If Only We Had Known – December 2, 2007
Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44
December 2, 2007
Today we consider that part of the Advent celebration that doesn’t get much recognition. As I’ve mentioned before, Advent has three emphases. The anticipation of the birth of Christ; the celebration of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – including the ministry of John the Baptist; and this one, the recognition of Jesus’ promise to come again into this world – the second Advent. And, as I said, this is the one that is forgotten most often.
We’re not forgetting it. And as we consider today “the Second Advent of Christ,” we are looking at this passage from the 24th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. This chapter has often been called “The Little Apocalypse.” And as I said a few weeks ago, that name comes from its similarity to the “larger” Apocalypse in the Bible. That being, of course, the book of Revelation. In fact, that was the original title of that book. In Greek, it was “Apocalypsus” – “The Apocalypse.”
When we use that word, “Apocalypse,” we are referring to a type of writing that was meant for people who were under some kind of oppression. The intent of that writing was to give the people hope in dark times. Apocalyptic writing contained a lot of symbolism. It used images and references that only the readers would know. It was sort of like an “underground newspaper.”
An apocalyptic writing would often contain prophecies of the future. But not always! Sometimes the writer would be referring to people and events which existed at that time. And sometimes it’s difficult to know which was which. That’s the case with the book of Revelation. It’s sometimes hard for us to know for sure which prophecies there were referring to the immediate future of the those people, and which were talking about the end times.
Well, in the case of this “Little Apocalypse” in Matthew 24, there doesn’t appear to be any doubt about that. It seems clear that Jesus is referring to the “end times” or the “last days.” And that would make sense, since that’s what the people asked him about.
At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus was with his disciples at the Temple in Jerusalem. And his disciples were looking around at the various parts of the Temple, making comments about it’s beauty and it’s lavish architecture. They were “good Jewish boys” they were certainly proud of the Temple and its significance in the life of the people! And Jesus tried to respond to their observations in a way that would put the Temple – that building – in perspective with the whole of God’s kingdom. He said to them, “You see all of this, do you not? Truly I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
Just imagine how shocking that must have been for those people! Something that substantial and that central to their faith, must have seemed permanent and maybe even indestructible to them to them. In November of 1994 I stood in the observation deck of the World Trade Center, thinking that same thought. Those buildings seemed so strong and solid. I remember thinking about that first bombing attempt in 1993, and it occurred to me that that those terrorists were trying to bring those buildings down. That almost seemed “other worldly” to me. And I wonder if these men thought the same about Jesus’ words.
They didn’t know it at the time, but Jesus was actually predicting the future that day. He was referring to actual events that would occur some 40 years later. In the year 70AD, the Romans would finally tire of all the Jewish rebellions, and Titus and the Romans Legions would descend upon the city and utterly destroy it and the Temple itself. On that day, literally not one stone was left upon another.
Perhaps Jesus’ description of that event seemed to those people like he must be talking about the “end times.” It seems that way because later they came to him “privately” and asked, “What will be the sign of your coming and the close of the age?” That’s the point at which Jesus launched into this “little apocalypse.” He told them about the signs of the end, and what it would be like in those days. Then, in chapter 25, he followed up with some parables of the coming of God’s kingdom.
Now, there are so many things we could talk about here. There are many, many opinions and interpretations about the end times and Jesus’ coming again into the world. There have been many books written on the subject, including the “Left Behind” series, which was very interesting and a good read – if you’ve got the endurance! But I’d like us to focus in on one of those statements Jesus made that day.
One of the recurring themes we find in many of the New Testament references to the “Second Advent,” is that Jesus will come again when people least expect it. For instance, Jesus uses here this metaphor of “a thief in the night.” And that imagery is also used by some of the other New Testament writers. That metaphor speaks to us of the unexpectedness of Jesus’ coming. They will say in that day, “If only we had known.”
It’s that unexpectedness that I’d like us to remember today. Jesus spends the first thirty some verses telling about events and signs, but then he stops and says, “But of that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. That’s one of the most important things to remember. You know, there are those who occupy themselves with thinking about the end times. There are those who try to develop time lines, and to spell out what needs to happen for the time to be fulfilled. And you know, that’s all well and good. There are certainly worse things we could be spending our time thinking about. But we need to remember that no one knows, not even the Son. It’s ok to speculate, but when we start making predictions, we’d better be very careful.
Do you remember Y2K? Were people crazy about it around here? Lots of people had that time pegged as the time for Jesus’ return. I was just talking to my brother-in-law the other day. I was telling him about all my power failures at my house in Kansas, and I was saying how I was hoping to pick up a Y2K generator cheap – after the fact! But it never happened. I guess people decided to keep them! But I remember those days leading up to Y2K. I remember one guy on the radio who was touting Y2K products – bottled water, dehydrated food, generators, and even gold currency. And I remember how he told people they buy all this stuff, and at the end of his pitch he said, “they could pay with a credit card.” Which was funny to me because he was often telling people how all the computers at all the banks were going to crash! If they paid with credit cards, how was he going to get his money. (Did he know something we didn’t know?!)
Now, don’t get me wrong! I’m not saying we shouldn’t be giving some thought to the coming kingdom of God, or even considering the signs of the time. We are! In fact, that’s the point of Jesus’ words. Those are things we should be thinking about. And maybe we Presbyterians don’t think about them enough. Sometimes I we think we feel like it would be inconvenient for Christ to return. We might find our selves quoting the last words of the Bible, saying, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus, but not quite yet.”
I’m glad for Advent and this chance to think about the “second advent.” We should strive to see our lives in terms of the big picture of God’s kingdom – as it is now among us, and as it is to come in the future! Otherwise we will be the unprepared ones. Otherwise, we might be the ones who will say, “If only we had known.”
As we consider all of that, I want us to think about this other metaphor Jesus uses here. (Or is it a simile?) He tells them it will be as it was in the days of Noah. He describes that, saying, “…They were eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage, until that day…” In that description, there is a sense of the unexpectedness of that event. That also the theme of some of Jesus parables. Remember the parable of the wealthy landowner. I’m talking about the man how had insufficient space in his barns for all his “stuff.” So he built bigger barns. And when all was to his liking he said to himself, “Self, you have everything you need. Take your leisure. Eat, drink, and be merry.” And that has since become a cliché meaning “Living without a care, when perhaps you should have a care!”
You see, the unpreparedness that Jesus is talking about here is more than just unexpectedness. This is more than just “If only we had known.” He’s telling his disciples that when he comes, people will not just fail to be ready in their minds for that event, they will fail to be ready in their hearts, as well. In that day, it will not only be that they didn’t “give a thought” about his coming, it will also be that they “did not care!” And do you see how that’s worse?
When we think about this sacrament, we often talk about how we are to prepare our hearts before we partake. And that’s good. We need to take time and do that. Well now it’s Advent, and we are talking also about being prepared for Christ’s coming again into the world. Well, I think it’s so important to take time to prepare for that as well.
We used to have a joke in which we asked, “Do you know the difference between ignorance and apathy?” And the answer – “I don’t know and I don’t care!” Well, Jesus, (as well as the other New Testament writers) warns us against living our lives in a manner in which we don’t know or care.
Friends, God wants us to know. And he wants us to care!! He wants us to know of his presence in this sacrament. He wants us to care about the importance of living our lives in his kingdom and his presence. And he wants us to know that Jesus is coming again, and he wants us to look forward to that day with anticipation – just as we look forward to the celebration of Christmas. Let us do that. Let us prepare our hearts and minds for this sacrament, and for the return of the Savior we know through these elements.
Lord, help us to focus on you as we move to this time of communion. Help us to remember your promise to be with us in these elements, to be with us to the close of the age, and to come again into this world. Help us to think of all these things during this Advent time, and throughout our lives. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.