“Keep Watch” – A Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44

“Keep Watch” – A Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44 December 4, 2016

Hello readers! I recently preached at my church, Offerings UMC, for the first Sunday of Advent. Following the Revised Common Lectionary I preached on Matthew 24:36-44 (I conducted my exegesis from the Greek text, but our pew Bibles are NIV so that is the translation you’ll see in the sermon text). I really enjoyed both writing and preaching the sermon and I thought I’d share it here as well! I hope you find it worthwhile reading in this Advent season! – TSB

 

“Keep Watch”

A Sermon on Matt. 24:26-44 for the First Sunday of Advent, Nov. 27th, 2016

by Taylor S. Brown

 

Good morning everyone! So as you might have guessed by now I’m not Teddy or Chad [my pastors at Offerings]. If you are new to Offerings my name is Taylor and I am one of the members here. If you’ve been here before you have probably seen me either working in the sound booth or filling in as a worship coordinator. However, occasionally Teddy goes a little crazy and gives some of us the opportunity to preach…on the beginning of major church seasons like Advent no less.

So before we dive into the text it might be helpful to explain what Advent is. Advent is a season of the larger Church calendar that begins just about a month before the beginning of the Christmas season. It’s actually the beginning of the new year in the Western Church calendar. The word “advent” comes from the Latin word adventus meaning “presence” or “arrival.”

In the season of Advent we anticipate the arrival of the Messiah on two levels. First, we seek to place ourselves in the historical shoes of Israel as they waited for centuries for the arrival of the Messiah. When we sing songs like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with its lyrics about “ransoming captive Israel” who “mourns in lonely exile here” we are remembering our forebears as they awaited the arrival of God’s Anointed.

On the second level, we anticipate Christ’s Second Coming, what the New Testament writers like Matthew and Paul refer to as His parousia; His “arrival.” That word, parousia, is actually the Greek word that gets translated to Adventus in Latin. So it’s the original word for Advent, and it’s a word that will be important for a lot of what we look at today. Everyone say it with me: parousia. Very good!

Now today’s passage is pretty dense, theologically speaking. Just before the beginning of the passage, Jesus discussed the nature of God’s coming judgment against Israel. Israel was being judged for its repeated failure to live as the people of God in the world. Historically, this judgment did indeed come with the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by Rome in 70 A.D. For many in Jesus’s day, this final judgment on the corrupt Jerusalem elite was tied with the parousia, the arrival of the Messiah who would bring about justice and usher in God’s reign over the world.

But Jesus does something unheard of. He splits this final judgment and coming into two parts. Jesus speaks of God’s judgment against the corrupt religious elite coming within these people’s lifetime. And it does, in 70 A.D.

But the final arrival of the Messiah, Jesus speaks of as happening later in time. And unlike the destruction of the Temple—which Jesus says will happen before all of the disciples pass away—Jesus explicitly says that God the Father is the only One Who knows when this coming, this parousia, this advent, will be. This is a startling statement. So what better place to dive into the text, right?

Exposition

24:36: First in v. 36 Jesus says that “no one knows.” So basically all of humanity is out of the picture here when it comes to knowing the date of His coming. Then, Jesus says that “not even the angels in heaven” know! So not only do no humans know when the climactic arrival of the Messiah will be, but not even any angels know! Those beings that compose God’s heavenly armies and courts are left unaware of the date and time of the Messiah’s coming. Then Jesus says the most startling thing; not even the Son Himself knows the day of His own coming! Only the Father knows when that day will be.

Now, this is interesting isn’t it? First of all you’d think passages like this would have put to death any attempts at trying to pinpoint when Christ’s return would be. Sadly, many Christians over the years seem to have just glossed over passages like this. And, unsurprisingly, their successful guess rate has hovered right around the 0% mark. Far more interesting though is how stark this passage is in portraying the fully human nature of Jesus. Matthew, in writing his Gospel, did not want to shy away from the fact that Jesus was both fully God and fully human. Even though, as God, Jesus had the right and power to know all things, he gave up such rights and powers in becoming human. No one knows the day except the Father.

24:37-39: While Jesus explicitly says that nobody but God the Father knows when his coming will be, he does tell his disciples what that day will be like. In v. 37 Jesus compares his own coming to the time of Noah: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be with the coming of the Son of Man.” Jesus then elaborates on this comparison in the next verse. He speaks of pairs of activities that people were doing prior to flood: “they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage”. What are these? They’re the behaviors and actions of daily life. They’re even a little blissfully celebratory. Jesus is saying that even in spite of God’s impending judgment of evil via the flood, people continued to go about their daily routines.

It is in the midst of this ignorant bliss that the flood came and, in the words of Jesus, “took them all away.” Jesus is deliberately comparing God’s sweeping judgment in the story of Noah and the flood with the final coming of the Son of Man. This is a far cry from the Jesus we often see depicted in popular media isn’t it?

Often, our picture of Jesus is that of a fair-skinned, Scandinavian-looking guy with perfectly laundered white robes. Often, when we talk about how much we love Jesus, we unintentionally limit our picture of him to the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount and nothing more. This “Scandinavian Jesus” often sounds more like a reflection of us then he does a Galilean prophet. But if we are going to take the words of Jesus seriously, then that means we have to really listen to what he has to say about God’s justice and defeat of evil as well. Let’s keep going.

24:40-41: In vv. 40 and 41 Jesus draws the “Noah-flood” analogy out a little bit more. It will be helpful to hear it again: “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” Now, before going any further we need to do some historical and theological course correction here.

You all may have heard of a series of books called Left Behind, where a “rapture” occurs. Now in this so-called “rapture,” Christians are suddenly taken away from the earth leaving only their clothes behind. Loved ones are “left behind”; the European Union takes over the world; cars are left careening through the streets like unguided missiles. It’s all very cheery stuff. Many proponents of this view of a “rapture” use verses like vv. 40-41 to try and justify their belief in a theological position that has only existed for about 150 years. No Christians before the mid-1800s believed in a “rapture.” So before we look at what Jesus actually means by “being taken” and “being left” just know that it is not about a “rapture.”

The key to understanding what Jesus means with “being taken” and “being left” is tied directly to what the word parousia (remember that word?) meant in the ancient world. When we read our English translations of the New Testament, parousia is usually translated as “coming” or “arrival.” But for Jesus and his hearers the word had political overtones.

When a king entered a town or city, it was known as a parousia. Typically this entrance involved the king bringing with him benefits and blessings to the city he entered into. More importantly though for the New Testament writers, was the fact when a king was entering into a city, citizens loyal to the king would go out to meet him and welcome him in as he entered the city.

This is why another early Christian, the Apostle Paul, can speak of Christians “meeting the Lord in the air” upon his triumphal return from heaven to earth. Those who “meet the Lord in the air” are those who welcome Him upon his return to earth; they are not “raptured” away from it.

Thus, this parousia, this Advent, had certain key royal overtones within it. Given all this theological and historical background info, we can now look at vv. 40-41 with ancient Jewish and Christian eyes.

Now, I spent several hours surveying the top commentaries on Matthew’s Gospel to see how various scholars understood the language of “being taken” and “being left” here. I wanted to see if being “taken” was good (aka, being taken and spared from judgment) or if “being left” was good (aka, being left and spared from judgment). What I found though in reading about 10 to 15 different commentaries is that scholars of Matthew are evenly divided on the precise meaning of the words.

I won’t go into mind-numbing detail about the arguments for this, nor will I turn a sermon into a lecture on Greek syntax or the different nuances in Greek verbs (because Teddy would never let me preach again and Chad might just have a heart attack). Thankfully, such scholarly debates are secondary in nature to the larger point of the passage here. Despite disagreements on the precise meaning of “being taken” and “being left” all scholars agree that the larger point that Jesus is communicating in vv. 40-41 is the sudden nature of judgment and how God will differentiate between people who are living out there lives in nearly identical ways, unaware of how close the coming of the Lord is. This separation of people at the Lord’s coming does not differentiate along lines of class or race either. The imagery Jesus uses of working in the fields and grinding grain were typical, everyday work activities for ancient Jews. This separation occurs not based on these external categories, but on the orientation of one’s heart and allegiance to Jesus.

So, whether being “taken” is good or being “left” is good, the larger point is that when Christ returns to put the world to rights, the separation of the people of God from others will not occur based on the categories by which humanity judges and divides. A theologian named Frank Stagg summarized this concept well a number of years ago:

“The separation between those taken and those left will not follow conventional lines such as race or nationality. The lines will run through families and neighbors, separating those who had known ties so close as daily work.”[1]

The coming of the Son of Man comes swiftly and brings about justice in a way that is quite different than our human methods, not least because our judgments are always limited by our perspective and our own sin. Let’s keep going.

24:42-44: With vv. 42-44 Jesus concludes his discussion of his coming. Having just spoken of the coming judgment and how it will come swiftly, Jesus tells his hearers to “Keep watch!” In many ways this is the only appropriate response that the disciples can enact. It borrows the imagery of a night watchman, standing vigilant at his post. It is precisely because the disciples do not know when the Lord will arrive that they must be vigilant in their Christian lives. They must be in a state of readiness for His inevitable arrival.

Jesus concludes his discussion on his parousia by telling a small parable of a thief breaking into a house at night. When a thief breaks into a house, the only thing the owner of the home can do is remain in a state of watchfulness. And indeed, if the owner of the house had known the time the thief was coming, then he could have kept watch. A scholar named Ulrich Luz says of this parable:

“…what the owner of the house obviously would have done if it had been possible for him—namely, ‘watch’—the readers should all the more do, because they do not know when the Son of Man comes… The logic is obvious: you should do what the owner of the house ought to have done!”[2]

The owner of the house would have kept watch if he’d known when the thief was coming. While Jesus’s disciples don’t know when He is coming, they do know that He is coming and that after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., nothing is left to hinder His coming.

Keep watch.

Thus, Jesus concludes the whole discourse with a final command to the disciples saying precisely that: “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” The Son of Man’s coming is imminent. So they (and we) are to keep watch, to live as disciples of Christ in anticipation of that day and hour which no one but God the Father knows.

Proclamation

Well now. If that wasn’t a ton of information in a short amount of time I don’t know what is. But we’re not quite done yet. We have looked at Scripture and now we get to look at what that means for us.

I’m sure a lot of you are thinking, “Man, he sure has spoken A LOT about judgment so far in this sermon. I thought Advent was about anticipating the coming of Jesus’s Incarnation, his birth. I thought it was just the lead up to Christmas! Why so much talk of judgment in a sermon for the start of Advent?!”

And you’re right. I have spoken a lot about judgment so far. But that is only because our Lord Himself speaks about judgment. The problem is not with talk of judgment. The problem comes with how we understand it. To most modern ears, the word “judgment” is almost entirely negative in tone and connotation. We adamantly denounce judging, judgmentalism, and passing judgment on others. We live in a culture and world where judgment is among the gravest of sins.

And in some sense this is true. Jesus, in Matt. 7:1-6, himself speaks of the fact that, as Christians, we are not to pass judgment upon others quickly. We are to attend to our own sins and iniquities before we even think of addressing others. But this does not mean that there will be no judgment upon sin and evil. Instead, it means that judgment is in the hands of the only wise God.

 

For you see, God’s judgment is one that brings justice to the widow and orphan, oppressed for so long by the powerful.

 

God’s judgment rights the wrongs done to the weak and marginalized by the corrupt.

 

God’s judgment looks at the death of the unborn and says “No more.”

 

God’s judgment looks at the refugee, left to die by those who could offer shelter, and says, “This must end.”

 

God’s judgment looks at a world broken by sin, death, and evil and states firmly, “This will not stand forever.”

 

God’s judgment looks out at a broken and bleeding world—at our broken and bleeding hearts—and says that this darkness, this exile, will be defeated and the good world put to rights.

 

God’s judgment is terrible, for it condemns not only the systemic evils running rampant in our world, but the evil that runs through each and every one of our hearts as well.

 

God’s judgment is beautiful, for in the midst of condemning evil and sin, this same justice has offered mercy for the sinner and the evildoer.

 

The coming of the Son of Man. Those words should strike us with both terror and joy. And they should cause us to take seriously Jesus’s command to “Keep watch,” because we do not want to be caught unaware when our King comes with his Holy Justice. This is often hard for us as modern Americans to understand. Thankfully a theologian named C. S. Lewis helps us to understand why “keeping watch” is so important in his essay “The World’s Last Night”:

“For it will be infallible judgment. If it is favorable we shall have no fear, if unfavorable, no hope that it is wrong. We shall not only believe, we shall know, know beyond doubt in every fibre of our appalled or delighted being, that as the Judge has said, so we are: neither more nor less nor other. We shall perhaps even realize that in some dim fashion we could have known it all along. We shall know and all creation will know too: our ancestors, our parents, our wives or husbands, our children. The unanswerable and (by then) self-evident truth about each will be known to all.”[3]

 

Advent then is anticipation of this day. We await the final coming of the Son of Man, the final advent when the Resurrected King enters His kingdom, bringing justice and goodness with him. The Incarnation, the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, has begun this final arrival of God’s light into a world filled with darkness. Further still, the decisive battle has already been won.

An image to help us understand this comes from World War II. The decisive military operation that would ultimately lead to the victory of the Allied forces over Nazi Germany was the invasion of Normandy, also known as D-Day. D-Day took place on June 6, 1944. The final surrender of Nazi Germany and the end of the war in Europe would not occur until May 8, 1945, or V-E (Victory in Europe) Day; almost a year later.

Despite the time gap between the Allied victory on D-Day and the final surrender of the Nazis 11 months later, it was on June 6, 1944 that the war was won by the Allies. That invasion marked the beginning of the end of the Nazis’ control of Western Europe. It was only because of D-Day that V-E Day happened.

Through the cross and the resurrection, God’s “D-Day Invasion” of His enslaved creation has been successfully accomplished. The forces of evil, death, and the devil have been dealt their decisive deathblow.

For now, we exist in between the D-Day of Easter and the V-E Day of Christ’s Return. Part and parcel of this is keeping watch. Advent, in many ways, calls us to remember our state of watchfulness. It reminds us that we are the people of God living in what many theologians call the “now and not yet.” The “now” of Christ’s decisive victory and defeat of death. The “not yet” of the final collapse of evil and sin. We remember that Christ has come. We keep watch for that day when Christ will come again.

Now, in the midst of this talk of judgment and justice we must simultaneously remember that the same Lord who judges evil also offers mercy. The God Who Judges is the same God Who Saves. The God Who brings justice is the same God Whose Love conquers all. This dual reality is often hard for us to hold together. As modern people we tend to think that justice and mercy are mutually exclusive. We think that you cannot have one and also have the other. But this is not the case. God’s judgment upon evil and sin has brought with it salvation and mercy as well. This dual reality is summed up well by another great theologian named N.T. Wright in his wonderful book, Evil and the Justice of God:

“Noah’s flood, after all, was a sign that even God the Creator was sorry that he had made the world. But, not least through the sign of the rainbow, it becomes the means of a new start—a new covenant. If we can work toward understanding and being the willing agents of both the divine tears over the world’s evil and the fresh creativity that sends out the dove to find new olive branches emerging from the waters of chaos, we shall, I think, be on the right track. The sea [a symbol of darkness and evil for ancient Jews and Christians] is powerful, but God the Creator is more powerful still. Evil may still be a four-letter word. But so, thank God, is love.”[4]

            Judgment is never the last word with God. Judgment is the means by which evil is purged, darkness defeated, and sin cleansed, so that we and our world might be made new. Judgment is penultimate. Divine love is ultimate and unending.

This is what Advent instills in us. It reminds us that divine justice is coming. It reminds us that divine love is the final Word in our world. And so we wait and keep watch in eager expectation of the Coming of the Son of Man.

The stage is set.

The decisive victory has been won.

And so we wait, as watchmen, looking to the horizon for the coming of the King.

The night is fading away.

Morning is on the horizon.

We hear the faint sounds of a triumphal chorus.

We squint, and we think we see on the horizon One like a Son of Man bringing justice and light in His wake.

 

And so we keep watch for the Coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ. And while we keep watch we proclaim our allegiance to our King.

Benediction

Receive this benediction. May you all keep watch in this season of Advent. May you all remember that the God Who brings justice is the same God Who Saves. May you remember that Christ has come and that He will come again. Amen.

Endnotes

[1] Frank Stagg, “Matthew,” in The Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 8, ed. C. J. Allen (Nashville: Broadman, 1969), 222.

[2] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21–28: A Commentary, ed. Helmut Koester, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 220.

[3] C. S. Lewis, “The World’s Last Night” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1952), 113.

[4] N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 41.


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