Expecting the Unexpected

29-Nov-20 (1st Sunday in Advent)

Matthew 24:36-44

Jesus is coming again. This is the sure and certain hope of all persons, who, for two milennia now, have served Jesus Christ as their savior. That he will one day return to this earth as the king of all creation is something that Jesus himself has promised us. We ought to be living daily in eager anticipation of this awesome and unimaginable event.

And everybody wants to know, when is this going to happen? This question was first asked by Jesus’ own disciples, and it has been asked over and over again for the last two thousand years. All of the writers of our New Testament Scriptures sincerely believed that Jesus would be returning during their life-times. And faithful followers of Jesus have believed the same thing in every generation since. From the moment of our Lord’s resurrection, we have all believed that we would personally witness the coming of the Son of Man, in the clouds, in all of his glory.

But so far, none of that has ever happened. Jesus has not returned. We might begin to wonder if talk of his return is some sort of nasty hoax, and we would certainly not be alone. As early as the first century, even before our Scriptures were completed, people were starting to ask some pretty serious questions about the promise of Christ’s return. Some, even boldly asserted that since so much time had elapsed already, that it was pretty much wishful thinking that anyone should anticipate our Lord’s return. A very careful read of the latter epistles in the New Testament will reveal that a new theology was beginning to develop around the idea that Jesus’ return just might be delayed for quite some time. And so it has been. And even though up to the present moment, Jesus has failed to return, this has not hindered even one generation of followers of Jesus from believing, hoping, anticipating and even speculating that they may be the last generation to live in this broken old world. Hope has not yet been fully disappointed. Some have even taken this hope to absurd extremes. Countless dates for our Lord’s return have been set, and have come and gone, most with hardly a murmur or a whimper.

And while it is fun to become excited about our Lord’s return, the Scriptures clearly indicate that a cautious, sedate, sober, and perhaps even solemn approach is what is really required of the followers of Jesus.

And so my purpose this morning, is first of all to be faithful to the Scriptures, but also to help us develop a more healthy anticipation of the glorious return of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The most definitive thing that we can say about the return of Christ is that it will happen. Someday. The promise has not been altered. The second most definitive thing that we can say is that most of the details that intrigue us about the return of Christ are intentionally shrouded in a deep and profound mystery, by God, who prefers that we live in faithful anticipation, and not in the realm of wild and fruitless speculation. Over the years speculation has kept us from the work of mission and ministry to which we are called.

Almost all of us are curious about the timing of our Lord’s return. We want to know when. And yet Jesus has told us time and time again that we cannot know the time. The time is none of our business, really. Knowing the time, would only distract us from our callings, and goodness knows that we have plenty to be distracted about already.

The passage begins with these words: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” That’s harsh. “No one knows.” No human being will ever be privy to this information. “Neither the angels of heaven.” This is a secret even in heaven. “Nor the Son, but only the Father.” Do you know that some very early scribes, whose job it was to copy the Scriptures, actually took it upon themselves to eliminate this bit about the Son not knowing the time of his own return? The idea that Jesus did not know was actually offensive to them. They could not imagine that Jesus himself would not know the time of his own return.

We might even want to agree with those early scribes. Doesn’t it make sense that Jesus ought to know this? Shouldn’t Jesus know all things? Don’t we like to say that he is God? But isn’t it wonderful that our savior, willingly chose not to know the time of his own return? Imagine how much pressure that removes from us! Why in the world do we speculate, when Jesus was completely comfortable not knowing? Are we not followers of Jesus?

This is the time of year when we focus on and celebrate something called the Incarnation. The Incarnation is that mysterious act of God, through Jesus, whereby God the Son set aside some of his heavenly glory in order to become fully human. The implications of this, of course, are absolutely staggering. How can we fully imagine that God, in Jesus, stepped out of heaven and entered this earth through the birth canal of a woman? That’s how we came into this world, for goodness’ sake!

Like us, Jesus cried, he soiled his swaddling clothes, and he stubbed his toes. He taught us to study the Scriptures, he taught us to seek the path of faithful mission, and then he died.

And if it is not in the lot of human beings or even of angels to know the time of Christ’s return, then Jesus, in cheerful identification with all of us, has willingly chosen not to know that either. I find that tremendously liberating. It frees us up to be exuberant in our work in mission and ministry without being tempted to emphasize or de-emphasize our work, depending on what time we think that it is on God’s clock. God’s clock is secret. It is not revealed to us. We should know this by now. Gullible followers of Jesus have been fooled hundreds of times.

And so our Lord will return at a time that is unexpected. To illustrate this, Jesus reminds us of the days of Noah. I like Noah. “Hey Noah, watcha building?” “A boat.” “What’s a boat?” “It floats on the water.” “We’re in the middle of the desert, Noah, there’s no water here.” “There will be someday.” “When?” “I don’t know, but it’s coming.” Poor old Noah, out there in the middle of the desert, building a boat with not a drop of water in sight, trying hard to be faithful to God in a world that was anything but. I am sure that he looked ridiculous. Life just kept going on all around him while he was building that boat. Everyone was busy doing ordinary, regular things, not paying a bit of serious attention to Noah’s silly project. They sat up and took nourishment, and they made long term plans. They even solemnized long term relationships. Until one day, quite unexpectedly, the flood came and swept them all away in judgment. In spite of the big, tall, white church building in their neighborhood, (Wait a minute. Well you know what I mean), the coming of the water came as a surprise to everyone but faithful Noah. They had no inkling of the judgment until it was too late.

So it will be with the coming of Christ. The sudden unexpectedness of the event will take many by surprise.

“What’s that, daddy?” “It’s a church, honey.” “What’s a church?” “Well, honey, it’s hard to explain. People go there on Sundays to sing and pray and read the Bible.” “Why don’t we go to church, daddy?” “Well honey, we don’t really need to go.” “Why not?” “Well, the people who go there, they’re good people and all, but they believe in some strange things that don’t really matter anymore. They’re kind of out of touch.” “OK daddy, I understand.”

As tragic as that sounds, that’s the way that it will be when Christ returns, because that’s the way that it is now. That’s the way that it has always been. Life goes on.

And when Christ returns, there will be sudden and unexpected judgment, just as there was with the flood. If we keep up with the analogy of the flood in this passage, verses 40 and 41 take on a meaning that even we might not expect. We have often assumed that the ones “taken” in these verses are the faithful ones who are ushered in to eternal bliss, and the ones “left” are those, who, well, get something that is quite a bit less than heavenly bliss.

It is quite possible, however, that Jesus meant his words to be understood just the other way around. In the flood story, the ones who are taken are the ones who drown. “Swept…away” is how Jesus puts it. The ones who remain, or the ones who are left, are Noah’s family, who ride the Ark to safety. So it just might be better for us to be left, rather than to be taken.

But, of course, it doesn’t matter one whit either way, because it is all speculation. And while speculation is fun, it is only a very small part of our calling. Our calling, primarily, is to point people toward the Ark. Only this time, the Ark is a man named Jesus, cast upon a cross, for our salvation. He is our only hope when the flood-waters begin to rise.

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