A Thief in the Night

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

A Thief in the Night

Scriptures: Isaiah 2:1-5 Matthew 24:36-44

Jesus seemed to take delight in using controversial language. I’m not saying he tweeted like Trump or anything, but Jesus did use images and language about God that often shocked people.

Our Matthew passage today is a great example when he says that the Son of Man will come like a thief in the night.

This is rather scandalous. The Son of Man refers to a human sent from heaven by God to overturn the existing unjust order. The image from the book of Daniel involves him descending from the clouds of Heaven directly from the Ancient of Days – in other words, God – to take up his everlasting kingdom. It’s a very glorious image and impossible to miss. Very “in your face.”

By contrast, a thief in the night is a sneaky person, skulking around in the dark, quietly breaking and entering when all are asleep. How could this person, sent by God, predicted by Daniel in glorious terms, be sneaky? It’s like accusing God of creeping through the shadows. It seems absurd!

But Jesus was trying to shake people up. He was challenging their assumptions and warning them not to get complacent because God can be full of surprises.

We have some sense these days of what it’s like to be shaken up. The pandemic has turned our world upside-down and the sense of world stability we have held more or less since WWII has been shattered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Even the sense that we had that no one would dare use nukes since the Cold War ended has been disturbed by the threats we are hearing these days.

In the midst of all this political stuff there is the existential threat of climate change. The repeated failures of the human race to gather around and prevent further warming has left many people afraid for the future, wondering if we are facing some version of the end of the world.

We really have been shaken up; our assumptions challenged and there is a part of us that longs for a return to normal, to the way things were.

Jesus warned his hearers to be ready for change and said that profound change can come at anytime, unexpectedly and with no warning at all.

Christian tradition often relegates this lesson to a very specific case: the end of the world. I think it’s a mistake to dismiss it this way for a couple of reasons.

First, the original idea of the coming of the Son of Man matches our Isaiah reading much better than the disasters in the Book of Revelation. The Son of Man was supposed to come and establish in Israel an earthly kingdom of righteousness and justice so compelling that the other nations of the world would be drawn from their own ways of doing things to be guided by God’s wisdom. This thief in the night was going to bring good news: a wonderful new kingdom, although part of the message of Jesus is dark: he is warning of the people who will be left out because they are not prepared.

Secondly, the idea of the end of the world is one that has been played out over and over. In the first century, the world ended for the Essene community who marched out as an army: men, women and children, to cast out the Roman legions from Judea. They were all slaughtered and Jerusalem was torn down and the occupants killed as punishment for the rebellion. But there was still a world out there that went on and the Jews and Christians who had anticipated this particular apocalypse had to find a new understanding, a new interpretation, a new way forward after the dreadful events were over and the dust had settled.

Rome fell to the Goths. Byzantium fell to the Saracens and each time an empire fell it was a kind of end of a world with culture disrupted, trade profoundly changed and challenges to how people understood life itself.

But the world itself carried on each time and that is a lesson we must learn. No matter how bad things got, life carried on in some form. God never gave up on people and for all the apocalyptic images of seas of blood and falling angels and dragons and the number 666, there was always something to do afterwards, pieces to pick up, life to get on with and that is the history we have inherited.

As people of faith, we would do well to put aside the visions of apocalypse we have and instead understand what Jesus was saying: that God is full of surprises; that things happen unexpectedly and that we are called to be ready to respond.

This isn’t a call to become doomsday preppers: people with underground bunkers, huge stores of canned food, and a disturbing number of weapons. Rather, it is a call not to be wedded to the same-old, same-old; not to be tied to the familiar way of life we know. It is a call to be flexible, responsive to the needs of the situation, responsive to the needs of others.

It is a call to be ready so that when change happens we are able to respond with a sense of God’s vision for the kind of world that should be and the kind of lives we should live as a community and as individuals.

The change we are seeing all around us is not the end of the world even though it might seem very large and very scary.

Our society is changing, assumptions about jobs are changing, commuting is changing, cars are changing, food availability is changing, Christmas shopping is changing, how we care for our senior citizens is changing – even our language is changing: we don’t call people “senior citizens” anymore.

The list could go on and it would certainly include the fact that the church is changing, and that’s okay. God has a vision for the future and we have the challenge of discovering what that will look like.

On this Sunday when we lit the candle of HOPE, I hope we can avoid feeling like this is apocalyptic. I hope we can re-discover that hopeful vision that Jesus knew very well of the creation of a just and righteous place that arrives in unexpected ways without warning.

We are called to watch, to be ready, and to be creative as the future unfolds.

I believe we are up for this challenge.


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