Today is the first Sunday of Advent. The word advent, you’ll recall, means arrival or the coming of a person or event. In Advent, we wait for the coming of Christmas, of course. More importantly, we await the day when the crucified and risen Jesus, the One Whose birth we celebrate in just a few weeks, will return to this world.
In the Nicene Creed, we confess our belief that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
But in the rush of everyday life, we often seem to lose touch with the fact that Jesus, Who has made good on every single promise He’s ever made, will return to this world.
When He does return, the judgment will happen. Those who have trusted in Christ, surrendering their lives and their wills in the everyday places of life, will live with God for eternity. Those who have not trusted in Christ--who have trusted in themselves, their wits, their money, their families, a false religion, whatever--will be separated from God and from life for eternity. Jesus says, referring to Himself: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” [John 3:18]
It’s to keep the certain promise of His return--and the need to remain constantly focused on following Him--in the forefront of our minds that Jesus speaks the words that make up today’s Gospel lesson. Let’s take a look at what Jesus says in Matthew 24:36-44.
Verse 36: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
This may be hard for us to imagine! The main characteristic of any human being is the desire to be in control. Yet, here’s Jesus, God in the flesh, saying that even He doesn’t know the day or hour of His return to this world. He’s leaving things totally to the will of the Father, just as He did when He went to the garden of Gethsemane and prayed: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” [Matthew 26:39]
Anyone who claims to know when Jesus will return, as TV preachers often do, is placing themselves above Jesus. Speculation about when Jesus will return is nothing other than a human attempt to take control of what rightly belongs in the hands of God alone.
Verse 37: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming [or the advent] 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. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken [to be judged] and the other left [to live]. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken [to be judged] and the other left [to live].”
Jesus asks us here to remember what things were like back in the days before Noah’s flood. There were two ways to look at those days.
Genesis 6:11-13 tells us how the world looked from God’s perspective: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.’” From God’s point of view, the people of the world were corrupted by sin and violent in all of their dealings. Evil was so bad that God decided to send the flood and destroy every human being who didn’t worship him.
But, Jesus says, in the days and years leading up to the flood, all but eight members of the human race looked at things in a different light. They went about their business without giving a thought to the corruption, injustice, megalomania, and violence that characterized them and their culture. Pre-flood humanity never knew what hit them or why when the waters rose. The flood came, Jesus says, and took them away.
The world today is just as corrupt, violent, and selfish as it was in the days before the flood. If the Father were to tell the Son that right now was the moment for Him to return, it wouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who knows and follows Jesus!
Go back to our lesson, please. Verse 42: [Jesus continues] “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.”
We had our house broken into once. It took us by surprise. The thieves didn’t text us to say, “We’re breaking into your house next week.”
Just so, Jesus doesn’t tell us when He’s coming back, just that He is and that we need to be ready for it.
And exactly why doesn’t Jesus tell us the time of His arrival? That way we could keep on sinning and doing whatever we want and then, just before He comes back or just before we die (assuming He’ll tell us that date too), we could repent.
People who think this way--and many people do think this way--are under the delusion that salvation is a deal we make with God by saying the right words or doing the right things. Or they think that they'll know the exact moment at which they'll need to be ready, as though God is going to inform them of when Christ is returning or when we're going to die.
But we can’t negotiate with God.
We can’t placate Gods with religious acts.
We can't anticipate the moment when the omnipotent Creator and King of the universe is going to draw the curtain on this old creation and usher in the new one with the return of Jesus.
This very day, God demands that we either adhere to His commandments perfectly, which we cannot do, or that we daily repent and believe Jesus Christ, Who has obeyed God’s Law perfectly, then taken the punishment we deserve for us.
It’s people who daily turn to Christ, trusting that He has made us part of His kingdom by grace through faith in Him who are ready not only for Christ’s return but also for whatever life may bring us at any moment.
No matter what our age or education or wisdom or income level, we cannot know the day or hour at which either our own lives or the life of this world will come to an end. We are NOT in control! Please repeat that loudly with me now: WE ARE NOT IN CONTROL! (And that's a good thing!)
Life on this fallen planet is fragile. But Jesus died and rose so that death in this world need not be the ends of our lives.
In John 11:25-26, Jesus promises: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die…” This is a promise not just that Jesus’ disciples will live with God beyond death. It’s also a promise that God will fill us with life, a life of love and direction, hope and peace, even in the midst of the chaos, pain, grief, and uncertainty of this life.
Advent is the season of waiting for our King to come back. But we don’t wait passively. We await Christ with faith that He’s in control even when our world is unraveling.
And from the certainty of faith, we watch for ways we can love God and love neighbor, fight for justice, feed the hungry, care for the impoverished, make disciples, take care of our families, love our friends, seek reconciliation with those we have hurt.
We don’t do any of this to earn God’s attention or affection. God already thinks about you all the time. He already loves you and has done everything needed to save you from sin, death, and the devil. He did that when Jesus died and rose for you. And you received a portion in Jesus’ resurrection when you were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, when the Word of God came to you and you could say, “I believe in Jesus Christ.” It is only faith like this that prepares us for Christ’s return.
Jesus is coming back! We don’t know when, but when He does, may He find us ready, trusting in Him, our lives focused on Him, brimming over with gratitude for grace, filled with faith, and powered by the Holy Spirit to live the lives of love and purpose for which we were made.
That’s how to be ready for Jesus’ advent!
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]