TEXT: Matthew 24:36-44

It was just a couple of years ago, at the turn of the millennium, that once again the world was supposed to end. People had it proved from the Bible, from Nostradamus, from Astrology and all sorts of places...and if it wasn't the end of the world as the religious world expected, it was surely going to be complete chaos as the Y2K bug hit everything from our computer systems to our refrigerators. And here we all sit.

We get worked up about the end of the world at fairly predictable intervals: Whenever we move into a year with nice round numbers, whenever tensions escalate in the Middle East, whenever somebody decides to write a popular book about it like the current Left Behind series. It's easy for some to get caught up in it, and it's easy for others to shrug it off, and yet both of those responses are ignoring some significant parts of Scripture. That Jesus will come again to herald the end of the age is a part of the Christian faith. Our hymns sing of it, our liturgy proclaims it, and Jesus says that it is so. Jesus also says that it's going to be a surprise, so don't waste your time and money on those who say they have the date figured out.

One of the main places that Jesus himself deals with this subject is in Matthew 24. We've read a part of it, but the whole chapter is devoted to the topic. One important thing for you to know about this chapter is that nobody knows exactly what it means. If you have read or are reading the Left Behind books, please just read them as fiction. They are very, very loosely based on one kind of interpretation of some Bible passages. They are not God's revelation of how things will be. At almost every clergy gathering I have been at over the past couple of years there is always some conversation where a pastor is lamenting that people in the congregation have been reading Left Behind and scaring themselves. So please remember, those books are fiction.

I don't believe, however, that Matthew 24 is fiction. I think Jesus is giving His disciples some important information, and I think the information is important for us as well. To me, the least important part of the information is the part about exactly how and exactly when all of these events take place...which is a lot of what is in the first 35 verses. This topic was one of the sermon topics requested from the congregation, and the question I received had many concerns.

Some of those were technical questions like "Will Jesus actually come down on a cloud into Jerusalem?" and "How is it that everyone in the world will be able to see Him?" For those type of questions, I have no answers. Fortunately, I don't believe that leaving those questions unanswered does any harm to our faith. The mechanics of how Jesus comes again are God's problem to figure out, and it will be the way God designs it to be whether I happen to have guessed rightly or not. Somehow, when it happens, everybody...dead and alive...will know it. The physics of that is up to God.

The critical question in what I received, however, didn't deal with the outward mechanics or timing. The critical question asked, "When Jesus comes the Bible says always be prepared because we don't know when He is coming. How do we prepare ourselves?" No matter what you do or don't believe about the second coming of Jesus, that is the question that matters. We know it's the question that matters because Jesus spends the next entire chapter answering it with a series of parables. Not just the end of chapter 24 but all of chapter 25 is devoted to telling stories that show what it means to be ready for Jesus' return.

The answer really shouldn't come as a surprise to anybody. Jesus says, it's like being on the job while the boss is on vacation...except nobody knows exactly when the boss will be back, could be tomorrow, could be next week or even next month. What are you going to do? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that what will please the boss is for her to come back finding you doing what you are supposed to be doing. If the boss shows up after being gone a week, finds you on a coffee break and not one thing on the "to do" list done....well, you can forget the Christmas bonus.

When the boss left, she gave you work to do, and that's what she wants to see when she gets back...whenever that is. When the teacher steps out of the room for a minute, leaving the class working on an assignment, he wants to see that work has progressed when he returns. When parents go out and leave the kids with chores to do, when they return they want to see the chores done. Loving parents and teachers and supervisors all understand and cut you some slack if you broke your arm and the cat died and real life troubles kept you from getting everything done. But wise parents, teachers, and supervisors can also see straight through flimsy excuses from someone who just didn't try.

We are prepared for Jesus' coming when we are engaged in doing God's work, and that work is not at all mysterious. The prophet Micah said it well before Jesus' first coming. "What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." Jesus combines two Old Testament passages into what he says is the core of all the commandments of God: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself." Then, when Jesus is about to ascend into heaven after his resurrection, he reminds the Disciples that this knowledge of God's will is not something they should keep to themselves. He tells them to go into all the world and make disciples. Tell everybody about the love of God, so that they, too, may be ready and prepared when the Master returns.

If you look through the parables at the end of chapter 24 and through chapter 25, you will see that nobody gets blasted on God's return for denying the Virgin birth or messing up a baptism. God does not hold people to the finer points of the law or of doctrine...we create that burden for ourselves. God is concerned about the big picture, and we see from the parables what sorts of things make God upset.

In the first parable, the servant who is called "wicked" is found beating his fellow servants, and then getting drunk instead of doing his job. In the second one the foolish maidens are the ones who don't take responsibility. Instead of taking time to bring oil for their lamps, they simply hurried out to have a good time, figuring they would just sponge off somebody else if their oil ran out. In the third parable, the one who is condemned is the one who hoards his master's resources, and in the last one, the condemned are those who refused to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and visit the sick and imprisoned. Pretty basic stuff.. Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Some version of those sentences is the answer to almost any question you can ask about God's will for our lives. We often make it so much more complicated than it is. I'm not saying it's easy to live that way...just that the concept is simple. It may be fun to debate the ins and outs of theology and Biblical interpretation. It can be fascinating to explore the Bible for hidden codes and symbols, and it is incredible to imagine what it would be like to actually see Jesus returning on the clouds. But if we spend our time immersed in all of that, we will discover that we are neglecting the things that God actually expects us to be doing–not just on the last day, but on every day we walk the earth...loving God, loving others, and teaching everybody who will listen to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

That's how to prepare for the second coming of Jesus. That's also how to prepare for the anniversary of the first coming of Jesus to Bethlehem. The first time Jesus came, those who were doing other things missed the event entirely. It was the humble shepherds who were able to see that the night was lit up with angels. It was a simple young woman with no claim to fame other than her total love of God who was chosen to carry God in her womb. It was the people concerned for justice, and the people who gave to the poor who saw clearly that God's Messiah walked among them.

The great and mighty King Herod, who history tells us was as cruel as the day is long, couldn't see what had happened under his very nose. The religious leaders, all caught up in guarding the faith rather than spreading it, didn't just miss the event. They came to believe the devil was among them. "It is by the spirit of the devil that you cast out demons," they said to Jesus. And finally, just like King Herod, they decided it was the best thing for everybody to try to kill him.

How you live and how you love determines what you will or will not see. If you love God and love your neighbor as yourself. If you do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God and teach others to do the same, you will be completely prepared for the second coming of Jesus. You will also be prepared for the coming of the babe in the manger. But perhaps most importantly, you will be prepared to realize that you don't have to wait for either Christmas or the second coming to see Jesus, for you will already see Him everywhere you look.


© 2002, Anne Robertson

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