Jesus said to the disciples, "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But 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. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."
Eschatology is that branch of theology which deals with “the study of the end of things” (“eschatos” means “last.). The gospel reading for this week is eschatological, as it is traditional for Advent to begin with a gospel reading that deals with this subject. It is the end of Year C and the beginning of Year A. It is the end of the Season after Pentecost, also known as “Ordinary Time.” And indeed, Advent reminds us that we do not live in ordinary time during this month of preparation that is at once both joyful and solemn.
This passage itself was one that was quoted to me often in my childhood churches. Many of them talked often about the “end-times,” and this was one of their favorite images: two people will be working side by side, and one will be taken and the other “left behind” when Jesus makes his “second coming.” The “Left Behind” series is about just such scenarios, I am told, and is centered around a general set of beliefs known as dispensationalism, which foretold the apocalypse and in particular the “rapture”—when the resurrection will happen as described in 1 Thessalonians 4:17—“Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.”
The Gospel of Matthew contains five sermons or discourses from Jesus:
1) the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5-7
2) Missionary Instructions – Matthew 10
3) Collection of Parables (or Parabolic Discourse) – Matthew 13
4) Community Instructions (or Discourse on the Church) – Matthew 18
5) Sermon on Eschatology (or Discourse on End Times, or Olivet Discourse) – Matthew 24
Thus, in this Advent 1 reading, we have a discussion of the end, right as we balance upon the edge of the beginning. This discourse was given on the Mount of Olives, which even today is one of the main burial sites for Jerusalem. The Garden of Gethsemane was at the base of the Mount, and in Matthew this is the last discourse of the five. We read this at Advent to remind us that every ending leads to a new beginning.
Jesus admits here that no one but God the Father knows when the end will come—not even the Son. People will be going about their business, and then suddenly all will be over. The discussion of Noah (vv. 37-40) focuses not on those who got on the ark, but on those “left behind” because they were judged not to be righteous, as Noah was. Then we see two pairs of people, one male and one female—once again one half of each pair will be taken up, showing the universality and polarity of judgment. It’s interesting to note that most people assume that one being snatched up is the one who is “saved”—but that is not actually stated here. It could be that the one snatched up is the one facing judgment. We only assume that the one taken up is the one saved based on the dispensationalism we have absorbed all around us in sources such as the Scofield Reference Bible.
Then Jesus makes the famous analogy about the thief in the night. We never know when disaster may strike—this is a completely human analogy. Most of us can identify with this image—even if we haven’t had someone try to break in to our homes—which I have.
But even more, Advent reminds us that, as Christians, we live between times and between worlds. We have one foot planted in the past, and one foot planted in the future—we look to biblical prophecies like those in Isaiah as foretelling the Messiah, but then we claim Jesus as coming to change the game. We have one foot planted in the Old Testament, and one foot planted in the New. We have one foot planted in Israel, and one foot planted in the Greco-Roman world. And it is the same for us right now: we belong to a denomination that strives to make us aware that there is a breathless pause between the end of one year and the coming of the Messiah, that Christmas season doesn’t start the day after Thanksgiving (or worse, the day after Labor Day), but first we must prepare. We must make ready our hearts and minds for the coming of the Prince of Peace. This readiness takes time, and we must allow ourselves this gift above all other gifts we can pick up from Best Buy or amazon.com or Wal-mart. Advent is a gift we give to ourselves, to prepare ourselves to receive the Christ-child in holy expectation; to look to the future even as we are rooted in the past.