Matthew 24: 36-44
This past Monday I helped my grandfather move out of his apartment here in Gettysburg and into my parent’s house in Harrisburg. It was a difficult day for me. While Harrisburg isn’t exactly far from Gettysburg, I’ll miss getting together with him for lunch and watching him interact with our daughter Gabrielle on a regular basis, and certainly having him here in worship. Yet, it was without a doubt, a far more difficult day for him than it was for me. Leaving the community he has been a part of for more than 30 years, the retired pastor’s group he loves so much, his frequent visits to the seminary, and worshiping here at St. James. And I suspect the most difficult part of it all, closing the door to the home he shared with my grandmother for the final years of her life for the very last time.
As I reflected on this move throughout the week and talked with my grandfather just a few days later over turkey and pecan pie, it became clear, it was a day, that no matter how hard he tried, he could never really have prepared for.
As we begin the season of Advent, the season of preparation and waiting in anticipation for the birth of the babe in the manger, our Gospel text for this weekend directs our minds to the anticipation of Jesus’ second coming, when Sin will be judged by God.
Similar to our other biblical texts that focus on Jesus’ second coming, today’s is one grounded in unknowns, and one that leaves us with more unanswered questions then answered ones. That no matter how much we study the bible, how deep we look into the original Greek language of our Gospel texts, or to what extent we compare and contrast the various scriptures that focus on the day of judgment, we will still be left with the reality of an unknown future. As Jesus proclaims in our bookend verses of today’s gospel text, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
Jesus’ words in today’s gospel are part of a longer discourse, in which he seeks to make the distinction between the eternal realm of God and the temporary realm of our earthly world, with the hopes that all who hear his words would focus their attention not on what humankind has created, but rather on what God has, that we would be prepared when the day of judgment comes. A message we all could benefit from hearing as we enter into the season of buying and gift giving.
To impress his point, Jesus directs the disciple’s attention to the great flood, so that they too wouldn’t make the same mistake as those in Noah’s day. “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.”
It’s difficult for us to view God as one who would flood the world, saving only a handful of people, and, I think, even more challenging for us to make sense of a God who would judge the world in a similar way post Christ. How God who loved the world so much that he sent his Son to die in order to save it, would in the end judge it anyway.
Yet, regardless of our inability to make sense of such things, they’re still a part of the message Jesus proclaimed, and with this, we are still called to struggle with what such things mean in the context of our lives. To prepare for the day when Christ will come again…
Jesus makes it clear that this day will come at an unknown time, a time that not even angels nor Jesus himself could predict. That only God the Father knows. With this Jesus calls us to be prepared at all times. But I wonder, what does it mean for us to be prepared?
At the end of Matthew chapter 25 and following multiple predictions made by Jesus of the Day of Judgment, we find an answer, at least according to Matthew’s interpretation. Here, Jesus proclaims, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. Then they will do away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Each week here in worship, as we recite the Creed, we profess our faith in Jesus Christ who “will come again to judge the living and the dead.” With this, we believe that the day will come as Jesus declares in today’s gospel. By drawing our attention to the day of judgment on this first Sunday of the advent season, we are called not just to wait for the birth of Jesus, but to keep awake, to watch, and to be prepared for the time he will come again. To prepare not only for Christmas, but for Christ. To care for the least among us.
Here at St. James, within this community, as we enter into Advent and prepare for a new church year, we do so under the work we’ve already begun in our long range strategic planning process and with your feedback from the Holy Cow survey.
If you were here as we celebrated Reformation a few weeks ago, you heard my plea for you to be brave in your faith, both through your time and your treasure… a plea motivated by some not so good results of the survey in regards to stewardship. The truth is, however, that plea was about much more than being brave, and it was absolutely about more than what we do here at St. James.
The results of the congregational survey are not simply a grading rubric for how the leadership here at St. James is doing, how Pastor Mike and I are doing, or how any of the rest of the staff are doing. They are an assessment for how each and every one of us in this community of faith are doing in response to the faith we claim to have.
As Jesus calls us to be prepared for his return, he calls us to do so by caring for the least among us. Something we do that pretty well here at St. James. If you ask Tim, our minister of music, whose… well… been here longer than I’ve been on this earth, (sorry Tim) to describe St. James, I can pretty much guarantee his response… That we are a community church, known throughout the Gettysburg community as being the church with open doors. Just take a look through our congregational mission plan put together by our Council President Tom Uhlig with some help from our Stewardship Committee and all of the things we do for those outside of our walls and there’s no denying it. The truth is however, unless we all do a better job of responding to Christ’s call in today’s Gospel text, we won’t be able to continue to do ministry in this way.
Question #92 of our Holy Cow survey, reads as follows: “On the whole, I would say that my current level of engagement to impact the world as an expression of my Christian discipleship is… about right, don’t know, lower than I would like, much lower than I would like”. The results show that 46% of us responded, “Lower than I would like”. That out of those who took the survey, 46% believe that their current level of engagement in their faith is lower than they would like.
Our lives are filled with choices. Maybe more so today than ever before. Just ask the parents of our middle school and high school youth. And in the season of buying… well… just multiply the choices we already have to make. It’s in this reality that Jesus calls us to prepare a place for him. To give of our resources to God in a greater way than we give to retail and of our time in a greater way than we give the earthly activities that consume our lives.
Through today’s gospel we are reminded that the work that Jesus was sent to do is far from complete. As Christ followers we are called and empowered to continue in the path he laid out for his first followers. To live a life of faithful service in response to all that God has done. To be prepared for his return.
As with those described by Jesus in the time of Noah and the great flood, his first followers to whom he spoke, or like my grandfather in his move to Harrisburg, your lives are undoubtedly filled with difficult choices and moments in which you can’t possibly be prepared for. The death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a terminal illness, the loss of a job… And truthfully, left to our own ability, or our own inability, Christ’s second coming will be added to the list of these moments. But thanks be to God, whether we are attempting to prepare for Christ’s birth or for his second coming, we don’t do so without His cross in mind. Where through his death, he gave life to us all. This is the good news!
As we enter into the Advent season, may you cling to the promise made true through Christ’s birth and life, in his cross and through his resurrection. May you be driven to prepare for his return by caring for the least among you in whatever way you can, not out of obligation, but out of joy and thanksgiving. And in the moments you fail to prepare, when darkness seemingly fills your life and your decisions are too difficult to make, may you find peace in the promise set in motion through the birth of Christ. That which brings light into the darkest places of our lives, forgives us for our faults, and brings hope into the midst of hopeless. With this we wait and remain awake. With this we prepare a place for Christ. With this we pray, come Lord Jesus, AMEN.