We’re continuing in our look at Matthew 24, where Jesus is answering his disciples’ question about (a) when the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, and (b) when Christ would come, and the signs of the end of the age. (If you’re just joining us, see the previous four posts for the full story.)
If you were wondering whether we’d ever get to the personal return of Christ, today’s the day. I mean, that we get to it in the text of Matthew 24. Because we won’t know the day. Or the hour. Which, if we’re being honest, is the but I’m not looking forward to about the return of Christ – the whole “being startled” thing. I’m not good with it.
That’s why I don’t like watching horror movies. It’s not the violence or gore that bothers me – I can sit through a good dismemberment as well as the next person – but it’s the jump-scares that freak me out. I can’t handle being startled. Yet that, says Jesus, is how it will be with his return. Whereas the destruction of Jerusalem would have warning signs accompanying it, not so with ninja Jesus:
Matthew 24:36 But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
Even Jesus didn’t know at the time. Only God the Father. So don’t bother speculating, just be ready. That’s the essence of the rest of this chapter, and much of the next. It’ll be just like the flood coming upon an unsuspecting world:
Matthew 24:37-40 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
Take note of what happens to the people who get taken away by the flood. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? File that thought for a second, and read on:
Matthew 24:40-41 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
People going about their daily business. Suddenly one gets taken, and without Liam Neeson to talk them through it. And just like it was with Liam Neeson’s daughter, being taken is not a good thing, if the previous verses about the flood are any guide. In other words, in this scenario I want to be Left Behind. Sorry, Tim LaHaye. And sorry, Larry Norman. This text isn’t about a secret rapture of the church. And if you’re not convinced, look at Luke’s version of this saying, where the disciples get to ask a follow-up question:
Luke 17:35-37 Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.” 37 “Where, Lord?” they asked. He replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.”
Not even Liam’s very particular set of skills will do you any good there.
However, the point of these two images is not to provide material for speculative end times novels, but to urge us to keep watch:
Matthew 24:42-44 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
We don’t need to ‘translate’ this parable to our culture, because we still have inconsiderate thieves who don’t usually phone ahead so you can be ready with your favourite golf club. But we have to remember that this is in the days before home and contents insurance simply replaced your stuff; and where thieves were just as likely to steal your next meal as your flat-screen TV. The consequences were more serious.
So I think that if Jesus were telling this story today it’d go like this: if the authorities had known where and when a terrorist attack would be, they would have staked out the place with special forces and stopped their attack. So, too, you must be alert – but not alarmed – because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you don’t expect him. Don’t lose focus; keep watch!
But what does that mean, exactly? How are we to keep watch? Can you be a bit more specific, Jesus?
Matthew 24:45-51 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ 49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. 51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Although there’s a delay, it could happen at any time, so make sure your behaviour is always appropriate and faithful. Act responsibly, so that if Jesus returns at any point, you won’t be ashamed of what you’re doing.
Twenty years ago, I worked in an office where our receptionist had an interesting approach to work whenever the boss was away on a business trip. She took two hour lunches. She went shopping at Coles next door at 11am – even bringing the trolley back and parking it next to her desk for the rest of the day. She had no shame with the rest of us. However, one day the boss returned from interstate a day earlier than expected. A classy guy, he never said anything. He just very deliberately moved the shopping trolley out of the way, and then back again, like a gate, every time he had to speak to her. I think she got the message.
Jesus is telling his followers to act all the time as though he were returning at that moment. Just because there’s been a bit of a delay – OK, so far nearly two thousand years – doesn’t mean we should get complacent.
To think about
What should being ready for the unexpected return of Jesus look like for me?
How ready am I? (Or is my shopping trolley still parked next to my desk?)
In the next story, Jesus gives us some further ideas on what he means. We’ll look at that tomorrow.