By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 1, 2019
Matthew 24:36–44 (ESV)
36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. 37 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master 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. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
For most of my life I have been active in the church. I love the church. I love the songs, the sermons, the potlucks, I even love the business meetings, but there are some things that have always found a bit off. The reason I love the church is because it gives me strength. No matter what I am going through in life, the moment I step inside a meeting for worship the worries of the world seem to drop away for a moment and I am at peace. This is something I love about worship. It transports us to a realm of experience that is beyond human understanding. But then I hear a sermon about the second coming of Christ. I listened to several of these throughout my life and to be honest I dreaded these. You would think that the second coming is something that we should anticipate with righteous excitement, yet for much of my life I faced the anticipation with fear and dread.
This is something that I have struggled with for most of my Christian life. Why would I look at the fulfillment of all my hope and dreams with such dread? As I said in my last sermon, I often neglect the apocalyptic aspects of the gospel. The biggest reason I do that is because I have often found that we tend to be inconsistent with our interpretations regarding these passages. We say things like God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to save it, not to condemn it but to save it. Yet then we look at the apocalyptic portions of scripture and we seem to approach them with a vengeful blood thirst. We use them as a threatening sword to cast dread and fear to those around us, saying not that God loves you and wants you to turn toward him, but God hates you and if you do not turn he will torture you for all eternity.
I struggle with this. And some might say that the justice of God must be satisfied so it is inevitable. I respect that opinion, but I still do not feel that God takes pleasure in the loss. I feel as if God weeps at that thought that some might refuse to believe. I struggle because I think at times, we do not consider the loss of the apocalypse. As I read this passage over the course of this past week, I am reminded of Jesus looking out over Jerusalem that day of his triumphal entry into the holy city, and the tears that He shed. The city praised him, and Jesus wept not because of his approaching passion, but because so many rejected him.
I hesitate with the apocalyptic passages, because so often we look at them from a human perspective, with vengeance or fear, and often we forget the massive loss that God might feel. The loss of so many souls that he loved and gave his life to save only to be rejected.
I thought about this as I studied that past few weeks. There is a reason that Jesus and many prophets used apocalyptic language to teach. It was a shocking form of language to inspire a change in activity. One might liken this language to the language that is used in political campaigns and even the presentation of climate change discussions. The language used does not have varying degrees of negativity, but if we do not radically change right now the entire world as we know it will collapse. Before you begin to laugh, I want us to stop and think about this for a moment. There is some truth in apocalyptic language, although it might be stretched a bit for drama. If humans do not change their actions the pollution, they cause will have devastating consequences to the environment. We know this to be true. If you dump oil on the ground that soil is by all accounts dead. If you dump sewage in a river it will cause disease. And if people throw a cigarette out the window as they drive across Kansas, they can start a wildfire at certain times of the year. We know that there are consequences to our actions, there always will be. If we do not consider those consequences, we run a dire risk of being blindsided by our own ignorance. This is what apocalyptic literature is about. It is a literary tool that is used to cause us to reconsider some of our thinking. But the question is why would we need to use such things?
Jesus, in today’s passage and prior to what we read today, is using an apocalyptic form of speech. He speaks of an abomination that causes desolation, of darkening sun, and all sorts of calamities. The initial reaction to these sorts of things is shock, then acceptance or denial. We do not always get an accurate depiction of the true experience of the people in history because we often see it from one side or the other. For example, when we speak of American history leading up to the revolutionary war, we often only see it through the perspective of our nation’s forefathers. We get a righteous anger for the concept of taxation without representation. It can also be said that the American colonists were not being treated unfairly but were being taxed to the same degree as any other landowner in the empire. Perspective can often change how we interpret history and the world around us. In the first century we often assume that the provinces of Israel were being unfairly treated by their Roman overlords, but the reality is that Israel was not that bad off. They had several significant cities and some portions of the community were doing quite well for themselves. There was a thriving tourism economy that was highly profitable which revolved around the Temple, which was probably the greatest single religious structure in the entire Roman empire. And their religious structure mandated a pilgrimage to this temple a minimum of three times in a year. Imagine the great wealth that Jerusalem could amass. It could be said that during this timeframe Israel might have had greater wealth than any other time of their history.
But there was unrest in the prosperity. There were people that wanted to maintain the status quo and those that felt that they would be better off if something changed. The extremes were at constant debate, constantly driving a wedge within the community. And as the wedge continued to be struck an unreconcilable divide emerged until the damage could not be redeemed. This process is what Jesus was speaking about. The sides were so blinded by their own perspective that they were ignorant to the damage they were causing.
Jesus spoke these warnings and urged them to repent because if they did not, they would walk themselves directly into their own destruction. But no one will know exactly when these things will occur. He then spoke of Noah. Noah lived in a time of history where he and his family were the only righteous people in the entire world. Can you imagine how that might feel? The entire world rejected God, except for eight people. God was greatly grieved by this, the account said that he regretted the creation of humanity. I have often wondered what was meant by that. But He had a plan, so he commanded this one righteous family to build an ark. This ark was to be built to preserve the good of creation. Every animal was to be taken on the ark, male and female, so that all of creation would be preserved. Have we ever thought of why such a drastic action would need to have been taken? Could it be that humanity through their ignorance and apathy were living their lives to such a degree that they totally disregarded the world around them to the point that their actions threatened the very possibility of sustainable life?
God urged Noah to build an ark, to preserve creation. It is not too much different than the various natural wildlife preserves. Just this week I read an article that the koala bear of Australia is on the verge of being functionally extinct. This basically means that there has been a steady decline in koala populations even after efforts to preserve them have been made. As the continent of Australia faces intense fires the threat intensifies even more. What is the cause of this? Some might say humans are the cause. As humans have largely been the cause of the decimation of so many animal species. Noah was urged by God to take drastic action to preserve life, could we be faced with a similar situation?
Jesus goes on to speak about the days of Noah. He said people continued to live their lives. They ate and drank. They entered marriages and gave their children to be married. They lived their lives as if nothing could possibly happen to them. Yet while they lived there was a man and his three sons building a boat saying that there was going to be a flood that would kill all things. He was going to build this boat to preserve life, and they rejected what was right in front of them. Why? Life was good. There was plenty to eat, plenty to drink, life had never been better.
Jesus says that the day of the lord will be like the days of Noah. Life is good until suddenly a sprinkle begins, which builds to a drizzle, then a gentle shower, and then all at once the heavens open and rain comes so thick you cannot even move. The people of the first century are living their lives. They believe that their way is right. They continue to live as if nothing could possibly be wrong with them, because life has never been better. They are aware that there is trouble coming, but they are ignorant to their part in the coming storm.
Let us go back to the story of Noah. The story begins with Adam and Eve, who gave birth to two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain was jealous of Abel because God was not pleased with the offering Cain presented. And as a result of Cain’s jealousy Abel was killed. Cain went on to become a great man and his family increased and we are told that it was through Cain that the first cities were created. And Adam and Eve knew each other again and had a third son named Seth. Seth did not build civilization but lived as his father. He loved God and he became a steward of the land. As time goes on, we are told that the sons of God we attracted to the daughters of men. There are many ideas and theories about what this might have meant. And I have my own theory. If Seth was a man of God and a steward of the land, and the children of Cain were the offspring of men creators of cities and empires, then what we are seeing is the urbanization of the earth. Sons leaving the farms to find their wealth in the cities, and the cities demanding increasing resources. They eat and drink. They do not know where the food comes from or how they get it, but they want more. They consume more and more, to the point that the stewards of the earth can no longer keep up with the hunger. And Noah builds an ark to preserve life.
It is a common story of the rise and fall of empires and nations. The constant battle between urban and rural. The war between labor and management or even the producers and the moochers. There are many derivatives of the story but there is a common theme through them all. If we continue this path, we will cause our own destruction.
Two men will be in the field, one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be at the mill one will be taken, and one will be left. So often we read into this passage the ideas of rapture, but Jesus was speaking to a people that was living a comfortable lifestyle but were about to face an economic collapse of their own making. They were poking a sleeping bear thinking that they were secure in themselves from any retaliation. But they were going to face hardship. Their children were going to killed and displaced. They their land was going to scorched and laid to waste. What once could support two would barely support one. The end of life as they know it was going to come to an end.
There is much fear in apocalyptic literature, but there is also a glimmer of hope. There is a call to repentance or an urge to turn around. In this passage Jesus is calling the people of Israel to repent of the lifestyle they are leading and turn their attention to the kingdom around them instead to the kingdoms of men. It is a call to encourage your neighbor, to be mindful of those people living right here around you. Instead of living your lives to better your own selfish desires, live for the mutual profit of your community. He is urging us all to stop looking to the cultural center, stop looking at Rome, Jerusalem, or even the temple and start looking at that of God in those around you. He showcased these ideas by healing a woman in the synagogue because she was a daughter of Abraham. He illustrated it by healing the servant of the Roman official because he had greater faith than all of Israel. He encouraged us to focus on that of God in Mary listening at his feet, in the prostitute that wash his feet with her tears, with the healing of the blind man from birth. He was saying all you need is right here around you. Do not worry about Jerusalem or Rome you have what you need right here in front of you. But will you see it? Will we focus on God with us, or will our attention be diverted to the kingdoms of men? Will we stay true to the sons and daughters of God or will we be attracted to the giant offspring of men?
Jesus says we need to be ready because at any moment life as we know it can change. When that happens were will, we be? Is our faith in God or in ourselves? Is our security in Christ or in the empires of man? Are we driven by fear or are we living our lives in such a way that fear cannot move us? Perfect love cast out all fear. Perfect love is found in Jesus, who lowered himself to become man with us, even though he was equal to God. Perfect love lived with us and showed us what life with God truly was. Perfect love gave itself for the benefit of others and was killed on a cross for our sin. Perfect love was buried in a grave for three days and rose again to conquer death and to live forever more. Perfect love does not fear but lives. Perfect love sees that of God in those around it and encourages it to grow. Perfect love builds and encourages. If the words of the media give you fear, maybe your attention is in the wrong place.
As we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends. Let us consider the story of Noah. Let us consider our own day and our own time. Are we driven by fear or do we see the hope of Christ? Let us quiet our hearts and listen to the voice of hope that multiplies instead of divides.