The Christmas Thief

First Sunday of Advent  |  Matthew 24:36-44

Advent this year marks not only the beginning of the liturgical calendar but also the beginning of year A in the Revised Standard Lectionary. The Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent is Matthew 24:36-44.

Flying.JPGThe passage is full of familiar images, most of all the image of a thief coming in the night. We do not know when the Lord will come, we are told, and so we are urged to remain awake and vigilant.

There is something extremely odd about the point of view here. Jesus, the Messiah, is telling the listener about expecting the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. We understand, with two thousand years of hindsight, that he was talking about a second coming, a return, a moment in which God would not only be made manifest within history, as with the first incarnation, but would break into and change history. At least that is more or less the mainstream view of this passage and of others similar to it. There are other views within Christianity, including the idea that God is already present, that the second coming followed directly on the first: the Spirit came like a thief, unexpected, unlooked for.

We might consider some other ideas that flow from the passage.

Generally, the second coming of the Messiah is described by much of evangelical Christianity as an event that the whole world will experience all at once. The clouds will part, and Christ will return. In the meanwhile, let’s consider another more immediate way of thinking about it—that the second coming could be experienced as a very personal event, internal, spiritual. We understand that we do not know at what hour Jesus will return for all of us. Could it be that Jesus is also saying that we do not know at what hour God will come to each of us?

Think about the possibilities.

Instead of looking for an experience of clouds, trumpets and angels, suppose we begin to expect some spiritual event, unforeseen in its shape and scope, some moment of sudden personal contact with God. Suppose we expect it each day and each night, every day and every night, over and over. Might not such an expectation move us from being one spectator among millions one day to being a soul participating each day with God in a sudden God-moment? Might not that be life changing?

Consider the very intentional image of God coming as a thief. We take from it the idea of God appearing at an unforeseen moment. What if there is another reason that Jesus chose to use the image of the thief? Yes, a thief is unexpected, or even if expected, still surprising in the chosen moment. There is something else that a thief does, something that is more intrinsic to the reality of a thief: a thief takes something. A thief is not a thief without a theft.

What does God want?

We might say worship, but in the end that answer trivializes God into a child-like being who simply wants our attention. Besides, true adoration cannot be taken, but only given. We might say love, but God is already love, if John understood anything at all. What then might God want from us?

What do we want from our children? Love? Obedience? Those are good things, but if we love our children as God loves us, then what we want is to see them grow, to see them achieve, to see them become the people we know they can be. We want to steal away anything that would hold them back.

So what would God steal?

One answer may be that God comes to take away the things that make us stumble, the things that limit our humanity: our fears, our regrets, our failures. There are some who call such things sin. It makes no difference to the thief what they are called. This thief comes to take away some of the things we hold most dear: our small ideas, our limited apprehension, our uncommitted embrace of life and of God.

Perhaps God wants to finish what God started, to steal a moment with a child who has finally grown up. God, our Christmas Thief, wants to take away the last impediments to our amazing life.

The best part? We don’t know when it will happen. So stay awake. Pay attention. Expect God to show up any time.

A Subtle Shift

Memory is a tricky thing. Long after an event, we are left with our memories of it. Tree Book TreeMore to the point, we are left with our memories of the details, what people did or did not do, what certain people said or perhaps left unsaid. The past is gone, but our understanding of it is very much alive, growing, changing.

The same is true of stories. That is what memories are, in a way, a collage of imprinted and recorded actions, words and feelings that have been formed into a narrative in our minds, our story. Though we think the past has happened, in our minds it is still happening. The past never stops changing.

Take one of the most famous of stories, Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. It may be no one knows just how old the story is. The final written form, so far as the scriptural version is concerned, was recorded centuries ago, all the bits jotted down. Yet, it keeps changing.

Ask anyone familiar with the story, and that includes many people who think that they really are not, and each person will tell you a slightly different version. Among those who are familiar with the story, you will hear something more fascinating: they will add something to it.

Take the serpent, who in later retelling becomes the devil. It isn’t the devil in the original story. It is just a wily serpent, a wild animal, more crafty than any other, but an animal, one who talks. We shouldn’t be surprised that the serpent talks. After all, a little later in the story, God is walking like a human being would walk in the garden.

The point is that there is a subtle shift between what we actually read and what we say is in the story, just as there is a subtle shift in our memories between what happened and what we remember. What we remember is not what happened. That may be for the better. We may remember difficult events in the past through the filter of forgiveness, or simply with more perspective, and without even knowing that we are doing it. That shift may be a blessing, sometimes a very great one.

The same kind of subtle shift in the stories that form us can likewise be a blessing, bringing more meaning and substance to our understandings. The shift can also be a curse, undermining our ability to hear what the stories are really telling us.

Eve and Adam reached a point when they ate the forbidden fruit. No actual apples are mentioned, not really, and nobody in the garden says anything about sin, original or otherwise. They reached a point when they gained self awareness and a sense of moral conscience. Interestingly, in our own lives we call that moment maturity, not the Fall.

Likewise, there may be something older and simpler even in the written form of the story itself, something before the shift, so to speak. God tells the woman that she shall have children, though it will also bring pain. God tells Adam that he shall work, and that it will be difficult, but that his work will feed him and his family. Later, all three things, awareness of our mortality and childbirth and work, begin to be called consequences and curses by theologians.

I suggest we might consider a slightly different shift, one that may be more helpful in our lives. Just as the human race at large, an eon ago, gained a sense of mortality and of morality and of self awareness, each of us as individuals go through the same process. Once we embrace our own mortality and step out of the garden of our youth, we find two things that will sustain us and that will remain after us: our children and our work. Neither is a curse. Our understanding and appreciation of each flows from our maturity. Neither our children nor our work depend upon sin, original or otherwise. Neither are consequences of our flaws; instead, each is a means to reach beyond our flaws and our limitations.

Our family and our work, that is what we have. We may also want to allow another subtle shift: our family may be more than our biological relatives, and our work is more than our job. We have the people near us, and we have the work we do around, among and sometimes despite them. Whether these things are blessings or curses will depend on our point of view, our memories, and all our subtle shifts.

Hineni – Here Am I

“Hineni,” the young boy said.IMG_2928 - Version 2

In the third chapter of 1 Samuel, we read of a young Samuel, hearing the call of the Lord three times, and answering three times, “Here I am.” What he actually says, each time, is the Hebrew word hineni. (It sounds something like the ‘hi’ in ‘hit’, then ‘nay’, then the ‘ni’ in ‘nit’ or the ‘nee’ in ‘knee’.) The most common translation is ‘here I am’.

This Hebrew term is found in other places within scripture. In Genesis 22, Abraham responds to the call of God with hineni. Abraham responds to the call of his son with hineni. And he responds to the call of the angel with the same hineni.  In Exodus 3, Moses hears the Lord calling his name, and Moses answers, “Hineni.”

We can learn a lot from this one little term. I invite us to consider two aspects–our response to God and God’s response to us.

How might we recognize the voice of God, or of a messenger of God? Among the many answers we may offer, the fundamental answer is simple: by listening. To say “here I am” to God is to pause quietly in the expectation that God is going to say something. That is no trivial thing. There are plenty of people who believe in God, who live wonderfully exemplary lives, and who never actually stop to listen to God and who never actually seem to expect God to communicate anything. It is easy to believe, or not, in something that is far away, a concept. It is another thing altogether to consider the immediate presence of God and to actively, expectantly listen. It is still more removed if, having heard, we respond.

Consider Abraham. It is interesting that he did not see fit to explain to his servants what he was doing. He did not begin by telling people that he was responding to the voice of God. Perhaps he still wondered himself. And take Moses–suppose someone came and told you that he had heard the voice of God speaking from a bush, and that the bush was on fire, but the fire did not burn the bush. You might very reasonably think that he had eaten the wrong mushrooms.

Entertaining the possibility that a small, faint voice may be the Almighty speaking is an act of faith. It is also an act of freedom, freeing us from the worldly constraint that says that truth always speaks loudly, and that we should listen to the powerful, the mainstream, that we should wrap ourselves in the terrible chains of normality. If we are paying attention, it is pretty clear that Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, John the Baptist and Paul were not normal people.

So how we distinguish faith from lunacy? It may be that the only answer is found in these old stories of faith, the stories of Abraham, and Moses, and Samuel, of people who responded to God and whose response was, finally, embraced by the continuous body of the faithful over the centuries. Time and faith were the winnowing fan of scripture. If we are hearing a voice that speaks something radically different from the voices found in scripture, it may not be a voice to follow.

What does it mean when we say to God, “Here am I?” What did the folk in our faith stories bring with them when they said, “Hineni?” There is nothing of ‘Hey, look what I can do for you’, nothing of ‘Here I stand with ability and worth’. In fact, the only thing we can bring is recognition of our emptiness, of our unworthiness to respond to the Almighty.

There is a blessing. When we stop to respond to God, we recognize that all of these burdens, ideas, conceits, and worries we carry around are what they are—nothing in the face of God.

Remember that we are not the only ones saying, “Hineni!” …They shall know that it is I who speak; here am I. (Isaiah 52:6)

These are words of comfort, that we might hear God calling us, and a promise that God is always listening, always present, always waiting. If we pause, quietly, expectantly, we may hear the voice of God whispering, ”Here am I.”

You Are What You Seek

We are what we seek.

Gravel 008Consider the words of Jesus, Seek, and you shall find. (Luke 11:9-10) We tend to hear Jesus’ words as a promise, but perhaps his words are also a warning: seek and ye shall find, whatever it may be that ye seek.

Be ye careful.

There is the word from the gospel of Luke about places of honor. (Luke 14:7ff) Now honor is something we often seek, isn’t it? We want the places of honor, we want other people to approve of us, and we want to look as though we did not care. The gospel might be paraphrased: Don’t seek self aggrandizement at all. Let others worry about that. Seek instead the benefit of those who have nothing to offer in return. How else can we be sure we are not cleverly seeking our own reward?

Jeremiah gives us many a bracing word from the Lord, particularly this passage: Thus says the Lord, What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? (Jeremiah 2:5)

If we seek worthless things, we find them; worse, we become them.

Finally, there is the passage from Hebrews, For some have entertained angels unaware, we hear. (Hebrews 13:2) Perhaps the writer is telling us that the blessing we seek is not far off, but here, beside us, near us, all along.

Sometimes rather than seeking blessings, we should simply open our eyes to see them, recognizing the angels already around us, seeing the blessings we already have.