St Andrew, Glencairn
Glencairn Methodist Church
Have you ever had friends unexpectedly call at your door, and the man of the house opens the door, greets the friends and invites them in. He takes them into the usual comfortable, family sitting room and offers them a seat, all the while not seeing that the newspapers are all over the floor, the coffee cups are still not cleared away and various pullovers and the like are draped over the back of the sofa. “I’ll call the woman of the house and see if she will make us a nice cup of tea”, he says.
So he goes into the kitchen, and he can see right away that she is not pleased – she has, as they say, a face on her like a Lurgan spade. “Why didn’t you show them into the front room”, she whispers through gritted teeth, “at least it is tidy and ready for unexpected visitors.” And the chastened man learns a salutary lesson – like the Scouts’ motto – BE PREPARED.
Advent is a “season of preparation” not only preparation to welcome and remember Christ’s incarnation at Christmas, but also preparation for the “last days” as the Bible talks about. [We should also do a bit of fasting to be able to enjoy the feasting to come.]
There are two ways of looking at this, and the illustrations used - Noah’s Flood and the burglar breaking in - can be taken to refer to either or both of these ways.
First we can take this to be teaching about the Parousia, the second coming of Christ when he will come in glory to judge both the living and the dead, as we say in the Advent Collect. This will signal the end of the world and the righteous will be swept up to heaven. And we are warned to be ready for this because the Lord will come unexpectedly, just like Noah’s Flood and the thief in the night.
The second way of looking at this passage is to say that we need to prepare for our own death. There are different views on what happens when we die. Is there a period of waiting until Jesus’ second coming? Or, as most Protestants believe, do our souls slip seamlessly from this world, through the death of the body and into the place reserved for us in heaven?
And Jesus is quite clear about the timing of this – nobody knows when the second coming will be or when we will die. So we need to keep ourselves like the front room – clean and tidy and prepared for whichever it will be.
But how did Jesus’ first audience and Matthew’s first readers receive it? How did the Jews of his time understand what he was saying? We touched on this on Remembrance Sunday when we studied Luke 21: 5-19. Jesus was predicting that one day, probably sooner rather than later, the Romans would finally lose patience with the rebellious Jews and would destroy the temple and by so doing remove all the very things that made sense to their religion and their way of life. In other words it would effectively be the end of the world as they knew it.
There are characteristics of the destruction of the Temple that we may apply to our understanding of the second coming and our death:
First, nobody knew when the Romans would act, but it might be soon! The Romans did destroy the Temple in 70 AD, within a generation.
Secondly life will go on as normal up to the end. People were enjoying life with parties and wedding and so on, right up to the last minute when Noah’s Flood came suddenly and swept everything and everybody away (except those in the ark).
Third the Romans' actions would divide families and work colleagues down the middle. “One will be taken and one will be left”. This is not to say that one person would be ‘taken’ away by God in some kind of supernatural salvation, while the other is ‘left’ to face destruction. In fact it would be the other way round. The victorious army would ‘take’ some people off and kill them as retribution and a warning, and ‘leave’ others untouched.
So why is Jesus telling his disciples all this? Well, he wants them to stay awake, like people who know that there will be surprise visitors and surprising events coming sooner or later, and to be like the woman of the house who keeps her front room ready.
Jesus’ warning was primarily directed to the situation of dire emergency in the first century after Jesus’ death and resurrection and before his words about the Temple came true. But these words ring through subsequent centuries, and into our own day. We too live in turbulent and dangerous times. Who knows what will happen next week or next year?
So it is up to each church and each individual Christian to answer the questions: “Are you ready? Are you awake?”
Ken (25 November 2016)
Note that this Message is inspired in part by Tom Wright's commentary "Matthew for Everyone, Part 2".
NOTE - Previous "Monthly Messages" are archived at http://glencairn.connor.anglican.org/previousmessages.htm