Matthew 24:36-44

This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on December 1, 2013.

Christian hope is our confidence that God is the God of the future as well as the past and present. He is the One who WAS and IS and IS TO COME. He is both Alpha and Omega. That hope grows out of the consistent biblical message that God is working out his loving purposes in human history for all of creation. The events of history, despite human pride and violence, cannot frustrate those plans. In God’s own time and in God’s own way the reign of God will be extended to the entire creation. Jesus reaffirmed this hope as an essential part of his message about the dawning of the kingdom of God (Matthew 4:17).

The certainty of the consummation of the age to come is not questioned in Jesus’ teaching and ministry. The acts of power he performs — healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, even raising the dead – foreshadow the coming day when all who know him live forever in wholeness, joy, and peace in the presence of God on earth (Revelation 21:3-5). In fact, this consistent affirmation of hope became part of ancient Christian creeds: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

What is not certain, according to Jesus and the apostles as well, is the time of the coming of the Son of Man in glory. Jesus is explicit about this in his discourse in Matthew 24:36-44. He underscores that uncertainty repeatedly: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36, 42, 43, 44). The coming of the Son of Man will be like the flood in the days of Noah – no one was expecting it. Life will be business as usual and suddenly judgment will begin to set the world aright (Matthew 24:38-41). The coming of the Son of Man will be as unexpected as a home invasion (Matthew 24:43).

Throughout Christian history and up until this very day, many attempts have been made to predict the time of Jesus’ return. Despite Jesus’ clear statement that “about that day and hour no one knows,” pamphlets, billboards, and books have announced those very things. This text could not be more clear: the certain return of the Son of Man will occur at a completely uncertain time.

Jesus’ reference to Noah is instructive. In Noah’s day, he says, people were going on with life as usual. Engagements and weddings, feasts and celebrations occurred as if life would go on forever. Then unexpectedly the flood came and “took them all away” (Matthew 24:39). In the same way, he tells us, the ordinary events of life will be occurring when the Son of Man returns, and no one will know that the day of judgment has come. Jesus’ reference to the two in the field and the two at the mill has often been misread to refer to a secret rapture of the church. However, in this passage as in the Old Testament, the one being “taken away” is being unexpectedly summoned to judgment, not to salvation. The one being left is not being left for “the Great Tribulation,” but to participate in God’s reign over all the earth.

If the coming of the Son of Man and the setting of the world aright through judgment is a certainty, and if the time of his return is completely uncertain, then only one course of action makes sense – preparation and watchfulness. These three truths can be found together like the three legs of a stool wherever the end of the age is proclaimed in Scripture: The end of the age is certain. The time is uncertain. Therefore, be ready.

Jesus drives that home to his disciples: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Jesus continues this theme into chapter 25 with the parable of the wise and foolish maidens. The wise were the five prepared for the bridegroom’s coming and the foolish were the five who failed to prepare. Clearly it is foolish not to prepare for something one knows to be certain. It is also foolish to live as if waiting until the last minute to prepare would suffice, especially if we do not know when “the last minute” really is. Besides, some things actually take more than a minute of preparation.

What does preparation for the coming of the Son of Man look like in the spiritual life? Jesus calls it “watchfulness” (Matthew 24:42-44; 25:13; Mark 13:33-37; Luke 21:36). A watchful life is one that hopefully anticipates Christ return and prepares by learning to follow him. The follower of Jesus is learning to live the life of the kingdom even when his coming is delayed (2 Peter 3:10-14; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6; Romans 13:11-14). The Christian hope is that one day in the future this age will pass away and the age to come will appear in its fullness. On that day believers will know the unmediated presence of Christ for which they have longed. Being prepared means living now as intimately with him as possible so that when our hope appears, while it will be unexpected, it will not be a surprise.

Preaching this text invites us to cultivate in our hearers, not a fear of judgment, but a longing for the fulfillment of our hope. It certainly calls us to underscore the element of uncertainty that attends Jesus’ promise, but only as a vehicle to motivate us toward preparation of our lives. The text invites us to explore with our congregations the meaning of Christian hope and the role that it plays in our daily living – living now those things we believe God will establish fully in the future: justice, compassion, peace, and faithfulness. This is the preparation and watchfulness for which Jesus calls. Preached during the Advent season, the text invites us to anticipate the return of Jesus with the longing that characters such as Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, and Anna demonstrated in the hope of his first appearance.


R. Robert Creech
Hubert H. & Gladys S. Raborn Professor of Pastoral Leadership
George W. Truett Theological Seminary,
Baylor University, Waco, Texas


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