27 November 2016

Matthew 24:36-44

“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (v. 42)

Psalm: Psalm 122


As Advent dawns we hear an alarm call. The days are short and dark (in the northern hemisphere) but we must wake up and be watchful. "Watch and pray" urges the chant from Taizé (Singing the Faith 780), using words from the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36) when Jesus calls upon his disciples to remain with him, to watch and to pray. As the Church begins the Advent penitential journey towards Christmas, it is no bad thing to be reminded that watchfulness is a mark of discipleship at any time of the year.

Matthew's Gospel sets this passage at the end of a series of detailed prophecies about the end of the age, and just before three long parables which are also about the 'end times' (or eschatology). Throughout the chapter the dominant theme of watchfulness is set against a background which can only be described as universal ignorance. Whereas we might have expected the teaching on the end times (Matthew 24:1-35) to culminate in some idea of when this might occur, instead we discover that no-one knows the date. Not humans, not angels, not Jesus, only "the Father" (v. 36).

The climactic, unexpected nature of this coming event is compared to the days of Noah when the people "knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away" (v. 39). Noah's generation are here depicted, not as the sinful brood of Genesis 6:5-8 but as engaged in the necessary, natural activities of eating, drinking and marrying. Like 1st-century Jews, like 21st-century Christians, they were going about normal life, with no idea of what was about to take place. The same could happen at any time, Jesus implies, men working together in the field, women working together in the home could, with no warning, find themselves divided - one taken, one left (verses 40-41). So the charge is to keep awake because, as Jesus makes very plain in a direct statement to his hearers: "You do not know on which day your Lord is coming."

In the final illustration, that of housebreaking, there is some suggestion that, although the timing of the coming is unknown, wakefulness and watchfulness can pre-empt disaster. Jesus is not saying that his coming will violate, as a thief's does, but rather that it will be as sudden and unannounced as a burglary. The only way to prepare for an unexpected arrival is to be ready all the time.

To Ponder

  • This first week in Advent (the first week of the new liturgical year) has been given the theme 'Justice and Sacrifice'. Try to spend a few moments each day reflecting on those two words.
  • The normal activities of life are not judged or prohibited in this passage, all of us are engaged in such ways most of the time. But how can you cultivate an 'inner watchfulness', listening to the Spirit, even as you go about your business?
  • What are the 'holy habits' or spiritual disciplines which might help you to remain alert and watchful during this Advent (and beyond)? 

Bible notes author

Jill Baker

Jill Baker lives in Glasgow and is glad to be part of the small but distinctive Methodist Church in Scotland. She is a local preacher and local preachers’ tutor in the Strathclyde Circuit, where her husband Andrew is superintendent minister. For Jill, the past 20 years have included all sorts of roles within Methodism – further afield (as a mission partner in the South Caribbean) and closer to home (with WFMUCW, MWiB, leading pilgrimages and as part of various committees and groups) and is currently the Vice-President of the Conference 2017/2018. When not engaged in these ways, Jill enjoys walking in the beautiful mountains of Scotland, gardening and writing; she blogs at and "Thanks, Peter God", her book about the life of her son, Peter, who died in 2012, was published in 2016.