November 27, 2016 “Unexpected Arrival” – Revelation 22:8-21
November 27, 2016 – First Sunday in Advent
“You will be hanged next week at noon on a day you don’t expect.” So begins a famous puzzle. A judge sentences a prisoner to die during the next work week, but which day will be a surprise. When he hears the executioner’s knock on his cell door, he will not be expecting it. Like Jesus said in our Gospel lesson from Matthew 24 about His second coming, the prisoner won’t know what day his hanging is coming.
But the prisoner was a philosophy major gone bad. He sat and thought about it. If they were going to hang him unexpectedly one day next week, Monday through Friday, they could not hang him on Friday. If he got to Thursday afternoon and hadn’t been hanged, there would be only one day left. If it were Friday, it would be expected, not unexpected.
Thursday, then, was the last possible day to hang him. But what if he got to Wednesday afternoon without being hanged? He would again be expecting it, this time on Thursday. So they can’t hang him on Thursday either. That makes Wednesday the last possible day. The same reasoning eliminated Wednesday… and Tuesday… and Monday. The judge promised an unexpected hanging, but it couldn’t happen. He went to sleep and spent the next few days peacefully. That is, until Wednesday noon, when the hangman knocked, took him away and, unexpectedly, hung him.
Even after decades of thinking about it, philosophers, logicians and mathematicians still don’t agree about what is wrong with the prisoner’s logic. All we know is that his reasoning was faulty somewhere. He could not evade the unexpected hanging.
Matthew 24 teaches us that there will be no evading the unexpected coming of Jesus. In verse 36, He said, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” And at the end of the text, verse 44 says, “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Our Community Bible Experience reading this week from the last book of the Bible, Revelation, also talks about Jesus’ unexpected arrival. Near the very end of it all, chapter 22 verse 10, John the author is told by an angel “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book.” That is, let everyone be warned.
But then verse 10 says, “Let the evildoer still do evil and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.” In other words, despite the warning, everyone will keep on doing just exactly what they were doing before. Jesus’ coming will be unexpected and find each of us behaving the way we’ve already decided to behave. There won’t be any time for attitude adjustments or getting our act together at the last minute.
Jesus insisted His second coming would be unexpected. He said no one, not the angels, not even He Himself knows that hour, “but only the Father.” At that moment it was unexpected even for Jesus. I’ve been reading about the fascinating theological questions raised by that limitation of Jesus’ knowledge if He is truly God. Philippians 2 suggests Jesus “emptied” Himself of some divine knowledge when He became human, but what does that mean? For our texts, for the first Sunday in Advent, it boils down to this: If Jesus didn’t know the day to expect it, how could you or I possibly expect it? No one knows when Jesus is coming back. It will be unexpected.
You could quibble. You could say it’s only the day or the hour we do not know, but if you are clever enough you can figure out the year or the decade. Century after century, a few Christians have preceded on that premise. My mother told the story of an older cousin in her family who knew the Bible backward and forward and thought he could lay out a time-line for all the wars and cataclysms and discover the year Jesus would return. He figured on the Soviet Union as the evil power in the Battle of Armageddon. But obviously he was wrong. They’ve all been wrong, over and over for centuries. No one knows. No one knows the hour, or the day, or the year, or the century. It will be unexpected.
Back in Matthew 24 verses 37-39, Jesus taught that the unexpected hour would be like that of the flood in Noah’s time. People were going about their daily business, eating, drinking, getting married, and suddenly the flood arrived and “took them all away.” Only Noah and his family were left safe in the ark.
Here at the end of Revelation in verse 12 Jesus says He is “coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.” Then in verses 14 and 15 He talks about dividing the righteous who will “have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city” from the unrighteous and liars who will be on the outside like unruly dogs.
Those words in Matthew 24:40 and 41 about one being taken and the other left are often confused with “the rapture” described in I Thessalonians 4:17. At the Lord’s return, those Christians who are still alive will be “caught up… to meet the Lord in the air.” So folks have the idea that believers will taken safely away, but unbelievers “left behind” to go through tribulation, a kind of hell on earth. But that interpretation ignores what Jesus said both in Matthew and in Revelation.
Who gets “taken away” in the flood in verse 39? It’s those under judgment, the wicked. Jesus would not reverse the picture to say in the next two verses that those “taken” are the good folks, the Christians being taken to safety. No, despite all the silly books and movies to the contrary, those “taken” will be judged. Those “left behind” will be safe, safe to join Jesus in the city of His kingdom when He returns.
Let’s leave behind the Left Behind books and their lousy theology. The real end of the story is here in Revelation. Our Lord will unexpectedly come back to this earth, remove all its evil and remove those who do evil. He will make our world over into His kingdom. As Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” sings so wonderfully from Revelation 11:15, “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” Blessed are those who are “left behind” to be in that kingdom. I want to be left behind.
You may disagree with me. Certainly the authors who’ve made millions on more than a dozen Christian fantasy books disagree with me. But you will find those novels where they belong at bookstores and libraries—in the fiction section. As we enter Advent, the sober nonfiction is that there will be a surprise moment of division, an unexpected time of judgment. While no one will expect it, some will be ready and some will not. Study Scripture and decide for yourself whether those “taken” are the righteous or the unrighteous, but the main thing is to prepare yourself for His unexpected arrival.
Jesus will come unexpectedly. We will be making sales, keeping house, paying bills, changing diapers, building homes, tapping keyboards and teaching school. We will be doing all the things you do when you expect life on earth to go on indefinitely. We as Christians will be working, as many of you do, side by side with non-Christians. But unexpectedly, all that work, all those arrangements will end. And Jesus asks us to be ready.
In Matthew 24:42, Jesus’ warns, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Keep watch, be prepared. That’s why we come back to this at the beginning of every Advent, to get us on our toes, to help us be ready for the unexpected arrival of our Lord. At the end of Revelation, verse 18, Jesus warns us not to add to or take away from the prophecy we find in that book, to be ready for His arrival by paying attention to what He actually said, neither adding anything to it nor leaving anything out.
Folks have spent a whole lot of wasted time on the question of when Jesus will come back. The real question, the question for Advent, is not “When?” but “How?” How can you and I be prepared for the time Jesus comes? How can we be ready for his unexpected return? Jesus said twice in our text, verse 12 and verse 20, that “I am coming soon.” How can we be ready for that?
We can’t get ready at the last minute. In Matthew 24 verse 43 He compares His coming to the unexpected arrival of a thief. His followers heard Him well and took that image to heart. So Paul repeated it in I Thessalonians. Peter quoted it in his second letter, chapter 3, verse 10. And we read it in Revelation 16:15 this week, John quoting Jesus, “See, I am coming like a thief.”
If you know when the burglar is coming, you keep watch or get better locks. But we don’t know when thieves will arrive. Years ago my mother came home one night and tried to open her door, and unexpectedly found the security chain across it. She realized thieves were in her house. She drove to a phone and called the police, but they came too late to catch the unexpected intruders. Action at the last minute can’t help.
The students who take ACT exams here in our sanctuary each spring know the day and the time to show up and when to start getting ready. But you can’t study for the second coming a couple weeks in advance. You can’t do a late night or early morning review with all your fellow Christians and get dates and formulas and names all straight one last time. You can’t even sign up for a preparation course like students do before the SAT. You can’t read the Bible like you read the Driver’s Handbook as your parents drive you to the DMV for your permit test. There’s no warning. It’s unexpected You can’t get ready just before it happens. You have to be ready all the time.
Beth and I have sometimes given pop quizzes to college students. They don’t know which day it will come. All they know is that on four or five days during the term, they will be asked to sit down and answer questions on what they were supposed to have read for that day. They can’t skip three weeks, then cram it in all at the last minute. The only way to succeed on those quizzes is to be ready all the time, every day.
In the Church, we celebrate Advent as a season of preparation. We may get the notion that Advent is about building up excitement for Christmas. By lighting candles, opening little windows on a calendar and reading a few Bible verses each day, we heighten our anticipation. So when Christmas arrives we will have a deeper and more meaningful experience of that day. We will really feel the “true meaning of Christmas.” Advent, so we think, helps us get more out of the day of Jesus’ birth.
Advent does help our appreciation of what God did for us by sending His Son. But Advent is not a last moment review session. It’s not a cram course for Christmas. Advent is an annual reminder and call to constant vigilance, continual service, faithful living for Jesus that happens every single day, not just four weeks out of the year.
Further down in Matthew 24 Jesus talked about being ready by being servants who are simply doing what their master asked whenever he returns home. We are to be students who read the assignment for every class, employees who show up to work every day, parents who tuck their children into bed every night. Advent reminds us to be about the basics of Christian life, each and every day we live until Jesus returns.
What are those everyday basics which keep us ready for Jesus? What does it mean to be righteous and holy as it says in Revelation? Most of us already know—prayer, worship, Bible reading, giving, serving others.
What do we want to avoid? What does it mean to be evil and filthy? We know that too, for the most part, sins like lust and greed and lying, envy and anger and pride. It’s simple, really. Do what we know is good and resist temptation to do what we know is wrong. It’s simple, but it’s not always easy.
And I realize that all this talk of hangings and thieves and pop quizzes may worry you more than it helps you. It may not encourage you, but only cause you to despair. Like me, you may be realizing, “I’m not ready. No matter how hard I try, no matter how diligent I become, it’s not enough. There are moments, there are hours upon hours in which I wouldn’t want the pop quiz or the knock at the door. I wouldn’t want Jesus to come back and find me angry at another driver or lusting after a movie star or mindlessly playing games on my computer. I’m not ready for His unexpected arrival. But there’s help for that.
In verse 14 of Revelation 22, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have washed their robes.” He’s talking about what was said right at the beginning of Revelation, chapter 1 verse 5, that Jesus “loves us and washed us from our sins by his own blood.” The work of getting our lives together, of doing what’s right and avoiding what’s evil, is Jesus’ own work in us. It’s why He died for us on the Cross and rose again, to wash us and make us ready.
That very sense of being unready is part of Advent too. The very beginning, the most basic part of Christian faith is to admit and confess that you are not good, not holy, not ready for God’s judgment. We need to be washed in the saving blood of Jesus. As we will see next Sunday in John the Baptist’s message, the very first act of preparation is to repent, to confess our sin, to admit we are not ready for our Lord. In that confession we find the grace of Jesus beginning to work in us, making us more ready than we were.
Verse 17 is the sweet invitation to receive that gift of grace from Jesus. As we think about His coming again, His Holy Spirit and His people, His bride, tell everyone, “‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” We’re not ready to receive Him, but He is ready to receive us and let us drink in new life. That’s all we need.
We’re not ready. It will be unexpected. But it’s Jesus who is coming, no one else. We don’t know when to expect it, but we do know whom to expect: Jesus who died and rose to save us from our sins. In Advent, let’s confess our unreadiness, but let us be ready to receive grace which brings us forgiveness, which gives us peace, hope, love and joy. You may not expect the hour, but you can expect His grace when it comes.
So this Advent we can join John the author of Revelation and all God’s people since then who have said those words from the next to the last verse of the Bible, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” Just because we know how unready we are, how much we need His help, we can be ready enough for the unexpected arrival. Amen. Come Lord Jesus.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj