36 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 37 As it was in the time of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Human One.[a] 38 In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. 39 They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away. The coming of the Human One[b] will be like that. 40 At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. 42 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. 43 But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. 44 Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One[c] will come at a time you don’t know.
Advent is an apocalyptic season. It invites a sense of expectation. God is getting ready to do something new – a revealing of the realm of God. That can hold out good news or bad news. It might come as a word of hope or a word of judgment. Now, with Black Friday behind us, the Christmas decorations abounding, and the Christmas carols playing non-stop, the last thing that people entering a church service want to hear is a word of judgment. In fact, for many Advent seems to put a damper on the holiday season. Since holiday songs are present everywhere else, why not the church as well. Those Advent hymns don’t compare well with Christmas carols. But the Gospel reading from Matthew nevertheless demands that we pay attention to the mission of God.
The 24th chapter of Matthew 24 has an apocalyptic focus. The conversation begins in verse 1, with a conversation about the Temple. The disciples are impressed by grandeur, and well they should, for it was one of the great wonders of the ancient world. But Jesus cuts the conversation short but telling them that the day is coming when this Temple will be no more. For the readers of the Gospel, that day had already come. By the time this Gospel was composed, Jerusalem had fallen and the Temple had been reduced to rubble. In the text, the disciples want to know when this is going to happen. The answer comes in the form of three parables, and then this warning -- no one knows when this is going to happen. Not the angels, not the son, only the Father. In other words, it’s not something you can figure out. There’s no mathematical formula that’s going to let you pin down the date – though many have tried and will continue trying to figure out the formula.
What does Jesus want us to do in preparation for this Day of Judgment? He wants us, it would appear, to be ready at all times. This is illustrated in three further parables or stories.
If you can set aside the historical/scientific questions for a moment, the story of Noah is quite revelatory here. At first glance, if you know the story – even the Steve Carell version
it’s not as if the people don’t know something is up. After all, why would you build a big boat and fill it with animals if something unusual is about to happen? For Matthew’s Jesus, the message of Noah is one of normalcy. Noah might be doing something odd, but people ignored him and went on with life. They ate and drank and got married. This isn’t the Epicurean message of eating, drinking and being merry because tomorrow we die. No, this is about settling down to live life to its fullest. The people aren’t paying attention to either Noah’s message or his act of building the big boat and filling it with animals. Whatever Noah is up to, it has no meaning for the majority of the people. Of course that is life. We may stop for a moment to gawk at something out of the ordinary, but our attention spans are short. It doesn’t take long to get back to business as usual. Our goal, it would seem, is the pursuit of normalcy. The parable of Noah stands as a reminder that even if we stop for a few moments on a Sunday, do we really attend to the message of Advent?
The second set of stories helps give rise to rapture theologies. When the Human One comes there will be two men standing in a field. One will be taken and the other left behind. There might be two women at the mill grinding the grain – one is taken and one is left behind. In the parable Jesus never really tells us which one is righteous and which is unrighteous – in either case whether a culling or a harvesting, the parable speaks of God’s act of separation for judgment.
Finally there is the thief who comes in the night. If you know that the thief is coming you’ll be ready for that occurrence, but that’s not the way thieves work. They don’t send you a note letting you know ahead of time that they plan to break in and steal your goods. No, they come in under the cover of darkness, unannounced, when you’re not prepared.
The point of course is this – always keep awake. Be prepared. The Day of Judgment will come when least expected, when we are busy at work. As I read this, I do struggle with the message of judgment. I want there to be an open door policy. Perhaps there is – in a way – but surely there is a refining, a culling of those things that keep us from fully experiencing and expressing the presence of God. As Advent begins I am ever mindful of my own shortcomings. I too get distracted. If truth be told, I prefer Christmas to Advent!
So is it time yet? No one knows so be prepared. Don’t spend your time getting distracted with speculation. Instead, keep focused on the mission of God – that the blessing of God would be known by all Creation through the incarnation.