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Sun, Aug 11, 2019

A Thief in the Night

A Thief in the Night

Sermon on Luke 12:32-40

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Years ago, when I was thinking about taking one of my children to day care, I received a helpful piece of advice: “After your son has been there a few days, arrive to pick him up before the usual time.” In other words, show up unexpectedly at the caregiver’s house, and you will be able to see how your child is really being cared for. If you arrive early to find the babysitter asleep on the sofa while the children are playing with the knobs on the stove, you have all the information you need. Come “at an unexpected hour,” and you’ll see how good or bad the place really is.

In talking to his disciples about the importance of not being caught napping on the sofa at a crucial time, Jesus used some unconventional metaphors. First he told his disciples to be like slaves waiting for their master’s return from a wedding banquet; if they are wide-awake and waiting for him when he gets back, even if it’s 4 a.m., he’ll switch places with them, inviting them to sit down at the table while he borrows one of their aprons and serves them. While the disciples were still puzzling over such a bizarre way of talking about the Lord of the universe, Jesus threw them an even more startling image: the Master is not going to come from the wedding banquet and knock politely at the door until the doorkeeper lets him in; he is going to come like a thief, lying in wait until the lights are out and everyone is in bed. Then he’s going to break in, ransacking the place until he finds what he is looking for.

As oddly as these two metaphors seem to fit together, they convey the same message: Be prepared for the return of Christ. It’s going to happen, but you don’t know when, so don’t slack off in doing the Lord’s work. Don’t get flabby and inattentive; stay toned and alert and ready to respond.

The expectation of the return of Christ is an article of faith for Christians. We affirm it in the Creed: “…he shall come to judge the quick and the dead”; and at the Lord’s Table: “We proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Almost every book of the New Testament refers to the second coming. The Synoptic Gospels and Paul’s letters are so pregnant with this expectation that we really can’t understand them apart from it. Yet this is the article of faith that causes the most embarrassment to Christians. People who like to lampoon Christianity and Christians often zero in on the return of Christ as perhaps the most preposterous and laughable aspect of Christian doctrine. “It’s been 2000 years, people,” they say. “Why is your Lord taking so long to show up?”

The Lord’s exasperating delay was a problem for the early church, too. By the time Luke wrote his Gospel, the expectation was still there, but had been revised. The earliest New Testament writings we have are Paul’s letters, and in the earliest letters Paul talks about the return of Christ as if it is going to happen next week -- but Luke, writing almost two decades later, has Jesus telling his followers, “Take up your cross daily.” That “daily” was Luke’s way of saying that he and his community of believers recognized that they were in this thing for the long haul.

The result of these revised expectations was that people began to settle down. They stopped watching the skies for the return of the Son of Man and started thinking about how they should live the lives they already had, and were likely to have for a while, as faithfully as they could. Along the way, though, some of them got tired. It was hard to keep the sense of expectation alive. It was hard to fight the culture day in and day out. What would be so wrong with saving a little money, after all? What would be wrong with making some investments, planning for a future in which there could be children and grandchildren? If the foreseeable future wasn’t going to be dramatically intruded on by God, then it made sense to make as many provisions as possible for that future to be comfortable. Pretty soon, keeping track of all the details needed to plan for that future and to keep the present humming along in a safe, predictable way became the main thing, the focus of life. If Jesus wasn’t going to come back anytime soon, in your lifetime or maybe even your children’s lifetime, did it make sense to organize your life around that promised, but far distant, return?

What does it mean to be dressed and ready when the horizon of expectation keeps getting pushed farther and farther into the future? Some Christians can’t stand the uncertainty, and have developed all kinds of elaborate numerologies to predict the exact day of the Lord’s return. Most of us, though, have not only made peace with the uncertainty, but are actually counting on that long horizon. If we don’t think Jesus is going to disrupt our settled lives anytime soon, we are free to go serenely about our business, making our plans and projects as we see fit, for a good long time.

The whole point of Jesus’s strange mixed metaphors, though, is that we don’t know. The return could be delayed, which was a surprise to the first Christians, or it could be earlier than we think, which would be quite a surprise to us. Whether he’s coming early or late by our calculations, he tells us to be ready.

And how do you get ready for a thief? You hide or lock up all the things you wouldn’t dream of handing over without a fight: the jewelry, the silver, the expensive electronics. You password-protect everything on your computer so the thief can’t get information about your bank or stock accounts. If you’re really serious, you set up an alarm system so the thief will be stopped in his tracks as soon as he tries to enter your house. You protect yourself against any possible intrusion by this criminal who would think nothing of forcing his way into your house, jimmying locks and breaking windows, and then going through your drawers and closets with no respect for your privacy, throwing everything he doesn’t want in a heap on the floor and then disappearing into the night with all your best stuff.

Is this any way to think about God? Why would Jesus use such a disturbing image? Maybe it was just to get people’s attention. Maybe the only way he can get our attention is by sneaking up on us when we’re least prepared, surprising us when our defenses are down.

Because this thief is not interested in fancy electronics or diamond watches or Grandma’s silver. All this thief is interested in is you. He’s interested in your hidden self, your true self, the self your Facebook page knows nothing about. This thief sees past all the “algorithmic” data that define us to the rest of the world: what kind of family we come from, where we went to school, where we live and what kind of work we do, what we are good at and what we are interested in. Equipped with the internet and Mr. Google, anyone can find out these things about us, and social media give us a platform for presenting ourselves to the world exactly as we would like to be seen. But Jesus the thief sees past all that. He sees past our poses and pretenses to who we really are, and he will pick the locks to dismantle the strategies we use to protect us from surrendering our real selves: the selves that are meant for more than going to work and shopping and paying the bills, keeping the house in repair and taking the dog to the vet; the selves that are meant for a deeper, more demanding life than planning the next vacation or home remodeling or family holiday event. Underneath the efficient, competent, multitasking selves we present to the world, there are other, deeper selves, and these are the only ones Jesus the thief cares about. And he is confident that once he has ransacked the property to get to these deeper selves he will be able to do something with them, something beautiful and important for God’s kingdom.

Once he gets to our true selves, these “deeper, less comfortable” selves, he will be able to create new people: the kind of people who see injustice and have to speak out against it; the kind of people who see suffering and move to alleviate it; the kind of people who hear lies and insist on countering them with more truthful speech; the kind of people who see hatred and try to overcome it with love.

Jesus has to come as a thief to get past all the trappings of our lives we use to keep him at a distance, so he can get at the real treasure we have to offer: our love, our devotion, our hearts and imaginations. He knows how to transform our imperfect human selves into beautiful instruments for the work of God’s kingdom. So he is willing to creep in as a thief to get under our personal defense shields and find the waiting treasure underneath.

The divine thief who comes to steal us away under cover of darkness is also the Master who waits to whisk us away with him to the wedding banquet. All we have to do is be willing to meet him at whatever surprising, holy hour he comes, and hand over the treasure of our whole selves with open hearts, knowing that it’s his good pleasure to return to us something even more valuable.

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

August 11, 2019

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