Matthew 24:36-44 New International Version (NIV)
36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son,[a] but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
When I was in my late teens and new to the Christian faith, I joined a group called the Open Air Campaigners, which for decades had taken the gospel message out onto the streets and beaches of using small vans that had been converted into mobile preaching platforms.
I met some memorable characters there – preachers who would never make it in the regular church ministry but revelled in the rough and tumble world of street preaching. One of them was Jim. He was a converted member of a bikie gang and was absolutely fearless in confronting even the most antagonist crowd of unbelievers.
His particular vehicle was a VW Kombi van which, along with its fold out platform, canopy, P.A. system and portable organ, also was covered with verses from the Bible warning people to turn to God.
We used to worry a bit about Jim, mainly because of the way he’d drive through city traffic, shaking his fist at drivers who slowed him down on his way to his favourite preaching spots. He was a bit like King Jehu of whom the Bible said ‘He driveth furiously.’
Then, one weekend, a letter appeared in Sydney Morning Herald from a traumatised driver who reported how he’d been driving along George St when this blue Kombi Van came up behind him, blasting its horn and then accelerating past him with a madman at the wheel shaking his fist. The VW then cut in front of him, causing him to hit the brakes and all he could remember was a sign in large letters across the back of the van which ‘Prepare to meet thy God.’
Well, with all due respect to Jim and the Open-Air Campaigners, there’s a strong flavour of this message in today’s Gospel reading.
In it Jesus talked about being ready for when the final call comes to us – the one that says that this earthly stage of our journey is over and the next is about to begin. And the point he makes is that none of us knows when the call will come. ‘You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.’
This passage has two senses. In its narrower sense it refers to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ – one of the most frequently referred to subjects in the New Testament. In its wider sense it refers to the time when God's summons comes to each of us, a call to prepare to meet our God. But either way, the point is that we can never be sure when that call will come, and so we must always be ready.
There's a tendency in our culture for people to live as though there is no tomorrow. Our finances often reflect this. The way we eat and treat our bodies reflect it, as sometimes do our moral lives.
Intellectually, we all know that one day that day of reckoning will come, but emotionally we don’t really accept that it will come for us.
For 2000 years Christians have proclaimed that Christ, who came into this world at Bethlehem and who died and rose again to reconcile us back to God, will come again and establish the Kingdom of God in all its fullness, bringing an end to human misrule with all its injustice and oppression. But most of us really don’t expect it to happen while we’re here – although the current state of the environment is making more and more people wonder what may be around the corner.
But every year, on this first Sunday of Advent, the Gospel reading for the day is this one – or the parallel passage from Mark or Luke’s Gospel that says the same thing. The King is coming, so be ready.
But it’s not just about waiting. It’s about being ready as we wait.
Let me tell you another story. Back in the days when the telegraph was the fastest means of communication, a young man applied for a job as a Morse code operator. When he arrived at the telegraph office, he saw a sign on the receptionist’s desk that said to fill in a form and wait until called for an interview.
There were already seven other applicants ahead of him, sitting, whiling away the time until they were called. Meanwhile, a telegraph was clacking away in the background. Suddenly, that young man got up and went into the office. He emerged soon after escorted by the interviewer, who said: ‘Gentlemen, thank you for coming, but the job has now been filled.’
The other applicants immediately objected, because he was the last to arrive and they never got an interview. But the interviewer said: ‘all the time you’ve been sitting here, the telegraph has been ticking out the following message in Morse code: “If you understand this message, then come right in. The job is yours.” None of you heard it. This young man did. So, the job is his.’”
He got the job not just because he was waiting, but because he was waiting attentively. Jesus taught his disciples the same thing. We also are in a waiting room – that’s what this present life is. But it’s not the fact of waiting that counts: it’s how we wait.
There are three things that Jesus took great pains to stress to his disciples in relation to the day of his coming. The first is that it would be at a time when the populace by and large would least expect it – it would be “like a thief in the night” he said.
The second is that we should not waste our energy speculating about when it will be, because even he himself didn’t know. That was in God’s hands.
And the third thing, as we see here, is to be ready, always ready; ready should he return, or should we be called into his presence by death.
But what does this say to us in terms of our present earthly life?
The early church had a saying: ‘Life is a bridge. You cross over it, but you don’t build your house on it.’ It reminds us that we also are travellers through this earthly existence, and our true home lies beyond it. That’s why the Book of Hebrews also says of us: ‘Here we have no continuing city, but we seek the city that is to come.’
One of the great themes of the Bible is Pilgrimage. Our present life is not a destination, it’s a journey to a greater life. It’s very easy for us, burdened as we are by the myriad cares and worries of daily life, to forget this, and to see nothing more than the next bill we have to pay or ailment we have to endure or loved one we have to worry about.
It’s also easy for us to forget it because we become totally absorbed in this present life and make the accumulation of things, prestige and the pursuit of pleasure the ultimate meaning in life. This was the very attitude Jesus warned against when he reminded us ‘that our lives do not consist in the abundance of our possessions.’
It reminds me of those poignant words from the Book of Ecclesiastes, “God has set eternity in our hearts.” And there are times when we catch a fleeting glimpse of it, and we know that we are destined for something far more than the limitations of this present life.
We often wonder why it is that we have such deep, inexpressible longings within us; longings which, in our youth, we suppose will be fulfilled if we go to live in some exotic place, or work in some exciting job, or fall in love with the girl or man of our dreams. Then we wonder why, if we are fortunate enough to achieve these things, the longings are still there.
The answer, of course, is that no location, no occupation, no romance is sufficient to meet those dreams. A piece of music, a story, a place or a romance may awaken it more deeply within us. But that longing ultimately is to be united with the one who is the source of all life and being, and to whose deeper presence we journey.
C.S. Lewis talked about this. He said: “Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy...There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away… something has evaded us…Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists…If I find within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world…I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death…”
Well, to me, that explains why each year on the first Sunday of Advent when we light the HOPE candle, the Church has this particular Gospel passage read. It may seem to be a message of doom and gloom – and to unbelievers that’s what it is – but to people of faith it’s a message of hope – the great hope of the Church.
I remember reading a rather poignant essay in the weekend edition of the Sydney Morning Herald written by novelist Emily Maguire in which she described how she had stopped believing in God six years earlier, but the death of a beloved relative and the possibility of her own death overwhelmed her with grief and filled her with terror.
She sought consolation in poetry, and in a few poems that spoke to her atheistic grief she found what she called ‘the essence of atheistic hope:’ ‘To understand that death is the end of existence and that it is inevitable, but to live as if it is not.’
“Grief,’ She said, ‘is not an intellectual state. It cannot be altered by discussion or removed by reason…it is about the inconceivability of an entire consciousness simply not existing…We know exactly what happens to a body after death; we know nothing about what happens to the consciousness it used to house.”
Well, I wish she could have been with me at my sister’s bedside, just before she breathed her last, and had seen her face light up as she sat up in bed and waved to people we couldn’t see, but whose presence was so palpable that my niece said afterwards, “It was like the room was filled with people.”
The Bible puts it this way, ‘It is in this hope that we are saved.’ And hope is what it will always be to us if we are living in expectation.