This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on May 22nd, 2011. To listen to the audio of this sermon, just click on this link – Matt 24.
Matthew 24:36-45 Living in Readiness 5/22/2011
Jesus was supposed to return for all the “real” Christians yesterday, according to Harold Camping and his followers. These people spent huge amounts of time, energy, and money trying to get the world’s people ready for Judgment Day: 5/21/11. They were wrong.
It is easy to mock or dismiss people who make these kinds of predictions, but shallow dismissals and mockery are unworthy of Christians. (If nothing else, we should have compassion on those whose lives were ruined because they, or a family member, made foolish decisions based on these predictions.) We need to have a basis for our thinking on this. What should our attitude be, toward Jesus’ return? Harold Camping and his followers are wrong not because their math was wrong, because it is wrong & unnecessary to hunt through the Bible for hidden codes revealing the date of Jesus’ coming (and anyway, the codes aren’t there). Jesus left clear instructions about what our attitudes & actions regarding the future should be, and today we’ll look at some of those instructions.
In Matthew 24, in response to Jesus’ prophecy that the Jerusalem Temple would one day be destroyed, his disciples asked him for a detailed “roadmap” prediction: “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). He responded with a prophecy and instruction about how his followers should treat the near future (the coming destruction of Jerusalem, which would happen about 40 years later) and the far future (Jesus’ coming and the renewal of all things). Throughout the chapter, Jesus warns the disciples to be alert (v. 42); to avoid being deceived by false messiahs or people who claim to have special knowledge of God’s secret plans (vv. 4-5, 11, 23-24, 26); to not be afraid when hard times and persecution come (vv. 6-14); and to be ready at all times for his coming—not by calculating dates or by preparing for spectacular events but by doing the tasks that God has given them to do (vv. 45-51). Today I’ll focus on this last part.
Don’t Try to Calculate God’s Timing We aren’t going to be given the date of Christ’s return, or even much of a timeline. In verse 36, Jesus tells his disciples that he, the angels, and all humans are in ignorance about the Father’s planned end date. He repeats this later, in Acts 1:7, saying to the disciples, “It is not for you to know times and seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.”
Even Jesus, the Son of God, as part of his becoming human, laid aside any claim to omniscience about God’s future timing. In his life and his ministry, he had to trust God as we do (Phil. 2, Heb. 5:7-9). This verse alone should be enough to stop speculation and date-setting: Jesus gives us an example of trusting that God is setting all things right on his own timeline; for Jesus, that knowledge was enough. Why do we need more? We should “not be frightened” (v. 6)
Do Serve With What You Have Jesus’ parable in vv. 45-51 shows the way we are to wait for His return. We, like the servants in the story, have been placed in charge of God’s resources. God wants us to use them for the good of our fellow servants, to give them their food in the proper time (that is, to serve their needs well, with care). Each of us has been placed in a particular part of God’s household, with particular duties that come from our natural gifts, our training, our stage in life, and our relationships. We are supposed to work on carrying out those duties well. This is hard work; it requires (v. 45) “faithfulness and shrewdness (or creativity)” to do well.
Faithful servants believe that God wants to do us good; he is not the Riddler, playing puzzle-games with the Bible, waiting for us to figure out the secret. We need not find out secret knowledge that “gives us the real, behind-the-scenes plan,” whether for world events or for our individual lives. We need to believe that God is for us. We don’t need to be paralyzed with wondering “what God wants me to do.” God has given you the directions: work on worshiping God and loving your neighbor in all things, and much of the rest will fall into place. And shrewd/creative servants find ways to use what God has given. In most cases, to see what your task in the “Master’s household” is, begin with the relationships and circumstances where you are right now: your interactions with your family, roommates, co-workers, friends provide opportunities to build up or to tear down. Your possessions and your skills are given in order to be used to serve others.
Do Realize the Consequences of a Misspent Life Like the people in Noah’s generation (vv. 37-39), the people just before the End will be preoccupied with normal things: eating, drinking, getting married, etc. These things aren’t bad, in and of themselves, but they are not the sum total of life. Our living, working, and relaxation are to be done in mindfulness of God—thankful to him, and aware that our time is finite.
Jesus says that like the people of Noah’s day, the people of the last days will not get a series of additional warnings and hints. “They knew nothing of what would happen…” Verses 40 and 41 underline the suddenness of the end, which will happen in the midst of people’s everyday tasks. God has called us to repentance (a turning from sin) and his call is clear. He doesn’t need to send a bunch of follow-up reminders.
It is easy to be so unconcerned about God’s future that we lose our sense of his presence in life. The second servant in Jesus parable starts to think that the Master will never return, and this leads him to disregard the consequences of his actions. He abuses his position, behaving cruelly toward his fellow-servants and only indulging his appetites (vv. 48-49). (Again, there’s nothing wrong with eating and drinking, but he was supposed to be sharing the food of the household with his fellow-servants, not catering to his own desires.) In what ways are you and I behaving as if the Lord is not returning? What behaviors make us secretly hope that he doesn’t show up for a while?
The shocking warning that closes this chapter (“the Master…will cut him up and put him with the hypocrites…there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”) is not an insensitive attempt to scare or bully us. Jesus, like a doctor who delivers a frightening but necessary diagnosis to a patient whose lifestyle is lethal, lovingly and firmly points to where a heedless life will lead. Here and in many other places, he says that the “hypocrites” (those who use religion to look good without real change) and the self-centered will face dire consequences. This is true not only at the Last Day, but also in each individual life. Each person’s death is, for that person, the Last Day, and it could come at any time.
Do Remember That We Are Not On Our Own We all have tendencies to forget about Christ’s commands, or to disregard them. Each of us has behaved in ways that would make us ashamed if Christ returned in the midst of them. How then can we be faithful servants? Because the same Jesus who warned us of judgment gave his life for us, absorbing the penalty for our wickedness so that we could become part of God’s household (Colossians 2:13-14; Eph. 2:19). This same Jesus promises that, by his Holy Spirit, he will be with his followers “even to the end of the age” and will enable them to do “everything that he has commanded us to do.” (Matt. 28:20; John 16). Daily, turn to God in confidence that he will give you what you need to be a faithful servant, whether your time is long or short.
————————————– “We stay alert not by artificially and perpetually stirring expectation that he will come at a given time, but by living in such a manner that we would have no cause for shame if he did come at any time.”
Craig Keener, Matthew (1997 commentary)