[Jesus said to the disciples:] “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”Matthew 24:36-37
“As the days of Noah were,” Jesus tells us in today’s gospel reading, “so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Our Advent Season begins with Jesus taking us back to the story of Noah and the Ark, one of the most beloved of all Bible stories. It captures the imagination of children, young and old. It’s a good story. An important story. And one that the church believes important.
The church, in fact, likes to think of itself as an ark. The sanctuaries of many churches are built intentionally to resemble an ark. The roof is made to look like the bottom of the ark. And the word often used for this worship space – nave – is a word that literally means ship (it is where we get our word, Navy). The ark for us Christians, in other words, is the church. And so, it seems fitting to begin this new church year together with Jesus comparing the coming of the Son of Man to the days of Noah. But it’s important to notice that Jesus is not doing this to comfort us – he’s doing it to warn us, and to wake us up. Just as the story of Noah once did.
Noah and the Ark
The days of Noah, according to the story originally told in Genesis, were: “corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth” (Genesis 6:11-12). So God decided to put an end to it. Except that Noah and his household were righteous before the Lord. So God commanded Noah to build his famous ark. And board the ark with his household and the animals often shown in the artists’ renditions of this story, to keep their offspring alive on the face of the earth.
So Noah got busy building his ark. And obviously, it was a huge structure. 450 feet long, almost 5 stories tall, 75 feet across. You can well imagine what the neighbors were saying! But what they weren’t saying, as we all know, is: “Noah – help me build an ark for me and my family. We want to be safe from the flood, too.” No one was saying that. To the world, what Noah was doing was a complete waste of time and money. The building of his ark was pointless.
And isn’t that how the church is sometimes viewed, a waste of time and money? We can spend our time doing something more worthwhile than worship and prayer, can’t we? And aren’t there more worthwhile things on which to spend our money? It will always be tempting to think that or say it, just as it was tempting to say about Noah’s ark.
When the flood came, of course, that ark no longer looked like a waste of time and money. It looked like the most important thing ever built. Because it was. And Noah no longer looked foolish, but very wise. The ark was no longer a waste of time and money. It was a lifeboat – the only thing between life and death. The one human-built structure in all the world that survived the mighty flood sent by God. Surely the most important thing ever built.
What about the church? Is it a waste of time and money? Or the most important thing ever built? As I see it, those are about the only reasonable choices. The church is either the most important thing in the world, or a waste of time and money.
Just like Noah before us, we who are here are getting ready for something. This is Advent, a season of preparation. We are getting ready for something, but what are we getting ready for? Not a flood, surely. God promised never again. We are getting ready for Christmas, of course, but that is not really what the Season of Advent is all about. What we are really getting ready for is the final coming of the Son of Man. We are building the church in order to get ready for the coming of the Son of Man; in order to be ready for his coming.
Before Jesus comes, as we eat and drink and live our daily lives, the church can sometimes seem like a waste of time and money. We are here because we believe otherwise. We believe that the church is here to help us to get ready for Jesus’ return to earth, and to help the world to get ready, too. Just as the ark was built by Noah to get ready for the flood. We are building his church on earth to get ready for his promised return.
Always Be Ready
“As the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” So Jesus says in today’s gospel reading (Matthew 24:36-44). But there is an important difference between Noah and us: Noah knew exactly when the flood was coming. At one point, God said to Noah: “In seven days I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights.” Noah knew when the flood was coming. He got his family on board, and the animals, knowing – to the day – when the rain would begin.
We, on the other hand, have no idea when the Son of Man is coming. Jesus himself says in this reading: “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Even Jesus himself does not know when he will return! (Remember that the next time someone gets their 15 minutes of fame by claiming to know the date that the world will end!)
Jesus goes on to say: “You do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: 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.”
The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that we have no idea when the Son of Man is coming. It will be like a thief in the night. No warning. No alarm system. A complete shock to everyone in the house. For some of us, we will fall asleep in death, and when we open our eyes, Jesus will be before us. And we don’t have any idea when that day will come. For others, perhaps, Jesus will make his promised, glorious return before we fall asleep in death. Either way, we don’t know when it will happen. We just know that it will.
And so, Jesus invites us to get ready. Build the ark. Build the church. Go and make disciples. Baptize; teach; worship; pray. Wake ourselves up to what really matters in this life. It’s not too late. The flood has not yet arrived. Jesus has not yet returned. Now is the time to get ready. To wake up. Jesus is coming. We don’t know when. But we know that he is coming. And his arrival draws closer every day.
Now, when I think of this need to keep awake, which is an important theme of Advent, I can’t help but think 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, isn’t it? 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 the 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 of us are living on cruise control. Just trying to stay on the road, keep awake, and get to our destination on time and in one piece. 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.”
Stay Awake, and Wake Up Others
But let me 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 that 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.
The Season of Advent is here. A time to keep awake, to get ready, to watch and to wait for the coming of the Son of Man. A time to build the ark that is known as the church, to get on board, and to invite everyone to do the same.
We are waiting for a flood, in a way, but a wonderful flood, of forgiveness and grace and mercy and love. Because there is another crucial difference between Noah’s flood and the return of Jesus – his return is nothing to fear, but something to eagerly anticipate, and to look forward to with joy. So let’s get ready, let’s keep awake, and let’s pray that this flood comes soon. Amen. Come Lord Jesus.