Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice
1st Sunday of Advent
Matthew 24. 36-44: Unfettered hope
Begin by using the Study Guide Method as outlined
Think of a time when the turn of events took your family, your church or another group to which you belong by surprise? Why were you caught off guard?
Reflection on the text
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus makes it plain that not even he knows when the Son of Man, the Human One, will return but only God the Father (v36).
He gives three images of people taken by surprise: Noah’s contemporaries were not expecting a flood (v37-39); co-labourers working in field and mill had no idea what might be in store for them (v40-41); like the house owner, which of us can ever know when our home is going to be broken into? (v43). The message is clear: the communities Matthew was writing for were to be in a state of constant alert – prepared, expectant, vigilant, wide-awake.
Placed in the perspective of the whole gospel, there is a ‘here and now’ as well as a ‘yet to come’ aspect of Christ’s return. In the meantime, he invites us to join him on God’s mission to a broken world by living differently (see Matthew 25:31-46). Communities ‘caught up’ in this will be those that stay focused on creating the Jesus Society (God’s reign and justice). They expect to meet Christ in the stranger and in unexpected places, and do not allow themselves to be distracted even by his eventual return. They are the ones who will experience the joy of his coming.
(See also "More Background Information")
Application: some questions for group discussion
- If the date of Christmas was chosen at random, and not announced until the day itself, what would your Christian community do? What responsibilities would members be assigned in advance?
- Give your Christian community a score out of 10 for its state of readiness for Christ’s coming. Based on Matthew 25 verses 31-46, what would you change, what practical steps would you take, in relation to the mission priorities and lifestyle of your faith community? What extra step this Advent might your community take in response to this challenge?
- We keep hearing warnings of damage we are doing to the environment – species extinction, destruction of habitats, global warming etc. (Noah again) What are you doing as a community to show that you are fully awake to the consequences of ignoring these and doing nothing?
(See also "Going Deeper")
- Sit in a circle with one chair left empty, or deliberately open a closed door, to symbolise readiness to welcome an unexpected guest. Light a candle and place it beside the chair or near the door.
- Listen, as a group member reads aloud Matthew 25 verses 31 – 46. It describes so powerfully some of the ways Jesus comes to us in the here and now.
- Say the Lord’s Prayer together, pausing after the words ‘your kingdom come’ – to thank God for times when, as individuals and/or as a community, you have witnessed God’s kingdom coming – and again after ‘your will be done’ – pray about those things in your discussion that you have agreed to act upon – then finish the prayer.
More background information
The household communities for whom Matthew wrote lived in hope of the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise that he would return one day and usher in God’s reign in all its fullness, overcoming all opposition. However, two generations on and it had not happened. Naturally, people wanted to know why not.
Matthew’s Jesus speaks of delay and calls the community to be extremely vigilant. Earlier in the chapter, he likens the unfolding of the end of history to a woman in labour (v7); he predicts hostility towards Christian households (v9) and false messiahs leading people astray (v11). He calls for determined endurance (v13) and resistance in a time of great confusion and suffering.
He says that there will be time for the good news to be proclaimed to the nations (v14), predicts the fall of Jerusalem and urges the faithful to flee the city before all hell breaks loose (v15f – ‘let the reader understand’ suggests that Jesus’ prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction in AD 70 had already been fulfilled). He then paints a picture of cataclysmic cosmic events prior to his final appearing (v29f). On the other hand, he maintains that, for most people, his coming will occur in the midst of ordinary everyday life events (v37). It all depends on your capacity to read ‘the signs of the times’.
Matthew’s households were challenged to prepare for the unexpected, and to go against the flow by maintaining a state of high alert in the knowledge that Christ could turn up at any moment. Most of the "signs" of the end times have always been with us: false messiahs, wars and rumours of war, famines, earthquakes, persecutions, eclipses and falling stars. What is required of us is to live in the knowledge that the end is always near and that, in the meantime, Christ is constantly turning up unexpected.
Going deeper - (if time allows)
Consider the following:
"In a culture of instant gratification, a season of waiting seems a waste of time. In a way of life that exalts self, a time of repentance can only last as long as the morning after. If Advent is going to be anything more than a change in church decorations and the lighting of Advent candles, everything depends on the One who is to come appearing in our life together with power, creating anticipation, evoking repentance and gracing us with a deep sense of a new future." (source unknown)
Is there anything that you might change in your community’s worship this Advent that could help you address this challenge?