Summary: Jesus' call to stay awake and keep watch is built on a living relationship with him.
Keep watch, stay awake...
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 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. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner 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. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (Matthew 24:32-44 NRSV)
Welcome to Advent. Welcome to the first Sunday in the Church’s year.
Advent is the time we use to prepare for our celebration of Christmas, when we remember that Jesus emptied himself of his power and glory, and became one of us, sharing fully in our humanity so that we could share in his divinity. Christmas, then, far from being a glittery flight of fancy is a time when we get right down to what Jesus’ mission really was. It is a dirty, messy, intensely real time, which is almost completely obscured by our modern world, and by the way that the church generally allows its message of transformation and truth to be silenced. Instead of reality we get tinsel for Christmas, and a weak message of ‘niceness’. Still, we can rely on the readings we get in the Gospel to bring us back to the core of the Advent and Christmas truths, if we allow ourselves to be submerged in them.
Matthew’s gospel was written in about 70s of the Common Era, for a group of Messianic Jews (or Jewish Christians), probably in Syrian Antioch. This group was in a state of profound dislocation - the foundations of their world had been shaken, they were being persecuted, and the future for them as individuals and as a community looked bleak. It was for these people, in the midst of profound, life-altering change, that Matthew wrote.
When we read this passage through the lens of the question ‘how do we deal with change?’ (which was the question faced by the readers), we’re struck, I think, by the power of the words. The world will come to an end - but no human knows when, as it is in the Father’s time, and the Father’s hands. Those believers must have thought their world was coming to an end. Matthew’s readers lived in between two worlds - the Jewish world following the destruction of the Temple, and the world of the Gentiles. Neither wanted them. They were real outsiders, at real risk of death.