Six years ago, I was on pins and needles. My spouse was in the final stages of building the human life that would be our second child, and I was engaged in the perennial-yet-challenging, husbandly task of not getting murdered by my spouse before the baby was born.
I kid of course [shake head “no”] but we were EXPECTING.
This was going to be our second child. Yet experience did little to abate anxiety, in our experience. As we moved into the season of awaiting the coming of the Christ Child—as well as the return of Jesus—we settled into ourselves as we awaited the birth of our own.
But “settling into ourselves” doesn’t mean we holed up and waited. Those of you with children know that anticipation drives you to action. There’s cleaning, prepping, shopping, thank-you card writing, painting, furniture assembly, schedule-coordinating, babysitter arranging, hospital bag packing, and more conversation and planning that you could ever imagine. When you adopt a posture of anticipation, you naturally position yourself offensively in order to attend to all the myriad of tasks that come your way.
This Advent season, we will be reflecting on posture, exploring the ways that we position ourselves on account of what we are thinking and feeling. In other words, how do we think, or feel, or change when we experience things like anticipation, challenge, questioning, fulfillment, and promise? How do we hold our bodies? How do we move? Do our senses sharpen? What happens in our relationships? How does experiencing these things change the way we engage the world?
I have a friend from seminary named Angela. And Angela always encouraged us to offer our whole selves in worship to God, claiming there is much more to offer than our intellectual attention and our voices. I believe she is right—and to many she proved this by studying all the words used to describe acts of worship in the OT. As it turned out, every single one of them had to do with moving your body: raising hands, kneeling down, lifting your face to the sky, lying prostrate on the ground, and so on.
Our Advent texts have me thinking about Angela. When we are expecting—when the birth of a child is immanent—when we posture ourselves in response to anticipation—we change our bodies. We change our attitudes. We change our engagements with one another. We physically respond to the increased anxiety, joy, fear, stress, hope, and all the other mixed-up feelings that go along with anticipation.
This morning’s text—Matthew 24:36-44—is one that should evoke anticipation in us. Jesus, speaking here to his disciples, anticipates the Day of the Lord, which his fellow Jews believed would be the day the Messiah would appear and reign on earth forever. It may be worth noting that Matthew 24:3 tells us that Jesus is sharing these words “privately.” Most of the time, Jesus speaks out loud and in public, relying on the symbolism of parables to make his point in a covert manner. That Jesus speaks “privately” here may explain why these verses sound more radical and intense than the Jesus who urges the crowd to “consider the lilies of the field” in order to see how much God loves them.
There are four pieces—four elements of Jesus’ teaching that are intended to collectively draw us to the edge of our seat in eager, fearful, excited, and momentous anticipation about what God will soon be doing. For God (Jesus reveals) is going to break into the world in a more real, tangible, complete, and permanent way than even the very real, tangible, and complete incarnation of Jesus Christ.
The Day of the Lord of which Jesus speaks will first and foremost be unexpected in terms of timing. Here, he says that “no one knows the hour or the day, not even the messengers in heaven, not even the Son. Only the Father knows” (Matthew 24:36 VOICE). The unexpected timing of the Day of the Lord always seems to be the first thing Jesus refers to, whether in teachings (like this one) or parables (like that of the ten bridesmaids in Matt 25).
I think Jesus keeps insisting about the unexpected timing of the Day of the Lord because that is the part we humans have the most trouble with. When we know something is going to happen but we don’t know when, our anxiety goes through the roof.
Imagine the last time you had service personnel out to work on your internet or cable or whatever. You know how it is: you call and they assure you a service person will be at your home sometime between 8:30 Tuesday morning and next March. As you piddle around the house catching up on chores, complaining about it on Facebook, and looking out the window every 10 minutes, your whole being changes on account of anticipation—your attitude, your actions, your interactions, your perspective—everything!
Think about someone you know who was about to be a first-time parent. Those last weeks, they know the baby is coming; they just don’t know when. So every single bump or shift or change sends at least one partner into a blind panic. Anticipation winds us up—tightens and heightens our reflexes—so when that awaited event occurs, we are ready to spring into action without a moment to waste.
We have such a hard time waiting—especially when we know something is about to happen. I think that’s why we humans have been so fixated on trying to prove Jesus wrong here. Though Jesus says that even he does not know the timing of the Day of the Lord, folks have been naming dates since at least before 500 AD. We come up with theories based on the dimensions of the Ark (Hippolytus of Rome, Sextus Julius Africanus, Irenaeus), horrible misreadings of Revelation (Pope Sylvester II, Sandro Botticelli, Tim LaHaye), random mathematical coincidences and calculations (Michael Stifel and others), visions and dreams of cult leaders and would-be prophets, and astrological phenomena.
Over and over we try to connect dots that lead to nothing, to ascertain something we cannot know, because—just like the first humans in Eden—we are not content to let God and God alone be God.
Second, Jesus emphasizes that the Day of the Lord will come suddenly. What’s the difference between unexpected and sudden? It’s a matter of awareness.
When a spouse goes into labor, it’s unexpected in that the timing is uncertain but the approaching reality is certain and prepared for (one hopes).
In contrast, with suddenness both timing and the approaching reality are unanticipated in any way. Sudden is a car accident. Sudden is being blindsided.
The suddenness of the coming Day of the Lord is made clear by allusion to the story of Noah and the flood from Genesis 6-9. Now I’ve heard sermons from these verses that claim Jesus is talking about how evil the world will be when the Day of the Lord takes place, but that’s not it at all. Look at verses 37-39 (of Matt 24 NIV) again:
As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 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; 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.
These people are about the normal business of life—eating and drinking, marrying and giving their children in marriage, and so on—when they are blindsided by the flood: “They knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.” Jesus gives us no clues whatsoever about their character, morality, or faith; but he is quite clear that they were unaware of the dramatic events about to transpire.
So, Jesus says, it will be on the Day of the Lord, “at the coming of the Son of Man.”
Moving to the third element of this teaching of Jesus, we see that the coming Day of the Lord will not be experienced by everyone in the same way. The unexpected timing combined with its suddenness means that its impact will be uneven—unequal perhaps—as it affects the entire human race. Jesus says in vv.40-41:
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 one of these days I’ll preach a whole sermon on these verses, because they are among the most misunderstood verses of the Bible. If you’re the type that likes doing homework, write this down in your bulletin to look up later: Luke 17:34-37.
Those verses tell Luke’s version of the exact same teaching, describing two people doing the same thing but one being “taken.” Tim LaHaye and others want you to fear being “left behind,” but Jesus makes it pretty clear we want to be the ones “left behind.” In Luke 17:37, Jesus’ own disciples don’t understand where the “taken” folk are going, so they ask Jesus. His response?: “where vultures circle over rotting corpses.” Those taken are taken by death. You don’t want to be taken; you want to be left behind.
The point of these illustrations by Jesus is to show that just because the timing of the Day of the Lord is uncertain, we are not without the ability to do something about it. What’s the difference between the one taken and the one left behind? The one left behind was paying attention. The one left behind adopted a posture of anticipation.
What to do?
If there was ever any doubt about the difference being a matter of attention, Jesus moves to that fourth element of this teaching section, commanding his disciples to “keep watch” (v.42). And what does “keeping watch” look like?
Well, imagine your house is going to be burgled. If you knew it was going to happen, you’d have adopted a posture of anticipation: you’d have locked all your doors and windows, stayed up late, peeked around the curtains, had your phone pre-dialed to 911, and you would have been ready to respond—immanently!—to the slightest suspicion. You, my friend, will be left behind—you will remain.
But without adopting that posture of anticipation, what happens? You get taken. You become a victim……a statistic……a story used to warn future generations about the dangers of leaving windows unlocked and of being caught unawares.
Sisters and brothers, Jesus will come again. As we move in this season toward our remembrance of his first coming, we walk a traditional path of anticipating his second coming. We anticipate the Day of the Lord, when our Jesus returns to reign as king of the new earth, as foreshadowed in Isaiah, Revelation, and so many other places. The day is coming when we, as subjects greeting our returning king, will “meet the Lord in the air” and usher him to earth as its rightful ruler, as Paul himself anticipates in 1Thessalonians 4:17: “And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
What I think God wants us all to think about this week is how our thinking and our feeling and our whole being might change if we entered fully into anticipation of the Day of the Lord.
What might happen if we believed as fully in the reality of the coming Day of the Lord as we did in the immanent birth of our child? Or even just as much as we believe that the AT&T repairman will eventually work his way to us?
What might change among our priorities and commitments if we took an honest look at ourselves and our world and believed—truly believed—that Christ’s return could and would blindside us when we least expected it?
I hear a lot of people talking about’s wrong with the world…… About what’s wrong with churches…… About what’s wrong with religion…… But you know what I want to see?
I want to see Christians take this following Jesus thing seriously.
I want to see folks step up to the self-denying, no place to lay your head, sell all you have and give to the poor, take up your cross and follow me kind of life to which we are all called.
I want us to take Jesus seriously enough that we recognize an urgency about his mission of liberation and life.
I want the world to know the resurrection power of God’s love.
As proclaimed in Philippians 3:10-11: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (NIV11). I want to see that power in your life.
We begin Advent by looking both backward and forward, appropriate as we live in the now-but-not-yet Kingdom of God. As disciples of Christ, let us consider: what would it look like for us to live in very real anticipation of his return?
Stay awake, lest you be taken, caught unaware, blindsided. Pay attention and prepare yourselves, for you know “the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ is coming again.