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 Preaching Matthew 13:24-27

 


As the church begins recounting once again the narrative of the Christian story, the text calls our attention to last things as “the little apocalypse” offers simultaneously a warning of things to come, and a call to readiness. It is indeed fitting as the opening line to Advent, the season of preparation.

The text offers a picture of the end of the world that has made its way into the imaginations of Hollywood producers. It is the end time; the return of the Christ and the signs of his coming cannot be ignored. The cosmic indicators are prophetic and unmistakably apocalyptic, and they call our attention to a tumultuous time when those who are wise will seek refuge from the cataclysmic happenings that are about to break loose on the earth.

But can the so-called signs be trusted? Do these cosmic aberrations truly herald the coming of the Son of Man? In previous verses (21-23) caution is sounded; a warning to the elect that harbingers of the event cannot be trusted and the signs to which they point should not be believed. Yet in the beginning of this pericope, it is to signs—natural events, easily believed to be symbolic of the hand of God at work, to which the gospel writer points as evidence of the great day of our Lord.

So does a solar or even a lunar eclipse offer a definitive signal of the end-times and the return of Christ? What new wishes are to be made on falling stars? On the other hand, what was the significance of the darkness that accompanied Jesus’ death? Jesus’ words in this text are a portent of things to come, and yet many of those things have already taken place on multiple occasions. The announcement of an eclipse or any significant astronomic event is cause for celebration and a time of gathering for those who engage the efforts to understand the mysteries of the heavens. It is not taken as a warning of divine power about to be unleashed on the earth. Like the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, such events may call forth only the curiosity, or the excitement of those who witness them, even if in the process they walk unknowingly to their death.

 In the early days of the church, predictions about the return of Jesus were widespread. And with Christ’s second coming divine judgment would be unleashed and there would be a gathering of the elect. Given the multiple sayings that circulated independently across the Christian diaspora, warnings of false prophets, some of whom were members of the community, and equally spurious predictions, were critical to ensure that the people were not led astray. But just as important was the call to watchfulness; to readiness for the coming of Christ in glory.

This message in the mouth of Jesus was more than a prophetic warning; it was also a message of hope to a people in the midst of persecution. At Christ’s return the elect would be taken out of their suffering for all time. They understood that it was a call of the divine that they ignored to their peril. Indeed the need for watchfulness was understood because of the uncertainty of the times since “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (v. 32)

However, because of the passage of time, this divine warning is often ignored or taken lightly by Christians today. Who is “this generation?” Certainly, the apostolic age that spawned these texts has long since passed, and those generations of Christians have long died, and Christ has not returned. Additionally, most of the signs, the suffering of the peoples of the earth, nature’s tumult are with us today and have been, in some form or another for several ages. Since no one knows the exact day of Christ’s appearance in glory, what hope does one have of being ready for Christ’s return? In fact it is the beginning of Advent and both individually, and as the church, we have more than we can do to prepare for Christmas, the coming of the baby Jesus.

The psalmist appealed to God to “teach us to number our days, so that we might gain wisdom” (Ps 90:12) for living. The call to watchfulness, to being alert at all times, is critical to our very being, not only to be ready for Christ’s appearance, but also to be aware of all that would seduce us into believing either that time for preparation is unlimited or that it is sparse because the moment of Christ’s appearing is imminent. We are honor bound as Christians to keep awake to the evidence of injustice and oppression so that we can seek justice for all people in the name of Christ. It is more than watching for his coming as a final event, but it is watchfulness that enables us to be Christ’s presence in the world. In that way, we live in a state of readiness for the day of his final appearing. As such, this text offers an appropriate message for the season and the movement towards the celebration of Christ’s first coming to earth as an infant.

As preachers, aware of the excitement associated with Christmas, it might be tempting to ignore or downplay the seriousness of this apocalyptic message. It is much easier to focus on the first coming and make a passing or much reduced reference to the coming event. But as Christians we live in the now and not-yet world of the reign of God and that dual focus is not optional. It is required for living as children of the new birth. We who have been born anew to a living hope through Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection, who “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:7b) in glory must without fail: “keep awake.”

Gennifer Benjamin Brooks

 

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See Tom Steagald's Preaching Journal! Tom is the Pastor at Lafayette Street United Methodist Church in Shelby, NC, and adjunct professor at Hood Theological Seminary (AME, Zion) in Salisbury, NC. Tom has just published Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus (Upper Room). Previous titles include Praying for Dear Life and Every Disciple's Journey, both from NavPress. He is a frequent contributor to Feasting on the Word, The Abingdon Preaching Annual, and other preaching resources. Tom's journal will detail each week's work to "discover" the sermon to be preached at Lafayette Street. Follow FestHomiletics on Twitter 

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