great degree of certainty that Christmas is also coming in less than five weeks this year. We know that Christmas day is coming. We look at the calendar and know the exact date. And we are ready for it. If we haven’t bought the gifts yet, I’m sure most of us have at least made the lists and sent them by email to Santa Claus…
And in a stark contrast with us knowing exactly the date when Jesus is coming to us this Christmas, the passage we read from the Gospel according to Matthew tells us that “no one knows when that day and hour will come.” This is a most intriguing tension, especially since this idea of uncertainty is repeated five times in different forms in this short passage. I know you will immediately correct me and tell me that Matthew is not writing here about the birth of Jesus, but rather about the ‘second coming of Jesus’, but then I would be forced to tell you that this expression does not appear in the Bible.
You don’t have to read theology to pick up on the fact that these things are highly contentious among theologians, who sometimes have nothing better to do than to speculate on future timelines and try to anticipate when Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, as the Apostles Creed declares. You would think that when theologians read a biblical text, they would notice when Jesus says five times ‘you do not know the day’. He even says it in different ways, and he gives a couple of illustrations as well, so that even children would get it. But that doesn’t stop theologians from speculating.
I have to say: when I was studying theology in college I was intentionally uninterested in a fixed and final reading of the end times. As far as the end times were concerned my approach was intentional ignorance. I was always more interested in the present and the immediate future, rather than in worrying about when Jesus returns, and how exactly it will happen.
The way faith and the Bible affected my everyday life seemed to me to be far more urgent and significant than any speculation about when Jesus would come again on earth.
I think it is fairly safe to assume that not many people lose sleep nowadays over the exact timing of the coming of Jesus. It doesn’t really seem significant for everyday life, unless Jesus comes before I have to pay out my loan.
But I do think people sometimes think about death. I know I do, especially since I started in ministry, and began to take funerals. When you constantly have to hear and make sense of people’s stories, which always have a beginning and an end, you are tempted to think more about your own end.
But it would be rather foolish if I began to be obsessed with my death. When will it come? Will I die in the line of duty? Will it be swift and painless? Will I die like a man, or cry like a baby? All sorts of strange questions can take over our lives when we begin to be obsessed with the end.
It would also be foolish to think that there is no end. The point of the story of Noah is that people were pretty much living like animals: eating, drinking and having babies. They didn’t wonder about the end; they couldn’t care less about what God thought or said.
Life is more than eating, drinking and procreating. Thinking about an end gives shape and meaning to life. I believe a sermon can only be good as far as it has an ending, and it’s not too far off. I like the expression: “All good things must come to an end.” There is so much wisdom in these words.
But endings are scary. We cannot escape this fact. They are scary because they are uncertain. Nobody knows when they come.
The coming of Jesus depicted in this passage is likened to a cataclysm in the days of Noah. That’s a scary comparison. And then Jesus says that out of two men working in the field ‘one will be taken away, the other will be left behind’. Women don’t escape this either: ‘Two women will be at a mill grinding meal: one will be taken away, the other will be left behind.’
We don’t even know what is better: to be taken away, or to be left behind? We do not know. Jesus is not giving us a clear answer.
And when we hear Jesus saying: “Be on your guard… you must always be ready”, there is always a lingering fear in the back of our minds: what if I’m not ready when he comes? What does it mean to be ready? How does one get ready? How can one be ‘always ready’? I do not feel like I’m always ready. Sometimes I do not feel ready at all…
Perhaps this lingering fear has to do with an understanding of life and salvation as the destination after we die, or after Jesus comes again. Is it heaven, or is it hell? Up or down? Am I in, or am I out? It’s all about the destination. It’s all about the ending. It’s as if a pianist is playing a sonata and is only focused on the final notes. I can tell you from personal experience, such a pianist will never make it very far. If all he wants is the relief of the final notes, he’s not a very good musician. He is missing the point.
When you go out to have a nice meal, you don’t become obsessed with clearing your plate. You sit down and enjoy every bite, savouring the taste and the smell of the food. When you anticipate going to a concert, you don’t think about what the last song will be; unless it’s a really bad concert.
What if the point is not to worry about those last notes? What if by focusing and obsessing about the ending is causing us to miss the point of life altogether? What if the fear of the ending prevents us from living the abundant life that Jesus came to earth to give us?
I believe Jesus is encouraging us in this passage to stop obsessing about the ending, and to stop trying to figure out when it will come. That day and that hour belong to God’s time, not ours. It is not for us to know with any degree of certainty. It may be about a certain point in history, or it may be something completely different. We do not know, nor do we need to know.
What we need to think about is that the end WILL come. We don’t know when, and we don’t know how. But just as Noah believed God and built his ark, so are we challenged to believe God and build his kingdom on earth. I believe this is what ‘being always ready’ is about. It is a way of being which always expects God’s kingdom to come, and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. It is a way of being which embraces God’s kingdom and its values while looking forward in the future when the King will return to complete the work that he has given to us to do.
It is very difficult to keep the balance between thinking and anticipating the end, while not becoming obsessed with it, and losing out on real life as a result.
Advent is about waiting for the coming of the Saviour. But it is not about a passive waiting for the end while missing out on the journey. Rather it is an active waiting for a new journey to spring forth from our current one; a journey which is far more wonderful and exciting than we can ever imagine with our limited minds; a journey which we cannot even begin to explore with our limited language and experience.