December 2, 2007 - First Sunday in Advent
“You will be hanged at noon one day next week.” So begins a famous logical paradox. A judge sentences a prisoner and tells him he is condemned to die during the next work week, but which day will be a surprise. Whenever he hears the knock from the executioner on his cell door, he will not be expecting it. Like Jesus says about the hour of his return, the prisoner won’t know what day his hanging is coming.
The prisoner was a philosophy major gone bad, so he sat and reasoned about it. He realized that if they were going to hang him unexpectedly one day next week, Monday through Friday, they couldn’t possibly hang him on Friday. If he got to Thursday afternoon and hadn’t been hanged, then there would be only one day left. So when the knock came on Friday, he would be expecting it. But the judge said it would be unexpected.
Thursday, then, was the last possible day to hang him. But then 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 his 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 will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
Jesus insisted His second coming would be unexpected. Verse 36 says that no one, not the angels, not even the Son Himself knows that hour, “but only the Father.” Jesus included Himself among those not knowing the time. That raises interesting theological questions about how the Son, if He is God, can fail to know something that the Father knows. We could talk for awhile about how the divine power and omniscience were limited when God became a man. But ultimately it boils down to this: If Jesus didn’t know, how should you or I expect to know? No matter what anyone claims, 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 an alliance of the Soviet Union and China as the evil powers of the Battle of Armageddon. But 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.
In 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.
Then Jesus moves from the Old Testament picture to His coming. It’s often seen as “the rapture” described in I Thessalonians 4:17. At the Lord’s return, those Christians who are still alive will be “caught up,” in Latin rapiemur, in English, “raptured.” So looking just at verses 40 and 41, one man taken and the other left, one woman taken and the other left, some Christians have seen a “rapture.” Believers are taken safely away, but unbelievers are “left behind” to go through tribulation, a kind of hell on earth. But that interpretation completely ignores the logic of what Jesus said.
Who is “taken away” in verse 39? It’s those under judgment, those who are swept away in the flood, the wicked, the unbelievers. Why would Jesus reverse the picture to say in the next two verses that those “taken” are the good folks, the Christians, the believers being taken away to safety? No, the point is that those “taken” will be judged, but those “left behind” will be safe, safe to join Jesus in the kingdom He is coming to set up on earth. That’s the real end of the story in Revelation, that our Lord will return to earth, and remake earth into His kingdom. As George Frederick Handel quoted 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.
You may disagree with me. Certainly the authors who’ve sold several million copies of more than a dozen Christian fantasy novels disagree with me. That’s O.K. What we really need to see here in this text as we enter Advent is that there will be a surprise moment of division, an unexpected time of judgment. Some people will be ready and some will not. Study Scripture and decide for yourself whether those “taken” are the unprepared or the prepared, but the key thing here is to be ready, ready for that unexpected hour.
Jesus will come unexpected. We will be farming, keeping house, paying bills, changing diapers, building homes, punching 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 so 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.
Jesus’ conclusion from all this is, “Therefore keep watch.” That’s what verse 42 asks, “because you do not know on what day your Lord will come,” keep watch, be prepared. The real 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 an unexpected hour?
Some ways of being ready are ruled out by Jesus. In verse 43 He compares His coming to the unexpected arrival of a thief. The Church took that image deeply to heart, so it is repeated not just by Jesus, but by Paul in I Thessalonians, by Peter in his second letter, chapter 3, verse 10, and by John in Revelation 16:15. Like a thief—that’s how unexpected Jesus will be.
That means you can’t be ready for Jesus by setting out to do the right thing at just the right moment. If you know when the burglar is coming, you set watch and catch him in the act. But we don’t know when thieves are coming. Years ago my mother came home one night and tried to open her door, and was surprised to find the security chain across it. She realized thieves were in her house and drove to a phone and called the police, who arrived too late. It was unexpected. Last Tuesday, Sean Taylor of the Washington Redskins was shot dead by burglars who invaded his home. He tried to defend himself, but he wasn’t ready. It was unexpected.
The word in verse 43 for the house being “broken into” is literally, “dug through.” Houses were often made of earthen bricks. To break in, you would dig, tunnel through a wall. If you knew when it would happen, you would be sitting on the other side, ready to clobber the thief when his head comes through. You can’t be ready like that for Jesus.
It’s not an exam for which you know the day and hour. You can’t study for Jesus coming back the week before. You can’t do a late night or early morning review with all your fellow Christians and get the dates and formulas and names all straight one last time. You can’t sign up for a one-time preparation course like students do before the SAT. You can’t do it like you read the Driver’s Handbook on the way to the DMV for your permit test, or memorize a Catechism on the way to Confirmation class. There’s no warning. You can’t get ready just before it happens. You have to be ready all the time.
Jesus’ return is more like the pop quizzes Beth and I sometimes give students. They don’t know which day it will come. All they know is that on four or five days during the quarter, they will be expected 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 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 a season of preparation. Sometimes we get the notion that Advent is for building up our 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 that when Christmas arrives we will experience better and deeper warm fuzzies about it all. We will really feel the “true meaning of Christmas.” Advent, we think, helps us get more out of Christmas.
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.
In the verses following our text, Jesus talks about being ready by being like servants who are simply doing what their master asked whenever he returns home. We are to be like students who read the assignment for every class, like employees who show up to work every day, like 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? Most of us know—prayer, worship, Bible reading, giving, serving others. On the negative side we want to be ready by avoiding sins like lust and greed and anger and pride. These are basics we continually strive to build into our lives, doing what’s good and resisting temptation to do wrong. It’s all there in our text from Romans 13 and in our candle litany today, “Put off the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Learning to live that way is why we come together as a church, to help each other grow in goodness and flee from what’s bad. Take off the dark and put on the light.
However, 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 yelling at my children or lusting after a movie star or mindlessly playing video games on my computer. I’m not ready for the unexpected hour.”
Yet that sense of being unready is another part of Advent. The very beginning, the very most basic part of Christian faith is to admit and confess that you are not good, not holy, not ready for God’s judgment. 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.
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 who 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, forgiveness, peace, hope, love and joy. You may not expect the hour, but you can expect His grace when it comes.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj