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.
The 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.