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Advent 1 2019 – Coming, ready or not!

READING: Matthew 24:36-44

SERMON

I WONDER IF YOU EVER PLAYED “HIDE AND SEEK”?

Most kids seem to have.

You see it in movies too – the seeker counts to 20 and the hiders scramble for cover.

The key line is supposed to come after the counting to 20 – or whatever period is agreed upon by the players.

Do you remember what it is? “Coming, ready or not!”

Tom Wright tells the story of when he was a bishop living in this historical house. And one Saturday when the family were all at home having a lazy day – reading and snoozing, with lunch bits and pieces not yet put in the kitchen and a general muddle everywhere, the doorbell rang. He answered the door and found a delegation of 30 people from overseas who had arranged to visit the place for a tour.

He’d forgotten all about them.

He hastily took them to the garden to have a look around, and the family quickly charged around and tidied up.

You see it in adverts. Young people shoving all their things in a cupboard because the parents have arrived. And then of course the whole lot comes tumbling out on the floor.

Coming, ready or not?

Are we ever really ready for the Christmas visit by the interesting relatives we seldom see or cope with?

Jesus says in the last verse of today’s Gospel reading:

Mat 24:44  So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

Matthew 24 is all about readiness. So is Matthew 25. Because stuff is going to happen.

  • The destruction of the temple is foretold.
  • Signs of the end of the age are spelt out.
  • The abomination of desolation is discussed. The desecration of the temple foretold in Daniel 9, 11 and 12.
  • The coming of the son of man is explained.

Then comes a simple warning – learn from the fig tree. When its twigs get tender and its leaves come out – says Jesus – you know that summer is here.

Read the signs!

He continues: Mat 24:33  Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.

People get very excited about this business of the end of the world or the day of Jesus’ return.

We had a couple years ago called in our parish. He was a tough old bloke. And every time there was another earthquake, he would get so excited because the end was nearer – he would say. And she would say – but what about all those poor people!

We get excited too sometimes. Occasionally I hear it in peoples’ prayers. And there have been a whole lot of dramatic things recently haven’t there – earthquakes and rioting, unrest and chaos. Its not helped by the fires and floods too – and the climate change debate.

People would have got excited reading Matthew’s gospel too.

The prediction of Jesus about the temple was fulfilled. This happens within Matthew’s lifetime and probably before he writes his gospel when Titus and his legions destroy the temple. They separate stone from stone – because the gold from the roof melted in the fire seeped into the walls. As a matter of interest, the western wall that Jews pray at today was not part of the actual temple but an outer kind of retaining wall

Readers of Matthew 24 might still get excited about all the other things Jesus lists. All that apocalyptic stuff. BUT – then comes verse 36 – it’s so close, but no one knows!

Mat 24:36  “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

We’re in between the “right at the door” warning with all the signs – and this unknowing.

In between his first and second coming.

  • And that’s Advent in a nutshell.
  • It’s about coming. Celebrating a past coming and looking out for another coming.

We think mainly of Christmas preparation really. “Are we ready for Christmas?”

On the first Sunday of Advent when we’re all really thinking Christmas – there’s always a reading about getting ready for Jesus’ second coming.

  • We already know that he will come again. After all he tells us so.
  • Should we worry about when?

Verse 36 makes it clear: Mat 24:36  “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Jesus before his ascension in Acts 1 makes it clear again: Act 1:7  He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.

Like knowing the date of your death, this knowledge would not be helpful.

The best illustration is one Mark and I talked about this week. Take for example a deadline that you have. And exam or an assignment due. So often we put things off.

Cramming is not on.  You don’t have to cram to be ready for Jesus’ coming. You can’t.

Tom Wright reflecting on that day when the 30 visitors turned up writes:

You can tidy a house in a few minutes, if you put your mind to it. But you can’t reverse the direction of a whole life, a whole culture. By the time the ring on the doorbell happens it’s too late. That’s what this passage, and the next one, are about.

To quote Mark – that’s our St Mark, you don’t have to be burdened if you haven’t done enough.

  • You can finish an assignment just before the deadline.
  • When you know when the end comes – like an assignment date – you can fall behind early and try to catch up later.
  • You can cram for an exam. But not for his coming.

Our interesting old man in our parish who loved earthquakes didn’t see the second coming. He did die however. As Jesus said in John 14: Joh 14:2  In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.

Joh 14:3  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. Jesus came for him.

Did he have to wait on edge? Afraid? No. Neither should we.

Just don’t be caught out oblivious of the real issues in life. As in the days of Noah – says Jesus.

Jesus continues: Mat 24:37  As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Mat 24:38  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; Mat 24:39  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. Mat 24:40  Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Mat 24:41  Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

I don’t know if you remember the Left Behind series? I remember the movie “A thief in the night” years back.

Larry Norman had a song which is unforgettable:
“Life was filled with guns and war… I wish we’d all been ready.” Remember it?

The verses included “two men walking up a hill – the one disappears and the other’s left standing still…” Teenage kids ran out the hall when we watched the movie. People wanted to know whether it was helpful to have Christian pilots flying the planes they were in. In case they were taken and they were still on the plane.

The interesting thing about this passage is Jesus’ line: “As it was in the days of Noah”

And in Noah’s case – the flood took the unsuspecting sinners away?

It seems to be saying that when the son of Man comes, people will be taken away too.

Question: Are the good ones or the bad ones going to be taken away here? Commentators are divided on this. The context seems to hint at the good ones (cf. Math 24:31). But in Noah’s day the ones left behind are Noah’s team. That the bad guys were taken out by the flood. Others reverse it – and say that Jesus will take us away – like the Ark rescued those few families. Whicher it is, it sounds pretty serious.

We need to live in readiness – which is not a paranoia that we might die tomorrow so we’d better somehow cram – do last minute prep. Or be like Constantine who waited until just before his death in May 337 before he got baptized – as he didn’t want to be polluted by last minute sins and not get to heaven.

When you know when the end comes – like an assignment date or exam – the danger is you can fall behind early and try to catch up later.

When you don’t know – you have to be ready at all times. Like some of our spot tests in Hellenistic Greek or Biblical Hebrew.

HOW DO WE GET READY THEN?

Our Advent readiness is one part of this.

  • For me it’s getting ready for various services.
  • For many of you its shopping and gifts and sorting the house out BEFORE the 30 guests are at the door.
  • Pastors should be intentional in figuring out what our response to the traditional way of doing Christmas should be. How we should do things this time.

You have to be ready and watchful daily – not cramming for the exam.

It’s all about how you wait – especially when it gets hard. It’s not about perfection, but about attitude and relationship. About living in a way that honors God’s character and purpose. Abiding in him.

And don’t try to predict. V36 – is key – no one knows except the father.

As we wait the solution is to be intentional – choose to be different even if it’s just between now and Christmas as a starter. And beyond of course.

Call it Advent intentionality for now.

V42 is a second reminder to 36: Mat 24:44  So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

– you don’t know! Therefore keep watch!

  • Be ready for Christmas – sure
  • Be ready to move house – ask people moving house about that
  • Be ready for your wedding day – talk to those planning way ahead of time.
  • Be ready for exams (probably too late now – better luck next time)
  • Be ready to die because it’s only a matter of time. But do it without fear – Jesus said “in my father’s house are many rooms, chalets, mansions, baches…” – you choose the term.

The readiness is about being ready for what?  Good question!

Ready for the final accountability which we will face.

It’s not necessarily hell, fire and damnation – but a sense that we want to honour God in our lives in response to his love.

When we come to Jesus and are yoked to him, he walks with us through the challenges. And gives us rest when we need it (See Matthew 11).

But the preparedness is still our responsibility.

For homework (being prepared takes effort) – read the rest of Matthew 24 about the faithful and wise servant which follows. When the master comes, he needs to find him doing his job.The wicked servant is in trouble because “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.”. His fate is pretty grim in verse 51.

Read Matthew 25 to see what preparedness means.

Preparedness involves oil for your lamps – using your talents he gives – and caring for the people listed in the judgement scene where the goats and sheep are separated.

  • The foolish maidens are locked out. There too Jesus reminds his listeners: Mat 25:13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour
  • The man who doesn’t use what God has given him is sorted out in verse 30: – Mat 25:30  And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth
  • The goats hear these words: ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

Read the warning labels or face the dangers listed. Be alert. Be awake. Be ready.

No paranoia please. Just prayer, praise and preparedness.

Happy Advent.

Sunday sermon 22 March 2015 – sheep and goats

Reading: Matthew 25: 31-46

Sermon

We are reaching the end of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew’s gospel – just before he faces his Passion. Chapter 26 verse 1 says this: When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” (Matthew 26:1-2)

It’s a turning point. And it’s interesting that this last teaching – in Matthew’s gospel anyway – is this parable of the sheep and the goats.

Coming to New Zealand for us was a very interesting experience. I used to joke about it when asked whether I would consider ministering here: “Oh too many sheep” I would reply. “I’ve got my hands full already!”

And when we did arrive in Wellington, it was quite a while before we actually saw sheep. I remember my wife getting quite excited when it happened – on the way up the Hutt River Valley towards Kaitoke Regional Park – one of our favourites and the site of the set of Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings.

Sheep and goats.

This is a parable isn’t it? The comparison is in verse 32: “…he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

That’s about as far as the comparison goes. There is no other link – not even the tails up of the goats and tails down of the sheep (or is it the other way round?) give us anything to compare or relate to.

Here’s the fascinating thing. I mean you would want to be a sheep on that day would you not?

It’s time to resurrect my first song I taught the children here:“I just want to be a sheep, baa ba ba baa. I don’t want to be a goat, no no no no, cause goats have got no hope, I don’t want to be a goat.”

Of course we teach the children about following Jesus as good little sheep – but we seldom talk about the eternal punishment awaiting the goats. Eternal punishment! Unlike their time-out in the corner etc.

Some thoughts came to mind this week. Here they are.

  • Okay it’s just a simile about separation.
  • This will happen at the end of things? Yes/no?
  • The sheep and goats will coexist (as they often did grazing together) – which means that the sheep and goats are in the church together? Right?
  • Does that mean that some of you are going to the eternal fire! Right?

Well I don’t know. Have a word with the person next to you and ask them – is it you? Will it be you? What do you think of this parable?

(Pause for discussion.)

(That sounds like the last supper and Jesus trying to root out his betrayer – and they all say “is it I Lord?”)

HOW DO YOU READ YOUR BIBLE THEN?

  • Is this the last judgement?
  • Is the judgement based on ethical behaviour – and not faith or a lack of faith?
  • I thought we were saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2 says after all: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast (vss 8-9).)
  • So do you think Paul wrote Ephesians before Matthew wrote Matthew?
  • Did Paul even know what Jesus taught on this matter?

Well it’s more complex than that really. This parable or story is I mean.

  1. For one thing, the righteous in the account and the goaties have no idea when they did or did not do the right thing by Jesus – or to Jesus, when they were doing these things to the least of his brothers – or in the case of the goaties NOT doing these things. This needs some further thought.

Both reply to the King/Judge – “when did we do this/when did we neglect to do this”. They didn’t have a clue. (See verses 37 and 44)

Mat 25:37  “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?

Mat 25:44  “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

The sentences seem to mean the same – but they don’t of course. The first means that they could not make the connection between the good they did and Jesus. They are “righteous” – and the Son of Man knows this – because they have been doing these important acts.

The second is an excuse. As Bonhoeffer has pointed out – an excuse for doing nothing. It’s almost as if they are saying – “now it’s not our fault if we couldn’t identify you” – a bit like the undercover boss programmes on TV. “I’ve I’d known it was the boss in disguise I would have behaved differently.”

  1. Secondly, who are the intended recipients of these acts of mercy and kindness? The least – Christians only, or the least – all created people. What are the chances of the Christians being hungry, thirsty, a stranger needing hospitality, needing clothes, sick and needing help, and in prison and needing some love and care?

Surely the Christians should be employed, wealthy and self-sufficient? When you listen to first world Christians and how scathing they can be about the unemployed who are on benefits, you would assume that we are all prosperity cult members.

And prisoners – nah Christians stay out of trouble. Yeah Right!

In our western arrogance we often see these people (especially unemployed and in jail – maybe not so much the sick) as those people over THERE!!!! – To whom we can give a few dollars on line. Which I do to of course. If you haven’t given something to the people of Vanuatu, then I reckon you could be in trouble here!

Commentators and New Testament students debate as to whether the people we should be helping here in Matthew 26 are family (church family) or simply all created people who land in trouble.

Calvin says – focus on the church, but remember it also applies to others!

Like Paul in Galatians:

Gal 6:9  Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

Gal 6:10  Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

THE RIGHTEOUS

When Jesus refers to the righteous – he’s talking about people who have responded to faith – chosen to follow him – and do his will!

The trail goes back to the earlier verses in Matthew’s Gospel.

Mat 12:47  Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

Mat 12:48  He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”

Mat 12:49  Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.

Mat 12:50  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

He has this family identified by obedience really!

Go back further in the Gospel and you find this:

Mat 7:15  “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.

Mat 7:16  By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?

Mat 7:17  Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.

Mat 7:18  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.

Mat 7:19  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Mat 7:20  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

 Mat 7:21  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Mat 7:22  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’

Mat 7:23  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

Mat 7:24  “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.

And of course we go to another simile (comparison using the word “like” or “as”).

Building your house on the rock is about building your life on the WORDS of Jesus! (I remember preaching on that right here!)

The bottom line in this account is that the king is the Judge.

And we will give account.

And when we follow Jesus we should be doing Jesus stuff.

And the key identifier is probably this one thing: mercy.

Matthew 5:7 reminds us: Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

And Luke 6:36:   Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

It has no meaning – this Christian faith – if we are unchanged. Selfish. Like goats with our tails in the air so proud of ourselves – when we should be like sheep with our tails between our legs (or down anyway) because it’s not about us really.

So there it is.

Don’t end up with the devil and his angels. If you can’t get the idea of fire in your head, then listen to Jesus words to the reprobates: V41 – Depart from me….

Amen.