We start Advent by doing some double-watching.
The first watch is for the birth of Christ. This has already happened, but we go along for the ride by remembering the story with manger scenes and Advent calendars and Christmas plays.
Spoiler alert: the Son of God is going to be born as a tiny baby to average parents in a barn!
We know that this baby Jesus will grow up to be Jesus the Christ. We know that his route to the Throne will be the unexpected way of crucifixion. We know that he’ll laugh in the face of death as he walks out of the empty tomb. In other words, we know not only that this baby we’re “watching” for will be born – we know how the story goes on from there.
The second watch is different from the first. It hasn’t already happened. We are actively still waiting for another arrival of Christ.
Jesus describes it for us in a section of Matthew often called the “Little Apocalypse.” The Greek word apocalypse means “revelation” or “disclosure,” so an apocalypse usually contains visions that reveal something about the divine – especially relating to the future. The “Little Apocalypse” in Matthew 24 is that kind of disclosure.
It comes up in conversation after Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple (Matt 24:1-2). To say that the massive Temple rebuilt by Herod and occupied by God would one day crumble was a pretty bold claim. The disciples have some valid follow-up questions: When? What will be the sign of your coming, and the end of this age?
Apparently this subject matter comes with the danger of being led astray, particularly by others claiming to be the Christ. So Jesus tells them what to expect.
First comes a beginning phase with “wars and rumors of wars,” “nation rising against nation,” famines, and earthquakes (24:6-7). That’s not the end, though. That’s just the stuff that has to happen first. It’s like labor pains for an expectant mother: the baby could come within the hour, or later today, or several days from now. The labor pains don’t tell you when the baby will be born, just that you better be ready because it’s coming sometime.
When Matthew was composed (most Bible scholars say between 75 and 100 AD), there were events in the recent past that qualified as the kind of “birth pains” Jesus was talking about. War came in 66, ending in that predicted destruction of the Temple in 70.
So we look for more.
Jesus said the next stage will be persecution and a “desolating sacrilege.” The persecution includes both external pressures (torture and hatred from all nations) and internal struggles (betrayal within the congregations and falling away from the faith). All the while, the mission of the church remains: to proclaim the good news throughout the world.
“Sacrilege” means a misuse of what’s sacred. When trying to identify a “desolating sacrilege” we have some options. Was it the desecration of the Temple written about in Daniel 8, an altar to Zeus built by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 167 BC? Or Emperor Caligula’s threat to place his own image in the Temple in 40? Or Titus’ destruction of the Temple in 70? Or maybe something else yet to come? It might be past, it might be present, it might be future.
So we keep looking for more.
After all that, finally, is the coming of the Son of Man. A dark sky and falling stars. Coming in the clouds with all sorts of power and glory. Everyone – “all the tribes of the earth” (24:30) – will see the Son of Man’s arrival.
You know the old directional expression, “You can’t miss it”? That applies here: when Jesus Christ comes again, it will be unmistakable.
Phases 1 and 2 in this “Little Apocalypse” are hard to pinpoint. There are always wars, always persecutions, always those who wander from their original commitments. Pick a time in history and you’ll find these things taking place somewhere in the world. But phase 3 – Jesus’ arrival – cannot be missed.
So we have to wait and watch, always ready. Decades pass; centuries pass; millennia pass. We wait and watch.
That kind of long term waiting is hard. If you don’t know, try going deer hunting.
I’ve only been once, but it was enough to teach me that it ought to be called “deer waiting” instead of deer hunting. You get up early when the world is still and the air is cold. You go out to some remote tree in a quiet patch of woods. You climb into the tree and sit in a deer stand, which is like a tree house with even fewer amenities. You sit. You wait.
I was about twelve years old when I went on my one excursion, enticed by the promise of pancakes and a chance to shoot a rifle. I got trained on when to have the safety on (almost always) and when to point the gun at a living creature (almost never). My dad and I sat in that stand with the cold metal of the rifles stinging our hands. I stood the pain so I’d be ready when a deer stepped into our patch of woods.
At any moment…
Any moment now…
If you’ve ever been deer hunting, you can guess how this story ends: nary a deer was seen. That was disappointing, but it did teach me a good lesson on keeping watch.
Deer hunting requires a particular kind of keeping watch. It is very tempting (especially for a tweenage girl) to get lost in a daydream, or take a short nap, or start up a noisy conversation. But if I stop watching I might miss the precious moment when a deer quietly walks into our line of sight. The whole point is to be ready when the deer makes an appearance, so I can’t stop watching. I have to stay alert.
Knowing this, my first hour in the deer stand was in a kind of hyper-alert state. Finger ever on the trigger – or, more accurately, on the safety, after which would come the trigger. Watching for any movement, listening for any sound. In this hyper-alert state I had small causes for alarm every few minutes. What’s that movement?! …oh, it’s a leaf falling. What’s that sound?! …oh, it’s a squirrel rustling.
After the first hour I realized that I could not sustain that level of keeping watch over the long haul. I was getting distracted by unimportant details. I didn’t need to notice every leaf falling or squirrel rustling. I only needed to notice a deer when it showed up… and if I had my eyes and ears open, that would be pretty hard to miss.
The waiting we do as Christians is like this. Read the parables that follow this “Little Apocalypse” in Matthew 24 and you’ll get the gist: The kingdom of heaven is like bridesmaids keeping watch all night long (25:1-13). Or like a traveler who trusted servants to invest his money while he was gone (25:14-30). Those bridesmaids better have oil left when the groom arrives. Those servants better have profits when the traveler gets back. And not just for fictional bridesmaids or servants, but for us, too. When the Son of Man comes we’ll be identified as part of Christ’s flock by our state of readiness as defined by our acts of compassion to those in need (25:31-46).
If you’re out in the woods holding a rifle, the whole point is to be ready when a deer arrives. And if you’re a Christian living in the twenty-first century, the whole point is to be ready when Jesus Christ arrives… today, tomorrow, or another thousand years from now.
So don’t be hyper-alter to signs that suggest Christ is about to come back. They might distract you – like leaves falling or squirrels rustling. When Christ comes, you’ll know it. It’ll probably be as surprising as a baby born in a barn… but also as unmistakable as the piercing sound of a newborn crying.
Keep watch. Be ready. Serve others. Love God. Stay alert. Look for Jesus.
Christ was born. Christ has died. Christ was risen.
Christ will come again.
The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary entry on “Apocalypse.”
The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary
The New Interpreter’s Study Bible
Abingdon New Testament Commentary: Matthew