>The following was preached at the 12/30/07 combined worship service at Emmanuel UMC. It was also submitted as my sermon for the South Indiana Conference Board of Ordained Ministry interviews, which took place in February of 2008.

At the beginning of Matthew 24, Jesus and the disciples are coming out of the Temple, where Jesus has been teaching. The disciples make a comment marveling about the buildings of the Temple, to which Jesus responds, “Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Mt 24:2). No doubt the disciples were caught off guard by Jesus’ comment. They were simply amazed at the architecture, and Jesus starts talking about the destruction of the Temple. They end up going out of town to the Mount of Olives, which is about 2 miles east of Jerusalem, before the disciples ask for clarification. They want to know when all of this will happen, which sets off 94 verses of teaching and parables. Today’s passage is right in the middle of Jesus’ response.

Matthew 24:36-44
36″But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. 37For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 42Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

Over the course of history, people have made a lot of bold predictions. There must be something about the future, about the unknown, that causes us some anxiety. We want to be able to get a handle on it, and control it in some way. Or maybe, it is not so much of a control issue, but a pride issue. We are so confident about this unknown future and trust in our abilities so much that we make these predictions. The root issue will vary from person to person, but typically, these predictions fail and leave us wondering and embarrassed. Here are just a few examples from the 20th century:

1. In 1912, one of the most well-known failed predictions took place. An official of the White Star Line declared the Titanic to be unsinkable. Early in the morning of April 15th, the Titanic sunk, killing nearly 1,500 people.
2. In 1939, the New York Times said the problem with TV was that people had to glue their eyes to a screen, and that the average American wouldn’t have time for it. Today, the average American watches around 22 hours of television each week.
3. And one that I was unaware of until recently, “Whatever happens, the U.S. Navy is not going to be caught napping.” Frank Knox, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, December 4, 1941. As you probably know, three days later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor killing 2,333 and wounding 1,139.

Then there are others who have made predictions of a different sort. They have taken it upon themselves to find out the time when Jesus was going to return. From the Montanists in the second century to present-day groups, every generation seems to have some people who think that they are the last generation before Christ returns, or that they are the ones who know when it will happen. What is wrong with this picture? In Matthew 24, Jesus tells his disciples that no one knows the day or the hour. The exact timing of Jesus’ return is only known by the Father, not by the angels, not even by the Son. Given that Jesus himself admits to not knowing the day and hour of the second coming, isn’t it rather presumptuous to even think that we can try to figure it out? Yet, that is exactly what people have tried to do through the centuries, and time and time again, they have failed. The predicted day has come and gone in every instance. So, here we sit today, waiting for the return of Jesus. What are we to do with this? We just celebrated the birth of Jesus and we believe that one day Jesus will come back, that all creation will be redeemed and that the believers will forever be in the presence of the Almighty God. But what do we do in the meantime? How do we live in the “here and now”? How do we approach each day knowing that Jesus’ return is imminent?

Jesus looks back to the days of Noah to give the disciples an idea of what it will be like when he returns. In the time of Noah, people were going about their daily business. They were “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” (Mt 24:38) up until the very day that the rain started to come down. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with eating, drinking and marrying. The point is that life was going on as normal. This is what it will be like when Jesus comes back; life as normal. People will be going to the grocery store, watching the game at BW3’s, sitting in the office at work, and then suddenly, unexpectedly, the Son of Man will return. What will be important is not what we are doing, but what we have done with our lives. It will be important that we are not caught off guard by his coming, but that we are living in expectation.

Now, will you please excuse me while I unleash my inner Greek nerd? When you look at a Greek verb, you will typically see five parts – tense, voice, mood, person and number. In verse 42, for the Greek word that is translated “stay awake,” all I want to focus on right now is the tense and mood. It is a present tense, imperative mood verb. The imperative mood is typically used for commands. This is a command that Jesus is giving. Generally speaking, there are two parts to a Greek tense – time and aspect. The Greek present tense views the action of a verb as continuous, repeated or in progress. It is seen more like a motion picture instead of a snapshot. “Stay awake,” therefore, is not just a one time thing, but an act of continually being alert to what is going on around us. So when Jesus is saying “stay awake” we could easily translate that into “be alert and continue to be alert.” We are commanded to be in a constant state of vigilance.

The people in Noah’s day were not in a state of vigilance. They were so caught up in the daily routine of their own lives, so caught up in the lie that what you see is all there is, that they missed the boat…literally. It was their failure to recognize that there is more to life than what we see that caused them to be swept away in the flood. That is what Jesus was warning the disciples about in this passage. That is what Jesus is warning us about in this passage. That which we do over the course of the week no doubt has some importance, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that what you see is what you get. There is more to this life than the daily routine. Stay awake, be alert, be vigilant, and live in expectation. That’s a pretty strong word from Jesus, but he doesn’t leave the disciples there. He has another strong word for them.

In verse 44, Jesus uses another present imperative. This time it is for the word “to be” and is followed by an adjective meaning “ready.” Now, when I first studied this passage, I must admit that I was a little disappointed that he does not use just one word that means “to be ready.” It seems like it would be cleaner and pack more of a punch if it was only one word. Then I dug a little deeper. There is a word that is very similar to the adjective; in fact, it has the same root. However, it does not mean “to be ready.” It means “to make ready, to prepare.” The difference is subtle, but it’s important. If Jesus had used this verb, he would have been saying, “be getting ready.” However, that is not what he says. He does not say, “Be almost ready.” He does not say, “Be thinking about being ready.” He says, “Be and continue to be ready.”

In Noah’s day, the people had to have seen Noah building the ark. It was a huge boat – 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high. Noah knew what was coming, but he didn’t know when. When you read Genesis 6, God does not give Noah a timeframe. It’s not until Genesis 7 that God lets Noah know when it is all going to happen, and even then, it was only in seven days. I do not know how long it took Noah to build the ark, but I am pretty sure it took more than seven days. Noah had to have been ready. If he had still been building the ark, if he was still “getting ready” when God gave him that seven day notice, we would probably be reading a different story today.Just like Jesus’ command to “stay awake” reminds us that there is more to life than what we see, his command to “be ready” reminds us that it is not always enough to just be aware of our surroundings. If we lose sight of God in the midst of our busy and crazy daily routine, then we are not awake. If we are not living in expectation of the return of the Son, we are not ready.

In the Church calendar, Advent is a time of preparation and Christmas is a celebration of the incarnated Son of God. So on this day, the first Sunday of Christmas, we remember that the Son has come, but we also cannot lose sight of the fact that the Son will come again. While we celebrate the first coming, we have to live in expectation of the second coming of the Son. So I leave you today with four simple thoughts – nobody knows when the Son will return, therefore, stay awake, be ready and live in expectation.

Just some musings from a traveling pilgrim.