Advent I 2019 – GSC
I attended a surprise birthday party a couple of weeks ago. As you’d expect, we were told to arrive at a particular time and the birthday boy was due to arrive half an hour later, being ferried around by his brother. The scene was set. We knew we’d be arriving late and so needed to make sure we arrived late enough not to bump in to the birthday boy. It’s all very complicated. But then when we got there expecting to see the birthday boy, he hadn’t turned up. Frantic texting to find out and eventually he turned up after another thirty minutes, by which point I think the guests had had a bit more wine that they might have otherwise and maybe the shouting of surprise was a little dampened because everyone had had enough of waiting!
The return of the Lord is going to be a surprise for us when it happens. Jesus is very clear in the Gospel passage we heard that the Day when our master is coming is unknown. Let’s not believe those frauds who claim to have this secret knowledge! And there must surely be a reason for us not knowing these details or God would have told us. Presumably the reason is that the danger would be to live our lives however we wanted until the day before the Day of Judgement or the day we were going to die and then amend our ways and start prioritising God. You see this mentality so often when those near to death start talking about a faith that has been absent from their lives previously. The call to faithful perseverance runs contrary to this last minute approach to our salvation.
Earlier in the chapter from St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus makes clear that even He does not know that day on which the Son of Man would return (24:36). This is a tricky passage because we know Jesus to be the Son of God and God Himself, the second person of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. To have seen Jesus is to have seen the Father; He and the Father are one in will and consubstantial. This not knowing of Jesus concerning the end of time is however part of His emptying of Himself. Jesus comes to earth for us that we might become children of God. We have to have that sonship while still ignorant of certain things, hence it is called faith, not knowledge. As part of Jesus coming to earth He empties Himself of some of those qualities He has as God. St Paul refers to our Saviour to humbling and emptying Himself (Philippians 2:7). This includes shedding bits of knowledge, among it the date when He shall return to judge the living and the dead. Jesus can only do this because He is love and so it must help Him to draw us to the Father for Him to share in this not-knowing. But be in no doubt that Jesus is God eternal.
Jesus says to us in the Gospel, “If you had known at what time of the night the burglar would come, he would have stayed awake and would not have allowed anyone to bread through the wall of his house.” We will have a set list of things we do to protect our property. It might be locking up your room, or the cupboard you have in a shared kitchen, it might be making sure you have insurance for something, it might even be that you have all your money stuffed under the mattress! We will know when we wash our clothes and how to do that. We will know when - or at least we ought to - when the car needs servicing. We get reminded when our hair needs cutting or our nails need filing.
Jesus so often uses ordinary analogies in His teaching and sometimes they need a bit of explaining to us because they’re from an age different to our own where we don’t know what a threshing floor or why a vineyard would have a tower in it. This image of the house being burgled is still very rich for us: we continue to prioritise looking after these earthly things without giving due time and attention to the things of the world to come. We lock the doors to our room or our home at night so that no one can get in. We do that without thinking. Do we similarly lock the door to our soul so that no evil can get in and store there within us the love God has for us and for His church?
Advent, which we begin today, is like Lent, in that it is a season to chastise ourselves through observances that cleanse us and simplify our life. Our Lord says to the disciples: “For in those days before the Flood people were eating, drinking, taking wives, taking husbands right up to the day Noah went into the ark.” If the usual pattern of work, relationships and consumption had been interrupted, there would presumably have been a greater likelihood that people would have heard Noah’s preaching on the subject.
We know that God told Noah he needed to build an ark so that the earth might be washed in the waters of the Flood and those chosen by God be saved through it. It’s a wonderful image of the Church, navigating the choppy waters of this world with the elect therein safe and dry. St Peter in his second letter in the New Testament refers to Noah elsewhere as a “herald of righteousness.” The author of the letter to the Hebrews mentions him in the great meditation on faith in Hebrews 11: “By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world.”
Noah’s listening to God and acting accordingly in a clear way, not by listening and then carrying on eating and drinking, this preaches to others. The author of Genesis finishes the description of Noah, his family and the animals entering the ark by saying, “the Lord shut him in,” (Genesis 7:16). Just like we will shut the door when locking up our home so that a thief might not enter. Just like we must protect the treasures we have stored up for ourselves, treasures in Heaven, the gift of faith, the practices of the faith, eternal redemption won on the Cross for us.
We’re surprised by things when we’re thinking about something else and something startles us, or we’re surprised when someone does something we don’t expect them to. We must know that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead because He is judge. We must also be sure that our thoughts never stray too far from this fact of our final judgement. What to cook, where the money will come from, what so-and-so said to us all this must not dominate our thoughts for none of it really matters when it comes to the judgement discerning where the destiny of our eternal soul is. There, in Heaven, we receive all that is needful and can shut the door firmly to any thoughts of sin because our wills will be finally completed united to those of Jesus our Saviour.
It’s important that we get to know Jesus better by spending time with Him and listening to Him. As we get to know Him better we won’t be complacent though, because he’ll keep on surprising us. The crowds were surprised when He ate with tax collectors and sinners; the wedding guests were surprised when He turned water in to wine even though no one had really asked Him to; those who couldn’t walk were amazed when they were healed. Don’t think you reach stage when you stop being surprised by God for He is beyond our reckoning. But there are some things we do know: and among them that His return will be less of a surprise if we prioritise our preparing for it now. Amen.