s001g98 Somerton Park 29/11/98 Advent 1
"Keep awake ... the thief ... is coming". Matthew 24.42-44
This is one of those classic texts which show us that we are not supposed to take everything that the Bible says literally - for that would make a cardinal virtue out of insomnia :-)
As we look at the Biblical record we see other examples of words which we shouldn't take literally. For instance the psalmist sometimes wonders if God is asleep. "Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever!" he commands !?! (Ps 44:23).
And I continue with the theme about trying to see God at work in the world. One of the classic phrases is that one shouldn't look for God behind every bush. Here God is pictured as hiding from humanity. The saying is true, for God is not anyone's personal spiritual director, wanting us to do particular things each day. In the events of each day God is not giving us gentle little nudges this way or that. That is indeed to belittle the God of the whole universe.
The psalmist says: "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." (Ps 119:105) - not a searchlight peering into the mists and gloom ahead. So none of us is given a clear picture of what lies ahead in our lives. When I began this sermon, I was actually all ready to update a reasonable (if not brilliant :-) homily I did three years ago which began with the words about insomnia being a cardinal virtue, but circumstances have led me to start afresh. Even the lamp to my feet is sometimes a little dim :-)
Indeed God isn't in fact greatly concerned if we are a plumber or a priest; he doesn't concern himself with much of the minutiae of our daily lives - and I really wonder if we would actually want God to do so anyway. God doesn't determine which particular lottery numbers come up either. What God does concern himself with is how we relate to those he puts around us.
There are two aspect to the unexpectedness described by Jesus - firstly the one we are most familiar with - the unexpected time, either the day or the hour. We are used to this; for most of us, myself included, have found learning the lessons of patience one of the least palatable.
But we are less familiar with the second - the unexpected character of the coming - and I want to focus for a time on this. The Son of Man is paralleled with a thief coming during the night - and this is hardly a comfortable prospect. None of us looks forward to having a thief in our homes, yet this is precisely what Jesus parallels himself with.
And if we are to take this word seriously, if not literally, I suppose it means that some of our sense of security might be taken away. The reality is that we "can't take it with us", and sometimes things happen which bring this fact home to us rather more forcefully than we ourselves would choose. I don't consider myself any better than anyone else in this respect. I do not think I would be able to maintain my sanity for very long at all if I lost my diary or my computer died a sudden death.
But even the appearance of other people in our neighbourhood is unsettling. Some time ago I read that the most frequent reason for people moving house was relations with neighbours! We can look at others as thieves, there to take away our sense of security, our command of the situation, our equanimity.
I suspect that a few Australians of European extraction think that the increasing voice of Australians of Indigenous extraction means that things that rightly belong to them will be taken and given to the aboriginal people, as well as a few Australians of Indigenous extraction who think that "their" land has been taken by the Australians of European extraction. Each can view the other as "thieves". The rise of Pauline Hanson's One Nation party focussed on what "real" Australians might loose if the voices of "other" people were continuing to be heard and if immigration continued at its present rate. The fear that something which is "mine" might be taken away.
On the world scene, again many of us are looking with some anxiety at the Holy Land. I would suspect that a few Israelis think that the Palestinians are thieves - trying to take away part of that which was promised to them by God; and similarly a few Palestinians think that the Israelis are thieves - having taken land they consider rightfully theirs. I share the rejoicing of many throughout the world at the recent steps on the progress towards peace taken over the past week or two.
I have no doubt whatsoever that some people might think I have taken something from them which is rightfully theirs.
The picture of Jesus as the thief coming during the night suddenly turns everything around. It becomes quite relevant as we are bidden to see Jesus in the person who is our opponent. Jesus bids us see him in the person who takes something we think is ours, from us.
If nothing else this calls us to question our priorities.
I was recently pondering the problems left in Honduras by Hurricane Mitch. The news report which prompted my pondering said that the problems were at least 30% worse because of the prior deforestation. But a few days ago I heard the comment about how Honduras had been getting its act together towards repaying their debt to the rest of the world, but now with the devastation they had been set back 50 years. And I thought: How could they ever win? The trees were cut down to help them to be self sufficient economically, which means that more have been killed and more homes destroyed, meaning the possibility of the debt ever being repaid has become well nigh impossible. Why should not these people become thieves? The developed countries have demanded them to live up to their expectations, to be self sufficient and to keep their forests ... Whatever practical help they once received (though how much was ever given - free of the need to repay - is something I can't answer) have been completely obliterated, with only the debt remaining. They would have some justification in thinking that they too are being plundered by the thieves of the developed world - who demanded either more money or more environmental awareness from them. Meanwhile more children die?
I do not find these words any easier than anyone else and I wonder why ordinary Australians are encouraged to give $20 (or so) a month to sponsor a child through World Vision when such utter inequity continues to exist in the world - in the name of "Thou shalt not steal".
Perhaps it was just happenstance that the following item on the news was a report of the agreement between the tobacco companies in America with those who were suing them for damages. The payout - over $200 billion dollars (US) - which I think would make a sizable dent in the Jubilee 2000 figure.
But it will be a temptation to look at the Jubilee 2000 as something for the rich and powerful to achieve - when it really is something for us all to do. If nothing else it means we have all to stop thinking about "our" rights and "our" possessions.
Going back to Jesus the thief for a moment, the religious people considered him a thief for not deferring to them, but deferring to everyone. Jesus, the thief, took away their sense of moral superiority.
And the thing about thieves in the night, about taxes and inflation, is that despite all our efforts, the thieves always win. As Eccles says: "Vanity of vanity, all is vanity ... a chasing after wind ..." God's will will be done, whether we like it or not, co-operate or not, even whether we manage to stay awake or not.
God is far more proactive (as the corporate world would say), than the picture of the slumbering, hiding or absent God might delude us. God is far more proactive both in the provision of all the blessings God has showered on the creation and in due course bidding us to defer to others, to share with others.
I want to finish with a couple more examples of what might be things that Jesus the thief comes to take from us. I suspect that it is true that Jesus, in the near future, will take our boys from us, as they spread their wings and go to university or whatever. I suppose that theft will be completely masked by our gladness for them.
But perhaps less jovially, I also ponder if Jesus also comes to take our health away in due course, and we are forced to stop and rest? How many people look to the loss of the driver's license and the loss of independence as the need to go into communal accommodation - as things that Jesus could not possibly want for us? And yet they happen to the best of us if we last long enough. Does God really love us only when we contribute? What happened to justification by faith alone? Sometimes it needs a fairly heavy hand to make some of us stop, and I suspect I will be as bad as any in lamenting these things when my turn comes. Are others not to be given the opportunity to help us?
I was interested to read a quote of "Kathleen Norris, in a book on "spiritual geography" ... (that) instead of fighting circumstances (and of course some circumstances need to be fought and changed if at all possible) she extols the basic principle ... "not only to know where you are but to learn to love what you find there."" (Philip Carter "Directions Adelaide Church Guardian Nov 1998 p8)
So perhaps I want to turn this saying of Jesus around and say: "Go and get a good night's sleep each and every night, for that which is perchance gone in the morning has in all likelihood been taken by Jesus, and if so, we can be quite certain that we can live without it anyway."
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