“Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
So, tell me about Jesus.
If someone were to ask us, individually or as a group, to come up with a list of the most important ideas and themes in the life and teachings of Jesus, we can imagine what such a list would include.
First and foremost, there would be references to Jesus’ teachings about love – love for God, for one’s neighbours, and even for one’s enemies. His emphasis on forgiveness would undoubtedly be mentioned, as would his call to repentance and his proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God.
Some would mention the stories that Jesus told, those little parables that contained such a wealth of subversive and transforming insights, tales of prodigal sons and lost coins and wandering sheep and good Samaritans. Others would cite his miraculous power, his wonder-working ability to touch and heal those who were sick and suffering. Some would likely make reference to the great theological claims that were made about him – that he was the Son of God, the Word of God made flesh, the Saviour of the world, while others would emphasize his more human dimensions – his role as a moral teacher, his willingness to associate with undesirables, outcasts, and morally questionable individuals. In all likelihood, the list would mention the big stories – the story of his humble birth in Bethlehem, or his Last Supper with his disciples, or his betrayal, his crucifixion and his resurrection.
But what might not be readily or quickly mentioned, at least on any list compiled by a group of mainline Protestant Christians such as ourselves, would be Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, a mystical visionary, a man who spoke – quite frequently — about the Day of Judgement, the coming of the Son of Man, the time of divine reckoning, the time when the world, as we know it, would be no more. And yet, such words, such teachings, such visions were often on Jesus’ lips.
There are other traditions in the Christian Church in which there is a great deal more attention paid to those parts of his teachings that focused on the cataclysmic events that would accompany the time of final, ultimate, divine intervention into human history. In certain parts of the church, even in the modern world, there is a great deal more attention paid to what is sometimes referred to as the “end times” – stories of the global battles in Armageddon, speculations about how current events are moving us towards the Day of Judgement, or how “The Late Great Planet Earth” will come to an end and people either will or will not be “Left Behind” in some mysterious rapture. Books, movies, music, websites about “end time” speculations – well, suffice it to say that in certain parts of the Church, speculations about the end of the world have been very, very good for business.
For many of us, however, such apocalyptic speculations do not occupy a great deal of our attention. In fact, it is more likely, these days, to hear apocalyptic predictions about the fiery end of life as we know it on the lips of environmentalists and climate change activists rather than in reference to the doctrines of the church and the preoccupations of people of faith.
And there is good reason for this hesitation to spend much of our time pondering the end of time. After having heard the late night television evangelists detailing the chronology of events that will signal that the end is nigh, and even having witnessed certain religious groups making predictions, sometimes to the day, about when Jesus would return – all of which have, at least thus far, been wrong – most of us do not give it much thought any more. We might intone words, during the celebration of communion, about our belief that Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again – or recite, in the creeds, words about the fact that “he will come again to judge the living and the dead” – but beyond such references, we really do not talk much about the coming of the Son of Man, or the way that the world will end.
But then we come to passages such as the Gospel reading that is suggested for this particular Sunday in the church year, this First Sunday of Advent. And we wonder how we are supposed to approach, interpret, understand, and even find inspiration in such a text. “Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
It is an odd passage – references to the time of Noah, when no one except for Noah and his family had any idea what was about to happen until the rain started to fall; references to the sudden disappearance of people while going about their daily tasks; references to that moment arriving like a thief in the night, all of which were offered with the overarching command to stay awake, stay alert, be ready at all times, be dutiful for the moment might happen at any time. The call of faithfulness, it seems, is to live in a constant state of readiness for Christ’s impending return. As one famous bumper sticker put it, “Jesus is coming – look busy!”
The setting for this passage, in Matthew’s Gospel, was the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. In the opening verses of chapter 24, the author of Matthew had pictured Jesus coming out of Temple in Jerusalem, and beginning to speak with his disciples on an elevated area overlooking the Temple and the city. He shared with them somewhat ominous predictions about the coming difficult times, and encouraged them to remain faithful, even in the face of the challenges and struggles that they would encounter. The 24th chapter of Matthew contains a number of these dire warnings and parables about the end of the world.
However, today’s passage makes it clear that no one, not even Jesus himself, knew when that time would be. As such, the words of today’s passage – and in fact, all of Jesus’ apocalyptic musings – were not offered with the intent to encourage his followers to spend time speculating about the date and time of those events, nor to stir up fearmongering, doomsday scenarios about the events that would occur at the time of the “coming of the Son of Man”. Instead, his words were meant as an encouragement to remain vigilant, faithful and obedient until the day arrives.
Which, in its own way, is both inspiring and quite clever. Because in light of the fact that none of us knows how the future is going to play out, either for us as individuals or for the entire world, the only way for any of us to obey Jesus’ commands about keeping spiritually awake, about being ready, is for us to seek to be ready always. To examine our conscience, to reform our priorities, to live in such a way that every moment is infused with meaning and value, rather than to allow ourselves to be lulled into some state of spiritual indifference and apathy. To put it another way, the best way to remain faithful until the end of time is by seeking to be faithful at every moment in time.
This invitation to live in a state of constant spiritual preparedness was, in fact, the message at the heart of Jesus’ apocalyptic visions. Contrary to how these strange visions have been used in the course of Christian history, and even in parts of the church today, Jesus did not offer those teachings with the
As such, it is fair to say that at the heart of Jesus’ apocalyptic visions was not some desire to frighten people into obedience or to offer some form of spiritual threat to what would happen to them if they did not get in line right away. Rather, at the heart of his words was a call to faith, to hope and to love – to stay faithful by continuing to trust in God, even in those moments when our lives and the world, as we know it, seems to be crashing down around us; to stay hopeful, even in the face of persecution and in the presence of difficulty; and perhaps most importantly, to continue to be a people of love – perhaps best illustrated in what is probably his most famous apocalyptic vision, found in Matthew 25, as he envisioned a scene when the peoples of the world were being judged by the Son of Man on the basis of how they had demonstrated love — how they had cared for the hungry, the naked, the stranger, the prisoner, the immigrant, the sick — even though they did not know that when they were caring for those in times of need, for the least of these, they were caring for Christ himself.
In such moments, as in every moment, he was encouraging his followers to keep their eyes open, to stay awake, to cling to faith, to hope and to love, for in so doing they would be always ready to catch a glimpse of the God who chooses to arrive into this world, and into our lives, at the most unexpected of moments, and in the most unexpected of ways.
And in this, there is great inspiration for all of us. Because the best way to live with that sense of readiness, that longing to encounter the God who arrived in human history in the person of Jesus Christ and who continues to arrive in the most unexpected moments, is not to speculate about the end of time, but rather to seek to live each and every moment of our lives with the eyes of faith open, with the flame of hope alive within us, and with hearts committed to the ways of love.
And the good news is this – because it is God who comes to us, because it is God who seeks us, because it is God who first loves us, every single moment of existence, every single second of every day, is pregnant with the possibility of encountering the presence of the One who is love.
Pregnant with the possibility of encountering the God who arrives among us…even in as unexpected a place as a tiny manger stall.