[This is the sermon prepared for worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church this morning. It turned out a little differently in the delivery at both services though. Living Water is in Springboro, Ohio. Worship is at 9:01 and 10:32 each Sunday morning. On Christmas Eve, we'll be having Family Christmas Eve worship at 4:00 PM and Traditional Candlelight worship at 7:00 PM.]
In our encounter with Jesus today, we're reminded of an important truth: God makes promises. But God doesn't make appointments.
The greatest promise God ever kept and made is that He sent His only Son Jesus to die and to rise for us, so that all who believe in Him have their sins covered by God's grace and they have everlasting life with God.
That fulfilled promise ought to cause us to ascribe complete credibility to God's promises. But it is as yet by faith that God calls us to believe another promise. Jesus talks about it today.
Today is the First Sunday of Advent. Advent is a word that means coming. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says that He will come to us, either at the ends of our own lives or at the end of life in this world, like a thief, at an unexpected moment.
Jesus won't have an appointment. We don’t know when any of us may die. We don’t know when this world will end and God’s eternal Kingdom will be ushered into being in its fullness.
But that shouldn’t frighten us. In fact, the prospect of meeting our Lord face to face should bring us joy and anticipation.
And it should remind us to get ready.
Let’s look at the Gospel lesson, Matthew 24:36-44 (page 695).
Chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew’s Gospel comprise the fifth of five discourses by Jesus that Matthew records. This one deals with the end times of this world.
Much of the discussion is triggered by a question posed by the disciples in Matthew 24:3: “Tell us, what will happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
The disciples want to know when Jesus will come back and how they will know His arrival is impending.
Jesus answers them, really, by ignoring their question. Look at verse 36, where He tackles the question of when: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Only the sovereign God of the universe knows the day of Jesus’ coming to this world. This may ruffle our egos. But it’s not a bad thing for us that God isn’t subject to our timelines or expectations. God operates on His own timetable and He doesn’t consult any human being.
In fact, Jesus says that not even He knows when the Father will send Him back to the earth. If you want to blow your mind sometime, try to figure out how one of the three Persons of the Trinity--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--can somehow keep a secret from one of the other Persons of the Trinity. I can’t explain it. But then, I’m still working on understanding the Trinity.
I’ve concluded that the God we can completely figure out isn’t God! I’m content with that!
“So,” we, like the first disciples, wonder, “how will we know when Jesus is coming?” Look at verses 37 to 39, please. Jesus says: “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.”
Now, you and I know from reading Genesis 6-9, where the experiences of Noah are narrated, that God had instructed Noah to build the ark as a place of sanctuary for those God was saving--just as Jesus has established the fellowship of the Church as sanctuary so that all who live by faith in Christ will be saved from sin and death.
We know that God did that because of His plan to destroy a human race given over to sin and start over again with Noah and his family, the only ones left on the planet who trusted in God.
But Jesus isn’t talking about the moral lives of the people in Noah’s world here. He’s talking about innocent human activities. Eating, drinking, marrying, giving in marriage. This is normal stuff. And there's nothing wrong with them.
Jesus is saying that everything was normal in the days before the flood. There were no signs to show people that cataclysm was about to befall them, that they were soon to be swept away by a flood. Only those who were ready, who were dialed into God and the will of God--Noah and his family--knew that anything was up, that there was anything for which the world needed to prepare.
The people of Noah's time were going about the business of their lives, not knowing that the God Who doesn’t make appointments was about to act decisively to change the course of history, to change their lives for eternity.
Jesus says we all need to be similarly prepared for His coming to us.
In verses 40 and 41, Jesus goes on to say: “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.”
The word translated as taken here can more literally rendered, taken to one’s self. At the moment when Jesus comes back to our world, He will take some people to Himself, while others will be left. “He will judge the living and the dead,” is how we confess it in the Apostles' Creed.
It’s not politically correct to say, but Jesus and the Bible make clear that while God loves everybody with equal passion and commitment, only some will be saved. Jesus will only take some to Himself.
From everything that Jesus has said so far, we know that the ones who will be taken to Himself are those who are ready for His return.
All of which is why Jesus says what He does next, in verses 42-44: "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 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. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
Let’s review what Jesus has told us so far about the day of His coming.
First, He hasn’t told us when it will happen.
Second, He hasn’t told us about any clues by which we might anticipate it.
Searching for signs will be an exercise in futility. In fact, the condition of the world just before Jesus’ coming might be the opposite of what we would expect.
From what Jesus says, everyone in the world will be going about their daily business, in seeming peace, without anxieties or worries on the day before He comes to us.
There could be universal prosperity, ceasefires, no violence on our streets or in our homes, and full employment on that day.
It’s possible that everyone’s teeth will be pearly white without a single cavity.
On that day before Jesus’ return, there might be no volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, recessions, depressions, or traffic jams to tip us off to how close the world is to final judgment or the new heaven and the new earth Jesus will return to this world to bring.
The lion could, for the moment, be ignoring the lamb and Republicans and Democrats might actually be working together.
But when Jesus comes to the earth, for some still living in this world, it will be a cataclysmic event, judgment, separation from God and from others, an eternity of bitter, regretful aloneness.
For others still living in the world, it will bring unspeakable joy, an eternity of fellowship with God and with others also saved by grace through faith.
Similarly, for some, death will bring cataclysm.
For others, it will bring joy.
How we meet Jesus is simply a question of our readiness.
And our readiness is, I believe, composed of two elements.
First: Do we believe in Jesus Christ? Meaning, do we trust Him enough to repent for our sins, receive His forgiveness and the power of the Holy Spirit for living, and trust Jesus with our whole lives, from our past to our eternal future?
Faith in Jesus is really about turning to Him and saying each day, “Thy will be done. Be my God. By your grace, ‘I am Yours and none other’s. I am Yours alone!’”
Jesus says in Matthew 24:13: “...the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
In his book, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”
Those who submit themselves to God’s will to save from sin and death all who entrust themselves to His Son are prepared for the day of Jesus’ return, whenever He comes.
Let me refine this discussion of faith in Christ a bit. Believing in Jesus also entails what New Testament scholar N.T. Wright calls “keeping short accounts with God.”
Our sins, as Jesus teaches us, are trespasses on God’s holiness, debts to God. People of faith live in what Martin Luther called “daily repentance and renewal,” trusting Christ so much that we daily and courageously lay ourselves before God and ask Him, “Show me my secret sin. Show the sin I am regularly committing that I don’t even see.” A pastor wrote to me just this past week about praying in this way. “I prayed,” she wrote, “that God would reveal my unknown sins to me one Lent--no question that the prayer was answered. It took a little time, but WOW!”
That pastor showed courage...and faith. She trusted her Savior with her whole life. It led to a wow moment in which she was able to place another set of sins in Jesus’ feet, receive His cleansing forgiveness, and experience the renewing power of the Holy Spirit in her life. Her faith was deepened.
We will never be able to name all our sins. (At least I know that I can't!) Sin is too intrinsic to our natures for that. And, this side of our resurrection, you and I will not be perfect. We will always have reason to rely on God’s compassionate forgiveness and love!
A passage of Scripture that gives me incredible comfort when I consider my own sinfulness is Psalm 103:11-14 (page 418 in the pew Bibles): “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.”
Isn’t that rich and wonderful? We are ready to meet Jesus, first and foremost, when we believe in Jesus and trust in Him enough to seek to keep our relationship through daily honest, patient prayers of repentance in which our God renews us daily in His grace.
There is a second aspect of being ready to meet Jesus. Jesus talks about it elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel. We’ll talk more about them all when we have those texts for our lessons later in the Church Year. But it boils down to this: We are ready when we are engaged in service to God and others in the Name of Jesus. As one commentator has pointed out: “It is in service to others that we prepare for [Jesus’ appearance in our lives]...”
That doesn’t mean that we earn our way into the grace of God. What it does mean is this: The more we trust--the more we believe--in Jesus, the more God will set us free from the paralysis of self-concern, self-analysis, self-absorption.
The central questions of our lives will increasingly cease to be, “Am I happy?” “How can I get ahead?” or “What’s in it for me?”
Instead, confident in the grace and love and power and hope and peace God gives to those who make themselves clay in the nail-scarred hands of Jesus, the more God will set us free to be our true selves.
We were made to love God and love our neighbors, to serve God and serve our neighbors. Sin prevents us from living in this way. The forgiveness of sin sets us free to do so.
A Methodist theologian, Albert Outler, now gone but then in his sixties, once confessed in a sermon, “For forty years, I’ve gotten it wrong. I told people, ‘You’ve got to love!’ Now, I realize the true message is, ‘You get to love.’”
When we believe in Jesus and stand fast in that faith, the Holy Spirit turns us into servants who serve not from obligation, but from the joy of knowing that we belong to the God Who sent His Son to serve, die, and rise for us!
So many of you in this congregation serve without fanfare or desire for recognition in so many ways. I truly am amazed by this church! You know the joy of service in Jesus’ Name.
You, my friends, are, I think, ready to meet Jesus, whenever you meet Him face to face.
By grace through faith in Christ, you have been freed from the tyranny of death, the devil, and of the self. You have been set free to live for God and for your neighbor through Jesus’ cross and resurrection and your faith in Him and in the power of what He has done for you.
By faith in Jesus and by the life of service Jesus has unleashed in you, you are ready for Jesus’ coming. Keep believing. Keep serving in Christ’s Name. You will be ready, whenever you meet Jesus. Amen!