Date: November 27, 2022
Festival: 1st Sunday in Advent
Text: Matthew 24:36-44
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI, and CTKLC
Appointed Scriptures: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:(8-10) 11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
Sermon Hymn: LSB #332 Saviour of the Nations, Come
Exegetical Statement: In this second half of Jesus’ eschatological discourse, He says no one knows the day or the hour of when the Son of Man comes. This day and hour are wholly unknown to human beings, angels, and even the Son; only God the Father knows. Jesus utilises three images to develop this unknowability. First, that day will be like it was in the days of Noah. People will be going about as usual in human society when suddenly, the Day of the Lord will come, and the wicked generation will be taken away while the righteous remain. He then uses the smaller image of the two men and the two women working. As they are simply going about what they normally do, the wicked one will be taken and the righteous one left. And third, the Son of Man will come like a thief. No one knows when a thief is coming, so they must always be ready; therefore, Jesus says, be ready since you do not know when the hour of the Son of Man will come. The hearer is therefore challenged to accept the unknown—they can never know when Jesus is coming. Jesus’ words also encourage the hearers to remain alert and expectant of the Lord’s Advent. As everyone is going about their usual day, even us, these words from our Lord essentially bring the hearer to physically gaze upward towards the skies with constant expectation of His coming rather than keeping their heads down as they busy themselves with their work. It is not that such work ought not to be done while we wait (cf. 25:14-30), but that the primary focus of the mind’s eye of the Christian is Christ descending in glory rather than the work of their hands. Therefore, with such great expectancy of the Lord’s coming, this faith and hope brings the hearer to change how they go about their daily business, which the selected epistle reading for the day delineates (Romans 13:8-14).
Focus Statement: Jesus is coming at an hour you do not expect.
Function Statement: That my hearers might constantly have the imminent Advent of Christ on their hearts and minds and, therefore, live their daily lives as if He’s coming at any moment.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Knowledge is what brought mankind from the state of glory in the perfect image of God to the state of sin, evil, and corruption. Since then, we like to know things. And whenever there’s something we can’t know, it is a reminder that we are not limitless—that, despite our efforts in the Garden of Eden, we are not gods. According to Socrates, the first principle for philosophers is “to know that we don’t know,” and it is perhaps the unknowable that makes the future so maddening. Everything about it is unknown, except for what Jesus says here: “your Lord is coming” [v. 42]. Yet the time is unknown. Despite all the prognostications of TV evangelists, Jesus says no man, no angel in heaven, and not even the Son of God knows when He is coming. Even though He’s God, Jesus, in His humanity, submits Himself to not knowing something. This unknowability of Christ’s coming has driven such TV evangelists to the madness of false second coming predictions, entirely ignoring Jesus’ preface to His prophecy, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows” [v. 36].
And He gives us three images of what that day and hour look like—two images of great separation, and one image of readiness. In the first two images, there is one who is taken and one who is left behind. Thanks to lousy movies and novels like the Left Behind series, we usually think it’s good to be the one who’s taken away and bad to be the one who’s left behind, but this is not actually the witness of the Scriptures. Beginning with the first image, Jesus says, “For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” [v. 37]. Noah is contrasted with everyone else. Noah went into the ark, along with his family, but everyone else outside the ark was “unaware until the flood came and swept them all away” [v. 39]. The wicked generation of Noah’s day were taken away into God’s wrath, whereas Noah and his family were left behind, completely safe. Just like Psalm 1 says, the wicked are blown away like chaff in the wind, whereas the congregation of the righteous remain standing in the Lord’s presence.
Some Church Fathers viewed the Church as the ark in which we now remain safe—and furthermore, Christ as the ark, since Paul describes the Church as Christ’s body in numerous places [Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 1:22-23; 4:4-5; 5:23; Col. 1:24]. Augustine, for example, said the door in the side of Noah’s ark symbolises the open wound in the side of Christ—”the door by which those who came to Him enter in, in the sense that believers enter the church by means of the sacraments that issued from that wound” [Augustine, City of God 15.26]. As water and blood poured out from Jesus’ side, so through the water of Baptism and the body & blood of the Lord’s Supper we enter into the Church, Christ’s body. For Augustine, Noah and the ark prefigure Christ and the wood of the ark of the cross, and Noah also prefigures separation. Just as the wicked generation of his day were taken away into God’s wrath and Noah and his family were left safe in the ark, so will it be that on the day when the Son of Man comes, the wicked generation will be taken away into God’s wrath while the family of God remains safe in the ark of Christ, His Church.
To illustrate this even more, Jesus uses the smaller image of what these days of Noah will look like. Just as it was in the days of Noah, people will be going about their normal business in society. They’ll be eating and drinking and getting married. Two men will be working in the field and two women will be grinding at the mill. If we wish to put a modern twist to it: two will be working at the cash register at McDonald’s and two will be working in cubicles at a corporation. One will be taken, and one will be left. Just as it was in the days of Noah, the one who is taken is swept away into God’s wrath; the one who is left behind is left safe in the ark of Christ, His Church. Jesus’ speaking this way is cohesive with the Old Testament Prophets. They constantly spoke of God’s wrath coming upon Israel in terms of being taken away into exile and others being left behind as a faithful remnant for God’s people to grow in the future.
In the Book of Matthew, Jesus talks a lot about separation. He speaks of those whom He rejects, saying, “I do not know you” [Matt. 25:11-12]; they are told to depart [7:21-23], and in numerous places they are described as being cast out [8:11-12; 13:41-42, 49-50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30, 41, 46]. These verbiages of God’s judgement that Jesus uses correspond much more closely to being “taken away” than “left behind.” And this makes much more sense in the context of Revelation with the New Jerusalem—the new creation—coming down to us. It makes no sense that Jesus would take us away when the new heavens and the new earth come down. It makes much more sense that we remain here, safe from God’s wrath, as the new creation descends to us with Christ in all His glory.
And the third image Jesus uses is even stranger, and it seems rather ominous: that the Son of Man will come like a thief. No one wants a thief to break in and steal what they have, and we can hardly stop it by planning head. Now, we may have alarm systems in our homes or even defensive handguns and shotguns, but even then, we cannot prevent a thief from showing up. We simply have to keep being ready so that when something bad does happen, we’re not caught unaware.
Jesus is keen on reminding His disciples that He is God Almighty who has all authority over heaven and earth. When He comes again, there will certainly be rejoicing and salvation on the part of those who are safe with the ark of the Church, but for those who will be taken away into God’s wrath, on that day the Lord’s coming will be to them like a thief in the night. There will be great fear of God just as it was in the days of Noah. For just as a thief suddenly breaks in and steals without warning, so the Lord will suddenly break into the world and steal the wicked away into His wrath. They will not see it coming because they do not remain aware. Therefore, Jesus says, be ready for this unexpected hour when the Son of Man comes.
But why? What benefit is such readiness to us? There are five reasons why it is important for you to be ready. The first is that if you don’t constantly look for the return of Jesus, you could lose your faith and fall away. This is the danger Jesus presents just after this in verses 45-51—that those who do not remain faithful to Christ their Master will be cast out into God’s wrath. Consider a life that is constantly looking to the imminent Advent of Jesus to one that doesn’t even look forward to it. If we do not frame our lives around the fact that Jesus could come at any moment, we will find that we will be easily distracted and led into temptation because we’re not taking Jesus’ words seriously. Between now and the time of Christ’s Advent that ushers in the age of eternal life, we are in constant spiritual danger. As my friend Dr. Gibbs says, failure to ever keep our eyes on Jesus “can deaden [our] awareness, cause us to lose our vigilance, and open us to dangerous temptation, and we could fall and be found among the goats on the left” [Gibbs, 1363].
The second reason to always be ready for Christ’s Advent is that we can easily forget what it is the Lord has given us to do. That’s what the Parable of the Talents is about after our Gospel reading as well [25:14-30]. The Lord has entrusted each of us with all kinds of work to do not just in the ordinary sense of the vocations He has given each of us, but also the work we do in the Church to advance the kingdom of His Gospel for the forgiveness of sins. If we’re not always ready for the Advent of Jesus, we forget to honour the Lord with our work.
The third reason is that if we’re not always ready for Christ’s Advent, it is too easy to think the world, or creation, doesn’t matter. As alluded to earlier, the point of Christ’s return is that He ushers in the new creation—the new heavens and the new earth. If all we care about is dying and going to heaven, how can this earth, our own bodies, and even the new creation to come ever matter to us? By being ready for the Advent of Jesus, we are not content with being some nebulous, immaterial thing in heaven; rather, we look forward to Jesus raising our bodies from the dead to enjoy the new earth and the new heavens, praising Jesus with our physical mouths for all eternity.
The fourth reason is that if we’re not always ready for Jesus, it is too easy to become discouraged and regress into basic survival mode, “Oh I’ll just play it safe by not offending anybody until I die and go to heaven.” The world is truly dark, and it is only getting darker, so if we do not keep our eyes fixed on Jesus—the Sun of Righteousness to dawn in the clouds [Mal. 4:2]—it is far too easy to drop the crosses Jesus has called us to pick up and carry. By doing so, we trade the wooden cross that proclaims the Law that offends and the Gospel that saves for a counterfeit one made of paper that only pretends to follow the crucified and risen Lord. Moral cowardice does not have a place in following Jesus.
The fifth and final reason is the most important. Jesus tells you to be ready not just as a warning, but also as the promise that He is coming for your salvation. We remain ready because we long for Jesus. The Lord is with us always, just as He said, to the end of the age [Matt. 28:20], but there is also a real sense in which He is not with us. Sure, we consume His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper for the forgiveness of sins, but even His presence there is limited, which is why we call it a foretaste of the kingdom. He is not standing before you today as I am standing before you right now. Therefore, we long for Him. We long not just to be with Him in heaven, which is good, but even more we long to be with Him in physical form, which is why He tells us always to be ready for His Advent because when He comes suddenly like a thief, on that day you will see Him just as you are in your bodies now, only your bodies will be perfect and glorified just like His.
For this is why you attend the Divine Service week in and week out. Because it is here that you receive a foretaste of that heavenly banquet in the new creation at the Lord’s Table; it is here that you hear the words of your Lord through your pastor, His servant; it is here that the Lord with His Holy Spirit constantly prepares you to be ready through His Word and Sacraments; and it is therefore through those means of grace that you enter the ark of the Church, Christ’s body, to know and rest assured that you will be safe in Christ when He comes in wrath and glory to inaugurate His kingdom of salvation for you.
Let’s imagine something with my friend, Dr. Scholl: What if, somehow, Christmas could come at a different time every year? We would still plan for it, still take the day off, still have the same celebrations; it just wouldn’t necessarily happen on December 25th every year. All we would know is that it would happen sometime in December. And one morning we would wake up and the TV or radio would announce, “Today’s the day! Merry Christmas!” How would we plan differently? How would our gift-giving and our holiday routines change? How would we receive the day? The Advent of Christ will be such a surprise. We know He’s coming, just not when.
So then, how might we prepare ourselves for His coming? As we look to His imminent Advent, how do our daily lives change as we live each day as if that is the day He is coming? For just like Christmas morning, those who remain in the ark of the Church will experience the Lord’s Advent with the thrill of joy in life everlasting in the kingdom of Christ our King.
To Christ be all the glory, forever and ever. Amen.
Gibbs, Jeffrey A. Matthew 21:1-28:20. Concordia Commentary. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2018.