Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"WATCH ALWAYS BECAUSE THE SON OF MAN IS COMING AT AN UNEXPECTED HOUR."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
When shall Christ come back to earth? In the brokenness that characterizes this earthly life, so many of us would love for Jesus to come back today; it will mean the end of tears, the end of loneliness, the end of pain. The more difficult our troubles, the more we long for that great day. Others of us are quite enjoying the life weíre living; thereís too much yet to do, so many things yet to enjoy. And: the thought that Christ might come back before coffee can make some of us a bit squeamish; weíre not so sure weíre ready to meet the LordÖ.
Can the Lord Jesus really come back today?? Jesusí answer is emphatic, beloved: Yes, He can. "Watch," says the Savior, "for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming." Thatís exciting, comforting, for those who long for relief from lifeís troubles. And itís a warning for those who are not ready for the Lord.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
WATCH ALWAYS BECAUSE THE SON OF MAN IS COMING AT AN UNEXPECTED HOUR.
1. His coming is unexpected.
Did any of you, brothers and sisters, get out of bed this morning with the thought that maybe today would be the Big Day of Christís return? Letís face it: few of us, if any, expect Christ actually to appear physically in our midst this morning. Like the disciples, we put the return of Christ into the future sometime, and we Ėas they did- that before his arrival some sign should appear that now Jesus is nearly here. So we hear in our midst expressions like: the Lord has told us things will get worse. Or: we live in the last days, look at how things are getting worse around us, and theyíll only get more worse still.
Did you know, congregation, that this sort of language has been uttered for nearly 2000 years already? But in the big picture of things, are things in our world today worse than things were during the Second World War? Is Australia today a worse place than France at the time of the French Revolution? Is there more unrest in the world today, more evil, than there was at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire four centuries after Jesus spoke the words of our text? My point is that you can make an argument that the world is today a better place than any previous time in history. Think it through: in what period of history would you rather live than today Ė and then keep in mind the peace we have in our society, the medical benefits science offers us, the comforts of houses and telecommunications and transportation and education, etc. Things getting worse? Itís largely a question of not being adequately familiar with other time periodsÖ.
But more importantly, congregation, Jesus does not say that things must get worse before He returns. In our text He is adamant that His return will be totally unexpected; there will not be signs indicating that Heís coming is 2 minutes or 2 hours or 2 years away. "Watch therefore," He says, "for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming."
That statement on Jesusí part, congregation, summarizes His instruction in the vss 29-51. The disciples Ėyou will recall- had drawn Jesusí attention to the buildings of the temple (vs 1), and Jesus had responded by saying (vs 2) that "not one stone shall be left here upon another." In reaction to that announcement about the coming destruction of the temple, the disciples had asked the Lord two questions in vs 3. The first question was this: "Tell us, when will these things be?" and the second, "What will be the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age?" In the vss 4-28 Jesus had answered the first question, the one about when the destruction of the temple would occur; said Jesus: where there is a carcass, there the vultures invariably come. In other words: if Godís covenant people in Jerusalem become spiritually dead, covenant wrath will definitely come on the city, then the temple will be destroyed, no stone left on another. We listened to that message last week. The theme of vss 29-51 is the disciplesí second question: "what will be the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age?" Jesusí answer in these verses is summarized in vs 42: "watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming."
We say: but certainly there are going to be some signs indicating that Jesus is about to come back. Notice then vs 36. Jesus says that even He Himself does not know when He will come back! "But of that day and hour no one knows, no, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only." Then the Lord goes on to speak about the days of Noah (vss 37ff). For 120 years Noah had been building on his ark and in so doing told the people every day anew that the flood was coming. But, says Jesus, when the big day came the people were not ready. Each was doing his normal, everyday thing, eating and drinking as on any day, courting and marrying like on any day. To the minds of the people, the present was comfortable, the future looked stable, nothing was going to change. Nothing spectacular happened to suggest that destruction was upon them Ė until the heavens opened and the rains fell, the earth opened and water boiled up from the depths. Suddenly, surprisingly, while they were enjoying their lunch, while the bride was vowing her allegiance to her groom, suddenly, surprisingly, the end was upon them, the flood a deadly reality. Were there no signs that a flood was coming? O yes, out in the paddock stood this ark, and Noah kept saying that a flood was coming. But the people got so used to that that it meant nothing to them anymore. There was no sign that hit them between the eyes and woke them up the day before the rains came.
So it will be, says Christ, on the Last Day (vss 40f). Everybody will be doing his normal, everyday thing. A sign to hit us between the eyes and wake us to His return tomorrow or next month or next year Christ will not give. Like an accident, suddenly, He will be there. Two will be in a car; one will be taken, the other left. As on any other night, all will go to bed; one will be taken, the rest left. As on any other morning of any other day, the men will bid their wives farewell to go to their daily work Ė and fully expect to do a full dayís work and return home in the evening. And while they work, the one will be taken, the other will be left. As on any other day, the mothers will be working the household mill to grind grain for bread; one will be taken, and the other left. Suddenly, unexpectedly, while all are busy with that common, everyday activity, Heís there.
"What will be the sign of your coming?" the disciples had asked. Jesusí answer was pointed: there will be no sign telling you that My coming is around the corner. In the words of our text: "You do not know what hour your Lord is coming."
For us who long for Christís return, this is wonderful news. A great tribulation before Christ comes back? Wars and rumors of wars to appear first? Earthquakes and famines and pestilence? Weíd rather skip all of that, rather have Christ appear this morning. Thatís exactly the Lordís promise, beloved; He can come back today, there does not have to be first these frightful afflictions.
But, I hear you ask: what then of Jesusí words in vs 29? Does He not speak of the sun being darkened, of the moon not giving its light, of stars falling from heaven, of the powers of the heavens being shaken? And in vs 32, the parable of the fig tree? Do these verses not mean that there will be signs; Christ will not come back until these dreadful things have come to pass?
Indeed, beloved, the text speaks about a darkened sun and a rain-fall of asteroids. And as we read it we hear in these words sounds of great calamity, of possibly a comet crashing into the earthÖ.
But that, brothers and sisters, is not Jesusí point. Itís a fundamental rule of Scripture reading that one must compare Scripture with Scripture. And what do we find in Scripture? We find instances where the sun was darkened, where the moon did fail to give its light. I think, for example, of Ex 19, the account of the Lordís arrival on Mt Sinai. We read the following: "there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain.... Mt Sinai was completely in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire" (Ex 19:16ff). That is: Godís coming on Mt Sinai was accompanied by startling conduct in creation. The presence of the thick cloud and the smoke meant for the people on the ground that the sun and moon were darkened. Israel did not see God on the mountain, and yet they knew full well who it was that had come down to them; given the actions of creation this had to be none other than the Creator Himself. Hence also the fear of the people. And that was the point of the thunders and lightnings and smoke on Sinai; these all displayed that God was there, that God had arrived.
This notion of creation accompanying the coming of God and so announcing who it was that actually was arriving is clear also from the prophecies of Habakkuk. The prophet relates that God came from Teman (and that turns out to be the area of Mt Sinai), came with judgments for the enemies of Israel. As God came with His judgments, we read, "the mountains saw You, and trembled...; the deep uttered its voice.... The sun and moon stood still in their habitation..." (3:10f). Just as at Mt Sinai, so also here: creation did extra-ordinary things when God came; at His coming creation was moved to tell the world Who it is that was arriving. And then we are to note that creation does not announce Godís coming before He actually arrives; no, in both Exodus and Habakkuk it was the Lordís actual arrival that was made clear by the responses of creation. The thunders, the lightnings, the writhing of the mountains, the pause of sun and moon demonstrated not that God was coming tomorrow, but that God had come now.
It is in the light of Old Testament prophecies as these, beloved, that we are to read the Lordís words in Mt 24. Jesus says emphatically in our text that He comes unannounced; there will be no signs that hit us between the eyes informing us that He is about to come. But when He does come, creation itself will respond to His coming so that all the world will know who it is that is arriving. The day will come that the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light and the stars will fall from heaven. That will happen not as an indication that Christ is now about to come back; no, these things will happen as Christ is coming back.
So, beloved, the references to the sun being darkened and stars falling from heaven are not to be understood as signals that tell us more or less what time it is on Godís divine clock. If that were the case, there would be a contradiction between vs 29 and our text in vs 42. That, of course, cannot be. With the help of the Old Testament we can understand something of Jesusí words in vs 29, and conclude that we have to let vs 42 stand exactly as it reads: "you do not know what hour your Lord is coming." That is the more so because of Jesusí words in vs 36: "of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only." It is not for us, then, to try to be wiser than our Lord Jesus Christ; as He did not know what time it was on Godís clock, so we cannot know Ė and therefore may not try to know. Thatís also the message of the parable of the thief in vs 43: there is no thief that announces beforehand when heís going to come to rob your house. Vs 44: "the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect."
Again I hear you say: what then about the parable of the fig tree? For Ėvs 32- the Lord does tell us to learn a lesson from it, doesnít He? Says Jesus: "When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near." And Jesus continues with the lesson of the parable: "So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near - at the doors!" (vs 33). Surely that means that there are some signs indicating when He will come back!
Yet there cannot be a contraction in Jesusí words, beloved. There is a contradiction if you understand the words "all these things" in vs 33 to be a reference to the darkening of sun and moon, and the falling of the stars in vs 29. And then youíre stuck, because then Christ canít come back yet for the sun hasnít yet been darkened, and the stars havenít yet fallen from heaven, and therefore I know the thief will not come tonight. But that canít be correct because Jesus said the thief comes unannounced; we donít know when our Lord is coming. Thatís why the wordís "all these things" in vs 33 canít refer to the darkening of the sun in vs 29.
But if you understand Jesusí reference here to be to His words in the vss 4-28, you have no contradiction. Then the meaning is this: the disciples (and we all) are to learn the lesson from the terrible judgments that will befall Jerusalem. What the lesson is? The same as can be learned from the tender shoots of the fig tree: there is something else coming. If tender shoots on a fig tree mean that more is coming - summer, when the tree is in full leaf- then the outpouring of Godís wrath over Godís unbelieving Old Testament people-by-covenant means that more is coming, namely, that Godís wrath must be poured out also over all in the New Testament who reject the Christ. Says Jesus to His disciples: the people of Israel heard the gospel as Jesus proclaimed it in their midst for three years, and refused to accept it. After the outpouring the Holy Spirit on Pentecost the apostles continued to proclaim the gospel for many years more, but so many in Israel kept rejecting it. The consequences of that rejection could not escape them; "where the carcass is, there the vultures will surely congregate." Jesusí point: the principle of that is true not just for Jerusalem, but around the world. The gospel of the kingdom will be preached to all the nations, but many will reject it. As Israelís rejection of the gospel meant disaster for Jerusalem, so the worldís rejection of the gospel guarantees disaster for the world. When you see judgment on Jerusalem, says Jesus to His disciples, learn from this that judgment is definitely going to come on all who reject Christ; Christ is not too far off to pour out His wrath. He is near, at the doors. And suddenly, Heíll come through the door, be there, with His judgment over all who reject Him.
There you also have the meaning of the word Ďimmediatelyí in vs 29. Jesusí point with this word is not that the events of vss 29ff will occur Ėtime-wise- "immediately" after the great tribulation outlined in vss 15-28 Ė so, directly after the fall of Jerusalem. Rather, the events of vss 29-51 will occur in the same line as the tribulation poured out over Jerusalem; the term captures that there is continuity, not in time but in pattern.
So, brothers and sisters, we are back to that delightful conclusion: "You do not know what hour your Lord is coming." We get no sign that it is nearly 12 oíclock on Godís clock, and get no indication either that itís not yet 12 oíclock. Do not, then, insist that a great tribulation must happen first, or that signs must first appear in the skies. Rather, when you are busy doing the dishes, when you are out with your fiancť, when you are sitting in church, suddenly, surprisingly, the Lord will be there. And that will be the end of the tears and the crying and the pain of this broken life! So, beloved: persevere! It is quite possible that relief and the crown of glory come today!
To this glorious gospel the Lord adds a consequence:
2. We are to watch always.
Jesus, brothers and sisters, knows human nature. So many years have passed since Jesus spoke the words of our text, and He still has not returned. So we get tired of waiting, and the intensity of the hope of Jesusí expectation dissipates. And with the disappearance of the expectation of Jesusí return, we end up seeing only the endless the brokenness, the months and years of loneliness and pain and trouble before usÖ. So Jesus gives us an instruction: "watch therefore."
"Watch." The way the term is used elsewhere in Scripture shows us that Jesus would have us to concentrate sharply on the matter of His return. Paul told the elders of Ephesus to watch. They had to watch, he said, because fierce wolves were going to enter the flock over which these elders are overseers, and it is their responsibility as overseers to protect the flock in Ephesus from the dangers of these wolves. Wolves, we know, are cunning, and so itís imperative that the elders be alert, keep their eyes open, have their attention focused on the job so that they will be able to pick out a wolf as soon as one enters. This mindset of concentration, vigilance, alertness is what Paul catches in his command to "watch".
This is the instruction the disciples also receive. Jesus tells the disciples Ėand so you and me- to "watch", and thatís to say that the disciples (and we) are to be alert, to concentrate on the coming return. The disciples are not to assume that because Jesus did not come back in the last 20 years He therefore will not come in the next 20 years. Rather, they need to consider that each day has a 50% possibility of Jesusí coming; maybe itís Yes and maybe itís No. Just as the elders in Paulís instruction may not assume that because no wolf attacked the flock last week, therefore no wolf will attack this weekÖ; no, the elders need to stay alert, watchful. Or to use Jesusí parable: just because no thief broke in last night gives no guarantee that no thief will try tonight. Thatís why we bolt the door every night; thatís the concrete implication of watching.
To drive the point home, the Lord told another parable Ė vss 45-51. The faithful and wise servant was watching, was ready for his masterís return, and consequently did faithfully what his master had instructed him to do; he gave the household food at the proper time. The wicked servant was not watching, did not think that the master would return shortly, and therefore was not ready; he used the opportunity to live selfishly, blatantly disobeying the instructions his master left behind. The attitude of that faithful servant to the return of his master determined what he did; he watched, expected the master any moment, and so carried out his daily work faithfully; he was ready. Similarly, the attitude of the wicked servant to the masterís return determined what he did; he did not watch, did not expect his master any moment, and so used the opportunity to live it up; he was not ready. At the return of the master, the one received blessing, the other judgment.
Our Savior comes again, comes without announcement. We long for His return, and so we watch, always expecting Him at any moment. We know: the fact that He didnít come yesterday is no guarantee that He wonít come today. In fact, the fact that He didnít come last century is no guarantee that He wonít come today. We long for Him, and so we resist the urge to get cynical about Jesusí word that He comes at any moment. We long for Him, and so tackle the challenges of a new day with the conviction that today may well be the last time we do this job, today may well be the end of our loneliness, our pain, our tears, and the beginning of the New Jerusalem!
Our Lordís instruction, brothers and sisters, gives us a glorious perspective. And the very glory of its perspective means that those of us not ready for the Saviorís return need to make it their business to get ready Ė quickly. We understand it now: we get no warnings, we get no striking signs; suddenly, unexpectedly, while weíre surfing the net, while weíre out holidaying, while weíre marrying and giving in marriage, suddenly, unexpectedly, He will be there. Do not say: Heís delaying His coming; Iíve got time yet to pull up my socks. The evil servant of the Lordís parable thought that too, and the master of that servant came on a day when he was not expecting him, and his master "cut him in two and appointed him his portion with the hypocrites," where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Watch, beloved of the Lord, and stay alert, vigilant to receive the crown of glory. "You do not know what hour your Lord is coming." There is 50% chance it could be today. Amen.