Right now, I’m keeping watch on the rear, passenger-side, tire of the convertible. A few weeks ago, I came out and found it flat. I took it to Hartley’s, where I purchased the tires, and the word came back: the rim is cracked. Billy did his best to fix the crack and inflated the tire. So far, so good. But, with this being prime convertible-driving season, I’m alert to the safety concerns were I to drive off on an under-inflated tire. So, whenever I walk outside, I
It’s not a common phrase in our modern parlance, this idea of keeping watch. For the ancients, though, it was very common indeed. Consider the ramparts of city walls, where selected citizens in a rotation would keep watch over their cities, looking for tell tale signs of the approach of enemy forces.
Or consider that famous scene where angels appear to the shepherds announcing the birth of Jesus. The scripture says the angels appeared to shepherds who were “keeping watch over their flock by night.” The shepherds had to keep watch over their sheep, lest they lose one or more to predators.
When it comes to wisdom, Proverbs says, “The eyes of the LORD keep watch over knowledge, but he overthrows the words of the faithless.” (Proverbs 22:12).
Or you may recall the metaphorical watching over the city from Habakkuk. Last fall, I opened a sermon quoting Bob Dylan’s classic, and often covered, song, “All Along the Watchtower.” Metaphorically, the prophet walks all along his watchtower, waiting not for the advance of enemies against the city walls, but the advance of God’s power unleashed on the wicked.
And perhaps that is the most relevant thing here. Jesus’s words, speaking in metaphors, tell us all that we, in advance of the unleashing of God’s power at the end times, must
Hear the scripture this morning as we examine the little apocalypse in Matthew, the third sermon in our four week series on the end times. This scripture comes from chapter 24, verses 36 through 44.
That’s what Jesus tells us to do. Keep watch for the coming of God upon the world. Keep watch for one to be taken and one to be left. Keep watch for the end times.
Don’t be like those people in Noah’s time, who were partying and getting married. Hedonistic pursuits and planning for the future aren’t the thing to do here; no, you must keep watch.
And not just any keeping of a watch, but a constant watch. The homeowner wanting to prevent a thief he knows is coming cannot lapse in his watch even for a second. He must keep a constant watch throughout the night on his house, lest the thief, God, break in.
Now, we must admit this is all very confusing. First, in the final metaphor in this scripture, God is a thief. When we think of the names of God and the attributes of God, a thief is not one of them. But there it is, God coming like a thief in the night.
Then, in the parables, extended metaphors, around the scripture we just heard, God is a common laborer who’s shrewd with money. God is also an unjust manager. These are also not images we usually associate with God.
So we have these confusing metaphors for God. And then, to add to the confusion, we must admit that Jesus’s advice to keep watch is also odd.
We’ve spent two weeks examining how the things we might think are signs of the end times: wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, personal suffering of various kinds, are all normal in this life and in this world; they have always been, they are, and they will always be, until the actual end times arrive. So we cannot look around at the wildfires, violence in the Middle East, 200,000 dead in our country from a pandemic, nor any personal suffering we are currently experiencing, and declare that the end times must be approaching. Right now might be worse than usual, but Jesus tells us that it’s to be expected; it’s normal for this chaotic place we call home.
And then, as if Jesus wasn’t clear enough before, in verse 36 he says, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So no one, not even Jesus sitting there with his disciples, knows when the end will come.
So our suffering and the world’s suffering aren’t signs of the end times. We’re not to keep watch over those to discern when the end times are coming.
And then, even if we wanted to use that suffering as signs, there’s absolutely no way to know when the end times are coming because only the Father, not even the Son nor Spirit, knows when that time will be.
So what, exactly, are we to keep watch for?
Despite all this, Jesus still says to keep watch. There he is, saying in verse 42, “Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” That keep awake also translates as keep watch, the very idea that’s now so confusing.
For are we living in the end times? Maybe. It’s always possible. But can we know for sure? No.
So should we keep watch to discern when the end times are coming? No, that’s impossible.
And, let’s ask ourselves, what difference would it make if we did know that right now was the lead up to the return of Christ?
Well, if we’re bold enough to be honest, we would confess that if we knew Christ was about to return, we would act differently. Consider, before the pandemic, if you had a house party. Many of us might have thrown football kick off parties for the first Georgia game, for example, open to any of our friends and family who would come. We wouldn’t just open up our house without any preparation. We’d clean up the public spaces, close the doors to private spaces, make sure the bathroom was nice and clean, stock the fridge with food and beer, clean up the grill, and get ready. And if we’re honest, many of us would do all that preparation the morning of the party, right before we knew the time was coming.
How much more so if we knew that Jesus was about to return? We would clean-up our lives. Those secret sins no one knows about, or at least we think no one knows about, we’d quit those. That resolution we’ve had to have a quiet time every day, we’d pick that up. My guess is traffic to the page on our website for the praying the Psalms schedule would pick up as we all got more devoted to prayer. Knowing that Jesus was about to come, we’d all make sure we doubled down on our spiritual practices.
We’d also stop planning for the future. What’s the point of a savings account or retirement planning if Jesus is about to return? I’m working with my financial planner right now to make retirement a number instead of an age. But even still, I’m at least fifteen years from retirement. Those savings are pointless if Jesus is going to return in the next fifteen years.
And to help our case before our Savior, we’d probably give all that money away, especially to the church. We’d finally give what we’ve always told ourselves we should be giving to the church and charitable causes.
In short, like the homeowner keeping watch over his house for God to come like a thief in the night, we’d get our homes in order, we’d tidy up our lives and our souls, so that we’d be ready for the return of Christ. We would want to be found as holy as possible, as religious as possible, as much a servant of the Kingdom as possible. We would want to be found living the best Christian life we know how when Christ returns. So if we knew Christ was about to return, we would, undoubtedly,
For we would know that time was of the essence.
But we don’t know. We have no idea if the end will come in the next fifteen years or the next fifteen hundred years. It’s hard for us to imagine that God would wait another fifteen hundred years, but fifteen hundred years ago, church folks eagerly anticipated the return of Christ. When the Vandals sacked Rome fifteen hundred years ago, that was supposed to be the prelude to the return of Christ, for people asked themselves, “could things get any worse?”
So the question remains: why tell us not to concern ourselves with the when but then tell us to keep watch?
When Jackson first came home from the hospital, he had jaundice. Within a few days, we had a light box. Jackson had to spend all his time, minus feeding and changing, in that box. And we had to stay right with him. So, we put the box in the living room. We put it next to a comfy, reclining, chair so that those keeping the night watch with Jackson could sleep. Our lives revolved around this watch, this responsiveness to the needs of Jackson as he healed.
We kept a watch over Jackson.
We keep watch over things we care about. I care about my safety and the safety of my family, so I keep a watch on that wheel of my convertible. I cared about the health and well being of my newborn son, so I kept watch over Jackson in the light box.
I’m sure if you think over your history and even your life today, there are things you keep watch on. Some of you are gardeners and you keep watch over your gardens. Some of you have investments and play the market and love to keep an eye on stocks, or the price of cotton or timber or other financial indicators. Some of you have children at school and you keep watch over their progress and their studies.
Whatever it is, there are things in our lives where we keep a watch. Not to try and read the signs and discern if something magical and mysterious is coming. No, we watch because we care. We watch to ensure proper growth and development. We watch to be supportive, to help our children, or our money, or our gardens, or whatever, grow and mature. We watch because that’s where our hearts are.
And that’s what Jesus means here when he says
We keep a watch over the things we care about. Wherever our heart resides, that’s where we keep a watch. And first and foremost among those things, the primary residence of our hearts, should be the Kingdom of God.
We’re members of the Kingdom of God. In the past two sermons, I’ve said that should be our primary allegiance. We’re Christians before we’re anything else. Can it be said of you, today, that your primary allegiance is to the Kingdom? More than your family? More than your money? More than your politics? More than anything else? Jesus says we must hate our father and mother, that we must leave our wealth behind, in order to follow him. Jesus lays that out here and throughout the gospels. The Kingdom is very demanding.
That expectation isn’t something we tend to talk about as Methodists. We as Methodists like to say that grace abounds. And it does. But grace comes with responsibility. We Methodists call that responsibility sanctification: the pursuit of holiness. When we become Christians, when we say yes to Jesus’s constant offer of relationship, we pledge to become more and more holy; in other words, more and more like Jesus.
It’s what we recommit ourselves to every January when we do the covenant renewal service. It’s what the Walk to Emmaus encourages its participants to do, both when they walk and afterwards, as so many of you know. It’s what my times at Green Bough House of Prayer remind me to do.
With the grace given to us comes great responsibility. Consider the words of Paul, “you were bought at a price.” Out of gratitude for what God has given us, out of gratitude for what God has done for us, our primary allegiance should be to the Kingdom of God.
And that allegiance should lead us to go and and labor for the kingdom.
When Christ returns, he expects to find us laboring for the Kingdom.
And what does that laboring look like?
It looks like many things: being devoted to times of prayer, practicing grace and forgiveness in our relationships, being peace when our guts tell us to go to war. But here, in this little apocalypse, Jesus’s message of laboring for the kingdom means to walk headlong into suffering.
Walking into suffering, whether ours or someone else’s, because when we do, we bear witness to that fact that we know so well: no matter how long and hard the winter, resurrection is coming.
The world is full of suffering. We experience it personally and the world experiences it. That’s been the focus of the last two weeks. We should expect suffering, we should draw close to God when that suffering comes, but it’s normal, not signs of the end times.
But when suffering comes, our faith should lead us into that suffering. When we see others around us who are suffering, we should go and meet them in their suffering, offering to be supportive. Sometimes, people will reject our support. That’s okay. Forcing kindness upon someone is not kindness. But the mere fact of offering that kindness is a witness to the truth we know: resurrection, new life, is coming.
When suffering comes into our own lives, we should walk headlong into that dark night of our souls. We might not want to, it might not be pleasureful, but only by walking into that dark night do we discover how Christ is the light that shines in the darkest night. Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we discover that we really have no reason to fear, for the light is found best in the darkness.
When we walk into that suffering, whether our own or someone else’s, we proclaim with our lives that resurrection is coming. And the more often we engage with suffering, the more deeply we know that truth. Behold, God says at the end of the Bible, I make all things new. That means bringing new life out of the suffering we’ve known, that means bringing our souls back to life after the deadening of depression, that means bringing the new life of hope when our world gives us so many reasons to despair.
We are a people who should know, deep in our gut, that resurrection is coming, no matter the winter that pursues, no matter the wars and rumors of wars. Do you know that today? What lessons in your life have taught this to you? If you don’t know it, then it’s time to walk headlong into the suffering you’ve been avoiding.
And when we know this truth, that resurrection is coming, we are to keep watch.
Keep watch for the suffering of this world, whether it’s around the globe, in our country, in our community, or in our lives. We’re to keep watch for that suffering so that we can go and be in that suffering with others. Whenever someone is suffering, the question that comes up is what do we do? We quickly forget that being present is very powerful.
Simply sending a text of support is super powerful. You don’t have to know the particulars of someone else’s suffering to show empathy. You don’t have to know anything except that the person or family or community is suffering. Sending a message saying that you’re praying, offering to be there if there’s a need, is powerful. Just being present is powerful.
How? Because being present says, “I’m keeping watch over you.”
And when we see suffering in the news, when there’s suffering that we don’t have a personal connection to or is at a distance, we can still keep watch. We can pray. An old way of referring to prayer is to keep a watch by praying. When there are wars and rumors of wars, keep watch, pray. When there are devastating hurricanes and wildfires, keep watch, pray. When our politics gives rise to anger or bitterness or resentment or hatred or despair, keep watch, pray. When we see refugees or folks with no home or protesters or police or any other sign of our civil discord, keep watch, pray.
In that way, by being present when we can and praying regardless, we keep watch.
We keep watch over our faith, we keep watch over the world, we live out Jesus’s expectation: that the primary allegiance, the primary residence of our home, is the Kingdom of God.
So we keep watch. We keep watch as a reminder that we must be vigilant in laboring for the kingdom, walking into the suffering of others.
So we keep watch. We keep watch for where there is suffering so that we can be responsive, mindful that our response doesn’t have to be grand or big but, simply, the offer of presence.
So we keep watch. That’s the only proper response to wondering about the end times. We reject all those who would say they have figured out the code of the Bible, that they can predict when the end times will arrive. Only the Father knows. Jesus says it right here. We reject all those who would use conspiracy theories to justify that the world is worse now than it ever has been. That’s false; we see it right here in the picture of the world Jesus paints.
We keep watch over our lives, over the lives of those we love, and over the world, so that we can bring the message of hope, peace, joy, and love that Christ brings; so that by our presence we can proclaim to a dying world in need of new life,
The Kingdom of God is here and now. Resurrection is coming. There’s reason for hope in this world! Show that you care, align your heart with God’s. Pray.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.