Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5 • Psalm 122 • Romans 13:11-14 • Matthew 24:36-44
You can ask my parents, you can ask Kerry, you can ask my college roommate. Anyone who has ever lived with me knows that I love to sleep. I may stay up late at night, but I love to sleep in in the morning. I may go to bed with the best of intentions about waking up early to exercise, or read the paper, or enjoy a sunrise – but when that alarm goes off, I’m going to hit snooze… a couple of times.
Those last few minutes of sleep after the alarm goes off don’t really provide any rest, I’m sure. I’m not energized for the day to come by the nine minute cat naps I get by punching my alarm clock. But under my covers I’m warm, and the floor – especially this weekend – is cold. And my thoughts and dreams are kind of fuzzy, in a way I know will end as soon as I leave the house and open my inbox. Sleep is a safe refuge from the waking world, with its never-ending to-do list and heartbreaking headlines.
Of course, getting out of bed isn’t really the same as waking up – at least, not in the sense that Jesus and the apostle Paul are using the term in the scriptures this morning. “You know what time it is,” Paul says, “how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” And Jesus warns,
“keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
This is one of the weirdest Jesus sayings in the Bible, if you ask me. God will come like a thief in the night. What a bizarre comparison. So stay awake! Because you want to be alert when God, the thief comes, because you will then do what? Call the police on God? Defend your home against God with a home security system, or a shotgun? I suppose if God comes like a thief in the night, God is going to take whatever God wants from your house and you’re not going to have much say in that. But, I bet you’ll be mad at God afterwards for taking your things, and not waiting for you to show up and put those things in the offering plate on your own. I hadn’t really thought about these texts as the capstone to our annual stewardship campaign, but we could go there: give of your own free will, or God will come like a thief in the night and take it from you! How do you like that? Are you awake now? You see, this is not a sermon to sleep through.
It’s always like this on the First Sunday of Advent. The apocalyptic scriptures that we read all through the month of November, beginning with All Saints Sunday and ending with Reign of Christ Sunday, spoke to us over and over about the end times. You remember two weeks ago when Chris preached on the 21st chapter of the gospel of Luke we heard Jesus saying,
“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”
And then last week as we were wrapping up one year in the church’s calendar and preparing for the new year to begin, we overhear Jesus talking to a convicted criminal – perhaps a thief – on the cross who pleads with him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replies, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”
This is why we have to be careful not to pick and choose passages from the Bible to string together without reading them in their context. Because, if I’m just listening to these particular verses, it sounds like Jesus and that criminal on the cross both died and went to heaven and then came back like a thief in the night to rob our houses!
But it does still leave me wondering how I’m supposed to interpret the signs of the Earth’s demise that seem to be all around me. Wars and insurrections? The United States has been fighting the Iraq War ostensibly since early 2003, though the lead up to war began far before then. Late this past summer, President Obama declared that our combat mission in Iraq is now over. Thank God. During that war, the United States lost just over 4,400 people. Another 1,700 contractors were killed, and over 15,000 Iraqi security forced lost their lives. Over the period of the Iraq war, somewhere between 13,000 and 45,000 Iraqi enemy combatants were killed, and over 100,000 Iraqi civilians lost their lives in the crossfires of this war.
And while we have focused on this war, the world has suffered under other wars and insurrections. Conflicts in southern Thailand along the Malaysian border since 2004 have led to a military coup and over 3,000 deaths. Since 2006, when Mexican president Felipe Calderón sent 6,500 Mexican troops into the Mexican state of Michoacán to end drug violence there, almost 30,000 people have lost their lives.
We’re covered on famines and plagues as well. Just this past summer the drought that hit the Sahel in sub-Saharan Africa led to 350,000 people facing starvation and over an additional 1,200,000 confronting famine. As we prepare for World AIDS Day this coming Wednesday, we are aware that over 25 million people worldwide have died from HIV-related illness in the last three decades, making it one of the most deadly plagues in human history.
Remember now Chris’ reassurance that, though these are bad times – they are not end times. Aren’t we tempted to ask, “how much worse can it get?” Don’t we think that they perhaps should be the end times? It seems difficult to make the case that we know what we’re doing down here. Perhaps someone ought to break into our high-security homes and take the reins from us, steer us out of this mess.
Without disagreeing with Chris that these bad times are not end times, I think I might want to add that the opposite is always also true as well: all times are end times. Jesus, in his cryptic God-talk, seems to have been saying this to us all along. Living, as we do, in a world filled with terror, we want to know when and how it will all end. To the first question of when we have heard Jesus say, “nation will rise against nation… there will be great earthquakes and in various places, famines and plagues.” Rather than trying to figure out when these things will take place, we’d make the job easier on ourselves if we asked, “when are these things not taking place?” If those are the signs of the end times, then they have been upon us for millennia!
And today Jesus confirms our suspicion that he has no set date and time to provide us. “But about that day and hour,” Jesus says, “no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Or as Hope so often reminds us, “only God knows.” We have no answer to when this will all end.
But to the second q
uestion, how will this all end, there seem to be some clues. Here I think we are drawn back to the image of Christ coming like a thief in the night. Jesus says, “if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.”
Why would we want to keep Christ out of our homes, and out of our hearts? I suppose the answer to that question depends on what it is that we think Christ might take from us. When we think of our nations as households, we will be led to ask what God might need to take from us that we are not willing to give. Perhaps that is access to food or medicine, or wealth gained through might and not shared with those who labored to create it. When we think of our families as households, we will be led to ask if the ways we spend our time and money match up with the values we say we support. When we think of our own human hearts as households, we will be led to ask what postures of pride, or arrogance, or resentment, or jealousy, or anger we will have to have removed before we have room in our homes for the kind of love that desires peace and works for justice.
The end of these terrible times is coming. That is the promise of Advent. But before that can happen, there are things we need to give up – the myth of redemptive violence that leads to war as a solution to problems on a personal and national scale; the greed that chokes us with its oversized portions of conspicuous consumption and starves others with its famines of food and security; the plagues of death and disease that haunt the poorest places on this globe and rob people of not only their heath but also their dignity.
We need to give those things up at every level, and if we cannot wake up to the need for change at the most foundational levels of human society, then God will come like a thief in the night to take from us what we do not need – our love of war, our lust for wealth, our indifference to disease. We love the very things that are killing us, and if we knew when and where God was going to show up to take them from us, we would stay awake to make sure God could not get in.
And so God will need to find some way to break open our hardened hearts, some way to get us to open our homes and our churches and our borders and make room for the new life God has in store for each of us and all of us together. How will that ever happen? How will God call forth that kind of vulnerability from us again? Perhaps something small, something weak, something we never saw coming. A child, the Prince of Peace, God is with us, Emmanuel. It is a new year and we are once again a new creation.