December 1, 2019 – How Do You Prepare for the Unexpected (Matthew 24:36-44) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000166
Paul Kennedy was expecting to sleep in on the morning of December 7, 1941. He had been on deck duty on board the U.S.S. Sacramento at Pearl Harbor until 4 a.m., then grabbed coffee with a buddy and hadn’t gone to bed until 5:30 a.m. So, when alarms sounded at around 8 a.m. as a swarm of Japanese warplanes began a ferocious assault on the U.S. Naval Base, Kennedy thought it was a drill and tried to tune it out.
“I put the pillow over my ear,” he said, in an interview with the History channel. “My buddy saw that I wasn’t responding, so he pulled the covers off and said in so many words, ‘Get up and go! We’re under attack—grab your gas mask and helmet,’ which I did. I didn’t even put on any pants.”
The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor not only took then-21-year-old Kennedy by surprise, it shocked the nation. The attacks, which killed 2,400 Americans and wounded 1,200, struck a devastating blow against the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Five U.S. battleships, three destroyers and seven other ships were taken out and more than 200 aircraft were lost in the rain of Japanese bombs and gunfire. The assault pulled the United States into a war that it had, until then, resisted joining. The following day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called December 7, 1941 “a date which will live in infamy” and Congress declared war on Japan.
Paul Ivan Kennedy died on December 2, 2017. He was 96 years old.
The disciples asked Jesus to tell them when he was going to return, and what the signs would be that foretold his coming. And Jesus answered them with two definite facts. First, there will be a day. Jesus will return. And the Bible has a lot to say about that day, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. We know that it will be a day of judgment, a day when evil will be condemned and done away with, once and for all. We know that it will be a day when every human being who has ever lived will come before the Judge of all things. And we know that that judge will be the Son of God, Jesus Christ. That is the clear teaching of the Bible.
But the second fact was a little more surprising. “Nobody knows when that day will be,” he told them. “The angels in heaven have no idea. I don’t even have any idea when it will be. Only the Father knows.” Now, for the next two thousand years, ever since Jesus said that, people have been trying to decode the symbols of books like Revelation and Daniel, trying to determine the date and time of Christ’s return. Countless people have claimed they have it all figured out, and have boldly predicted the day. But invariably, every time, the big day comes and goes, and nothing happens. And that should come as no surprise to anyone. Because Jesus himself told us plainly. NOBODY knows when that day will be. Even I don’t know, he said. So, just be ready.
This morning marks the first day of Advent, and the beginning of a new church year. And on this day every year we remind ourselves, we remind one another, that our Lord will surely come, on a day and at a time that we least expect him. We remind ourselves, and we remind one another, that we need to be ready. Because just as surely as Paul Kennedy’s life changed forever – along with the lives of so many other people – at the onslaught of Japanese bombers that terrible morning 78 years ago, there will come a day when this whole world will be changed forever at the coming of the Son of God. And just like Paul Kennedy was dragged from a sound sleep with no preparation – no time even to put on a pair of pants – the day of our Lord’s coming will also take us by surprise. That is the clear meaning of Jesus’s answer to his disciples.
What is maybe not so clear is what we’re supposed to do about it. What does it mean to live in readiness for something that is 100% sure to happen, but that could happen at any moment, any day, any time, without any warning? Well, we really ought to have some idea about that, because there is another thing that every human being faces that is similarly unpredictable. It’s called death. Nobody in this room can say for sure that they will be alive tomorrow, or tonight, or this afternoon. I might be here in the pulpit preaching a sermon next year for the first of Advent, or I might be with the Lord. I don’t know. You don’t know. And yet, we all know beyond the shadow of a doubt that for each and every one of us there will be a last day, a last hour, a last word, a last breath. And it seems to me that living in readiness for our death and living in readiness for the coming of Christ are very much alike.
The very early Church fully expected that Jesus was going to return very soon – in their own lifetime. And their response, or at least the response of some early Christians, was to pretty much abandon the things of the world – things like work – and to just sit around and wait for the end. Paul had some harsh things to say about that. “Avoid any brother who is living in idleness,” Paul told the Church in Thessalonica. “If anybody isn’t willing to work, he doesn’t get to eat either. Instead of being busy, those people are busybodies. This is our command: go back to work, earn your living, and don’t grow weary in doing good.” So Paul said, “Yes, the Lord is coming back. But don’t get lazy and sit around and wait for him like a bump on a log. Live well while you wait. Work hard. Pull your own weight. Do good.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Jesus talked about the days before the coming of the great flood in Noah’s day. “People were eating and drinking and getting married right up until the day the flood came and swept them all away,” Jesus said. The people of Noah’s time were carrying on with their lives. But they were completely unprepared for it all to end. Living in preparation – for death, or for Christ’s coming – doesn’t mean abandoning our responsibilities and severing our relationships with this life, and settling in to wait for the end. But it also doesn’t mean living in denial, carrying on with our lives as if this is all that there is, and as if life as we know it is going to go on forever.
Paul Kennedy, in his interview with History, said this about the battle on Pearl Harbor that day. “[We] were caught off guard, [but we] quickly settled in for a fight. There was nobody on the Sacramento who was out of control, crying for their mother, or crying at all…everyone did what they were trained to do. I was real proud of my ship.” In all the routine, daily work that Kennedy and his companions had done in the time before the attack – and I’m sure a lot of it was hard, or boring, or both – one of the primary purposes was to prepare them for just such a day. So that even though they were caught unawares, they weren’t caught unprepared. To live in readiness means living our daily live so that we are being prepared for the day we know is coming, even though we don’t know when it will be. What we do now matters in the end. How we live now will matter in the end. How we treat one another now, and especially how we treat the poor or the sick or the lonely or the marginalized – that will matter in the end.
What makes all the difference for us, of course, is that we are preparing for an event of the greatest joy that the Creation has ever known. Living in readiness – for death and for the coming of Christ – doesn’t mean living in fear or anxiety. In fact, of all people, Christians know enough to understand that we no longer have to fear our old enemy, death, and even more, that we are preparing to welcome the Judge whose name is Love, whose purpose is to bring healing and comfort, to wipe away every tear, and to establish a new Creation.
Before I finish talking about this passage, I wanted to mention an idea that has gained some undeserved prominence in the last century or so, and that is the doctrine of the Rapture. Some Christian teachers promote the idea that in the days before the return of Christ, our Lord will beam up all his faithful people so that they can avoid the suffering of the last days before the end of all things. One of the proof texts they use to support their doctrine is this passage we read today, where Jesus says, “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”
But a faithful reading, in context, shows us that in this passage, when Jesus is talking about people being taken, he’s not talking about a kind of rescue. Being taken by the flood in the days of Noah was not a good thing. Jesus is saying what we all know, that the end, that death, comes upon us unexpectedly, unpredictably, as we go about our daily lives. Two are working on a farm; one is taken, and one is left. Two are working at the mill, grinding grain, on an ordinary day, and one is taken, and one is left. Jesus isn’t talking about some mystical event where he spirits the good people away, leaving their empty clothes behind. He is talking about how things are in this world. Look in the obituaries – we tend to read those more as we get older, I find – there are the people you went to school with, the people you worked beside, the people you used to see on the street. One is taken, and one is left. That isn’t mystery. It’s reality.
But, other than the fact that the Bible doesn’t support it, the other argument against this doctrine of the Rapture is that it just isn’t a very Christ-like idea. As followers of Jesus Christ, who came to give his life for the salvation of the world, how can we even imagine that our final act will be to hide away safely and comfortably in heaven while the rest of the world suffers its final agonies? Whatever comes at the end of this Creation, if we follow our Lord, who is all com-passion, who suffered with us in his great love for us, we will also be there for our fellow children of God in love, not leave them to their fate.
I wanted to say something about all that, because the Rapture has gained quite a large following and a good deal of publicity with books like the “Left Behind” series, and there are an awful lot of people who assume it must be in the Bible somewhere. But it really isn’t.
So, here we are, at the very beginning of another Advent season. Christmas is coming with all the joy and wonder that that means. But there is more for us to remember, more for us to meditate on, more for us to work on, before we come to the celebration of that most Holy Night. Keep awake, live in joyful readiness, day by day, because you truly don’t know the day or the hour when your Lord is coming.