You Must Be Ready

Advent 1A

Matthew 24: 37 44

Introduction

For those readers who do not know it, the Christian Year always begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, regardless of the date on the secular calendar. This particular Sunday begins a time of preparation obviously, in the first instance at least, for Christmas, the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. From the earliest times in the Church, Christians in some way or another, also set time aside to attend to the coming of Jesus Christ into their own lives: to make sure that they understood what this means, and the solemn obligations (as they saw them) of being Christ-bearers. In the same way, they took very seriously his teaching of his return, his second advent, and saw the whole of life as a preparation for this. The season of Advent keeps up this ancient tradition of the Church to help us to be ready at all times for this threefold coming of the Lord.

During this season of about four weeks (formerly much longer), while there is an underlying expectation of sorrow for sin and taking spiritual things for granted, there is, nevertheless, a corresponding theme of joy, of linking to the foundations of that joy which enables us to both receive and give. As a part of this there is an aspect of being cleansed so that we experience unimpeded freedom to go into God's presence. This side of Advent remains an essential ingredient. To repeat: being cleansed and made fit for God's presence within, before, and beyond us, is part of the Church's ancient practice of preparing for Christmas.

The text we will ponder can be a little startling and perplexing. However, the message is actually simple and intended by our Lord to encourage his followers down through the ages to remain firmly on the path he has led them; and not to leave it, even momentarily. So much can cause us to feel uncomfortable at not being entirely in step with trends and fashions in our contemporary society. It is easy to be diverted from the path along which Jesus calls us.

We start the Year of Matthew (Year A in the 3 year cycle) with our Lord focussing on his "second coming". By the time we arrive at Christmas, after four Advent Sunday readings from St. Matthew's Gospel, we will see the purpose for the sequence of readings chosen.

Some Notes On the Text

Verses 37 39

Jesus assumes his listeners would know very well the story of Noah before the flood (see Genesis 6: 9 22), in which the people were eating and drinking as usual, as well as marrying and building households. All these are legitimate and appropriate activities, provided one is not totally adsorbed by them. If one's sensitivity to hearing and obeying God's word is dulled by involvement in interests and pleasures, then one must accept the consequences. The people of Noah's time may have been aware of the evils of their time but they failed to see themselves as part of the cause. Jesus is saying, in fact:

"Up to the time when the Son of Man comes people will act in the same way as they did in the time of Noah."

This is something of a shock to most of us. We think the world will be converted when our Lord returns. He makes it very clear, it will not!

Adam Clarke in his commentary adds:

"The design of these verses seems to be that the desolation should be as general as it should be unexpected."

Verses 40 and 41

Jesus gives two illustrations of people going about their lawful occupations together in apparently exactly the same way. Yet suddenly one will be taken into the fullness of God's Kingdom and the other left out.

Verses 42 and 43

"Therefore keep watch," says Jesus, "because you do not know on what day your Lord will come." In other words: "Do not allow your minds to be conformed to the spirit of this age. The people have forgotten what God is like, and live accordingly. Be on your guard not to be swept along doing what everyone else is doing."

An early 19th century commentary captures what obviously seems to be the level of personal "mobilisation" our Lord calls for:

True Christians ought to live like watchmen. The day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. They should strive to be always on their guard. They should behave like the sentinel of an army in an emeny's land. They should resolve by God's grace not to sleep at their post. That text of St Paul's deserves many a thought: "Let us not sleep as do others; but let us watch and be sober." (1 Thess. 5: 6)

True Christians ought to live like good servants, whose master is not at home. They should strive to be always ready for their Master's return. They should never give way to the feeling, "My Lord delayeth His coming." They should seek to keep their hearts in such a frame, that whenever Christ appears they may at once give Him a warm and loving reception. There is a vast depth in the saying, "Blessed is that servant, whom his Lord when He cometh shall find so doing." We may well doubt whether we are true believers in Jesus if we are not ready at any time to have our faith changed into sight.

J. C. Ryle. 1911

Verse 44

Our Lord has made himself quite clear, but he chooses to highlight yet again his very deep concern:

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

Not only must the followers of the way of Jesus "keep watch". They must also go out of their way to "be ready". Usually we remember (when prompted) the "keep watch" injunction, but give less thought to the being "ready". This is a now matter, and not just a goal to work towards. It is rather demanding and calls for a high priority to be given to knowing his teaching and implementing it in our own situation now. As St Anselm said,

"Not to know the Scriptures is not to know Christ." True knowledge of the Scriptures, especially the Gospels is at an all time low. How can we be "ready" if we do not immerse ourselves in constant listening to Christ the Word of God. It is more than good advice; it is a command: "you also must be ready" see to it!

It is this emphatic and persistent challenge of Jesus, which had led to the formation, over two millennia, of so many types of Christian religious communities, fraternities and institutes  for the purpose of guiding their members towards the daily practice of true discipleship. Each has its Rule, which is always the essence of the Gospel message conveyed in an ordered way for its members to apply themselves daily with devotion and humility, to the Lord's call to holiness. If that jars with us we need to fix what is at variance with his teaching. He requires in us a degree of concentration and perseverance, which is genuinely demanding. Fortunately those who respond to his call discover that they are never alone but are called to walk the way with him and to grow closer and closer in readiness for sharing eternity with him.

Conclusion

In our age of computers and rapid change, it would be easy to slip into a frame of mind, which sees this Gospel text as irrelevant and of no interest. Many non-Christians absolutely love a small selection of the sayings of Jesus, but this type of teaching doesn't get a mention. With the disciple, it must be different!

This reading calls each individually, following the example of King David, to embrace a personal Rule of Life; in our case, embodying key concepts of Jesus' teaching, and to pursue it consistently. Many have found it helpful to write it down and to review it from time to time, always seeking to be brought closer to God. We close with one very simple Christ-centered example taken directly from the Book of Psalms:

Psalm 27: A Psalm of David

1. The Lord is my light and my salvation;
Whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life;
Of whom shall I be afraid?

3. Though an army shall encamp against me,
My heart shall not fear;
Though war should rise against me,
In this I will be confident.

4. One thing I have desired of the Lord,
That will I seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the Lord,
All the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the Lord,
And to inquire in his Temple.

8. When you said, "Seek my face,"
My heart said to you,
"Your face, Lord, I will seek."

14. Wait upon the Lord;
Be of good courage,
And he shall strengthen your heart;
Wait, I say, upon the Lord!

For an introduction to the year of the Gospel of Matthew click here.

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