Advent 1 • Matthew 24:36–44 • November 28, 2010
by Travis J. Scholl
Socrates summed up the first principle of philosophers everywhere: to know that we don’t know. And perhaps the “not knowing” is what makes the future so maddening. Everything about it is unknown.
Except for this: “… your Lord is coming” (v. 42). Yet, even then, despite the prognostications of a thousand, thousand TV evangelists (and before them, a thousand, thousand street preachers), the questions abound: How? When? Where? We are left in the fog of unknowing, and don’t we know it.
For Socrates, at least as Plato gave him to us, the self-aware unknowing is an ironic source of comfort and hope because it is the beginning of discovery. For the Christian, it is even more. It is the beginning of trust. “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (v. 36). If even the Son of Man has been left in the dark, then what is left to do but cling to the promise God gives? Our future belongs to God. Time is in God’s hands. And God’s future is pushing all things into his reign of justice, mercy, and peace. All we really need to know is that we are one day closer to the Last Day than we were yesterday. “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers” (Rom 13:11).
And perhaps our not-knowledge of everything else is divinely intended to drive us, again and again, to simply that point: to trust God’s promise that time is in his hands. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (v. 42). Keep awake not so that you may know the day. Keep awake so that your whole life may be prepared for all the ways God will keep his promises in your midst now. “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (v. 44). Be ready not so that we can expect the exact hour, but so that our lives may be attuned to the imagination of God at work in ordinary routines.
And that is the bottom line: Christ’s eschatological teaching—particularly in Matthew—directs us not toward predicting the future, but toward how we ought to live our lives in the holiness of advent expectation (think of the last judgment of the sheep and the goats in chapter 25). As today’s epistle reading exemplifies, we are made ready so that we might “love one another.”
I wonder what it would be like if, somehow, Christmas could come at a differ- ent time every year. We would still plan for it, still take the day off, still have the same celebrations, it just wouldn’t necessarily happen on December 25. All we would know is that it would happen sometime in December. And one morning we would wake up and the TV or radio would announce: “Today’s the day! Merry Christmas!” How would we plan differently? How would our gift-giving and our holiday routines change? How would we receive the day? The coming of Christ is ever and always a surprise. And to those who trust the promise of God, it is filled with the thrill of joy.