Matthew, Mark and Luke all have used portions of the words we hear this morning in our lectionary reading about the end time. There is no singular influence or set of ideas and concepts that have controlled the various ideas of the importance of the end time. Many texts from the Hebrew Bible as well as non-Biblical traditions and ideas have influenced the New Testament expressions. In fact, time itself impacted the way the earliest writings and Christian communities dealt with what is often referred to as the delayed parousia.
It may seem odd at the beginning of the liturgical year, on this the first Sunday of Advent, to have texts that talk of the end when we are at the beginning. Yet it is important to note the necessity of watchfulness whether at the beginning or end of the Christian liturgical year.
Each generation must look at their practices of watchfulness and determine how to remain faithful to this absolute call in Matthew. The call to watchfulness is carried out in various ways despite not being specific in our text. One of the most endirung practices associated with watchfulness is found in prayer. We find watchfulness and prayer spoken of in Gethsemane, Matthew 26:36-46 and parallels). We also find in the New Testament watchfulness in caring for others and even in the willingness to sacrifice one’s own life. Whatever practices and circumstances may have been in the experience of the earliest Christian communities to fill watchfulness with some ethical and religious behavior we must note. Also observe 21st century Christian communities for cues.
Just before our lectionary text (Matthew 24:32-35) we get a clue from nature. Watching a fig tree when it is about to bud gives us a clue about the coming summer. Having had a fig tree in Atlanta, I can tell you that the fig tree is an excellent pre-warning signal for the coming of Spring. (Also take a look at Mark 13:28-32 and the analogous role of the fig tree to the second coming.) Luke 21:29-33 has the fig tree parable and places some content in what it means to be alert and watchful by noting the necessity to pray constantly for strength. Matthew and Luke both use the past to validate the need to be watchful (Matthew 24:37-42 parallel Luke 17:26-27, 30, 34-35). The example of Noah is brought into analogy with watchfulness.
The point taken from the story of Noah and the owner of the house (see Matthew 24:42; 25:14-30 parallel Luke 19:11-27) is that we do not know the time of the coming. But Matthew adds that it is not the negative notion of not knowing that is emphasized. Because while it is true that no one including the angels know, the Father, that is God does know. This means that God is watching out even in ways we do not fully see in our watchfulness.
We must be grateful that our human ignorance is not in control of the end time. We frequently enough misgauge tomorrow that I am thankful we do not have complete control of the march of history. I am equally cautious about this whole concept of human progress. When I look at the Noah story I note how like Noah's neighbors I am paying attention to the busyness of life rather than the creator of life. When I become genuinely watchful and alert I realize how the sales of Black Friday are not much of a signal for the beginning of Advent. Our watchfulness for sales does not translate into a watchfulness of God's great birthday we are called to celebrate. As we come to remember Jesus birthday we cannot forget that within the manger lies the cross and the hope of redemption and resurrection.