Rev. Danielle K Bartz November 27, 2022
Matthew 24:36-44 “A Thief in the Night”
Every single day I take my dog, Boomer, on a walk around the same block. And as he is getting pretty old and slow, the walk is taking longer and longer. It takes us a solid 20 minutes to get around one block because he stops frequently to smell something or just to stand on the sidewalk for a minute for a rest. One of the things I learned during the height of the pandemic, when taking Boomer for a walk may be the only time I would go outside, was not too rush him. So, if he stops, I stop and I just wait until he is ready. This gives me ample time to look around. And as I am a naturally nosy person, I do indeed look around. I know which neighbors have new shingles on their roofs, or put a new plant on their front porch. I know which neighbors need to throw away their pumpkins and which neighbors have fake ones because they magically never rot. I know which houses have cats sitting in the windows and which have little kids that like to cover the upstairs window with homemade artwork.
And the neighbors of course know me. Boomer and I tend to go on the walk around the same time every morning, so neighbors can reasonably expect to see me walking slowly by at a certain time. On more than one occasion a neighbor has stepped out to greet me or ask me a question and started by saying, “I was just looking for you out the window.”
And the other day, while on one of these slow walks, I noticed a neighbor had installed a new security camera on the corner of their house. As that neighbor’s house is one of the first I pass, I decided to entertain myself by counting how many security cameras I could see that morning. The doorbell cameras are very common, and I was able to count five of those. And the other cameras, usually perched higher up to either get a better view of the front of the house or angled to look towards the back, are becoming more common. So I was able to count four of those. These internet connect cameras, which are pretty reasonably priced, easy to install, and can be managed from a cell phone are increasingly popular.
And I have no problem with them at all. Recently my uncle received an alert on his cell phone that the security camera at his cabin had noticed movement out front. He was able to open the live feed, which eventually led him to call the local police, which eventually led to a much needed arrest – and he did all of this from over four hours away.
And on the lighter side, there is a couple who live in Florida who post videos from their doorbell camera of their neighbor, a newly retired man who stops by everyday while the couple is at work, hunches down in front of their camera to activate it, and tells them jokes that are so bad they are funny. It is their neighbor’s way of bringing a little levity to their day, and they both say they look forward to getting the alert on their phones so they can watch their neighbor tell them a ridiculous joke. It is the 21st century version of a neighbor dropping off a pot of soup on the front porch just to be nice.
But as I was counting these cameras the other day on my walk, and idly wondering if I should get one, my mind was drawn back to our scripture for today. Because there is a metaphor that Jesus uses here that is troubling, that at first read may even seem contradictory to the message he was trying to convey. In this text, Jesus is trying to prepare his followers for his return, something he frequently does. Throughout the Gospel he tries to prepare them for his death and for his return, his return which he says will usher in a new era in our world. But he says we don’t know when this return will happen, so we must always be ready. Keep awake, he says. And he uses this metaphor, which I want to read for you again: “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 must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” The ‘be ready’ part I get. But the comparison to a thief in the night I don’t get. Because, it would seem to me, that if we know when the thief is coming and we are therefore ready, wouldn’t we be sure to have the house fortified against his getting in? Wouldn’t we have all our internet-connected cameras at the ready to give us the first sign of the thief’s approach, so we can lock the doors and unleash the guard dog? Is Jesus telling us we must do all we can to prevent his return, or to at the least end it quickly when it happens? No, I don’t think so. But this lesson leads to a contradiction, the trick of the season of Advent. Because, as it turns out Advent is not for the faint of heart.
Advent is begun with apocalyptic scriptures – scriptures that tell of the destruction that will take place in order for the Kingdom of God to take hold. This is because Advent is not about preparing for the birth of the baby Jesus – Advent is not a countdown to Christmas even though it is too frequently misused in that way. Advent is a time to prepare ourselves for the second coming of Christ – for the end of this world as we understand it and ‘the New Heaven and the New Earth’ as Revelation puts it. Advent is a time to let go of everything as we understand it, to let go of whatever is holding us back from accepting the coming of God’s Kingdom. Advent is about being prepared to welcome the apocalypse. Advent is not about fortifying our homes against the thief in the night, but rather about being ready to let him in so he doesn’t have to break down the door. So he can take away all of those things that are filling up space in our lives so the Kingdom of God has no room. So, when I say Advent is not for the faint of heart, I mean it. Advent is a time for us to prepare to go against our human instincts of maintaining the status quo; of preventing a change that is, quite literally, apocalyptic; of opening our doors to the thief.
I could stand up here for hours and rail against the misuse of the Advent season as a countdown to Christmas, but it would be hypocritical. I misuse it too. I use this season the same way a lot of you do – I prepare for Christmas with decorating and cookie baking. I attend holiday parties and even have a calendar that is a countdown to Christmas that is advertised as an Advent calendar. I fuss over details here at the church, like trying to get the candles on the Advent wreath to, for the love of all things holy, stand straight. And I will be spending hours scouring the red hymnal for the right combination of Christmas carols for us to sing on Christmas Eve. I misuse this season too, and I know perfectly well that I could stand in this pulpit each Sunday between now and Christmas and try to convince you of the joys of apocalypse, and you will just smile and nod while making a Christmas dinner menu in your head. I get all of that. But I will also not let go of my responsibility to remind all of us, me as much as you, that this season is not supposed to be about sentimentality and false cheer. It is one of the most vital seasons of the church year that is about letting go of everything that is taking up too much space in our lives, space needed for the coming of God’s Kingdom. Things like self-righteousness, shallow piety, selfishness, the need to control, hate, violence, prejudice, and fear. This is a time when we make space not for a sweet little baby lying in a manger, but a force of God the likes of which we have no comparison. A power that will upend anything and everything, a thief coming in the night that no security camera, locked door, or guard dog can defend from. This is not a season for the faint of heart, it is a season in which our only comfort comes from the hope we have in God – the hope we have in the promise of God’s Kingdom, the hope we draw from our faith which says that God’s plans for us are greater than anything we can accomplish on our own.
It is fitting, I think, that in the northern hemisphere anyway, the season of Advent is also a season of growing darkness. Of night overcoming day. And we can attempt to guard against the night – which we do of course with Christmas lights and inflatables of Santa Claus in our front yards. Or we can welcome the night, and the thief that comes with it. The thief that does not wish us harm but rather wants to take away all that harms us. We will, none of us, do this perfectly. In fact we will likely not even do it well. But to be Christians, to be the people of Emmanuel, of God enfleshed alongside us, is to stand opposed to the forces of this world that seek to lessen this season. We won’t do it perfectly, we likely won’t even do it well, but we are called to try. To try and welcome the night. Because we know that God took the void and from it formed the light. Amen.
O God of the darkness and of the light, you kindle in us the flame of hope that sustains us even when it feels like the dawn will never again come. For this hope that is promised and fulfilled, we give you great thanks, and it is in this gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
Great and Good God, you have a desire for this world that does not easily fit into our desires. You seek to disrupt us so that your Kingdom may come. In this season in which we are called on to prepare for this, we ask that you help us to pause for a moment, to remember that you are God and we are not, and to help us to let go of all that is taking up too much space in our lives.
As we pray for this help, we also lift to you the prayers we have for all our neighbors and strangers, those for whom the only comfort we can provide comes from you. In these moments of silence we lift the prayers of our hearts to you, knowing that you hear…
Loving God, you chose to walk amongst us as one of us. The gift of Jesus Christ is our reminder and our joy that you know what it means to be us, and that if we choose to listen to the lessons Jesus taught, we will find that there is no gap between you and us. So we pray all of this in Jesus’ name and we pray in the way he taught by raising our voices together…Our Father…