What does it mean to be prepared?

Matthew 24: 32-51

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

“Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that wicked slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Sermon Text

Our first four weeks of sermons based on questions from you all certainly has not disappointed. We have looked at faith and works, the Mark of the Beast, and if you are on my pastor page on Facebook (or getting this in the mail,) you also saw the fate of all the twelve disciples. Today we end our month of questions with a follow-up to our discussion about the Mark of the Beast. We are wrapping up with what it means to live a life that is prepared for its end – whether that be through death or through the return of Christ into the world. We must accept that we are asked to always be ready to meet God and to answer the call to our heavenly home.

Our scripture today follows Jesus foretelling the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. That holy place, the center of the faith for God’s people, was considered the center of the world. While the original temple had been destroyed following the Babylonian conquest of Judah, this second temple was expected to remain forever. The destruction of the first temple nearly destroyed the faith of the Jewish people, the prophets Jeremiah, Zechariah, and Ezekiel all had to assure the people that God did not perish once this building was gone. The people would eventually return to their ancestral home and rebuild the temple, but it was immediately clear to those present that the new building was nothing like the old. Herod the Great would eventually tear this building down and rebuild it over a forty year period, restoring some of its former glory.

This temple was a testament to the ability of God’s people to survive. When Jesus told his followers that it was soon going to be destroyed once again, the news would have been devastating, most likely even apocalyptic. Yet, Jesus gave a strange caveat to his doomsaying. The temple was going to fall, and the people of God would be scattered, but this was not the way things were going to end.

Jesus warns his disciples that there will be plenty of people coming and claiming that the end is upon us. There will be wars and rumors of wars, nations coming and going as conflict and famine and plague devastate a struggling world. Yet, somehow the end will not be something that comes in a way we would expect. Like Jesus’s entry into the world in a stable, Jesus’s entry into the world on a throne of mercy and judgment will be equally startling. Like a thief that plans for the family to be away, Christ will come at a time no one would expect to save his people from the brokenness of the world.

Scripture describes this in a variety of ways, Paul talks about people being taken up from the grave and lifted up into the clouds. Jesus here talks about people suddenly being taken, mysteriously spirited away in a moment. What Jesus means by this is unknowable. While many today, at least in the United States, talk about this in terms of a “rapture,” a sudden bodily disappearance of all believers, but this idea was first described in the 17th century, and would not become prominent until John Nelson Darby preached it in the mid-1800s.

Different eras of the Church have thought of this in different terms. The earliest Church Fathers gave no specific expectation of how God would gather the faithful. Saint Augustine raised several possible answers, including the idea that God would raise the dead to glory and then kill all living people, raising them immediately to judgment. John Wesley expressed a more modern vision of God removing the faithful to safety and then appointing them to be with God in Heaven. The point being, in all these visions, that however God was doing it – God would bring God’s people to safety at the end of time.

With the nature of the final days set before the people – a sudden deliverance for the people of God that would come without provocation or warning. The Christian was to live as if every moment could be the last one, as if God was going to renew creation all at once. They were meant to sit and live in hope because of this urgency, but they were also expected to live in careful consideration of the magnitude of such a belief. To be ready at all times is no simple task.

We began our month by highlighting that faith and works are tied closely together in the life of a Christian. Thankfully, faith is the actual means by which we are saved even as much as it naturally produces good works from us. The reality of our faith’s sufficiency cannot just be a therapeutic presence in our life. God is certainly a source of comfort and assurance, but the point of us being brought into God’s kingdom is not just that we feel good. We must commit ourselves to furthering God’s kingdom and bettering the lives of those around us. We must become a family in every sense we possibly can – we must love and share God’s bounty but also grow together in holiness.

I’m not a proponent for fire and brimstone preaching, although it is important to remember what is at stake. I think that the church has been far too obsessed with crime and punishment and not nearly enough concerned with righteousness. To be punished for doing wrong teaches us only to not do things that result in punishment. To contrast this, I believe that to encourage people in the goodness they do is to encourage them to grow. Ministers are known for wagging their fingers at every little infraction but never for lifting up the good that people do. Yet, the opposite tendency is also a problem. If we only speak of doing good without exorcising evil from our hearts, we will find ourselves slipping into sin again and again. We need a more holistic approach to Christianity than dancing between extremes.

Christ uses the example of a slave being left in control of a household while their master is away. The slave specifically is charged with taking care of his fellow slaves. The expectation is that, even if the master returns before they were supposed to or even later than they were meant to, that the work will get done as it was requested. The slave in Jesus’s metaphor does not succeed in his task. Instead, the slave beats his fellows, taking the power he has been given and exploiting it. The food meant for them is given to friends who eat and drink excessively.

Those two contrasting images are not meant to be literal in describing the limits of Christian behavior, but they are good images to keep in mind. We lose track of our life as Christians when we forget what Jesus has asked us to do. We are called, immediately after this teaching, to care for the hungry, the sick, the naked, and the imprisoned in Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats. We are told to make disciples of all nations and to baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These two broad categories – the proclamation of the Gospel and the care of our siblings in Christ and neighbors more generally – make up most of our positive responsibilities as Christians.

There are negative responsibilities as well, things that we are asked to avoid as well as things we are meant to take on. The two examples Christ lifteed up are emblematic of the two main categories of evil a Christian should avoid – evils of cruelty and evils of excess. The first is demonstrated anytime that we seek to do harm to others in order to benefit ourselves. Sometimes this cruelty is purely egotistical – we hurt others to feel like we are better than them. Other times it is opportunistic, hurting others to get ahead in life. Both examples are unacceptable to a Christian. We cannot knowingly hurt others and ever feel that we have done what is right.

The evils of excess are more internal in the way they destroy us. There are tangible practical troubles that come from sins of excess, denying other people what they need and actively harming those around us, but the greater damage they cause is often to our own spirit. You can live a life of lust and gluttony and greed and still lead a life that appears to be all together, but the soul festers even when outwardly we present a picture-perfect life. The fact is that the consequences of our actions are not always seen in the obvious and immediate presence of punishment but in the slow degradation of joy.

The real burden of being a Christian who is prepared is in being willing to admit that we are far from the mark that was exhibited in Christ and that we need to get there. We have to acknowledge when the occasional drinks we used to enjoy are becoming habits. We have to confront the lingering gazes we are casting at those we find attractive while we are out and about. We have to see that the money we are spending is not going to fix the problems we have, only limit the good we are capable of doing. There is pain behind a lot of these sins of excess, but that pain has to be addressed honestly if we are going to grow beyond it.

Sins of cruelty, they too are often born out of pain. We know the world is broken and so we try to set things right through force. If we can strike out at those we see as the source of the problem, maybe it will eventually fix something. There is a clear disparity between those who have and those who have not, so we exert our will to make sure that we do not become a have not. We look down on others who suffer because to acknowledge the pain they feel would force us to look inward and see our own brokenness.

To be prepared for Christ’s return we must not be people who are tolerant of our own sin and critical of other people’s. We cannot be well wishers only, but actively work to take care of other people. We cannot be passive in any aspect of life, but see that God is calling us to actively take up the banner of our salvation. We have been freed by grace to pursue the law of life which is love. We refuse the currency of this world, which is trading in cruelty, and instead accept the seal of Christ which makes all things new. We remember the ministries of those who have led us in life and trained us in the ways of God. We stand prepared for Christ whenever he might appear to bring us home. We must not fear anything, but in all things rejoice at the opportunities which God has given to us. Christ will come again, let us be found ready when that time comes. – Amen.

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