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"An Unexpected Hour"
Matthew 24:36-44

When I was young, my family took many long vacation trips through the western United States in the summers. We had lots of relatives in California. And the length of those trips could become tiring for young children. Frequently-asked questions were "Are we about there yet?" "How many more towns do we have to go through?" "When are we going to stop?" And my parents were very patient with their children.

Somehow, without losing their tempers, they managed to keep their children from going crazy on those long journeys. And that's especially interesting when I stop to think that they were hearing questions for which they HAD no answers.

For example, what does it mean when a child asks, "Are we about there?" Because distance and time are relative concepts. And I seriously doubt that my parents ever knew how many more towns there were to go through. I doubt that they ever counted them, although they knew their destination. And even that question, "When are we going to stop?" was probably unsettling to my folks.

They may have had some idea of the time and the place they were planning to stop. But how certain were they?

When Jesus tells the disciples, in the thirty-fifth verse of the twenty-fourth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away," I can imagine that he was anticipating a flood of questions.

Because listen to what follows:

"But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."

And in anticipating questions regarding the passing away of heaven and earth, Jesus is providing an answer: he doesn't know; only God knows. And we hear a similar message in the seventh verse of the first chapter of the book of Acts:

"He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority."

But can't you hear the disciples asking, "Are we about there?" "How much longer will it be?" "When are we going to get there?" And seriously, when we ask such questions, we become naive as children.

Because as adults we are aware, that even for an earthbound trip, the answer to such questions is, "I don't know." And, quite frankly, I personally become very uncomfortable with those who are absolutely certain of the future, earthly or otherwise. And when we attempt to predict with precision God's plan for this world and the next, I believe that we diminish God. But did Jesus have NO answer for his followers? Was he just going to leave them hanging, with an "I don't know"?

On the contrary, he did have something of an answer.

"For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man."

So, we have a hint, a guide for knowing something about Christ's coming. And in the fifth through the eighth verses of the sixth chapter of Genesis, we hear about the days of Noah:

"The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind of the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.

ôSo the Lord said, "I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created--people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them. But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord."

So we may not know the precise time, but if we are to believe Christ, we know the CONDITIONS of the world for Christ's coming. We know the attitudes of God for Christ's coming.

But are we then to believe that it is our wickedness that will precipitate God's action? If the world were to become a better place, free of evil, would this mean that Christ would NOT come? Of if Christ WILL, ABSOLUTELY return, does this mean that the world WILL descend to such a level of depravity that God will wish to destroy it?

But Jesus has more to say about the days of Noah: "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."

You see, Noah's activities didn't stop anybody else from doing anything. They just kept on with their lives, unaware that it was about to start raining and keep raining for a very long time.

Now, at least some of them had to know that Noah was building an ark; and they probably thought that he was crazy. But our hindsight is perfect vision. How often do we ignore signs in our world, and continue with our lives as if nothing unusual is happening? Or if we DO recognize the unusual, we act as if it really doesn't matter.

But the larger message here is that up until the day when Noah entered the ark, no one outside his family was making any preparation for what was about to happen; because they didn't EXPECT anything to happen.

And depending upon how we interpret the coming of Christ, are we making any preparation? Do WE expect it to happen? In the early church, Paul expected to SEE Christ come again in his lifetime.

Because that dramatic return has apparently been delayed for a couple thousand years, many think it may not happen for another couple thousand years.

Now, there are two lines of thought here. On the one hand, we can believe, and I do, that we can RECEIVE Christ into our lives by PREPARING for him. But on the other hand, Christ can also come into our lives WHEN WE LEAST EXPECT IT, when we are least prepared.

Jesus goes on to tell us that while those who lived in Noah's time "knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man."

They didn't REALIZE what was happening until it was too late to prepare for it.

But I believe that there is another perspective to Jesus words here. When he cites the events of Noah and the ark, he is speaking of a people living in wickedness.

So far as we can tell from the Genesis story, there is nothing that prevents these people from mending their ways and turning from evil to good. It would seem that they might have been able to prevent that flood, to have avoided God's wrath. But on the other hand, what of situations for which we CANNOT, rather than WILL not, prepare? Might Christ be just as likely to enter into our lives in those moments?

I know that for many the call to full-time ministry occurs like that. An event takes place for which one FEELS unprepared, an event which emotionally sweeps us away, but for which, upon reflection it would seem that God has been preparing us.

And then Jesus becomes very specific:

"Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left."

Now, we might wax dramatic on this and speak of salvation and damnation. We might speak of one going to heaven and the other going to hell. But I'd rather not. Instead, I would again call your attention to Jesus' telling us that "about that day and hour no one knows."

And I would suggest the possibility that that day and hour may be different for different people. People respond differently to experience. A salvation experience for one person may not be at all moving for another. Our spiritual formation varies.

We have our ups and downs, our highs and lows. Some have nothing they would call a truly "religious experience" until maybe late in life.

And when Jesus says, "One will be taken, and one will be left," I think he's telling us that our sense of Christ coming into our lives is going to differ from person to person. The timing is going to be different, and the intensity of our experience is going to be different.

"Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left."

And in both illustrations Jesus has people at work: people in the field and women grinding meal. They're not in a house of worship, they're not with their families. They are not in SETTINGS of preparation.

Which tells me that Christ can come into our lives, not only at any time, but also at any place, in the flow of our everyday activities.

I get a bit concerned with those who think that the only times and places that Christ can come into our lives are at worship services or revival meetings.

And there are those who would have you believe that the only ones capable of BRINGING Christ into your lives carry labels like pastor, or preacher, or evangelist. I think there are some other labels equally if not more important, like parent, teacher, neighbor, friend. And when such people do bring Christ into our lives, we frequently either do not expect it, or do not realize it. Sometimes it is because we take too much of our lives and our relationships for granted.

And we may, in fact, be more prepared for Christ than we realize. "Two in the field; two grinding meal together."

"Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming."

And it sounds like Jesus is telling us to keep awake BECAUSE we do not know. And I have to ask, "If we KNEW, would it make any difference? Should we then NOT keep awake?" Would we live our lives any differently?

And what I'm driving at is the meaning of those words "keep awake." Because I don't think it is limited to our looking down the road for the arrival of Christ. Rather, I think it should be a looking inward to our own souls, to continually be aware of our preparation to receive Christ.

In some homes, the visitation of guests is a very special occasion. The house is cleaned, the best meal is prepared, the silver and china come out to set the table. But occasionally, probably rarely, a guest shows up by accident.

The house isn't as clean as maybe it should be--like the parsonage--the family is having TV dinners, or maybe just sandwiches, and the eating utensils are stainless steel and plastic plates. And the host and hostess may be a bit embarrassed.

You see, we are on guard for the invited guest; we may even have someone at the front door as a lookout to warn us of their impending arrival. But the uninvited guest throws us off stride. We just aren't ready. And when Jesus tells us to "Keep awake, for you don't know," he's telling us to keep our spiritual house in order, to continually offer our BEST to God, and to do so in our best style.

"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."

It's twenty-seven days until Christmas. Merchants love this time of year because a big chunk of their business is done at this time; but some of them also hate it because it's so hectic. It's a wonderful time for families, and there are many special charitable projects carried out at this time of year. But why just December? Because we celebrate the birthday of Christ on December twenty-fifth? What would it do to our lives, to all of society, if no one could agree on the date of Christ's birth? If there was equal probability that it could be any day of the year? Could we then keep watch 365 days of the year for Christ's birth?

And every one of these days celebrate! And every one of those days, collect food and clothing in abundance to give to the needy! And every one of those days pay more attention to GIVING than receiving!

But the realist would say, "You can't do that! We can't give big expensive gifts to people every day!" And that's right. But we CAN give real gifts of loving and caring to many people every day.

We don't need to send Christmas cards to everyone every day, but we MIGHT be more in touch more often with those we love.

And whenever and however Christ comes at unexpected hours in our lives, we will be ready, because we have kept awake in anticipation and prepared our hearts for those moments.

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