November 28, 2010
William G. Carter
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. . . Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. The candles are on their ring. It’s beginning to look a bit like Christmas. The church gets dressed in Hopeful Purple and Royal Blue. We pull out the hymns that we sing once a year and we sing them once again.
But did you hear the text from Matthew’s Gospel? Advent is not the favorite season for anybody who likes to be in control. It sneaks up on us when we aren’t looking. Jesus speaks of the coming of God, and does so abruptly. "The day is coming . . . and nobody knows when. "
Last Sunday, on the final day of the church year, we heard Jesus speak from the cross about the lack of human knowledge. "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they're doing." Today, on the first day of the new church year, he speaks once again about the limits of what we can and cannot know.
The subject is the coming of the Lord. We don't know when it will happen. Three times Jesus says we will not know the time. And presumably we will not know what it's going to look like, because he is careful not to tell us.
In this section of Matthew's book, there are seven parables in a row that tell us to be alert. To stay on our toes. To keep our eyes peeled. God is on the way, and we need to be as ready as we can. Then, as soon as Jesus says this, he add, "but nobody knows -- not the angels of heaven, not the Son, only the Father."
When God arrives, it will be like the time of Noah. People were putting away the turkey, and pouring themselves another glass of wine. Their kids are home from college to announce their breakups or their engagements. Things are going on schedule, when suddenly it began to rain. And it rains and it rains, and most of them had no clue knew it was coming. When God get here, it's going to happen like that. Nobody will expect it. "Because," says Jesus, "when God comes to us, God arrives like a thief in the night."
That's the gist of what this passage is saying. And the challenge for you and me is to simply come to terms with this description of God.
In our theological galleries, we carry a lot of pictures of God. The Lord is my shepherd. God is a loving father who welcomes home every prodigal. God is a mother hen who gathers all the chicks. But today, Jesus draws a picture that I would never think to choose. According to Jesus, God is a Thief.
"Your Lord is coming," said Jesus. If the house-owner knew when to expect the thief, she would have stayed awake. But she didn't know. And thus she was prone to have her house plundered.
This is what God is like. It's not a picture that provides much comfort.
A man had his toaster stolen from his apartment. After the burglary, he did a survey. That's the only thing he found missing. So you know what he did? He changed apartments.
I can understand, can't you?
A woman I know recently lost her husband. It happened without warning. The heart attack came as a complete shock. And before the funeral was held, the first thing she did before she could sleep in her own house was to install a security system. Death broke in once; she didn't want any more intruders.
I can understand it, can't you?
Some of us remember when a thief broke into a church member's car while she was sitting here in worship. It was parked out on the edge of the parking lot. Sometime between the call to worship and the benediction, a criminal smashed into the car and stole a lot of money. That led the stewardship committee to remind everybody that it’s a good idea to bring our wallets and purses to worship. But the situation is not funny. It's not funny at all. It was a robbery. If you have ever been robbed, you know how it feels. Violated. Intruded upon. Broken into. Someone has come into a place that you held sacred, and they have plundered it against your will.
This is the picture of God on the first Sunday of Advent. God is a Thief who breaks into a place we thought was safe. And we can't protect ourselves from the plundering of our own houses.
The New Testament draws this picture on a number of different occasions. Two times Jesus speaks of the day of the Lord as the intrusion of a Thief. Twice in the book of Revelation, Jesus himself says, "I will come like a thief." The apostle Paul warned the people in one of his churches, "Don't let God jump you unawares, like a thief in the night." He had to warn them about it, for the simple fact that God is sneaky. God is not obvious. God is usually up to something when it doesn't look like God is doing anything.
In his commentary on Matthew, Dale Bruner says, "One of the most surprising facts in Jesus' end-time teaching is that the last times will be normal. According to our passage, there will be parties, gourmet meals, courtships, and weddings right into the cataclysmic coming of the Son of Man . . . The Great Tribulation occurs while superficially all seems well. To the unobservant, it's party time. Thus Jesus' teaching of end-time normalcy should move disciples to look beneath surfaces to the deep structures of life - to see what is happening at levels we do not usually think to look."
For those with eyes to see, God is always up to something. And the spiritual life begins with the practice of paying attention. Keeping spiritually alert. Asking: what is God doing around here? How has God broken into this situation? What is God up to? We pay attention to questions like that, and trust this will open us to sainthood.
And yet, God doesn't wait for us to pull together all the answers. God never waits to act until we get ready. God is free to act in any way conceivable or inconceivable. And the Thief will disrupt us.
That's how the story of Christmas began, after all. God broke in, regardless of whether anybody was ready.
Picture young Mary as a teenager. An angel arrives to say, "Mary, you're going to have a baby." She didn't ask for it. She didn't expect it. In a very real sense, God intruded on her . . . and life was never again the same.
Joseph was chopping wood out behind the shop. His arms stiffened like a timber when she broke the news to him. All his dreams of settling down to a comfortable future vanished in an instant. He loved her, but he didn't sign on for this. God had burglarized his settled household and his predictable future. And nothing would ever be the same.
That's how it is when God climbs through one of the windows after dark. Everything we thought was settled is now turned upside down. And there isn't a thing we can do about it. Nothing to do, but to get with God's program.
Now, this is hard for some of us. For most of us. I set two alarm clocks for Sunday morning because I never want to wake up late. We want to show up on time, take charge, and know what’s going on. I was sitting at a meeting in a country church last Monday night. Somebody said, “Who’s playing football tonight? I want to know if I need to go home early.” So the moderator of the meeting clicked his iPhone, and declared it was merely the San Diego Chargers. We could meet as long as we needed.
It’s nice to have the kind of information, that kind of certainty, that kind of control. Check the weather, read your e-mail in church, make sure the Lord didn’t arrive early and leave you behind. All of us do this. I do it. I picked up a used GPS unit for my car. Then I fired it up, and got directions to my parents’ house. The people in my car laughed at me, hooted at me. “But look,” I said, “it tells me the precise time that we are going to arrive!” They didn’t hear me; they were texting on their cell phones and posting on Facebook about my control needs.
Now, to be fair, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we get God to come on schedule? If we could get God to show up when we want God to show up? If we could force God to jump into those situations that we want fixed right now? It doesn’t seem to work that way. And in the absence of any real control over our lives, we manufacture all these different ways, all these different gadgets, to think we actually have control over our lives. It’s a lie.
God has the authority to turn out the lights, cut the power, and break into our house. I'll be the first to admit it. This is not a comfortable description of God. But this is the most honest picture we're going to get. God comes to us like a thief in the night.
And it forces me to face the truth about life and death. I take out insurance policies, but ultimately there's no insurance against an act of God. I'm saving money to use twenty years from now, but it may not even be necessary. Who am I kidding? My life hangs by a fragile thread. The people I love and hold so dearly are temporary residents here, as I am. All those toys I have accumulated, all those possessions I am hoarding, all those things are depreciating as I speak. And most of the gadgets that I cling to in this life are the things that give me the illusion that I don't need to depend on God. My money and my stuff tempt me to ignore the claim that God has on my life.
If I only knew what time the Thief was coming, I could stay awake and keep my house from being robbed. But guess what: I don't know what time the Thief is coming. No one knows the time, except the Thief.
I don’t have a lot on this year’s Christmas list. But I just wrote down the title of a book that I want Santa to put under my tree. It’s called Hannah’s Child and it is the memoir of a theologian named Stanley Hauerwas. He was one of Phil Muntzel’s classmates at Yale Divinity School, taught at Notre Dame and Duke. It was a single quote that caught my eye. Hauerwas writes:
For me learning to be a Christian means learning to live without answers. Indeed to learn to live in this was is what makes being a Christian so wonderful. Faith is but a name for learning how to go on without knowing the answers . . . that’s why I find that being a Christian makes life so interesting.”
I saw the quote, I wrote down the title of the book. Because I need people of faith to remind me that to trust in God is to trust in God. We don’t run the world. To honor God above everything else is to watch and wait when we aren’t always sure what is going to happen next. To honor God is to let God break in however and whenever that happens – - and in the meantime to hang on and trust in God’s covenantal love that everything will turn out well.
We do this because this is the kind of God that Jesus believed in. It’s the kind of God that Jesus reveals. God comes as sneaky as a thief. Ready or not. Advent is the season to prepare for this intrusion, and we prepare by keeping our hearts awake.
(c) William G. Carter
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