Thanksgiving is over, the leftovers should be all gone by now, and we can all focus on the countdown to Christmas. For those of you who haven’t noticed, there only 15 days left before Christmas. In much of the Christian world, this time of year is known as “advent.” The word “advent” means “coming”, and this is the time of year that many celebrate the coming of the Messiah.
Scripture, though, actually talks about two “comings” of Christ. The first, of course, was when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But, as the Hebrew writer points out, “Christ…will appear a second time…to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:28)
Waiting for the Messiah was a difficult thing for the Jews because they didn’t know when it was going to happen. Promises were made by God, but hundreds of years went by and there was nothing. And yet, they continued to wait.
Just as the Jews didn’t know the actual date of Jesus’ first coming, we don’t know the actual date of his second coming either. Promises have been made by God, but centuries have gone by, and there’s been nothing.
Right now, though, most of the world is focused on the first coming of Christ. And there is always much to do to prepare for Christmas
And so, I’m curious, are you ready for Christmas? Have you put your tree up yet? Are all the decorations in place? Have you purchased all the gifts that you intend to give? Are you ready for the seven to ten pounds that the average American will gain during the coming month? Are you ready for the family that may be coming to visit? Are you ready for the traffic you will encounter on Skibo Rd. for the next couple of weeks? Are you ready?
And it may be that you’re not ready at all. Maybe you haven’t even started your shopping. Your decorations are still in a box up in the attic. Let me let you in on a little secret — Christmas is going to come whether you get ready for it or not. How many times have I heard folks say, “It can’t be December already – I’m not ready!” Where did we ever get the idea that Christmas will come only if we make all the proper preparations?
The truth is, Jesus came into this world when people weren’t ready for him. And Jesus said the same thing would be true of his second coming as well.
Our text this morning is found in Matthew chapter 24, and I encourage you to turn to that chapter and read along with me. At the beginning of this chapter, the disciples had a few questions to ask Jesus. In verse 3, one of the questions they asked was this: “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3). Like many of us, these disciples were curious to know exactly when that will happen.
But Jesus said, beginning in verse 36, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
“Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
“But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Matthew 24:36-44)
Jesus uses three brief vignettes to make his point about the second coming. The first vignette is the story of Noah and the flood. We’re all familiar with that story, how the world was evil and God decided to bring about a flood that would destroy the world. But we usually read that story from the perspective of Noah. God told Noah to build an ark, then Noah put the animals on the ark, then God saved Noah and his family. And from that perspective, it’s a very happy story.
Jesus, however, looks at this story from the perspective of everyone who died in that flood. He reminds us that in the days of Noah, people were living life as normal. Now you might expect Jesus to describe the world in Noah’s day in terms of gross immorality and wickedness. But Jesus didn’t do that. It’s not because there wasn’t plenty of evil in the world (there was). But instead, Jesus focused on the fact that people simply weren’t ready.
They were eating and drinking and getting married and celebrating. And suddenly, the rains came. And you can imagine the panic as the waters climbed higher and higher. I’m reminded of scenes from Hurricane Katrina where people climbed onto their rooftops to escape the rising waters. But in the days of Noah, there wasn’t any ground high enough to escape. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be on those rooftops, realizing that the only safe place to be was on the boat of that man you’ve been making fun of for years? All those people had plenty of warning, but they simply weren’t prepared for what happened.
And Jesus said that when he comes again, it’s going to be like that again. Life will be going on as usual, with people doing what they normally do, buying and selling, working and playing, just doing ordinary things. And suddenly, without warning, Jesus will return. And when that happens, some will be ready, and some will not.
In the next vignette, Jesus presents two pairs of people. In both scenes, the two people depicted are working hard at their jobs. Again, we probably would have written it differently. We might have said, “One man was at worship; the other was at a bar. One was taken and the other was left. One woman was serving food to the homeless; the other was gambling away her money at a casino. One was taken and the other was left.
But no, Jesus simply says, “Two workers are in a field; two women are grinding grain.” In each case, one is received into God’s kingdom and the other is not. Because one is prepared and the other one isn’t.
In the last vignette, Jesus describes his second coming with the image of a thief breaking into a house. As he points out, a thief doesn’t call you and say, “By the way, I plan to break into your home tonight; I hope that’s convenient for you.” No, thieves come when you least expect it. And if you’ve ever been the victim of a burglary, you know that feeling that “I should have been more prepared. I never thought this would ever happen to me, so I didn’t do as much as I could have done.”
The point of all of this is that we need to be prepared, because Christ will return. Now I want you to see the importance of what Jesus is saying here. The disciples asked Jesus about the date of the Second Coming, but Jesus said that’s the wrong question. The more important question is, “What should we be doing while we’re waiting for his return?”
You see, far too many people are concentrating on when Jesus is coming back. Go channel-surfing this afternoon and you’ll find at least one televangelist who will gladly tell you, in a convincing manner, that we are now living in the times that Jesus talked about in scripture, that this world is going to end any day now, and you’d better get ready. And who knows – they might be right! But I have to wonder if these folks who claim to speak for God have read what Jesus said to his disciples here in Matthew 24 – “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (Matthew 24:36)
It’s nothing new. Men have been trying to pinpoint the date of Christ’s return for centuries. I love a quote I found from a preacher in the year 1666 when there was apparently a lot of speculation about Christ’s return. He said, “Every time a storm has hit this year the church was full of people waiting for Jesus.” Does that sound familiar? That was 350 years ago! But things really haven’t changed much over the centuries, have they?
Don’t get me wrong, I understand our curiosity, I understand our desire to know the exact day that Jesus will return. One Sunday after church, there was a mother who was talking to her young daughter. She told her daughter that, according to the Bible, Jesus will return to earth some day. Her daughter asked, “When is he coming back?”
Her mother said, “I don’t know.” So the little girl asked, “Can’t you look it up on the Internet?”
It would be nice if we could look it up on the Internet. If we knew the exact date, it would make things so much easier for us. And we would make sure that we are ready. If we knew exactly when Jesus was coming back, we would have everything cleaned up and ready. But we don’t know when.
But one thing we do know — Jesus is coming back again just as he promised. We just don’t know the date. And here in Matthew 24, Jesus calls us to be prepared. There are three words that I want to share with you this morning that I think describe our responsibility in view of the second coming.
We are to wait for Christ. In I Corinthians 1:7 (NKJV), Paul says that we are “eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Jews knew a lot about waiting for Christ. By the time Jesus was born, the Jews had been waiting for him for centuries. And sadly, Jews today are still waiting for the Messiah.
In fact, as part of their Passover celebration, the Jews drink four cups of wine, and the fourth cup is sometimes called “Elijah’s cup”. The reason it’s called that has to do with the promise made by God in Malachi 4:5, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.”
As the Jews waited for the Messiah, they believed that Elijah would actually come first to announce his coming, so they waited for Elijah, too. At Passover, the Jews will often leave an empty chair at the table along with a wine goblet. It’s prepared for Elijah just in case he shows up some Passover and needs a seat. And the Jews believe that one day he will show up, he’ll take that cup and drink it and he’ll say, “The waiting is over, the Messiah has come!”
And so, during a Passover meal, the youngest child in the family will go to the door and look out to see if Elijah is coming down the street. The family will sit at the table and wait until the child comes back and says, “I don’t see him.” But, every year, they truly expect for Elijah to come, and for the Messiah to follow.
When you know that background, it makes the story of Simeon in Luke 2 mean even more. Simeon was an old man who had the privilege of seeing baby Jesus in the temple. We read, “Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” (Luke 2:25-26).
Years before, God promised Simeon that he wouldn’t die until he had the opportunity to see the Messiah. And you can imagine how excited he got. That was something the Jews had been waiting for for centuries. And so, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, Simeon came to the temple to pray and to worship. And I would imagine, over that time, he had seen hundreds of families bring their children to the temple. And every time he saw one, he must have gotten excited, “Maybe this is the one.” But he continued to wait, and God eventually kept his promise.
There are times when it seems that life is about waiting. We’re all waiting for something. For some of you, you may be waiting for the return of a loved one from deployment. Others of you are waiting for a new job to start, or waiting to get into a new home, or waiting for the birth of your child. The list could go on and on. Like I said, we’re all waiting for something.
And the hard part is not waiting. The truth is, we’re often forced to wait, whether we want to or not. The hard part is waiting patiently. And the more anxious we are for something to arrive, the more difficult it is to wait for it. When you’re a teenager, it always feels like the day you get your driver’s license is forever away because you are so anxious for that day to come. Those of you who are students (or teachers) can vouch for the fact that the last month of school is always the hardest as you’re waiting anxiously for summer to come and school to be over with.
That’s why James writes in James 5:7-8, “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient.” I want you to see that the reason James had to say that was because the coming of Christ was something those Christians were so excited about, they couldn’t wait for it to get here.
If I were to say to you, “Be patient, tax season will be around before you know it.” That wouldn’t make any sense. You only have to wait patiently for something you’re looking forward to.
Which raises the question — are you eagerly looking forward to Jesus coming back? There are some places in the world where the answer to that question would be a given. If you go into a country where Christians are being persecuted for their faith, thrown into prison, tortured and killed, I suspect you would often hear those words, “Lord, come quickly.”
I’ve sat at the bedside of Christians who were sick and in great pain. They’re ready for Christ to return, they’re ready for the pain to be over. But let’s be honest, most of us aren’t in any hurry. Life for us is so comfortable that we’d just as soon Jesus wait a while. And if he does come, could he at least wait until after our vacation next summer because we’ve got some really big plans we don’t want to miss out on.
Let me say to you this morning, if the thought of the second coming of Christ doesn’t fill you with excitement, then maybe, just maybe, you’ve got your mind focused on earthly things just a bit too much. We need to wait for the second coming of Christ – with anticipation, with excitement, with patience. But we need to do more than just wait; we need to watch.
Jesus said, “Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming.” (Matthew 24:42, NKJV)
Different versions translate this verb, “keep awake”, “be alert”, “watch.” When Jesus says to watch, he’s not talking about watching the sky, looking for the first glimpse of his return. He’s talking about being on our toes, being ready. And I think we have a lot better idea now what Jesus meant by that than we did 15 years ago.
In 2004, the 9/11 commission made a report to Congress. They began their report with these words. “September 11 was a day of unprecedented shock and suffering in the history of the United States. The nation was unprepared. …. The 9/11 attacks were a shock, but they should not have come as a surprise.”
So, today, we have determined not to be caught by surprise again. The unofficial creed of the American Homeland war on terror is “Be Vigilant, Be Watchful, and Be Prepared.”
And that’s what Jesus is saying our attitude toward the second coming should be – “be vigilant, be watchful, be prepared.”
Again, Jesus said his coming will be like a thief. No alarms will sound; no newspaper headlines will announce it ahead of time. There will be no signs of his coming; we’re not going to be able to wake up that morning and say, “Today is the day.” The day of the Lord will come suddenly, and time as we know it will be no more.
I’m reminded of something that happened to some friends of ours in Oklahoma City in May of 1999. They had driven out of the state to attend the funeral of a friend who had died. While they were gone, Oklahoma City was hit by some of the worst tornadoes ever seen in this country. When our friends returned home, they found nothing but a slab. Their entire house was gone.
Their immediate response was to give thanks to God because if they had not gone to attend that funeral, they probably would have been in their house and counted among the 48 people who died that day. They would have heard the warnings that were sounded – Doppler radar is good at giving warnings — but they just weren’t prepared for that disaster.
Over the course of the next year, they built a new house, and it should come as no surprise to you that their new house has one very important feature that their old house didn’t – it has a tornado cellar, stocked up and ready for the next alert that is sounded.
They are watchful now in a way that they never were before. Our country is watchful now in a way that it never was before. If your house has ever been broken into, you are watchful now in a way that you never were before. You see, we only watch for events that we consider likely to happen. Nobody here is watchful when it comes to meteorites striking your home. No one here is watchful of blizzards in the winter – you don’t have your garage stocked up with snowblowers and shovels. We’re only watchful for things that we believe are likely to happen.
Which I think explains why most people aren’t watching for the second coming of Christ. To them, the likelihood of that happening is about as likely as getting caught in a blizzard in Fayetteville.
But for those of us who believe that what the angels in Acts 1 said is true – “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11), we know that we need to watch, we need to be prepared.
Unfortunately, though, I don’t know that most people have a very clear understanding of what we need to do to get prepared.
George Carlin once said, “I was thinking about how people seem to read the Bible a whole lot more as they get older; then it dawned on me . . they’re cramming for their final exam.”
And I can’t help but wonder if that’s how we think we should get prepared – study more, learn more. But let me give you another word that I think does a better job of capturing how we should wait and watch.
As we wait with patience for our Lord to come, as we watch and make preparation, we need to walk with our Lord.
Let me tell you about a couple named Jeff and Janell, and their first date.
Janell was expecting Jeff to show up, so she got dressed and she was all ready for the date. She waited patiently for an hour for him to show up, but he didn’t come. She finally gave up, figured that he stood her up… So she went to the bathroom, took off her makeup, slipped into her pajamas, grabbed a pint of ice cream and sat down in front of the TV set. After two hours had passed, guess who showed up at the front door.
It was Jeff. He took one look at her and he said, “I’m two hours late and you’re still not ready! (incidentally, the two of them are now married)
I think there’s a danger that we can do the same thing as Christians. We talk about the second coming of Christ, and we get all excited, and expectant, but after a while if Jesus doesn’t show up, then we figure he’s not really coming and we settle back into our easy chair.
But Jesus doesn’t call us to a passive, do-nothing kind of waiting. Jesus says that the way we live in this world as Kingdom people calls for an active faith. And we need to take a good look at how we’re waiting. Are we just passively waiting, or are we “walking with the Lord” as we actively await his coming?
Listen to these words of Peter: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God…” (2 Peter 3:11-12).
Do you see what Peter is saying here? He says that if you’re convinced that Jesus Christ is going to return, then it is going to make a difference in the way you live. If we are truly looking forward to the coming of Christ, we’ll take our focus off material things and put the focus on spiritual things.
I’m not just talking about things like “going to church”, I’m talking about kingdom living. I’m talking about living our lives every day conscious of the fact that Jesus is coming back and until that day comes, he has called us to live in a way that brings him glory. I’m talking about raising our children to know the love of God. I’m talking about maintaining a commitment to our spouses. I’m talking about living lives that are holy and pure. I’m talking about forgiving those who have wronged us. I’m talking about having a work ethic that demonstrates to everyone around us that we work for Jesus Christ. I’m talking about finding ways to help those who are in need – feeding the hungry, visiting the sick. I’m talking about sharing the good news with those who have no hope.
We don’t just wait for Jesus to return by sitting around and twiddling our thumbs. And we’re not content to follow the advice given on a bumper sticker you may have seen – “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” No, we walk with the Lord, living in a way that brings him glory.
John Wesley was once asked the question, “What would you do if the Lord was coming tomorrow?” and I like the answer he gave. He said, “I would get a good night’s sleep and wake up in the morning and go on with my work for I would want Him to find me doing what He had appointed me to do.”
I wonder how many of us are walking with the Lord in such a way that if we knew Jesus was coming back tomorrow, we’d go right on doing what we’re doing right now.
Maybe we need this reminder – Jesus is coming back. He promised he would. He said to his disciples, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:2-3).
This morning, may we truly wait eagerly for that day, may we watch to be prepared, and day by day, until Christ returns, may we make a commitment to walk with our Lord by faith.