Some Biblical characters are regulars on the Advent stage. Isaiah, Mary, and John the Baptist have the leads. Gabriel, Zechariah, and Elizabeth play significant supporting roles. Others make occasional, brief appearances. In the appointed Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent from Matthew, Jesus gives a cameo to someone unexpected. In the middle of His eschatological discourse, as He answers the disciples’ question about the end of the age, Jesus ushers in Noah.
But what does Noah have to do with Advent?
We could answer this question by comparing Noah to the beloved Advent Calendar. As a young child I found great joy in the daily routine of peeking behind the little doors. Each day had a door, corresponding to the number of days leading up to Christmas Eve. Each day my siblings and I would find the right number, pry open the little cardboard entry, and discover a modest piece of chocolate—a foretaste of the stocking to come. It was a slow, but steady countdown. Each day we knew Christmas was one day closer. Each door announced exactly how much longer until the big day arrived.
Advent calendars are good at building anticipation for Christmas. But their shadowy side is the false sense of chronological certainty they create. Do not worry, the calendar tells us, there are still fourteen more days until Christmas. We have got lots of time to get ready. There is plenty of time to finish shopping.
This works for our annual celebration of Christmas, but Jesus is not talking about Christmas in our text. And, when it comes down to it, Advent is not about Christmas either. Advent is about the coming of our Lord. In His incarnation, yes, but also, and more pressing, it is about the Last Day. This is what makes reflection on the reading from Matthew 24 a great way to start the Advent season.
Matthew 24:36-44 records the second part of Jesus’ eschatological discourse. It is an important couple of chapters, in part because of the ways in which it has been misunderstood. Jeff Gibbs is particularly helpful here (his translation of this text, as well as his published dissertation on this topic, are well worth the time). It is here, as Jesus is talking about the end of the age, that Noah makes his appearance. Jesus mentions him as a reminder of the chronological uncertainty which accompanies Jesus’ second coming. In the days of Noah, Jesus said, people were living normal lives. They were marrying and giving in marriage. They were eating and drinking. They were completely unaware of the coming judgment; completely unaware of the coming separation. Some would be saved. Most would perish.
That is what His second coming will be like, Jesus says. Whether they are in the mill or the field or the office or the stadium, Jesus will come and separate one from another. And here is the kicker: we do not know when this will happen. Jesus provides no little doors to serve as a countdown. He offers no little chocolates to prepare the way. Instead, Jesus sends you. This is your job as a preacher of His Word. You have been called to prepare your hearers for Jesus’ return on the last and great day. You have been called to proclaim His commands and promises so all will be prepared.
For God’s people, Jesus’ promise to return is reason to celebrate. Salvation is nearer now than when we first believed, as Paul says in the epistle reading (Romans 13:11-14). Your hearers need this word of encouragement as they struggle through a season often filled with loneliness and regret. But this text also stands as a warning. Your members need this, too. Do not fall asleep! Do not get too comfortable! Stay awake!
Matthew 24:45-51 is not part of the appointed reading, but it gives us a glimpse of what life looks like for those who stay awake. It looks like faithful service. It looks like the baptized actively carrying out their vocations, providing for others rather than serving themselves. The epistle reading is helpful here again. We stay awake by loving one another, thereby fulfilling the Law and bringing light into the darkness.
Noah’s cameo at the beginning of Advent is no minor role. It is easy to grow comfortable in the present evil age. It is easy to lose sight of the coming judgment and the coming salvation. As it does each year (and as you should do, in some way, each Sunday), Advent wakes us up and sends us out with a renewed sense of chronological uncertainty. We proclaim the seriousness of God’s coming judgment. Like He did in the flood, God will judge evil. But we also proclaim the promise of a coming salvation. Like He did with Noah, God will save His chosen people.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 24:36-44.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 24:36-44.