Matthew 24: 36 – 44_Coming at an Unexpected Hour_December 1, 2019

Coming at an Unexpected Hour

Matthew 24: 36 – 44

(preached on December 1, 2019)

              Most of the time, it’s good to plan ahead.  Planning ahead is helpful whether you’re organizing the church Flea Market, or putting on a dinner party, or just thinking about groceries for the week.  For those activities and other things, most of us wouldn’t wait till the last minute.  And most of us wouldn’t want to sign up for a project that was put together willy-nilly, without any planning.  Planning ahead can help deal with problems in the future.  That’s true for schools and businesses, and it’s true for churches too.


One church in Chicago had to do some planning to address a problem with their parking lot.  This church was a Baptist church.  As happens in a lot of cities, this Baptist church was located right next door to a Methodist church.  Both churches held their worship services at around the same time.  Over time the Baptists began to notice some unfamiliar cars parked in their parking lot.  After a while they figured out that the Methodists were using their parking lot.  Understandably, they weren’t too happy about that.  But they didn’t fly off the handle right away.  They did some planning.  Then they responded to the problem in a very creative way.  One Sunday morning they went out into the parking lot and put bumper stickers on all the cars belonging to the Methodists.  The bumper stickers said, “Proud to Be a Baptist.”  In church and in other places, planning ahead is a good idea.


Today we begin the season of Advent.  In the Christian tradition, Advent is a time of preparation for two events.  It’s a time to prepare to celebrate the birth of the man Jesus, something that happened in the past.  Advent is also a time to look ahead to the future, to get ready for the return of Christ in power and glory at the end of time.   In our congregational tradition, we see Advent mostly as a time to prepare to celebrate the birth of the man Jesus.  But preparing for the return of Christ at the end of time is also part of Advent.  The idea that Christ will return is part of our tradition.  When I greet you every Sunday, I say Christ will come again.  Every time we celebrate communion, as we will later this morning, I say, “In the beloved community of [God’s] church, we await Christ’s return at the end of history.”


But whether we’re preparing for the birth of the man Jesus, or for Christ’s return, Advent is a season of preparation.  It’s important to prepare.  So, on this first Sunday of Advent, you’d think our Bible reading would be encouraging us to plan ahead.  But in our passage for today, from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says some things that make it difficult for us to plan.  This passage is one of the more challenging scripture passages to hear at any time of year.  But it seems especially tough to hear this passage at this time of year.  During Advent, we’re busy with Christmas shopping and party planning, things that we like to do with plenty of preparation.  We’re busy making lists and checking out the sales.

But here is Jesus, telling us simply to be ready, to be ready for his return at the end of history.  He doesn’t say when he will come.  We’re not going to know.  Nobody knows, Jesus says, not the angels, not even Jesus himself.  Only God knows when.  To use the words of Jesus, only the Father knows when the Son of Man will come.  Jesus’ words can be disturbing to us.  He’s not giving us a definite date.  He says, at some unspecified time in the future, the Son of Man will come.  It’s not a date we can plan for.  It’s not a date we can mark on the calendar.  This can be unsettling for us.  It makes it hard to plan ahead.


We like to know what’s ahead.  But here is Jesus, the Jesus we’ve known as a gentle healer, with some not so gentle news.  To us who want so much to know what is ahead for us, he says, “You’re not gonna know.  You might be going about your ordinary business and suddenly the moment will be upon you.”  Jesus goes on, “It might be like people before the flood in the days of Noah. They were living as usual, eating and drinking and getting married.  They thought Noah was a nutcase for building that ark, but suddenly it started to rain.”  Jesus says, “You won’t know when the Son of Man will come.  It’s impossible to say.  But you have to be ready.”


In the world of sports, when a race begins, the official says, “Ready, set, go.”  But when it comes to Jesus’ return, it’s more like, “Ready, set, wait.”  We have to be ready, we have to be set, then we have to wait.  That’s not what we’re used to doing.  It’s more unpredictable than we would like.


It shakes up our sense of how things are supposed to work.  We like to think that, with all our technical tools, we can find out when things are going to happen.  We calculate and predict, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it.  We have satellite weather forecasts and economic indicators and lots of other high-tech ways to find out what the future holds.


So we might react to Jesus’ words by going to greater and greater lengths to determine the day and the hour.  But if we do that, we’re missing the point.  The point is not to calculate just when it’s going to happen. The point is to be ready.  If we put our energy into nailing down the day and the hour, we won’t be ready.  Being ready doesn’t mean finding a more and more precise prediction of the time of Christ’s return.  Being ready means living faithful lives, here and now: practicing the life of faith and hope and love.


Advent calls for real readiness, spiritual readiness.  Advent is a time to get in shape spiritually.  It’s not that different from getting in shape physically.  A runner gets ready for a marathon by stretching, running, eating the right kind of food.  A singer gets ready to sing in a concert by warming up, breathing deeply, so that his voice will be in shape for a beautiful performance.


How do we get in shape spiritually?  We get in shape spiritually by a different kind of stretching: stretching our hearts.  We get in shape spiritually by showing love to everyone, even when that’s not easy to do.  We get in shape spiritually by stretching our minds, opening them to the amazing possibilities God will set before us.  Like a runner, like a singer, we have to practice, practice, practice, so that when the moment comes, when Christ breaks in upon our lives, we’ll be in shape and ready to go.


On this first Sunday of Advent, Jesus is telling us we have to start now.  So start training your hearts and your hands and your voices.  If you’ve been holding back that encouraging word at work or at school or at home, don’t wait any longer.  That’s how you get in shape spiritually. If you’ve been waiting to tell someone you love them, don’t wait any longer.  Do it today – don’t put it off.  That’s how you get in shape spiritually.  If you’ve been waiting for the perfect time to repair a broken relationship – stop waiting for the perfect time.  Make that phone call or send that email that will begin to repair the hurt.  Practice, practice, practice living into the loving ways of God.  Practice training your sights: not so much on what the future holds, but on the One who holds the future.


The story is told of a piano teacher at a university who was known, simply and affectionately, as “Herman.”  One night at a university concert, a distinguished pianist was performing a very difficult piece.  Herman was in the audience.  Suddenly during the performance, the pianist became ill and had to leave the stage.  As soon as the pianist left, Herman rose from his seat in the audience and walked on stage.  Without saying a word, Herman sat down at the piano and completed the piece with great skill.


Later that evening at a party, one of the students asked Herman how he was able to perform such a demanding piece so beautifully without notice and with no rehearsal.  In response, Herman told a story.  “In 1939,” he said, “I was a budding young concert pianist.  I was arrested and placed in a Nazi concentration camp.  Putting it mildly, the future looked bleak.  But I knew I had to keep alive the flicker of hope that I might someday play again.  In order to keep that hope alive, I needed to practice every day.


“I began by silently playing a piece from my repertoire one night in bed.  My fingers hit the bare boards instead of a keyboard, but I continued.  The next night I added a second piece and soon I was running through my entire repertoire.  I did this every night for five years.  Now, as it happens, the piece I played tonight at the concert hall was part of that repertoire.  That constant practice was what kept my hope alive.  Every night I renewed my hope that I would one day be able to play my music again on a real piano, and in freedom.”


Today, Advent, the season of hope, breaks in upon our lives. Advent reminds us that the coming of Christ is disruptive.  Jesus says we won’t know the day and the hour.  Because we won’t know the day and the hour, it’s hard to make predictions.  It’s impossible to nail down the time of Christ’s coming.  But nailing down the time is not the point.  Our task is not to make predictions.  Our task is to be ready, to practice spiritual readiness, to be in good spiritual shape.

Advent is the time to practice, practice, practice.  So start training your hearts and hands and voices.  If you’ve been holding back that encouraging word, don’t wait any longer.  If you’ve been waiting to tell someone you love them, don’t wait any longer.  Do it today – don’t put it off.  If you’ve been hesitating to give to someone in need – don’t hesitate any longer.  Give what you can.  If you’ve been waiting for the perfect time to repair a broken relationship – stop waiting for the perfect time. When you do these acts of generosity and kindness, you will be getting in shape, training your sights: not so much on what the future holds, but on the One who holds the future.  Practice living into the ways of God, getting ready to welcome the One who comes with hope for all the world.












Rev. Elva Merry Pawle

Advent 1