Wake Up…And Bar the Door?
Matthew 24: 36-44
I heard the strangest story about a thief this week. Driving in to work last Monday, just as I was about to turn in behind the Cottage, National Public Radio was playing one of its 30 second “news of the weird” stories. Just a blip in the major news of the day, but pretty interesting for a bunch of Christians reading this passage from Matthew tonight, on the first day in Advent.
Here’s the story: There was a homeless man on a beach in Texas who came upon a running car and decided to steal it. He hopped in and drove off. But he only got a little ways away when he suddenly noticed that he had stolen more than the car. There in the backseat was a toddler who had been left in that running car while his parents were outside in the cold… So the car thief turned around and drove the car back to the beach – where he scolded the child’s parents before running away (“Thief Berates Mom for Leaving Child in Car”, http://www.npr.org/templates/archives/archive.php?thingId=3, 11/22/10).
There is so much in this strange story. The apparent conflict between the man being both a thief and a caring protector of children. The carelessness of the parents and, I assume, their shock and indignation and guilt at being called out for it by a thief. The multiple surprises in the story – the couple when they found their car and child had been stolen, the man when he found he’d taken more than he wanted, the couple again when their child returned and they were blessed out.
What a strange story, perfect for this first Sunday of Advent when Jesus tells us to stay awake because he is coming like a thief in the night for us. That descriptive phrase – “like a thief in the night” – is so familiar that it’s hard to hear it as surprising and startling and unsettling. But there is nothing comforting about having a thief break into your home.
I came back to my apartment in Atlanta one day in my first year of seminary to find that mine and every apartment in our building had been broken into that day. Even after the police had come and I knew for sure no one was lurking in a closet, I was completely unsettled and creeped out. The thief had thrown our clothes and personal items all over while rifling through them. My underwear draw was open and rummaged through. The thief had taken a carton of orange juice from the refrigerator and walked around the apartment drinking straight from it, then leaving it to make a mark on the wooden dresser in my bedroom.
The things that were mine alone, private, were moved and touched by an intruder. Personal belongings that my roommates didn’t even get to touch, handled by an orange-juice drinking thief. I felt violated and exposed and it took a long time to come home to an empty house without first – with phone in hand ready to dial emergency – checking every room to make sure it was all as I’d left it that morning.
So it’s not just strange but deeply unsettling to think of God as the thief breaking into my house at night while I am asleep and completely unaware, even more vulnerable than I was that day in Atlanta when at least I wasn’t home at the time of the break-in.
Some people have a hard time with images of God as a mother (or father). Some people squirm if we talk too long or in too much detail about God as our lover. Most people seem decently content with God as friend. But, if you really listen to this description in Matthew, I suspect that almost no one is put at ease by this image of God the thief. Where is the hymn entitled, “What a Thief We Have in Jesus”? Whether you have experienced that sort of violation or not, when you really consider it, you see how unsettling it is, how unlike the more popular seasonal image of Santa Claus. Yes, of course, he also comes in only if you’re sleeping (no advice to “keep awake” for this nocturnal visitor), doesn’t mess with your stuff (or your life) and leaves you gifts to find when you wake up all on your own the next morning, content and happy.
God breaks in at night while we are sleeping – not at a mutually agreed upon date like December 24th – and takes what belongs to God. It’s rather inconvenient that we think it belongs to us.
I guess you can say we have fair warning. Jesus says, Keep awake because you don’t know the day or the hour when I’ll come for you (Matthew 24: 42). This can happen anytime so pay attention. But then he makes it creepy and unnerving. He says, Understand this: if the owner of the house had known when the thief would break in during the night, he would have stayed awake and prevented his house from being broken into (Mt. 24: 43). Of course. That only makes sense, right? If you receive a note saying, “I’ll be breaking in around 2 tonight. Love, The Thief” you’d probably prepare for that in some way – police, baseball bat, new alarm system. Jesus affirms that this is how humans are – if you know what’s coming and you think it will be bad, you try to stop it.
But then Jesus says, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Mt. 24: 44). So, are we supposed to treat him like an ordinary thief? Are we supposed to be standing behind the door with a baseball bat? If God is the thief, do I make myself ready like I would for any other thief? Or should I somehow be looking forward to this unexpected, could-happen-anytime violation?
On the forgiveness retreat last weekend we talked about how the common, everyday ways we communicate sometimes hold deeper meanings we don’t pay enough attention to. We discussed how the everyday practice of saying “My bad” is inadequate and inappropriate when a real apology is needed. We wondered about how our habits, like saying “My bad” instead of “I’m sorry. Please forgive me,” form our expectations and understandings of forgiveness, and even our ability to forgive. If we are used to saying “My bad” then when it really counts we won’t have developed the right vocabulary to be able to offer genuine contrition.
A thief, by definition, takes what belongs to someone else. And I think this is where this warning from Jesus gets really interesting. We like to arrange things to support the illusion that we are in control of our own lives, that we have what we have because we earned it. Our money is ours to give away. Our time is our own unless we make the decision to share it with someone else. We work hard for what we have – good grades, attractive clothes, important relationships. But from a Christian perspective none of it is ours and certainly not of our making. Every good gift comes from God, on loan, as it were, for us to take part in for a while. But we start to think we own the place – our lives, our love, our things, our destinies. As we discussed on the retreat, it’s our everyday habits that either prepare us for or hold us back from being ready when the important events present themselves. If I can say “I’m sorry” in the small things, I have a better shot at doing this with the bigger faults. If we live our “lives on loan” realizing in the small daily ways that we are the stewards of these gifts from God, then when God comes in the dark, vulnerable hour of the night, looking for what is rightfully God’s we will be ready, alert, awake to it all – and thankful.
Jesus knows how we are. I wondered this week if that’s why he gave such a scary picture of God as thief. I wondered if it’s our habit of thinking of our lives as our own that would have us resist the surprising God who comes when and how God will. The God, who, if pushed, will act like a thief to get back what really belongs to God.
Advent is a time for preparing for the way God enters the world – as a vulnerable baby, sharing human experience, and again at the end of time as King of all. Watch how you spend your days this Advent. Try to stay awake, but we know that disciples have poor track record with that. Try anyway. Observe the season and keep watch – keep alert for signs that God is on the way and also for your own possessiveness and resistance to giving God what does not belong to you to begin with.
Thanks be to God!
© Deborah E. Lewis 2010