Back in the days before cell phones when I was a new pastor, I was late for a wedding. Ann will vouch for me that on this occasion, my lateness wasn’t my fault. (There’s a long story about that which I won’t tell at this time.)
I’ll never forget the frenzy I was in to get to that wedding!
I drove at seventy miles an hour on country roads in Defiance County to make it.
Once I’d arrived, I saw the entire bridal party, including the bride and the groom, already standing before the altar while the organist, stalling for time, improvised the world’s longest version of Here Comes the Bride.
At last, sweaty and disheveled, I took my place before the couple. The groom leaned forward and whispered to me, “I knew you’d make it, pastor.”
I patted him on the hand and said, “You have more faith than I do.”
The word advent, for which this season is named, means arrival or appearance. During Advent, we remember the first appearance of God among us in Jesus Christ on the first Christmas.
In His second coming, He will judge the living and the dead and He will fully establish the Kingdom of God.
To those who have rejected Jesus’ gifts of forgiveness and new life, Jesus will say, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41)
To those who have lived in the daily repentance and faith to which the crucified and risen Jesus calls all people, He will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34)
For believers in Jesus, His second advent on what the Bible calls the Day of the Lord, will be vindication for trusting in Him. Jesus will prove good for His promise: “....the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 24:13)
In today’s gospel lesson, Matthew 24:36-44, Jesus calls us to believe in Him not just to take care of us when we die, rise, and go to Him, but also to trust that one day, He will return to this physical universe He created and make all things right.
The crucified and risen Jesus intends to make His whole creation, from human beings made in His image who trust in Him all the way down to the smallest atom, new, eternal, healthy, sinless, pulsing with the very life of God!
Four times in today’s lesson alone, Jesus promises that He will be back. This is a gospel promise.
Jesus calls us to be as watchful for and certain of His return as that bride and groom were for me on their wedding day.
Jesus says that the people of Noah’s day were so caught up in living their everyday lives, like we can be, that they weren’t ready for the flood. They weren’t watching for God to act. As a result, they were all taken away and only eight faithful people who anticipated God’s action were left behind to live in God’s provision and grace.
Jesus tells us that no one knows the day of His return, but that we should always be watching for it. You “must be ready,” He tells us, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (Matthew 24:44)
So, why? If the day of Jesus’ return is in His hands, not ours, why do we need to be watchful for it?
New Testament scholar Jeffrey Gibbs rightly says that we can only speculate as to why Jesus tells us to watch for Him. But Gibbs offers five possible reasons that, I hope, will help you watch for Jesus not just in Advent, but in your whole life.
First: If we fail to watch for Jesus, we can lose our faith and fall away from Jesus. When we forget that Jesus is returning to judge the living and the dead, we can make ourselves “open…to distraction and temptation.” The time between Jesus’ first advent on the first Christmas and His second advent is, as Gibbs says, a time of great spiritual danger for all Christians.
A pastor Ann and I knew was well-loved by his family and congregants, a magnet for new members, an excellent preacher. But over time, being successful and comfortable became more important to him. He annually charmed his congregation into big pay increases, took up hobbies that occupied chunks of his time, seemed always to be buying or wanting something new, and eventually, left his wife for another woman. Quite simply, he had stopped watching for Jesus. I don’t know if that pastor ever repented, I pray he did. But when I learned of his death several years later, I couldn’t help reflecting on how sad it is when we Christians take their eyes off Jesus!
The apostle Peter tells us: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)
A second reason to keep watching for Jesus: We can forget what we’ve been given to do as disciples. Every baptized believer in Jesus has been given a mission and the ability to do our part in it. We’re to make disciples by sharing Christ and His gospel with others. But if our focus is always on our careers, our kids, our happiness, our leisure, we’ll forget all about our mission as Christians. Christ empowers us to care about whether our neighbors know that Jesus is coming back one day. When we forget Christ, we lose our power to love as we’ve been loved.
Third: When we forget to watch for Christ, we can start to think that the world around us doesn’t matter. But it does matter! The Bible says: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” (1 John 4:9) When Jesus comes back, it will be to save the world, the cosmos. He cares about it and calls us to care about it too.
Fourth: When we forget to watch for Christ’s return, “we can get discouraged,” deciding just to pull back and just survive.
Early in one of my favorite movies, Casablanca, its main character, Rick, says, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” That’s the motto of a person who’s given up all hope in God. You even hear it from people who call themselves Christians. The preachers of false gospels lie to you and tell you that if you just “believe in Jesus,” your life will be trouble-free, even prosperous. But God’s Word tells us, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 16:19)
When we watch for Jesus’ return, we can face the challenges and adversities of this life, even stick our necks out for our neighbors, knowing that Jesus will give eternity to those who watch for Him!
Fifth: In watching for Jesus’ return, we look for the One everyone secretly longs to see. Billy Graham told the story of a missionary in China who was stopped by an elderly man on the streets. What brought the missionary to China, the man wondered. The missionary began to tell Him about Jesus: how God so loved the world He sent His one and only Son so that all who turned from sin and believed in Him would have everlasting life with God. The old man began to weep. He said, “All my life I knew He was there, I just didn’t know His name.”
Dear friends in Christ, you and I know the name of Jesus.
We have been blessed to be baptized into His name, His death, and His resurrection.
We have heard His Word of all Law that calls us to repentance and His Word of Gospel that assures us of His love and teaches us that we can trust in Him for life and wholeness, forgiveness and peace.
We know that one day, He will return, as the Bible tells it, “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead [who have trusted in Christ, watched for Him], will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:52)
Today, Jesus tells you that as surely as He died and rose for you, He will return for you!
When we see Him, all who have watched for him will be able to say, “I knew you’d make it, Jesus.”
Watch for Jesus, dear friends, because, out of His infinite love for you, He is watching for you! Amen