Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.Matthew 24:44
A month from today we celebrate a new year. It’s a day I look forward to – when we can turn the page, and begin again. There is hope and promise in a new year. There is cynicism, too, but I like to focus on the hope and promise of it all. Like the beginning of a new day, the beginning of a new year offers an opportunity to try again, to begin again, and to make some needed changes in our life.
Today is not just the First Sunday in Advent. It is also the first Sunday of our new church year. We don’t usually think of this as new year’s day, of course. But it is in the church. The beginning of a new church year. (And for three of us here, the beginning of a new life, the life of a baptized Christian!)
And I like to to begin a new church year like I begin a new calendar year – with some kind of resolution, but with a spiritual resolution. It is kind of like a new year’s resolution, but with a different focus. A spiritual resolution focuses on my relationship with God. So, instead of resolving to eat fewer sweets, or something along those lines, I begin a new practice which helps me to grow in my relationship with God. One year, for example, I resolved to read the Bible in a year. It took me 14 months, but I found it very meaningful! Another year, I resolved to make the Psalms a bigger part of my daily prayer, so I prayed through the Book of Psalms each month. You get the idea.
So, even if you are not into new year’s resolutions, I want to invite you today to consider making a spiritual resolution as begin a new church year together. This, by the way, is the Year of Matthew in our church lectionary, when we focus most of our Sunday gospel readings on Matthew. So one possibility might be to begin this new church year by reading through the Gospel of Matthew. Who knows? When you finish with that, you might decide to read the other gospels, and then continue through the New Testament.
When we look at today’s gospel reading from the Gospel of Matthew, we find a good reason to make a spiritual resolution. Because we encounter Jesus warning his disciples to be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. So getting ourselves ready for his coming should be at the core of whatever spiritual resolution we make.
Getting ready is at the heart of the Advent Season, too. Getting ready not just for Christmas, but for the return of Christ. Get ready, Jesus says, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
But Jesus goes into even more detail about this, when he compares the coming of the Son of Man to the days of Noah. “For as the days of Noah were,” Jesus says, “so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
Now, think about the story of Noah, and why Jesus might be using that story to illustrate how to prepare for his second coming. As I see it, Noah was given a wonderful gift when he was told that a flood was coming. He had a chance to prepare for it. In the same way, we have been given a wonderful gift. We have been told that Jesus is coming. We know that there will come a day when he will return to judge the living and the dead. We, too, have a chance to prepare for it.
In Noah’s case, preparing for the coming flood meant building an ark. And then getting his family on the ark. And then getting two of every animal on the ark. To the world, what he was doing seemed like a waste of time. Until the flood came, that is. But Noah stayed focused, and prepared for the day that he knew was coming. He didn’t know when it would be, but he did everything in his power to be ready for it.
What about us? How do we prepare? The church has often been compared to Noah’s ark. In fact, the worship space of the church is called the nave, which is from the Latin word for ship. In some ways, our task is just like Noah’s: To build a ship that will protect us from the storm, and then to get as many people on board as possible. What we are doing here will sometimes seem to the world to be a waste of time. But we persist, because we believe that Jesus is coming again. And so, we build a church, where all can come to learn, and grow in faith, and be baptized, and be nourished at the altar, and hear the word of the Lord. And we build the church with the same urgency that Noah built the ark, because we know what the world does not: That the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected time, and that we must be ready.
Now, along with making sure we are ready, and using the illustration of Noah to make his point, Jesus also tells us in this reading to stay awake, and he uses a different illustration to make his point:
“If the owner 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.” (Matthew 24:43)
For that reason, we need to keep awake, for we do not know on what day our Lord is coming. When I think of the need to keep awake, I can’t help but think of a different illustration, and that is of being behind the wheel of a car. That’s where I often seem to really need to concentrate to stay awake. It’s almost more difficult these days, with gps devices and cruise control and all these driving conveniences we have. It’s great to have all of these things, but they can lead us to not pay as much attention to our driving. We travel down the road with the cruise control set, the gps activated, and we let our minds wander. We can easily be lulled into not paying enough attention to what we’re doing.
Back in the time of Noah, people were arguably living their lives on cruise control. They were not paying attention to anything but their own lives, until they flood came and swept them all away. Only Noah was ready for the flood. Everyone else was caught by surprise.
In the same way, Jesus says, his return will catch many by surprise. Many people will be living on cruise control and not paying any attention to their spiritual lives, to their relationship with God, and suddenly Jesus will be back. And they’ll be surprised.
As we look around our world today, it’s not so hard to believe that many people are living on cruise control. Some of us may be living on cruise control right now, too. We may be so busy getting ready for the holidays, for example, that we are forgetting to get ready for Christ.
So Jesus offers us today our annual wake-up call, our reminder to get ready, not just for Christmas, but for Jesus’ return, because the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. “Keep awake,” says Jesus, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Jesus encourages all of us on the journey to stay awake – to pay attention to what is happening around us, to seek out God in the Word, in prayer, in worship, in the sacraments. Do these things to make sure that we are awake spiritually and ready for Christ’s return. And when we do these things, we know that we are truly ready for the Son of Man’s return, even though we ourselves don’t know when that will be.
STAY AWAKE, AND WAKE UP OTHERS
But let’s go back to the illustration of being behind the wheel of a car. Because it is important not only for the driver to stay awake. It’s also important at times for the passengers to make sure the driver stays awake. I know when I am on a trip with my family, my wife, Karen, will often nudge me while driving down the road and say, “Honey, are you awake?” And of course, my answer is always, “Yes, of course I’m awake.” But her nudge might sometimes be why!
So when we think about getting ready for the return of the Son of Man, of preparing for that day and of the importance of keeping awake, it is also important to think about people in our lives who might be in danger of falling asleep at the wheel. Is there somebody that you can think of who seems to be slipping into cruise control in their life? Someone who might need to be gently awakened and reminded to get ready, to keep awake, because our Lord is coming soon? This might be as simple as calling them and asking how they are doing. A gentle nudge. A little prayer. A kind word or gesture. That may be all it takes. Sometimes we just need each other to stay awake, to be ready.
This is the First Sunday in Advent: And so, it is time for our annual spiritual wake-up call. Time, perhaps, to make some spiritual resolutions as we begin a new church year together. Time to make sure that we are ready for the return of the Son of Man, who will come at an unexpected time.
And time, too, to make sure those around us are awake, too. Because we don’t want anyone to sleep through the most glorious event in all of human history: The return of the Son of Man, when all the world will be flooded with his grace, mercy and love. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.