Read Matthew 24:36-44, Isaiah 2:1-5 here.
Every year since I started preaching, I ponder this question: Why, on the first Sunday of Advent, is the lectionary scripture always one of Jesus’ teachings about the end of the world? Doesn’t it seem odd to talk about this now?
We are, as a culture, quite fascinated with the idea of the apocalypse, the end of the world. There are so many books, movies, songs, and video games that imagine what the end will be like. Songwriters Julia Michaels and JP Saxe released a new song just this week about the end of the world: “If the world was ending, you’d come over, right?”
During this time of year, we find the apocalypse theme in some surprising places – movies about Santa Claus. I spotted it this year in the Netflix movie, The Christmas Chronicles (2018). In this movie, Kurt Russell plays a cool Santa who likes fast cars and gets a jail full of prisoners to rock out to a bluesy Christmas song. The tension in the movie, as in many movies about Santa, is that time is running out on Christmas Eve, and if Santa doesn’t get all the presents delivered in time, the world as we know it will end because Christmas spirit will die and things will fall apart. In this movie, when Santa’s in jail, we see that it’s already starting to happen, as the police are having trouble keeping up with the escalation in crime happening that night.
You might be able to guess how the movie ends, because we know how the story goes, and Christmas movies especially tend to be rather predictable. But predictable is the opposite of what Jesus says about the end of the world:
“No one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows.” (Matthew 24:36)
It’s entirely unpredictable because only God knows. Or as Peter puts it, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (2 Peter 3:10). It will be as surprising to us as it was to the people in Noah’s time when the flood came. This is one of our memory verses for this week because it’s important that we remember this. Only God knows. Not even Jesus or the angels know when the apocalypse will happen. If we remember this, we won’t be fooled by people who tell us they’ve figured out when it will happen, and we won’t get distracted into trying to figure out when it will happen.
Why is Jesus even talking about this?
The scripture that we read from Matthew is part of a sermon Jesus gave to his disciples. It’s prompted by the disciples who earlier that day had been admiring the temple. Instead of joining in their admiration, Jesus says, “The truth is, all these buildings will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” (Matthew 24:2)
The disciples’ words of praise for the grand building, the temple, betrayed a focus on finding security in worldly material things. Just like now, the people of Jesus’ time were full of insecurity and fear. Living under Roman occupation and oppression filled their lives with uncertainty. One of my ongoing prayers during tough times is to ask God to give me perspective. Jesus seems to understand that this is also what the disciples need, especially since this conversation is happening just before he’s going to be arrested and crucified. So he gives them some words of assurance by pointing them away from the material and instead toward spiritual, eternal matters, putting their concerns into the perspective of eternity.
In this text from Matthew, we learn three things about the hope we’re celebrating at advent:
- Advent hope isn’t based on our circumstances, because in an instant everything can change.
- Advent hope isn’t based on the things we can control, because only God is truly in control.
- Advent hope isn’t based on people or things, because people and things will come and go.
So what is advent hope based on? Of course, the obvious answer is Jesus, but what does that really mean? It means that God is faithful and fulfills his promises. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise for a messiah who would bring us salvation. If Jesus has already come, what are we waiting for? For Jesus to come again at the end of time. When will this be?
Not surprisingly, as soon as the disciples and Jesus got to the place where they were staying for the night, they asked Jesus that very question:
“Tell us, when will all this happen? What sign will signal your return and the end of the world?” (Matthew 24:3)
Jesus goes on to talk about signs in somewhat cryptic terms. He doesn’t clearly answer their question, but he does tell them that when he comes again, everyone will see it (Matt. 24:30). Jesus is clear that only God knows when it will happen, and he is clear in our other memory verse for today:
“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24:44)
We must be ready. What does it mean to be ready?
One day at the Vatican, a couple of cardinals came running in to see the pope, anxious and out of breath. “Your eminence, Jesus is coming! What shall we do?” The pope replied, “Quick! Look busy!”
All joking aside, what does it mean to be ready for Jesus to come again? Based on what we’re doing this week, it might seem like being ready means putting up decorations, buying presents, cooking and cleaning, and planning parties and special worship services. But if we keep on reading into the next chapter, Matthew 25, the rest of Jesus’ sermon has three stories that explain what he means about being ready.
Last week we talked about our mission and purpose statement: “ As followers of Jesus Christ, in obedience to the Word, we covenant to be a nurturing community that challenges and equips one another to know Christ, grow in Christ, and go with Christ.
In Matthew 25, we find Jesus telling stories that tell us to know Christ, grow in Christ, and go with Christ.
The first story is about ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to come. He’s delayed and five of them are ready when he comes so they go with him to the wedding feast, but the other five aren’t ready so they get there late, and the bridegroom won’t let them in. He says, “I don’t know you.” We don’t know when Jesus will come again, so to be ready, we need to be sure we know Jesus so that he doesn’t say to us, “I don’t know you.” We probably know what to do to know Jesus, but we might not all be doing those things. Don’t put off turning to Jesus, talking to him in prayer, reading what he says in the Bible, talking about him with other believers, celebrating Jesus in worship, and doing the things he tells us to do. (Advent devotionals, etc.)
The second story Jesus tells is about three servants to whom the master has entrusted his money. Two of them invest the money and make it grow, but the third hides the money out of fear of losing it. When the master returns, he rewards the ones who made it grow. We, too, need to be growing in Christ by using what we’ve been given and not hiding it away in fear. We grow when we trust God and step out in faith using what we’ve been given. This could involve our money and possessions, our talents and abilities, or our faith.
We have been blessed to be a blessing and we grow when we share. We see this idea in our reading from Isaiah for today. Isaiah says that people will come from many nations to go up to the house of the Lord, and God’s word will go out from there to bring peace and reconciliation to the world. The people go in to find peace, and be strengthened and renewed, and they go out to share what they’ve received. Using what we’ve been given and practicing what we learn are ways we grow in Christ. Sharing our stories with people outside of church about how Jesus is a part of our lives helps us grow and helps others know Jesus.
The third story Jesus tells is about the final judgement when the people are gathered at the throne of God, and the King says, “Come and be blessed, for I was hungry and you fed me, and I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you clothed me, and I was sick and in prison and you visited me.” The people ask, “When did we do this?” The King replied, “Whenever you do this for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do this for me.” These are some of the ways we go with Christ – we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the lonely.
We want to be ready, because only God knows when the world as we know it will come to an end, whether that means that Jesus comes again, or that it’s the end of our lives here on earth. We never know when in an instant everything might change.
In the movie Christmas Chronicles, we meet Santa through a family for whom the world as they knew it had ended. Their father, a fireman, had run into a burning building to save a life and had lost his own. In one of the scenes, as those kids are running through the streets of Chicago helping to find Santa’s lost bag of toys, they pass by a church having Christmas Eve worship. They stop to listen to the singing because the song was one of their dad’s favorite carols. One of the children says wistfully, “We haven’t been to church since dad died.” But then they move on with their quest to help save Christmas, and it’s in helping that they find hope.
I don’t want to give away the ending, but in the movie, as in the Bible, we learn that though death is sad, it’s not the end, and so we do not grieve as people without hope, and our hope is renewed and strengthened when we put it into practice, for our hope is in Jesus Christ, the baby who would become that man who died for us, and whose resurrection conquered sin and death (1 Cor. 15:54).
Through faith in Jesus Christ, our hope is in eternity with God.  The end of the world won’t change that.
Talking about things like death and the end of the world do seem strange to those who are caught up in the midst of jingle bells and Santa Claus. But we have the broader perspective, living in the light of eternity.
Advent hope is about God’s great plan for salvation for all people, and for all eternity. Jesus left his Spirit to work in us to help us help everyone to know that hope.
So what are we waiting for? Let’s stay ready and keep our eyes open for ways to work on knowing Christ, growing in Christ, and going with Christ. So that whenever the end comes, we’ll be able to greet Jesus with joy!
 David Garland, NIV Application Commentary on Mark, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 490.
 Calvin Miller, Preaching: The Art of Narrative Exposition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 39-40.
 “The Belgic Confession.” Historic Church Documents. http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/BelgicConfession.html (accessed November 28, 2011), Article 37.