The Fourth Sunday of Advent December 21, 2014
239, 29, 552, 54
But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
In the name of Jesus Christ, who declares in the Book of Revelation, “Behold, I am coming soon!” (Revelation 22:20), dear fellow-redeemed:
Scripture speaks of three “comings” of our Lord Jesus Christ: past, present, and future. The past coming of Christ refers to His first coming at Christmas when true God also became true man in order to suffer and die for the sins of the world. As the angel told the shepherds, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
The present coming of Jesus refers to His coming into our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “I pray that out of His glorious riches He may strengthen you with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:16-17 NIV). Martin Luther captured the essence of these verses perfectly in his Christmas hymn: “Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child, make thee a bed, soft, undefiled, within my heart, that it may be a quiet chamber kept for thee” (TLH 85:13).
The future coming of Jesus refers to His return to judge the world at the end of time. Jesus spoke of His return in His Olivet Discourse, Matthew 25: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him” (Matthew 25:31).
With these comings of Jesus in full view, Scripture constantly urges us to be ready to receive Jesus. Think of the preparations you would make if you were expecting a visit from a powerful head of state or famous celebrity. Would you clean your house? Would you buy a new wardrobe? Would you go to the barber or beautician? Yet, the visitation we await is from Almighty God. And the preparations we make to receive him have nothing to do with cleaning the house but rather “cleaning” and preparing our heart. In our worship services we often sing with King David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).
Repentance. Faith. Readiness. These are the attributes we are to display as we await the return of our Savior. But these are by no means new themes. John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, prepared the way for the Lord’s first coming with a message of repentance. Repentance was also a constant message of Jesus during His ministry. We read in Matthew 4:17, “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (NIV).
Repentance is often defined as sorrow over sin coupled with faith in God’s forgiveness, and this is true. But the New Testament word for repentance, metanoia (μετανοία) in Greek, is even broader in scope. It literally means “to change one’s mind.” A change in attitude. A change in perspective. A change in priorities and choices and lifestyle.
In more practical terms, repentance means turning away from sin to serve the living God. Repentance means saying “No” to lusts and temptations and “Yes” to pleasing the Lord. Repentance means discounting our personal righteousness and counting upon the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. Repentance means that we no longer waste time but, as the Bible says, we “redeem the time” as we wait for our Savior’s return (cf. Ephesians 5:16, Colossians 4:5).
As we think about the call to repentance—“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”—it is the nearness of the kingdom and the nearness of the Savior’s return that lends such urgency to our preparation. We can certainly hear the urgency in these words of the Apostle Paul as he wrote of the second coming of Jesus: “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here” (Romans 13:11-12). The same urgency is portrayed in the words of Matthew 25:13, “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (NIV).
But this same sense of urgency applies not just to seeing Jesus in the hereafter, but also to receiving Jesus as Lord and Savior in the here-and-now. As the letter to the Hebrews says: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 3:15, 4:7). Today. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not some ill-defined time in the future. Today is the day to heed the invitation of the Gospel and to believe in Jesus Christ, because there will be no opportunities to believe after death. There will be no opportunities for discipleship after Jesus returns to judge the earth.
I was a reminded of this urgent opportunity yesterday in a vivid way. While touring the Lakeland Funeral Home cemetery grounds, I told myself: “Look at all those grave-markers and headstones.” Hundreds and hundreds of people buried—those who lived long lives and those whose lives were cut tragically short. “What did they do with the time they had?” I wondered. “How many knew Jesus as their Lord and Savior.” The date of birth and date of death are not the most important pieces of information on a grave-marker. No, the most important information on a grave-marker is the dash between the dates—a dash that ultimately represents our lives and the opportunities we’ve had to repent and believe the Gospel.
Today’s text from Matthew 24 focuses on the second coming of Jesus. The theme of our message is “Jesus is coming. Are you ready?” We will be ready if we heed the three lessons of our text: I. The Lord’s second coming is certain, II. The exact date and time of His return are hidden, and III. We must, therefore, be spiritually vigilant and alert.
The Apostles’ Creed declares of Jesus: “He ascended into heaven and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from there He shall come to judge the living and the dead.” The Nicene Creed says much the same: “And He shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.” By using one or the other of these creeds, we confess our belief in the second coming of Jesus virtually every Sunday.
But does the prospect of Christ’s return instill a sense of urgency or immediacy in our lives? Did we think about the Lord’s return when we drove to church this morning? Did we consider all that Jesus has said about the end-times when we passed signs for one-dollar coffee from McDonalds or reasonable auto insurance from Geico? Did we think, “Today might well be the day my Lord returns in glory to judge the earth—the day I see Him face to face?” Does the prospect of the Lord’s return fill us with joy and longing, or perhaps, a sense of regret at all the earthly things we might miss? Does the whole matter of Jesus’ Second Coming seem a bit, well, outdated and irrelevant?
I bank at Fifth-Third bank. The closest Fifth-Third Bank to me is in Lakeland, though a year ago I saw a sign posted on Cypress Gardens Blvd in Winter Haven: “FIFTH-THIRD BANK COMING SOON.” I have no idea how many times I’ve driven past that sign since. “Coming soon. Coming soon.” So I asked the teller at the Lakeland Branch, “When will the new Fifth-Third Bank be built in Winter Haven?” She shrugged and said, “I’m not sure, but it should be soon.”
Admittedly, at times we may feel the same about the “Coming Soon” of Jesus Christ. His last recorded words to us in the last book of the Bible involved this very promise. In Revelation 22:7 (NIV) He says: “Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book.” In Revelation 22:12 (NIV) He says, “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.” In Revelation 22:20 (NIV) He says, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’”
The writers of the New Testament echoed this sense of urgency and immediacy. The apostle Paul wrote in Romans 13:12, “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here” (NIV). We can virtually hear the last tick-tock of the cosmic clock and feel the nearness of the alarm sounding—in this case the final blast of the trumpet of God. Simon Peter wrote in his first epistle: “The end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4:7 NIV). We read this in the first epistle of John: “Dear children, this is the last hour” (1 John 2:18).
Yet, nearly two thousand years have passed since Jesus said, “I am coming soon” and since Paul, Peter, and John wrote respectively “the day is almost here, the end is near, and this is the last hour.” Does Jesus know how to tell time? Has He perhaps forgotten us? Has He changed His mind? Has He found something better to do? The more time that passes, the more often we are tempted to think that Jesus isn’t coming back at all.
The conditions of the world in which we live can make us feel the same way. There are unspeakable crimes. Natural disasters. Floods. Famines. Earthquakes. Pestilences. Terrorism. Poverty. Economic ruin. False christ’s, false prophets, and false promises. Ironically, many of the very things Jesus said would be characteristics of the “Last Days” are the things we often construe as signs of God’s indifference or even cruelty—as if God had abdicated His throne or had gone on a permanent vacation. I can still remember the issue of Time magazine that had “GOD IS DEAD” printed in large block letters on its front cover. I can still remember the first Russian cosmonaut who said after orbiting the earth, “I saw no God up there.” Skepticism from an unbelieving world is to be expected.
The apostle Peter wrote: “First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:3-4 NIV).
If the return of Christ is uncertain, why bother with preparations? Why go to church or have family devotions? Why worry about godly living? If the return of Jesus is uncertain, then the reality of the here-and-now is all we have and the here-after is only a joke. So, let’s eat, drink, and be merry; for tomorrow we may die. And when we do—if Jesus is not returning—what’s the big deal? Think of it as a sweet and simple “fade to black.”
The people of Noah’s day thought in exactly the same uninformed way—eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. They were unconcerned and no doubt laughing at the 450 feet long and 75 feet wide and 45 feet tall ark that Noah and his sons were building on dry ground—laughing even as the first drops of rain began to fall, laughing until the flood of judgment suddenly swept them all away.
It is important that we who await the Lord’s second coming are certain of that second coming. For when we doubt His return, we not only deprive ourselves of great joy and anticipation, we also place our preparation for His return in jeopardy.
Today, I could stand here—sounding too much like that Fifth Third Bank teller—and tell you that Jesus will return. But it is much better to let Jesus tell you himself. And he does so four times within the few verses of our text. Verse 37: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” Verse 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.” Verse 42: “Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” And finally, verse 44: “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect Him” (NIV). In each of these verses, the Greek verb for “come” is in the present tense. In other words, Jesus is coming. No ifs, ands, conditions, or hidden clauses.
Indeed, the second coming of Jesus is so central to our faith, hopes, and Christian expectations that twenty-four of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament speak of His return. Here’s but one example among many, 1 Thessalonians 4: “For the Lord Himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore, encourage each other with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4: 16-18 NIV).
The return of the Lord is so certain that the Bible links it to the historical certainty of three past Biblical events: the creation, the flood, and the ascension of Jesus. In other words, if the creation happened, the return of Jesus will happen. If the flood happened, the return of Jesus will happen. If the ascension of Jesus happened, the return of Jesus will happen. “Men of Galilee,” said the angels at the ascension, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11 NIV).
But when will Jesus return? There is nothing wrong with asking this question. Believers have asked it for centuries. In Revelation 6, even those who have died for their testimony of Jesus are pictured as asking this question, saying, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood? Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer” (Revelation 6:10-11 NIV).
The best answer to the question of when Jesus will return is the biblical answer, and the biblical answer is: “at any moment.” Yes, Jesus said “I am coming soon” two thousand years ago, and that “soon” has now stretched over two millennia. But here is the difference. On the day Jesus spoke the words of our text, Tuesday of Holy Week, He told His disciples about things that would happen before His return. These things include deception and the appearance of false christs, wars and rumors of wars, great earthquakes, famines, and pestilence—things that are all as commonplace as the six o’clock news. They have all happened and are still happening with the increasing intensity and frequency of birth contractions. Therefore, the return of our Savior could be at any time.
Jesus Himself urged us toward this conclusion when he said in Matthew 24:32-33, “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door” (NIV).
Do we know the exact date and time of the Lord’s return? No; although I had to chuckle when I noticed the way in which I labeled this sermon file on my computer: “JESUS IS COMING 12-21-14.” On the other hand, he could come 12-121-14. He could come at any minute. It’s precisely because we don’t know the date and time of Christ’s return, only the certainty, that Scripture urges us to constantly watch. The verbs used in verse 42 —“therefore keep watch”—and in verse 44—“so you also must be ready”—are both present imperatives. The sense is that of an urgent, ongoing watchfulness and readiness. Keep on watching. Always be ready. But how do we do that?
We certainly don’t do it by taking a lawn chair outside and staring into the sky. The angels chided the disciples for that sort of behavior at the ascension, remember? “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?” And the apostle Paul chided the Thessalonians for much the same thing when they quit their jobs and stopped paying their mortgages and became busybodies—all under the pretext of waiting for Jesus to return.
Jesus Himself illustrated proper watchfulness and readiness in the two parables that follow today’s text: the Parable of the Ten Virgins and the Parable of the Talents.
What do these two parables teach us? That we should not fall asleep spiritually. That we should not think “Oh, I’ll always have one more day or one more hour.” That we should keep our faith fueled with the Word of God so that its flame does not burn out before the Lord returns. That we should expect the return of Jesus at any minute.
Yes, Jesus is coming. Are you ready to receive Him? May our response be that of the Christian Church through the ages: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20). Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.