Like a Thief
By Debie Thomas
What images or symbols do you associate with Advent? Pink and purple candles? Cozy Nativity scenes on soft-hued Hallmark cards? Pull tab calendars with chocolates tucked inside?
What about a thief prowling outside your house, stealthy and silent? Your front door torn off its hinges, shattered glass in your foyer, and a stranger’s footsteps on your stairs? What about your most prized possessions disappearing while you sleep? Do these images seem “Advent-ish” to you?
They don’t to me. And yet these are the images our Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent gives us. A homeowner caught off-guard. A house that’s been broken into. The Son of Man coming at an unexpected hour, like a thief in the night.
There’s no way around it — these images are disturbing. Maybe even terrifying. They don’t jibe with the Jesus we think we know — the Jesus in the manger, the Jesus on the cross, the Jesus who feeds and forgives and heals and saves. The Jesus Matthew describes in this apocalyptic passage is no respecter of boundaries. He’s not invested in the status quo, he doesn’t care about keeping us secure and comfortable, and he’s not thwarted at all by our elaborate defense mechanisms. The Jesus Matthew describes is an invader. An intruder. A disrupter. A criminal.
So here’s a question for our new liturgical season: what should we do with a Son of Man who describes himself as a robber? How should we respond to a Jesus who shows up and takes things away from us? Things we care about? Things we depend on? Things we’re 100% sure we can’t live without?
We should recognize that we’re asleep. Jesus likens the coming of the Son of Man to the days of Noah’s flood. “Before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,” Jesus says. “They knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away.” It’s so hard — so very, very hard — to accept the fact that we’re not awake, that we’re missing profound spiritual realities because we’re fast asleep in the ordinary and the mundane. We want to believe that the status quo will save us. We want to believe that business-as-usual will be good enough to keep us attuned to God. We want to pretend that Christianity will never require anything hard or costly of us.
And yet the message of Advent is, “Wake up!” The message of Matthew in our lectionary reading is, “Keep watch!” The call of the season is to recognize that we’re not paying attention to what really matters. To confess that we are alive and yet dangerously asleep.
We should surrender our certainties: The implication of the thief-in-the-night analogy is that Jesus isn’t going to come in the guises we expect. If we think we have religion pinned down, if we think we know what revelation looks like, if we think we have Jesus all figured out, then we’re in for an unpleasant surprise. If, on the other hand, we approach with our hands wide open; if we confess that we don’t even know what to look for, or where; if we empty ourselves of all preconceived notions of God and train our hearts to expect the unexpected, then we will be able to receive the real Jesus with joy when he appears.
We should prepare to be robbed: During Advent, we are called to make room for the long-anticipated Christ. To prepare space for the beautiful new life that is coming. But how can we do this if we’re already filled to the rafters? Maybe Jesus comes as a thief because we need to be “robbed.” Maybe Jesus breaks in because our valuables have become liabilities, and we need an intruder to sweep in and take what we won’t willingly give up.
What are we clinging to that Jesus needs to steal? Our apathy? Our self-righteousness? Our fears? Our unforgiveness? It’s no coincidence that Jesus comes when we’re asleep and vulnerable. When else would we relinquish the false gods we cling to? How else would we cooperate with the deep work of God in our lives?
In a sermon entitled, “The Face in the Sky,” Frederick Buechner describes the Incarnation as a kind of scandal — one that requires us to ponder the shocking unpredictability of God: “Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in the stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.”
What are we to make of this? The God who is limitless chooses limits: one womb, one backwater town, one bygone century, one brief life, one agonizing death. The salvation we long for is not the salvation he brings. These are not easy or comfortable truths to accept; they’re truths to wrestle with hard and long. In other words, if we’re not at least slightly bewildered, we haven’t been paying attention.
I didn’t grow up observing Advent. My childhood church didn’t follow the liturgical calendar, so the holiday lineup I remember went straight from Thanksgiving turkeys and pumpkin pies to Christmas trees and “Jingle Bells” — one consumer feeding frenzy pressing hard into the next. But as I’ve moved deeper into the liturgical tradition, I have come to love the holy season we’re now entering. I love that the Church begins its new year when the days are still getting darker. I love that the season rejects shallow sentimentality and false cheer. And I love that the Gospel gets us started with images that startle me out of my complacency — not swaddling clothes, twinkly stars, and fleecy lambs, but Jesus as relentless pursuer of my soul. Jesus as thief.
American novelist Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.” That’s precisely what Jesus does in his prophetic wake-up call. He shouts, he draws startling figures, and he uses every rhetorical device at his disposal to snap his listeners to attention. “Be on guard,” he warns his disciples. “Be alert.” “Stand up and raise your heads.” Look.
These aren’t the soothing, saccharine invitations we like to accept as we shop for gifts, decorate Christmas trees, and sing carols. But as Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge reminds us, “Advent begins in the dark. It is not a season for the faint of heart.” Whether we like it or not, the invitations Advent offers us are hard-edged; they don’t look pretty on greeting cards. But they are essential and life-giving, nevertheless. They help us to prepare for the birth that is almost at hand. They help stay alert. They help us receive Jesus in all the shocking and scandalous ways he chooses to appear.
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credits: (1) Pravmir.com; (2) Legacy Icons; and (3) Camp Arcadia.
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