As I was preparing this morning’s sermon, I was thinking about different things that Ron and I have learned about each other in the five plus years we’ve been married. Hard though it may be to believe, I don’t think I ever cooked a brussels sprout until he mentioned that he liked them. Brussels sprouts have now entered our side dish rotation in my meal planning. Conversely, one thing Ron has learned about me is that I do not like surprises—and for the record I did check with him before sharing this illustration. Now before you conclude that I must be a curmudgeon for not liking surprises, I’d like to explain why I don’t! It’s because part of what I most enjoy about an experience is looking forward to it. So if I’ve been looking forward to one particular experience—say going to a movie with Ron and friends—and at the last minute it’s switched out for another experience—say a birthday party celebration with an even bigger group of friends, I feel a sense of disappointment that the first event didn’t take place since I had been looking forward to it. Consequently, this initial disappointment ends up taking away some of the enjoyment of the second experience. In other words, I derive a sense of joy from expectation. To anticipate doing something we look forward to—whether a vacation, getting a puppy, completing a project, or a particular event—can be its own kind of joy. As the proverb rightly acknowledges, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”[1]

Well our passage this morning addresses a different kind of anticipation, namely anticipating when Christ’s final return will take place. In fact Matthew 24 initiates a series of Jesus’ teachings[2] that extend into Matthew 25[3] all of which address the topic of the end times. For one day time as we know it will come to an end as Jesus Christ, our Shepherd King who is currently reigning in and from heaven, will consummate his Kingdom work as he completes his judgement upon Satan and all evil-doers once and for all and calls his children home. Specifically our passage focuses upon the difference that looking forward to Christ’s final return should make in our lives.

Jesus begins by stating in verse 36, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Again, the day or hour he is speaking of here is the day or hour of his final advent to earth when he, as King, comes to judge the world.[4] As we heard earlier in the service in our advent reading, the word “advent” means “coming.” Today is the first Sunday of advent during which we celebrate the first advent, or coming, when heaven and earth anticipated the birth of Christ, its Maker and LORD. But the advent being referred to by Jesus in Matthew is his second and final advent when he returns to judge the earth. As the angels longed to look into the mysteries surrounding the salvation that would result from Christ’s first advent,[5] so, too, have they been kept in the dark concerning the timing of his second advent as Judge and King. Jesus further notes that “only the Father” knows when that day will arrive. For not even the Son, during the time in which he first came to and lived upon the earth, knew when that day would arrive. Though he was of course fully God, he was also fully human.[6] Therefore he, like us, lived by faith and in obedience to his Father in heaven as an example for us.[7]

Highlighting the theme of judgment to come at the time of his second advent, Jesus next looked back to another time when God exercised judgment upon humanity during the time of the flood. He compares God’s final judgment upon humanity with this earlier judgment. Beginning with verse 37 Jesus states, “37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.” So let’s break this down. In the days of Noah, before the flood,

“people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage”—in other words, people were going about doing the kinds of things we humans do in our lives. We eat, we drink, some marry, some are given in marriage. All of these activities continued to take place “up to the day Noah entered the ark.”

Further, up until that day “they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.” In other words, the judgment of the flood came as a complete surprise to them.

But before moving on it’s important to note that in this portion of Matthew Jesus is speaking with his disciples,[8] men who were well-versed in their understanding of Scripture. Therefore when he makes reference to Noah, he doesn’t need to explain what he’s talking about since they would have been well-acquainted with this account. But it’s worth reminding ourselves about some of the particulars in the Noahic account since we may be less well-acquainted with them. As we heard read earlier in the service, verse 9 of Genesis 9 states, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God.” Noah was living the way that God intended us to live, walking faithfully with him and blamelessly among others, in an upright manner that was evident to all.

But Noah’s upright character stood in stark contrast with that of those living in his day. As stated in verse 11, “…the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.” This corruption and violence were so great that God determined to remove the evil that existed from the good earth he had created and cleanse it away. As stated beginning with verse 12, “12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. 13 So God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. 14 So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out.’” Again, the reason for God telling Noah to build an ark was because he was going to remove all the corrupt people who had brought about such violent times. The verses just prior to our Old Testament reading in Genesis 6 detail just how evil these times were:

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.[9]

This background helps us better appreciate verse 38 in Matthew for the good activities of eating and drinking, of marrying and giving in marriage that God intended for us were being done by people who were extremely wicked. Therefore God, despite being “slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness,”[10] determined to remove these wicked people from the face of the earth. Whereas these corrupt and evil ones lived as though their evil actions would have no repercussions as they went about “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,” they were wrong about this as God’s judgment came upon them by way of a flood they knew nothing about.

After alluding to the story of Noah, Jesus makes this analogy starting at the end of verse 29 in Matthew 24: “That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” Now scholars differ as to whether it is the righteous or the condemned who are left behind since it’s difficult to know how far to press the details of the Noahic account and the other examples of judgment given by Jesus. Is the point that some will be taken away to destruction or taken away from destruction? Should Noah be viewed as one who was left behind in the ark and thereby saved as the wicked were taken away by the flood[11] or was Noah taken away by the ark from the destruction the earth experienced by those who were left behind[12]? However we understand this, we mustn’t be distracted by this question for the greater point Jesus was making was that when the Son of Man returns, the wicked and the righteous will be separated. They will have different eternal destinies. Those who have believed in and followed the LORD will receive eternal salvation; those who have not believed in God but chosen instead to follow their own ways, will go to judgment.

Again, the real point in all that Jesus was teaching is that just as God’s judgment fell upon the wicked during the days of the flood, just as surely will judgment occur at his final advent. Therefore just as righteous Noah was prepared so should we be prepared. As stated beginning in verse 42 by our LORD, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” The return of our LORD will be as unexpected as someone breaking into our homes to steal our possessions while we are sleeping. We never expect such an event to happen. So, too, our LORD and King will return when we least expect it. But this begs the question: if the return of the Son of Man—Jesus’ favorite self-designation—will be on a day and hour that we do not know or expect, then how can we be ready for it? In the case of Noah, God warned him and told him to build an ark in anticipation of the sure judgment to come. Yet we know that the earth will never again be destroyed by a flood for afterwards the LORD promised, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. 22 As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”[13]

Therefore what about us? How can we who know and love and serve Christ build a figurative ark in anticipation of his final advent, of his final return? How can we be ready for something whose arrival time is unknown to us? What does it mean to be ready for Christ Jesus’ final advent? his final return as Judge and King? The short answer is that we can be ready by living faithfully. Doing our level best to love the LORD with all our heart, souls, mind, and strength and each other as ourselves.

This, in essence is what Paul and Peter, drawing from Jesus’ teaching about the end times, exhorted their followers:

As Paul states in 1 Thessalonians 5, “1 Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” Paul again underscores the fact that we cannot know the day of Christ’s final advent. Yet he continues with these words of admonishment:

But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief…. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.[14]

Paul understood that the earthly portion of our lives is a battle. Therefore he tells these believers that the way to be ready for battle as we anticipate Christ’s final advent is by putting on the armor of faith and love as a breastplate along with the helmet of the hope of salvation that our LORD Jesus has promised us. Though Jesus now rules from heaven he, by his Holy Spirit who seals and indwells us, is the means by which we can live together with him whether in this life or the next. Being ready for Christ’s final advent means that we should encourage and build each other up with these foundational truths of our faith.

Similarly, in his second epistle Peter also drew from our LORD’s teaching in stating, “10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.” As was true of the flood, Christ’s final advent will result in judgment and destruction. Therefore Peter asked—and went on to answer—the question,

11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. 14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. 15 Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him…. 17 Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. 18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.[15]

Peter here reminded these believers about the difference that believing in Christ and his final advent ought to make in our lives. We shouldn’t live as we desire but as God desires we should “live holy and godly lives,” lives that reflect the holiness and goodness of our loving and kind and gracious LORD Jesus. Therefore we ought to “make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.” We shouldn’t take Christ’s sacrifice for us for granted but should seek to live lives that are worthy of the sacrifice he has made. And we should “[b]ear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation.” If ever we’re feeling that the evil in this world has become too great—what with famines and divisions and earthquakes and war and other types of destruction—we need to remind ourselves that our LORD won’t return until as many people as possible respond to his gracious offer of salvation. Finally, Peter reminds these believers about the danger of being drawn away by false teaching and encourages them instead to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Lastly, in Peter’s first letter he similarly exhorted,

The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.[16]

And with these words, we end with the application with which we began. Being ready for Christ’s final advent means living faithfully. It means that we live our lives with the goal of loving him and each other “deeply.” Why? “because love covers over a multitude of sins.” Love allows us to ask forgiveness and to forgive one another as often as needed.

At the end of the day, being ready for Christ’s final advent means that we needn’t fear the judgment to come because we belong to God and to each other. And belonging to him and each other means that we need his help and each other’s help to live the lives of holiness and love to which he’s called us, using our gifts for the service of others, serving with the strength God provides. And knowing that all we are and do comes from our gracious and loving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we’ll be able to give him the honor and glory he so rightly deserves now and until the day that Christ returns and forevermore. This longing for our LORD’s final advent may, for the time being be a “hope deferred” that “makes [our] hearts sick” but because it’s a sure promise that has been made by our gracious God, it will one day be “a longing fulfilled,” “a tree of [eternal] life.”[17]

Let us pray.

[1] Proverb 13:2.

[2] Matthew 24:1–35 tells about the destruction of the Temple and signs of the End Times.

[3] Matthew 25:1–13 records the Parable of the Ten Virgins; Matthew 25:14–30 records the Parable of the Ten Bags of God; Matthew 25:31–41 tells about the Sheep and the Goats.

[4] See Amos 9:11: 11 “In that day “I will restore David’s fallen shelter—I will repair its broken walls and restore its ruins— and will rebuild it as it used to be, 12 so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name,” declares the Lord, who will do these things.; Micah 4:6–7: “In that day,” declares the Lord, “I will gather the lame; I will assemble the exile and those I have brought to grief. I will make the lame my remnant, those driven away a strong nation. The Lord will rule over them in Mount Zion from that day and forever.

[5] See 1 Peter 1:10–12: 10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

[6] Other examples of Christ Jesus’ full humanity may be found in, e.g., Luke 2:40: And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.; Luke 2:52: And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.; John 4:6: … and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

[7] E.g., see John 13:14–15: 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.; Colossians 3:13: Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.; 1 Peter 2:20–21: 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

[8] This is a continuation of a conversation Jesus was having with his disciples as noted in Matthew 24:1, 3: 1 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings…. As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

[9] Genesis 6:5–8.

[10] Psalm 103:8: The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.; Exodus 34:6: And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”; Nehemiah 9:17c: But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.; Joel 2:13: Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.

[11] In Matthew 25 the wise virgins entered the wedding banquet (v. 10: But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.) but the foolish virgins were left outside the door (vv. 11–12: 11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ 12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’”). So, too, the wicked servant who was a poor steward of his masters gold is left outside in the darkness (verse 30: And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’) whereas the faithful servants are invited to come and share in their master’s happiness (vv. 21, 23: 21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’… 23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’); finally, in the account of the sheep and goats, the goats are the ones who are told to depart (v. 41: Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels) but the sheep receive the inheritance, the kingdom prepared for them from the beginning of the world (v. 34: Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.).

[12] In Luke’s recounting in Chapter 17 of his Gospel, the emphasis seems to go in the opposite direction. Lot is the one who is taken (vv. 28–29: 28 “It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. 29 But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.); The one on the housetop and in the field should remain there (vv. 30–31: 30 “It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything.); Lot’s wife is left behind (v. 32: Remember Lot’s wife!).

[13] Genesis 8:21b–22.

[14] 1 Thessalonians 5:4, 8–11.

[15] Excerpts from 2 Peter 3:10–15, 17–18.

[16] 1 Peter 4:7–11.

[17] Proverb 13:2.