Who can predict the future? These days, it seems there are few of us who can. In the past few years there have been quite a few surprises, both on a national and global scale. We have all witnessed major events we would never have predicted. Most obviously, we have been surprised by this pandemic we are all having to live through. If you could talk to your past self at the beginning of Advent last year I don’t think he or she would believe what has happened in these last eight months. The future so often appears uncertain, and it can be quite troubling when things change that we weren’t expecting.
But this was not the case for Jesus. In our passage we see him predict our future with the same authority and certainty as the Old Testament predicted his incarnation, as he predicted his own death and as he predicted his resurrection three days later. Everything about Jesus in the New Testament was the fulfilment, in some form or another, of some earlier prediction. In our bibles, the life, death and resurrection of Christ played out as if it had been scripted long in advance. Throughout scripture we see, time and again, God’s words coming to pass.
All God’s words come to pass and have been shown to be trustworthy. We can therefore have confidence in what we hear from Jesus today. In these prophetic words, we can catch a glimpse behind the curtain of the events that are coming.
Some of you might think this is a strange way to begin Advent. Isn’t Advent a time when you start putting up Christmas decorations, set up your Advent calendar, and think about the birth of Christ, you may ask? Why is the Church focusing on Jesus coming in power and great glory to judge the earth when the rest of us are thinking about Jesus the infant wrapped in swaddling bands?
The answer is because there is a parallel between Israel looking forward to Jesus’ incarnation 2000 years ago and us looking forward to Jesus’ return today. They are both times of expectation. In Advent we not only look back at events that happened many years ago, we also look forward to events that are to come. We therefore have the same posture of waiting as the people of Israel did all those years ago.
So what are we looking towards in this first week of Advent? Well, to begin with we have apocalyptic prophecies of cosmic catastrophe as the universe is packed up before the final judgement. We are told to use the signs we see around us to remind ourselves of this final day where justice is done and the world is remade. In the verses immediately before our reading we are told that these signs are wars and rumours of wars, earthquakes, famines, persecutions, division and false messiahs. Incidentally it is these signs that Jesus says are like new leaves on a fig tree: when you see them you know summer is near. In the same way when you see these things, you know that the final judgment and remaking of the heavens and earth is near. This helps us to make sense of the words ‘this generation will not pass away until all these things take place’. ‘These things’ refers to the wars, earthquakes, famines, persecutions, divisions and false messiahs, all of which happened to the generation Jesus was immediately addressing in our reading today.
Now, some people might not like the idea of Jesus returning as our judge. Some may prefer to see Jesus merely as a good example of how to live. However, that option is not open to us. If you have an ideal then you necessarily have a judge. Whatever ideal we hold up must inevitably become our judge because it is something we measure ourselves by. If we don’t let our ideal evaluate our own actions and behaviours then it is not an ideal. Therefore, if we hold Jesus up as a perfect example of living well, of living a life characterised by divine love, then it necessarily throws a light on our own lives. Are we living that ideal? In what ways are we close to it? In what ways are we falling short of it? We are using it to judge our own lives. Ideals necessarily become our judges.
So Jesus is coming to judge the earth. What then ought we to do with that information? While it is of great comfort to know that God’s elect will be gathered together and protected from the judgment of God, the thing Jesus seems really focused on is the warning to stay awake. In verse 33 he says ‘Be on guard, keep awake.’ Again in verse 35 he says ‘stay awake’ before finally concluding with the words in verse 37 ‘what I say to you I say to all: stay awake’. The posture we are to adopt in this age (and especially during this Advent) is a posture of alertness. The reason for this alertness is because we are told Jesus will return at an hour we do not expect.
I wonder how many of us have had to wait at home for a delivery, or an important phone call. In that state of waiting our senses are elevated. We hear a car door open and we look out the window, we hear something ring and we look at the telephone. In a similar way we are to be on our guard for signs of Jesus’ immanent return and be aware of anything in our lives that may cause ourselves anguish when the time finally comes.
I suppose in this sense it is most like the doorkeeper waiting for his master to return. I’m sure this is an experience we are all familiar with: the experience of waiting for a visitor. It seems to me to be almost universal that before an expected guest comes to our homes, the most natural thing is to have a tidy-up; to attempt to make our homes presentable and hospitable.
It’s a similar situation in our gospel reading. We are given notice that Jesus is due to return at a time we do not know, so the command is to be ready to receive him when he does. To tidy up our lives as we tidy up our homes. How then do we tidy up our lives? The answer is: confession and repentance. Advent is a time in the church calendar for focusing on repentance. In the liturgies of our services from now until Christmas, you will notice an increase in penitential material. It is to encourage us to get our lives together as we await the coming of Christ at an hour we do not expect.
So what are the parallels between tidying and cleaning on the one hand and confession and repentance on the other hand? Well, throughout scripture we find a beautiful thread of great comfort. Those who acknowledge their sins before God and resolve to live according to his ways have their slates wiped clean. This is the preciousness of the good news that sits at the heart of our faith.
One of my favourite verses in the bible is from 1 John 1:9 ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ What I like about it is its simplicity. If we confess our sins to God he will make us clean. The priority of repentance is highlighted by the fact that the very first words Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark are ‘repent and believe’ (1:15).
Of course, confession is only the starting place. The rest of the task is contained in the word repentance. We must resolve in our minds not to recommit the things we have confessed. Of course we won’t always keep a spotless record, we will sin again. The important thing is whether we have adopted the rhythm of confession and repentance when we do sin. When we commit wrong, are we quick to put it right? Are we at peace with God and neighbour? On the day of Jesus’ return, none of us wants any nasty surprises.
Now I must add a bit of detail to what I have just said. It is not the case that I am saying that salvation depends on our flimsy efforts to be righteous. If that were the case then no one would be saved. Nor would it make sense to use the word salvation or describe Jesus as our saviour because being rescued by a saviour implies that we are in a position we cannot get out of ourselves. In verse 27 the elect will be gathered together from the ends of the earth and the ends of heaven when Jesus returns. The elect are those who have received the spiritual gift of faith in Christ. They are those who trust in the promises of God, who love Jesus and put their hope in him. It is those who will be gathered, saved and protected from the judgment that is coming and this is the work of God, not the elect. We will be saved by God, we cannot save ourselves.
Our salvation, then, is dependent on God’s promises and therefore it is secure. So why should we get our houses in order to receive Christ if it doesn’t alter our chances of salvation? The answer is because the elect person ought to find sin repulsive in itself and would be horrified to be found sinning when Jesus returns. Yes, Jesus will come to gather and save his elect, but how distressing would it be to be caught sinning against him in that moment you see him face to face?
This, I think, is what Jesus is talking about in our reading today. We must be awake and vigilant in expectation of his return. No one knows the exact time it will happen; we don’t have the luxury of being able to prepare a good show for him. Rather, we have to be people who do not fall into spiritual sleep. We stay awake and constant in our endeavours to confess and repent so that on that great day at the end of all things we will be found ready to receive him. I pray that this season of Advent will be one of personal transformation as we prepare for the coming of Christ as our saviour and our judge. Amen.