The Advent run-up to Christmas starts with the last bite of teaching in Matthew: the pinnacle is the call to be a giver not a taker.
The choice of the lectionary reading for the start of Advent (Matthew 24) is very astute. It is in the final section of teaching in the gospel, just before the sequence leading to Jerusalem and the traumatic events there. These chapters are about looking to the future and living in the present.
Looking to the future
“You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed.”
I remember still from my Sunday School times a generally kindly teacher telling me that the wars in the Middle East were a sign of the end of time (this was just after the Suez crisis). I was not that pleased about this – and still remember the impact nearly 60 years later. I am sure that he did not intend me to be “alarmed” but it was rather scary, and not very accurate! After all, Jesus also said:
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Instead, the command was to be ready:
“So you must also be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour that you do not expect him.”
It might have shown up that I was not “ready”, but I don’t recall it making me wish to love God. It was an unnecessary worry for a junior school lad.
Living in the present
This is how Paul says Christians should behave in the expectation of the day of the Lord:
“The commandments…. are summed up in this one command, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore, love is the fulfilment of the law.”
Perhaps this too is what “being ready” meant to Matthew? It does not mean for us being fixated on something that hasn’t happened for 2000 years and might still be a while yet. That is not a very positive approach, and really it is not what Matthew is saying to his readership, explaining how Jesus was the fulfilment of the law and the prophets.
What he was saying is encapsulated in a familiar passage. But is its location in the Gospel so well recognised? It is the last piece of teaching in the Gospel:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Looking from the present to the future
Our response to God, is to express our love for him and our fellow travellers on the planet through the way we treat others, especially those in need. We are to provide little shafts of light to his Kingdom in this fractured world. It is very hard to see our world changing itself into Utopia – indeed all Utopias have proven to be dangerous frauds.
The image of the end of the age when God’s Kingdom merges heaven and earth through his will gives us our direction of travel, even though there will be boulders in the road. It gives us a goal that we can, and should fix our eyes upon. Ministering to God’s waifs and strays now is not a side-show to the journey to God’s final Kingdom, rather it provides the beacon to light the way.