Advent 1: 1 December Matthew 24:36-44
Our passage begins with a saying found also in Mark, whom Matthew has been closely following (24:36; Mark 13:32). Matthew is about to expand Jesus’ final discourse which he found in Mark 13 with material he had in Q and which appears earlier in Luke (24:37-42; Luke17:26-36; and 24:43-44: Luke 12:39-40). Matthew will then continue to expand the speech through the rest of chapter 24 and then for another 46 verses in chapter 25. So our passage sits in the context of Jesus’ final speech, his last chance to address the important issues. Matthew will have been thinking, perhaps, of what might have been said, but the focus is doubtless on what needed to be heard is his own day (and, he might add, in every age!). That is also the context in which we find ourselves in the church year with the focus on advent: the coming of Christ, which begins with a focus on the final coming and flips back by the end to the first coming.
What do we do with the focus on the final, second coming of Christ? The opening verse of our passage re-centres our thought on God, even at the expense of subordinating Christ. It is not an exercise in christology, though that aspect is interesting and informative. It is an exercise in caution based in spirituality. The caution is against speculation through which people try to get knowledge-control of the future so that they can predict for others and themselves when and how the future will be. Not knowing is to face one’s vulnerability. Probably people of Matthew’s time were very aware of Christians who engaged in that kind of behaviour. Matthew makes considerable use of concepts at home in apocalyptic thought (like earthquakes and angelic interventions), so it is credible that he has apocalyptic speculation in mind and perhaps also the failed predictions at the time of the 66-70 CE war which led to the destruction of the temple.
The alternative is to accept that we are sometimes unable to control knowledge and need to trust. The opening saying is a dramatic way of reminding us that the main thing to know about the future is God! One could even argue that that is all we need to know - and then trust and live in openness to the same God here and now.
The passage assumes more than this. It assumes there is ‘that day’ to come. The ‘day of the Lord’ has prophetic roots. It is also a way of saying the future is God’s. It is God’s day! Traditionally it was thought of as a particular point of time in the future when God would intervene in history. Associated with it were hopes of deliverance, vindication, and the obverse: judgement. Amos attacked those who looked to it for their consolation while not addressing their injustices in the present and warned that the day of the Lord would be far from good news for them.
Judgement is a major theme for Matthew and Matthew’s tradition. Belief in a particular wind-up of history in this way is more difficult to sustain these days, but it stands firmly in the tradition and it asserts strongly: in the end, God, as in the beginning, God. It also asserts: in the end accountability and justice, a ground for hope; in the end peace among the nations.
The christology comes in strongly as the day is now also the day of Christ. For it is a Jesus-shaped God who is our hope. More than that, it is asserting: in the end: God and Jesus. Elsewhere Jesus spoke of the ‘day’ as one where he would share a meal again with his disciples. The context is hope and inclusion, a vision of a transformed world. This is a vision which we make our agenda and which feeds us in the eucharist, itself a symbol of the hope of reconciliation for all.
The story of Noah is a favourite for warnings of judgement and promises for vindication of minorities. Eating and drinking, marrying and being married, were not evil activities. Perhaps the thought is present that these were going on to excess, but that is not said. The point is that people were carrying on regardless. Perhaps Matthew is also thinking there should be restraint in these, given the possible impending dangers. That did motivate some to withdraw from marriage and sexual activity and live as eunuchs for the kingdom (19:12ab). Matthew makes a special point of countering those who would press this on everyone (19:11,12c). In the story of Noah the people were ignoring the warnings.
In 24:40-41 Matthew slips in a dramatic statement from earlier in Q (see Luke 12:39-40). It appears to reflect the idea expressed also in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, that when Christ returns those who are alive at the time will be caught up into the air to meet him. It is an image which has literal thinkers wondering about flight patterns, orbits and space travel. Even in early Christianity people would have been aware that these are images and so were happy to vary them or imagine the scene quite differently as long as the effect was the same. It is quite interesting that Paul continues in 1 Thess 5:1-6 by using the image of the burglar, as does Matthew here in 24:43-44. These will be apocalyptic motifs which will have belonged together in such discussions.
The point which Matthew is reinforcing is what he found already stated clearly as Jesus’ closing challenge in Mark 13: ‘Watch, because you do not know on what day our Lord will come’ (24:42; Mark 13:35). Don’t put your energy into speculation! Instead: ‘watch! be prepared! be on your guard!’ The instruction will be reiterated in the Gethsemane account where as well as being meant at a literal level, it becomes a challenge for all disciples.
Attentiveness to what is going on in relation to the big picture and the longer perspective is in deficit in our communities. Our imaginings about the realities of the future may or may not include points of time, but they can envisage both dramatic events and slowly spiralling dangers. The theology that God is in the end need not change. The same Jesus-shaped God of hope meets us from the future and lifts our gaze from our own preoccupation with eating and drinking, marrying and being married. These good things and the rest of life’s activities which make so many people very busy today conspire to produce a situation where people have or make room only for small thinking and limited horizons. They often prevent or subvert our watching. There will be tired people listening to your exposition who are in exactly this plight. Systems and structures press ahead above us and beyond us as we tread the pavement below and genuinely care for all the immediate concerns which confront us. Meanwhile things go on which affect economies and ecologies, relationships develop or break down among communities and nations, and it is a real struggle to get people to think beyond immediate causes and effects.
The watching is a dramatic way of speaking about God-connectedness. It is not very edifying if it is reduced to an exhortation not to misbehave in case you get 'caught with your pants down', as they say, when Jesus comes. It is about developing an awareness of what the God of the future is saying and doing in the present, to take a God perspective on the issues of the day and the future and to let that happen at all levels of our reality, from our personal lives to our international community, including our co-reality in creation. It is a stance nourished by the eucharistic vision of hope. It is taking the eucharistic table into the community, into the present, and letting it watch us and keep us awake to what is happening.
Epistle: Advent 1: 1 December Romans 13:11-14