Dec. 1, 2019
Each year the theme of the first week of Advent is wakefulness – being aware, being alert, being ready. But, being ready for what? That’s where we run into trouble because what Matthew tells his church some 50 years after Christ’s death and resurrection is that they should be ready for the second coming – for what seems like a rapturous return of Christ where some are “taken” presumably in a good way and some are left behind – presumably shut out from whatever Christ’s return has meant. There’s no doubt that some of the early Christians expected the immanent return of Christ and there’s no doubt that his delay posed a real significant theological problem for many of them. Now we hear Matthew’s words – some 2,000 years after Christ’s death and resurrection – and the idea of Christ’s imminent return seems to land us in either of two places. Either it becomes a matter to fret about and obsess over – ultimately coloring Christian faith and those who are caught up in the obsessing and fretting – with deep anxiety about life in the present, or it becomes a falsehood in the faith and fuel to the fire of religious indifference in a climate of deepening malaise. It’s another reason to doubt that God is present, powerful in the face of our need, able and willing to offer the meaning and hope we were taught that God provides.
So, there’s that issue with the gospel text today. There’s also the issue of Christ coming as a thief, which honestly isn’t one I’ve worried much about in the past. However, after seeing it addressed as a problem in a number of the commentaries it occurred to me that maybe I haven’t given it enough consideration. Certainly, as we gear up for Christmas and turn our minds to mangers, shepherds, angels, a newborn savior, and “good news of great joy for all the people,” the image of a thief breaking into our homes at night engenders the kind of fear that we don’t (or don’t want to) associate with the season. One of my commentary authors talked about the trauma of a break-in that happened in his childhood home – how “for a long time after every creak of the floor or rattle of the furnace made us jumpy.” Beyond the trauma of the break-in’s violation there was a lingering sense of unease. “It felt,” he writes, “as if we were constantly guarding against a ghost.”
It might be that this picture of Christ as a thief is a poorly chosen metaphor, but I doubt it. The jarring comparison, I’m think, is meant to disturb and disrupt us with a sense that before the movements of God we’re nothing if not vulnerable. Here’s what Mathew Johnson, so traumatized as a child, has come to discover.
“I don’t want to admit it, but I believe the Kingdom of God has to be sneaky – because otherwise I probably wouldn’t cooperate. In perfectly apocalyptic fashion, I need to be disrupted so the true nature of my faith can be revealed.
If a new beginning is to take place, a number of things I value greatly will need to be stolen… I excel in divisiveness. I have perfected the art of letting anger linger. I draw strength when finding the fault in others. I refuse, quite often, to let my aims be sidelined or even interrupted.
I struggle to give any of these things up willingly. Having them stolen might be the only way I let them go.
Matthew delivers a blunt reminder: Advent can be a season to remember that what I hope for is rarely what I need, nor is the way God gives it the way I’d prefer to receive it. I’m working on being ready for that – ready enough to accept that it brings trouble with the aim of establishing joy.”
So, part of the Good News here in the thief metaphor is the invitation to be vulnerable to a God whom we cannot control, a God who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Readiness here means not being our own God and relinquishing that control so that God can bring the newness that God has in store for us.
Just as there’s a way to reclaim the thief image for the good, I believe that there’s an alternative way of looking at the rapturous return image from our passage as well. Beyond anxiety and indifference there’s the option of assurance. There’s the message that no one knows the date and the time of that hour, not even the son. In fact, it doesn’t seem important for the son to know when. What is important is the knowledge that it will happen. The second coming matters because it assures us of a victory that gives meaning to the present. It assures us of a victory that judges the godless ways of our world and promises the peace of God’s heavenly kingdom. As Isaiah says, swords will be beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.” We can live now with peace because we know that one day all shall be well. One day it shall be on earth as it is in heaven.
There are saints who live now by this assurance of what will be and their lives are richer for it. Their love is strong. Their faith is honest. Their hope is true. Their prayers sincere. Maybe you know some of them. I hope so because that is who we are called to be. That is who the world needs us to be. That is why we are a church, and that is why we are told to awake!
 Mathew Johnson, “Living By the Word,” The Christian Century, Nov. 20, 2019, page 20.