Oconee River Church
2370 Hog Mountain Road, Watkinsville, Georgia 30677
December 1, 2013
Like a Thief in the Night
Since about the fourth century many churches have observed a season prior to Christmas called Advent. And through most of the past seventeen centuries the church has considered the first Sunday of Advent, as the beginning of the Christian year. Well, this is the first Sunday of Advent, and so may I be the first to wish you a “Happy Christian New Year.”
This next year, just about all of my sermons, with the exception of maybe one, will come either from the Gospel of Matthew or Gospel of John. So today, as we begin with the Gospel of Matthew, you might expect me to start at the very beginning of Matthew. As Julie Andrews sang it, “When you read you begin with ABC; when you sing you begin with do-re-me.” So, logically, you begin a year in Matthew with Matthew Chapter One, verse one. But for centuries now the church has said that in telling this story of Jesus Christ throughout the year, that shouldn’t really begin with the beginning. You may be disappointed that I’m not going to preach from a passage that consists most of who begat whom even though that genealogy is very interesting when you consider the casts of character listed there.
But, no, we begin in Chapter 24 shortly after Jesus has entered Jerusalem for the last time. Matthew 24:36-44
It might have made better sense to us if in this fifth and final long speech of Jesus presented in Matthew gospel, if the speech had pointed back to the beginning of the story, but instead this speech points to the end, specifically the end of the temple in Jerusalem, as the people of Jerusalem knew the temple.
“And,” says Jesus, pointing to the people around him, “This generation would see it happen.”
And sure enough in the year 70 AD. Jerusalem was sacked and this amazing temple with columns that three grown men holding their arms around it could barely touch their hands together. Destroyed. And that generation saw it happen.
But Jesus also seems to be speaking of something beyond Jerusalem. That it isn’t just Jerusalem that will come to an end, but all things will come to an end. And when they do, he says, it will come upon everyone quite suddenly. That’s how the end comes for so many people – quite suddenly. Like those two people in Brunswick just a few weeks ago, riding down the road and a pine tree falls on the car and kills them. Like the child killed by the stray bullet that penetrates the walls out in the project. Like the people in the Midwest tornado or those in the Philippines. It can come suddenly, you know. I was teaching in Banks County back in the 70’s when just right up the road Toccoa Falls College dam above the campus gave way killing students asleep in their dorms.
Or if you want to think further back than the 1970’s, how about those neighbors of Noah who suddenly realized that the rain hadn’t let up at all and the water was now up their chins. You just don’t think such things can happen to you until they happen to you.
There may have been warning signs if anyone had slowed down long enough to take notice of them. Someone might have noticed that the ground near the pine tree was beginning to erode, or that that the typhoon was of such magnitude that no one should try to just wait this one out, or that maybe that no one should ever build dorm rooms below a dam. But you never really think about that sort of thing really happening. If you do sit around thinking about all the things that can happen, it will simply drive you crazy.
When Jesus looked at Jerusalem on his final visit there, He could see the destruction coming. It wouldn’t have taken any sort of vision from heaven. Just an awareness. Maybe he saw the signs of destruction coming in the false sense of satisfaction that certain groups had with the so called “Pax Romana,” or the “Roman peace.” Here were certain groups saying, “Our situation has never been better.”
While Jesus was looking across this same city and seeing that Zealots were plotting rebellion and that Pharisees were heaping legal behaviors on people and actually driving them away from God, saying, “that if that’s all there is to your God, count me out. He could see the Sadducees stirring up the Pharisees and their hatred of King Herod, and all this discussion on which laws were the real laws of Moses and being so concerned with having their own way that they didn’t care a lick for anyone outside their little group.
And here were the outsiders saying that if you break one of their laws you might as well break them all and, so, “we might as well pay no attention to them at all,” when Jesus knew that so many of those same people would have been perfectly ready to follow God if they could only see what God was really like. And here He – Himself, the best picture of what God is really like. He is a God who wants your heart, because you have His.
When Jesus arrived, he looked out over this city and wept because he knew they wanted no part of Him. Because in their minds, all was well. But he knew. He could see the signs of destruction that they bringing upon themselves.
Now, when Jesus spoke about destruction, he wasn’t proclaiming a God who brought down the thunderbolts. And Jesus, Himself wasn’t the one bringing down the destruction. He was only proclaiming the destruction that naturally follows when people choose not to follow the God whom Jesus knew as Heavenly Father. When people are treating God as someone or something to be used for their purposes and as a means of attempting to claim power over others, then quite naturally the destruction will follow.
A Jerusalem treating God like that couldn’t possibly last. Such madness would not and could continue forever. It would come to an end. And so, Jesus says, be on the alert.
Now some people believe that all Jesus meant by being on the alert was to become something of a theological inspector checking for weaknesses in the dam or to see where the pine trees are about to fall. Checking out the signs of what is happening today in the Middle East and making pronouncements about Gog and Magog showing signs of distress and here is where the Battle of Armageddon will be fought?”
You hear some people trying to set up a timetable for this ending of things and completely ignore the answer Jesus gave when the disciples asked when these things would be. Jesus says, “Don’t ask me. I have no clue. Only God knows.”
And they miss the point of what it means to be alert. It isn’t being alert to signs of what may be called the second coming of Christ. Jesus said there would be no big warning signs. He said He would come like a thief in the night.
That phrase “thief in the night,” originates with Jesus, but Paul – who records only two direct quotes from Jesus in his letters -- offers this one when he writes to the church at Thessalonica that “the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night.”
And John, the writer of Revelation, also tells us that Christ says, “Behold, I come like a thief in the night.”
So here are three New Testament writers telling us that the day of the Lord will come “like a thief in the night.” And Jesus reminds us of the nature of thieves – that thieves don’t announce their intentions. You don’t know the thieves have been there until they’re gone.
Don’t confuse thieves with robbers. Robbers come in like masked men with guns telling everyone to hit the floor while the teller puts money in the bag. A robber will bind you at gunpoint and frisk your pockets for your wallet. But a thief might strike in December, and you never realize that your garden tiller is missing until you look for it in March. And it may not be all that clear that it was actually stolen. You may scratch your head for weeks and wonder who borrowed your tiller. Your spouse may even tell you that you simply misplaced it. (That’s what my wife tells me when I am almost certain that thieves have hit our house. Razors go missing at our house and car keys are stolen and those buy ten get one free coffee cards are stolen just about the time I’ve finished with drink number nine.”
Thieves strike when you’re not looking. Thieves leave a trail of confusion. Jesus said that if thieves sent announcements of when they were coming. “I plan on stealing your car on December fifth, right around two in the morning, so please leave your keys in the ignition. No, you’d be waiting by your treasures to head off the robbery. Thieves depend on the element of surprise. Of course, no one is calling Jesus a thief. Jesus called the devil a thief who came to destroy and kill, but the only thing thievish about Jesus is that He comes when you may least expect it and maybe when He least expects it. He said he didn’t know the hour or the day. He might be going about His own business in heaven when the Father says, “Now.”
His return will come while everyone is going about their business. His return will come while we’re doing the things we do everyday. And Jesus says, “Be on the alert.”
Be alert for what? The signs of your second coming? Your coming in the clouds in final victory?
No, be on the alert while you go about your business. Read the next chapter, and you’ll know better. He isn’t telling us to be alert for the signs of his return. He’s telling us to be alert for the moments when He shows up while we’re going about our business.
When we finally do see him face to face, there will be people saying to Jesus, “When did we see you? You say you were hungry and we fed you. You say you were naked and we clothed you? You say you were in prison and we visited you.”
“Yes, as you did it to the least of these my brothers you did it to me.”
If it’s while we’re going about our business that he shows up, then our best way of being on the alert is the means by which we go about our business.
Read the next chapter and there is Jesus telling stories about people going about their routines, doing their jobs, everything sort of ordinary. Two women are grinding at a mill -- one suddenly and without warning comes face to face with God, and the other is left to continue on with life. Two men are working in the field – one suddenly and without warning comes face to face with God, and the other is left to continue on with life.
Ten maidens will be going about their job of providing light for the wedding party. Five of them will suddenly find themselves running on empty. The oil in their lamps has run out. They look no different than the five girls who’ve kept the oil in the lamp, which is a routine task really. Keeping oil in your lamp.
We’re not talking about being alert to His coming in future and final glory so much as we are talking about being alert to the reality that at any given moment He will show in those very ordinary places where we’re standing: Two people at the gristmill. Two in a field. One sees His appearance. One goes right on about her business.
And as you work your way through this Gospel you get a fairly big surprise that your first glimpse of Jesus Himself may not be in clouds of glory, but more like the man holding up the sign at the intersection saying, “I’ll work for food.”
Recently I’ve been accepting invitations to tell my story, and suddenly you’ll see Him in the eyes of some teenaged person who is saying, “I get it. I know Him. I believe He’s here.” And beside them, another is busy sending out a text. Two students side by side, and one sees him and one doesn’t.”
Or it happens like this: you’re having a conversation with a family member and for the first time ever, you get a glimpse into the soul of the other – and see for the first time what really matters, because Jesus has shown up. Or the man shows up while you’re trying to write a sermon and suddenly he says, “I think you and I were supposed to meet.”
That’s the way it works. That’s the way He works. He surprises you, you know, sort of like someone sneaking in the back door. Or as those Gospel writers would put it – like a thief in the night.
And so we pray the old Advent Prayer: “…while we are waiting, come. Jesus, our Lord, Emmanuel, while we are waiting, come.”
Or maybe put more directly in our own vernacular. “While we are going about our business, show up; while we are living out our lives, Jesus, show up – at any time, Jesus. At any time. Just show up.” And when you do show up, give us the grace to recognize when such a holy moment is happening.