I distinctly remember an influential preacher from my early Christian days often saying, “I believe Jesus is coming back in my lifetime.” I remember sitting in that old dusty church, with the paint peeling from the ceiling, thinking, “why are you so certain?”, while shouts of “amen” and “mmhm, c’mon” surrounded me. I remember many other preachers and leaders in my life in those early days saying the same thing. Well, I don’t believe any of those pastors have passed on, but I’m still not so certain. Nor am I certain that Jesus will “come back” in my lifetime, or my children’s lifetime, or even my grandchildren’s lifetime. I wonder if there is more to this passage than the words we read on the page. Let’s look at it in the context of the Gospel of Matthew.
It seems to me that the most common themes throughout this book have been a Jesus preaching about the importance of fruit bearing faith and a faith that works with Jesus to tear down walls. In Chapter 23 he, albeit intentionally, loses his patience as he clearly calls out the hypocrisy and sin of the religious elite. Throughout the Gospel he has also been wary of giving easy answers and formulas about “what I must do to be saved”, the afterlife and the “end times”. The Jesus of Matthew has been, in my view, particularly focused on each person worrying about their own faith and holiness rather than others, and on doing so in a way that judges no one and tears down dividing walls. Here in chapter 24 the disciples ask about the “end times” and Jesus’ return. And Jesus gives them a very thorough answer. Or does he? Why would he suddenly do that, when he has not done so throughout the entire Gospel?
I am no scholar by any means, and even if I were, I wonder if it’s worth it to break down this passage and try to truly understand it. Let’s remember that Jesus is a savvy guy. He knows the power of his words and his instruction. While he keeps it quiet through much of Matthew, he is the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one. He knows what he’s doing. As we look back on history, is it any coincidence that it seems that in every generation people have looked at the state of the world, compared it to this passage and surmised that “Jesus must be coming back in my lifetime”. Is it possible that what Jesus is doing here, is painting a picture of the “end times” that could fit in into any point in history? Is it possible that what he’s done here is painted a picture of the “end times” that would call any one who takes these words seriously to wonder, “oh my goodness, I better be ready because this sounds like now”. The picture Jesus paints sounds like today. Just ask the guy on channel 10 on Sunday nights at like 11:00pm. But it also sounds a lot like the poetry I studied that came out of the early 20th century. And it sounds a lot like the times the disciples lived in. And it sounds a lot like the world my children will come of age in.
Jesus, I’m calling your bluff on this one. You don’t seem to appear to be coming back any time soon, even though the picture you paint of that time sounds a lot like right now. Too many generations have been convinced that it’s them. I’m not buying it. Could it be that Jesus’ point is, as it has been throughout the Gospel, “quit worrying about then and work on being a Fruit-of-the-Spirit-of-God bearing human now- not because it will get you into heaven and keep you from gnashing of teeth, but because it is the most fulfilling and world transforming way to live”? And could it be (as we read this in context with not only what comes before it, but also what will soon follow) that Jesus has already come back over and over again? Friends, Jesus has come back- we just gotta open our ears and eyes a little wider.