Connections 12.01.2019: Being Alert

Matthew 24:32-44

This week we begin a unit called “Advent and Christmas Goals.” Our lesson text calls us to be ready for Jesus to come again.

During Advent, we anticipate the coming of Jesus in at least three ways. First, we anticipate the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas. Second, we anticipate the coming of Jesus to us here and now. Third, we anticipate the coming of Jesus when, according to God’s purposes, all will be as it should be.

Our lesson text focuses on the future coming of Jesus, when he will fully establish God’s kingdom. It calls us to be ready for Jesus to come again. It calls us to be alert to Jesus’ return.

I’ve noticed that alertness breeds alertness. Once you practice being more alert to something, you’ll become more alert to lots of things.

I need to offer a caution, though. Being alert to Jesus’ second coming comes with its own dangers. In particular, people can become so focused on Jesus’ return that they think of little else. We sometimes describe such folks as being so heavenly-minded, they’re no earthly good.

But that’s not the way it should work.

What can and should happen is that we become so alert to Jesus’ future coming that we come to see Jesus everywhere. As we start looking for Jesus to come again, we find that he is in many ways already here.

In other words, as we become more alert to Jesus, we’ll find him all around us. We’ll find him especially in other people, and especially in those who need our help (see Matthew 25:31-46).

Romans 13:11-14 (another of this Sunday’s lectionary readings) points us in this direction when Paul says, “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy” (vv. 11-13).

I’ve had people ask me, “Don’t you think Jesus’ second coming is closer than it’s ever been?” I always answer yes. But they usually mean that they think things are worse than they’ve ever been. I mean that time moves forward, so Jesus’ second coming is closer than it’s ever been in the same way that I’m older than I’ve ever been.

Still, it’s coming. He’s coming. We should be alert to it.

But we should also be alert to whatever we need to do to love God and to love people right here and right now.

Discussion

  • What other images could we use that would make the same point that Jesus makes with the image of the fig tree (vv. 32-33)?
  • What do you think Jesus means by “this generation” (v. 34)?
  • Given that Jesus says that no one except the Father knows when Jesus will return, why do some people keep claiming to know? Why do some people take seriously those who claim to know?
  • What does it mean for us to be ready for Jesus to come? How do we show that we’re ready?

Reference Shelf

Verses 37-41 do not come from the Markan source. In vv. 37-39 the suddenness of the second coming is compared to the rapidity with which Noah’s neighbors were overwhelmed by the flood (see Gen 6:5-24). Other early Christian writers also used the story of the flood as a warning to their audience (2 Pet 2:5; 3:6). 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.

The parable in vv. 42-43 involves a story of a man who has an unexpected break-in at his house in the middle of the night. Notice how the word “hour” (v. 44) and the word “day” (v. 42) are simply paralleled with the phrase “watch of the night” or time in v. 43. Verse 44 makes explicit what v. 32 made implicit—Jesus is talking about when the Son of Man or Lord is coming. Since no one knows the timing, one must always be ready. The image of the thief in the night suggests a sudden coming at an unexpected time when most are likely to be unprepared. The reference to the watches of the night coupled with the reference to sleeping point the narrative forward to the Gethsemane story and what will happen to the disciples beginning at that juncture. As Myers says, it is as if Mark and the First Evangelist are both saying to their own respective audiences, “We all live in a Gethsemane moment in human history; we must not be caught napping like the first disciples were when the crucial moment arrived.”

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 455-56.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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