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Last week, my mom and I drove to Texas to visit with family. Along the way, we drove through many construction zones which had warning signs that said, “Be Alert.” Have you seen these? Why do they say this? Why does the department of transportation care how alert we are?
If we don’t keep alert, someone could get hurt.
Every time I saw one of those signs, it was like God was reminding me about our scripture reading for today from Matthew 24, in which Jesus says to the disciples:
Therefore be alert, since you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. (Matt. 24:32)
We don’t know? But aren’t we counting down the days?
- Our advent wreath has four candles for counting the four weeks.
- Our advent calendars start on Thursday, December 1, and count for 24 days.
- Which means that today, November 27, there are exactly 28 days left until Christmas.
So we do know. And we’re quite busy getting ready. How many of you have your shopping done? Christmas cards done? Decorations up? Plans made for travelling made? What else are you doing to get ready?
Right. So when Jesus comes, it needs to be on the night of December 24 after everyone has gone to bed, so that we wake up on the morning of the 25th and can see that he has come because there are presents under the tree.
No? Right. That’s not what Jesus is talking about. And I don’t think he ever said “ho ho ho.” But you can see how we might get confused, right?
So let’s look at what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 24. He’s having a conversation with the disciples, a teaching moment, if you will, prompted by their comment about the beauty of the temple in Jerusalem after King Herod had spent 50 years renovating it. Jesus said, “You’re not impressed by all this sheer size, are you? The truth of the matter is that there’s not a stone in that building that is not going to end up in a pile of rubble.” (Matt. 24:1-2 MSG)
Naturally, the disciples then want to know when this is going to happen. What will be the signs to watch for? Besides the destruction of the temple, Jesus talks about wars, a blood red moon, people hating one another. We should note that the temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE, but Jesus didn’t come back when that happened. Over the centuries, countless people have worked hard to interpret Jesus’ words to nail down the date when he will come again and the world as we know it will be totally renewed.
There are three very important take-aways from what Jesus says:
- No one knows when this will happen.
- Everyone will know when it does happen.
- In the meantime, be alert. Keep awake.
It’s hard to choose which of those three are the most important, but I lean toward the first one. Jesus says quite clearly: “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
Only God knows. Why does that matter? Because lots of people try to tell us that they’ve figured it out or that they are seeing the signs. Jesus warns us about that in verses 23-26 of this chapter:
“If anyone tells you then, ‘See, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Over here!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders to lead astray…” (Matt. 24:23ff)
Those signs can be interpreted all kinds of ways. We have a blood red moon every time there’s a lunar eclipse. Sometimes, when people tell us that world events are signs of the end, they’re trying to stir up our fears so that we’ll trust them to guide us through and give them our allegiance. It’s a way to gain and hold on to power.
It’s been said that fostering fear was one of the legacies of British rule in India. If people were afraid of one another, they’d be less likely to unite against their British overlords. When British rule ended in 1947, the country was partitioned to create two countries, Pakistan which would be primarily Muslim, and India which would be primarily Hindu. The roads and trains were overflowing with people as 18 million migrated, as Muslims hurried to get to Pakistani territory, and Hindus hurried to get to Indian territory. It must have felt kind of like the world was ending that night at midnight when everything changed.
Sometimes catastrophic events and cataclysmic changes do feel like the world is ending, and many will encourage those fears to gain power over us. But don’t be deceived. Remember that Jesus told us that nobody knows when it will happen – not the angels in heaven, not even Jesus himself. Only God knows. So we don’t have to worry about trying to figure it out.
The second important point: Jesus tells us that when it does happen, we’ll know it without a doubt. Jesus says that everyone will be able to see it, like lightning flashing across the sky. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (Matt 24:27)
And in the verses that we read today, Jesus says:
For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man…they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away (Matt. 24:37,39)
Even Noah didn’t know. But when it happened, everyone knew it was happening. Jesus says that will be the case when he comes again. Kind of like when the train comes through town, blowing its horn, stopping traffic on the streets that cross the tracks. It’s big and loud and hard to miss.
So we don’t need to wonder if someone knows something about Jesus’ return that we don’t. Don’t be deceived or distracted. And don’t spend time worrying about it. Instead, Jesus says, “Keep watch. Keep alert. Stay awake.” And then he tells four parables about how to do that.
The first parable is about a servant whom the master leaves in charge of the estate. The servant is responsible for feeding and caring for the other servants. But if the servant is evil and thinks ‘My master won’t be back for a while,’ and he begins beating the other servants, partying, and getting drunk…The master will return unannounced and unexpected, and the servant will be punished and cast out. (Matt. 24:45-51)
So one way we need to keep alert is to keep on doing good, keep on taking care of one another.
The second parable is about ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom. Five of them brought enough oil to keep their lamps going while they’re waiting, and five of them did not come prepared. Those five had to go out and buy more oil, but the bridegroom came while they were gone and took the five who were prepared into the wedding feast and locked the door. When the other five returned, they were locked out and couldn’t get in. They knocked, but the bridegroom said, “I don’t know you.” (Matt. 25:1-13)
So another way we need to keep alert is to keep on taking care of ourselves and our relationship with God. We can easily neglect this, get distracted, or think that it doesn’t matter. Our own spiritual and emotional health is our own matter, right? But it’s not, because our spiritual and emotional health spills over into our relationships with one another.
You may have noticed that we’re talking about Matthew 25 now, and you probably already know that we’ve made a commitment to be a Matthew 25 church. Can anyone remember one of the three parts of that commitment?
- Building congregational vitality by challenging people and congregations to deepen their faith and get actively and joyfully engaged with their community and the world.
- Dismantling structural racism by advocating and acting to break down the systems, practices and thinking that underlie discrimination, bias, prejudice and oppression of people of color.
- Eradicating systemic poverty by working to change laws, policies, plans and structures in our society that perpetuate economic exploitation of people who are poor.
The parable of the bridesmaids is the call to keep alert by building congregational vitality – deepening our faith and being actively engaged in God’s work in the church and in the world.
The second parable in Matthew 25 is the parable of the loaned money, also called the parable of the talents. A master going on a long trip entrusts his money to his servants while he is gone. To one he gives five bags of silver, to another two, and to the third, one bag. While he’s gone, the servant with five bags invests it and makes five more. The servant with two bags invests it and earns two more. But the third is afraid of the master, so he keeps his bag safe in a hole in the ground. When the master returns, he praises the servants with five and two bags. “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” But he is angry with the third servant and casts him out. Matt. 25:14-30)
So keeping alert is also making good use of all that God has given to us. One way we do that is working to change systems that exploit people who are poor. Eradicating systems of poverty. Money has power, and it is temptingly easy to exploit that power. Whenever we are in a position to have something that someone else needs, we’re in a position of power. We can use that power to make ourselves feel better and to get richer, or we can use that power to help others.
The third parable in Matthew 25 is the parable of the sheep and the goats. Those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned are the sheep to whom the king says, “Whenever you did this to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.” (Matt. 25:31-46)
So keeping alert is being aware of the needs of the people around us, and being open to seeing Jesus in each one of them. This awareness provides the foundation for the Matthew 25 call to break down systems, practices, and thinking that perpetuate racism and prejudice. One of the ways we keep alert is to keep learning how to do this.
In just a few minutes, we’re going to sing a song by Curtis Mayfield called “People Get Ready.”
“This is a train song; this is a gospel song delivering good news…The train is God’s grace. Martin Luther King Jr. called this song the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement…and used it to get people marching or to [give them hope]…To be confined in segregated schools, jobs, or neighborhoods is to lack freedom of movement…African American music often links liberation to images of mobility: highways, marching, biblical exodus, space travel and trains…The train held special meaning for people denied freedom of movement…[and remembers the Underground Railroad, the secret] network that enabled enslaved Africans to flee their white captors….”
Harriet Tubman was a conductor on the underground railroad who had escaped from slavery, and then went back to bring others out. She could have stayed in the north and simply enjoyed her freedom, but she wanted to make sure that as many people as possible got on that train so they could also know freedom.
At Christmas time, many of us have trains under our Christmas trees that go in a circle. As we watch those trains going around, may they remind us of God’s grace and patience, wanting all to have the opportunity to know God’s love (Romans 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). Each time around the circle is an opportunity for more people to get on the train.
To keep alert is to keep watching for people who need help to get on the train, or help to alleviate poverty, or to eliminate racism and prejudice. To keep alert is to hold on to the hope we have in the vision in Isaiah 2 of a world in which God’s reign is complete:
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains
and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.
they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more.
It’s a beautiful future, and it’s already begun.
To keep alert is to remember what we already know – Jesus already conquered sin and death on the cross. We are living in the light and hope of the resurrection. We know that redemption and renewal is not only possible, it’s already happening.
 By Own work – This file was derived from:Hyderabad in India (1951).svgKalat Map.gifSaurashtraKart.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56172721
 Brad Erickson (PhD Cultural Anthropology, University of California at Berkeley)https://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/PeopleGetReady.pdf