First Sunday of Advent

Not knowing is a condition we are to embrace, not attempt to overcome

single candle lit
Photo by Paolo Nicolello on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

November 27, 2022

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Commentary on Matthew 24:36-44

The inclusion of this passage at the head of the Gospel lectionary reminds us that Jesus’ call to watch for the coming of the Messiah is not merely an Advent practice, but the normative state of readiness required of disciples.

No one knows but God alone

This reading, plucked from the middle of Jesus’ final sermon in Matthew, brings to a close his description of the chaos, seductions, betrayals, and violence that will threaten the unity and witness of the community of disciples as they await the coming of the Son of Humanity. When Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple (24:1-2), his disciples ask him when that will happen and what will be the signs of his coming and of the end of the age (24:3). Now, in 24:36, Jesus finally offers a direct answer to the “when” part of their question, albeit not the answer they had been hoping for. Jesus rejects the possibility that anyone other than God, including Jesus himself, knows the answer. Then he goes on to stress the importance of wakefulness (or watchfulness) and readiness, which provide the thematic focus for the rest of this passage, as well as the four parables that mark the culmination of Jesus’ formal teaching in Matthew (24:45-25:46). 

They knew nothing (24:37-39)

Jesus reminds the disciples that in the days of Noah, people went about life as usual, right up to the moment when the floods came. The emphasis here is on the sudden, unexpected devastation that was to sweep them away, for which there was no warning, no call to repentance, nothing that would alert them to what was coming. “They knew nothing until the flood came” (24:30). 

Even Noah knew only in general terms what was coming. The same is true for Jesus’ disciples and Christians today, who are expected to know only that the coming of the “Son of Humanity” is certain, but not when it will happen. This is a hard pill to swallow for modern control freaks in an era of data analytics, artificial intelligence, and long-range forecasting. We can, however, lift up the defeat of death in the cross and resurrection, which dramatically alters how we approach “the end” of the biblical story: the defining moment is not Jesus’ triumphal advent at the end of history, whenever that might be, but the moment of his revelation of God’s true power on the cross. The point, for those who know this much, is to live in the light of this transformed reality. 

One taken, one left behind (24:40-41)

Over the last century, these verses have often been read in support of dispensationalism, especially “rapture” theology, which attempts to plot where we are in proximity to the end—precisely what Jesus tells his disciples not to do. The parallel illustrations in 24:40-41 do not likely depict a moment when the righteous are plucked up from the earth and taken to heaven, while others are “left behind” to await tribulations and final judgment. For first century audiences familiar with the ways of the Roman Empire, being left behind was surely preferable to being taken. For the people of Noah’s day, being swept away was not a good thing. Instead, these sayings simply depict sudden, surprising separation, without indicating cause for judgment or reward on the part of those taken or left behind. Rapture theology, which has little or no scriptural support, may offer comfort for those who seek certainty or presume to have secured the inside track to heaven, but the focus of this unit is on remaining vigilant amidst the uncertainty of a long wait amidst discouraging circumstances.

Keep awake, be ready!

The final admonition and illustration in 24:42-44 underline the importance of staying awake and being ready. This is not advice for crisis moments, but a call to perpetual, normative readiness, regardless of circumstance. After all, for Christians living in the time of resurrection and the defeat of death, every moment is lived on the edge. Watchfulness or wakefulness is here not a defensive or preventive posture, but heightened attentiveness, attuned both to the signs of God’s presence and power, as well as the signs that the powers of this world are doubling down.

Like the people in Noah’s day, or the men in the field and the women grinding meal, the owner of the house might have chosen a different course if he had known a thief was in the neighborhood, but none of them knew. So, too, Christians do not know, cannot know, and are not supposed to know when the Lord is coming. This is a condition we are to embrace, not attempt to overcome. Watching and readiness are not meant to be switched on and off according to perceived need. These are, in fact, the disciplines to which Jesus calls his disciples more than any other as the end of his ministry draws near. You’re living at the end, so stay awake and watch. 

What might this mean? In Matthew 28:1-7, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, two of the women who follow Jesus from a distance during his trial and execution, come to the tomb at dawn on the Sabbath after his death. Mark tells us they come to anoint his body for burial, but Matthew says nothing of this motive. The angel who rolls away the stone from the tomb knows they have come to look for Jesus (28:5), who had announced that he would rise after three days. They have come to watch it happen. They are rewarded with a front row view of the empty tomb and, moments later, a meeting with the risen Lord himself (28:8-10). They have put themselves where they can see what God is doing. They are watching, and they are ready!   

The vocation of modern disciples is still to watch for the signs of God’s presence in power, especially as revealed through the cross and the resurrection, in healing the sick, standing with the broken and suffering, bringing sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. In the final parable of this sermon, Jesus tells his disciples that the Son of Man/Judge is present among precisely these (25:31-46). This is where we, too, go to see what God is doing.