Formations 11.27.2016: Paying Attention

Matthew 24:36-44

Stained Glass Window of Christ’s Coming at St. Matthews Lutheran Church in Charleston, South CarolinaCo. (Wikimedia Commons)

Stained Glass Window of Christ’s Coming at St. Matthews Lutheran Church in Charleston, South Carolina Co. (Wikimedia Commons).

As we enter Advent, we don’t only remember Ancient Israel’s hope and longing for God to rescue them. We also recognize our own hope that Christ would come as a fuller part of our world.

In this week’s passage, Jesus tells his disciples that nobody—not us, the angels, or even himself—“knows when that day or hour will come” (v. 36). After remembering Noah’s building an ark while everyone else continued to eat, drink, and marry, Jesus talks about two men and two women. While the men work in the field and the women grind at the mill, one of each pair is taken and the other is left (vv. 40-41).

When Jesus warns us to “stay alert! … be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know” (vv. 42-44), it seems unclear how to respond. The people who appear most prepared for Christ’s coming don’t seem to acknowledge the great mystery behind it. In fact, I’m inclined to hear his command to being alert as a call to separate. Noah lived righteously in an ark while the rest of the world carried on in its living.

Yet Noah was never swept away. Living in an ark, he sought to continue life in the world. And in Jesus’ story, the men and women left are able to be with the Human One, who has come more fully into the world. The man was at the plow and the woman, at the mill. They were in the middle of their daily work.

It may be we’ve heard that preparation for Christ’s coming requires separation, but Jesus imagines something else. Instead of predicted schedules and clear-cut designations of who will be included, Jesus calls us to a much harder preparation. We should diligently keep at the plow, the mill, or whatever it is we do. From the work of hope that Jesus began, we continue working in the expectation that it will one day be complete.

Discussion

• Where do you see the need for Christ to come? Where do you see Christ present?
• What are the challenges of the mystery surrounding Christ’s coming? How might this lack of clarity also be positive?
• Where can you find the work of Christ in your daily tasks and activities?

Reference Shelf

On Waiting

From Matthew’s perspective, the day and hour of the parousia and the end of the age with its judgment are unknown; and there will be no prior signs to alert one to get ready. It is inevitable, however; and one must be perpetually ready by keeping one’s eyes on the job and not on the stars. The five parables that follow expand on this theme from different angles: (a) the unready generation in the days of Noah surprised by the flood (24:37-41); (b) the unready householder surprised by a thief (24:42-44); (c) the faithful versus the wicked servant set over the Lord’s household surprised by his sudden return (24:45-50); (d) the prepared versus the unprepared maidens who greet the bridegroom who has been delayed (25:1-13); (e) the servants who are productive with their Lord’s resources versus the unproductive one (25:14-30). The sixth and last parable in this section shifts the scene to the final judgment day and depicts the separation of the nations using the imagery of sheep versus goats (25:31-46).

The concern of this discourse is quite practical for a community that lives in the time between the destruction of the temple and the coming of the Christ at the end of the age. God’s people must always be on guard against false prophets who either fan false expectations or offer false security and sidetrack them from the mission to preach the gospel to the world. Jesus’ prophecies concerning the temple were fulfilled as God permitted the destruction of the holiest of shrines. No one knows the time of the end of the age, however; and no one can rest secure. Therefore, the discourse emphasizes the need for individual preparedness and faithfulness to the commission to take the gospel to the world.

David E. Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament Series (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 241.

Taken and Left Behind

Prior to the flood, people were carrying on with all the normal kinds of human activities, including getting married right up to the point when Noah entered the ark. They knew nothing about and were totally unprepared for what was to come when Noah shut himself and his family up in the ark. Similarly, nonbelievers will be completely surprised and unprepared for the parousia of the Son of Man. Notice the use of the language “took them all away” in v. 39. This prepares for the language about one “taken” and one left behind in vv. 40-41. The “taken” ones are the unfortunate ones, swept away by judgment. The ones left behind or left standing are the fortunate ones, like Noah. Notice that there is one example involving men and one involving women, suggesting that judgment will affect everyone. The Matthean version involves two men in a field, while Luke has two in a bed. Grinding was a task usually done shortly before dawn. Whatever time of day is envisioned, the participants are unprepared for the judgment that overtakes them.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 455.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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