A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, 2019, at the Church of the Epiphany in Euclid, Ohio. In the gospel, Jesus warns of the suddenness of the second coming of the Son of Man. In the news, London is recovering from a terrorist stabbing attack on London Bridge.
There’s a strange notion buried in the middle of this gospel and it has got me thinking. For most of the text, Matthew has Jesus warning his disciples that they do not know when the kingdom of God will be finally and fully revealed, with all of its glory and all of its judgement and all of its salvation. Keep awake, be ready, be open to the coming of the Day of the Lord.
And yet in this one little line, Jesus goes off script. If the owner of the house had known the hour of the invasion, he would have defended himself against it.
In one breath and more, Jesus is advising vigilance in order to receive the Son of Man at any moment.
The bridesmaids must keep their lamps lit, the stewards must keep the house ready to welcome the bridegroom, the master, the Messiah.
And yet in this one, quick breath, Jesus describes himself as a thief in the night, against whom the householder might do well to defend himself.
I do not think that this is an accident.
On the one hand, the message to the church and to the people of the church is simple: live as you would want Jesus to find you. Be prepared, be ready to receive your judge, confident that you are living out the gospel in word and in deed. Be confident in your salvation, and through that confidence have the courage to extend the mercy, the justice, the grace that Jesus has offered you throughout your own sphere of influence.
This collection of passages about the day and the hour and the coming of the Son of Man culminates in the familiar parable of the sheep and the goats, and the naked and the hungry, and those who did right by their neighbours, and those who failed to love them, and by so doing failed to love Jesus as themselves.
The message is clear: do unto others as you would like to be discovered doing at the day of revelation.
But it is also untenable. We cannot righteous our way to redemption. We will fall asleep, make mistakes. We have all sinned against God and against one another. Speaking for myself, with the best will in the world, I know that I will sin again.
I can’t help thinking of that man on London Bridge. You may have heard that one of the people who tackled the man with the knife had been in prison with him. You may have read that one of the have-a-go heroes who tackled the terrorist was, is, a convicted murderer. If the judgement had come at that moment, when he was doing good (and he did good that day); even if he devoted the rest of his life to heroic actions, would it restore the life that he had already stolen?
Our only hope is in mercy. Our help, our encouragement is in forgiveness. We cannot righteous our way to redemption.
And that’s where Jesus comes in.
No matter how hard we try to be ready for God and for judgement and for salvation, we have this tendency to fall back into fear, worried about what will happen if God catches us at the wrong moment.
We become so worried about the future of our salvation that we forget to notice that Jesus has already arrived, sneaking in through the back door, and is sitting at the kitchen table having already helped himself to a cup of tea.
While we are waiting for him, he is waiting for us.
In this odd little aside, the Son of Man is not a king, nor a bridegroom, but a burglar.
That’s a difficult image for some of us who have been the victims of criminal activity – but bear in mind that this is a metaphor, Jesus being sneaky and a little bit cheeky in describing to his disciples how the coming of the Christ might work.
I think that part of what Jesus is saying in this odd little aside is that we construct defences against him, against Christ, against grace. We make rules for who can receive salvation. We build walls around our hearts, fencing pieces off from God out of guilt, out of self-interest, out of shame, out of sin. In the beginning, when Adam and Eve discovered their nakedness, the story is told, they tried to hide from God and cover themselves from God’s sight.
But sneaky Jesus always finds a way around or through our defenses.
Whatever the deepest and most untold secret of your soul, Jesus has already seen it, broken it open, laid it out on the kitchen table next to that cup of tea he’s drinking. You might as well just turn it over to him. He will know what to do with it.
Whatever the most jagged scar on your psyche, Jesus has already touched it. You might as well turn it over to him. He knows how to help with the healing.
Whatever your sin, Jesus has already judged it. You might as well turn it over to him so that he will redeem it.
In the medieval church, Advent was known as the little Lent. Both are seasons of preparation for the coming of Christ, for the renewal of resurrection, for the hope of the kingdom of God. In each we are advised to make ourselves ready through study and prayer, self-examination and confession, repentance and revision, trusting in the goodness of Christ to come.
This being a Christian journey can be hard work. This call to love God, simple enough on the surface, demands sacrifice. It means loving our neighbours, all of them who also carry the image of God, as ourselves. It demands mercy and forgiveness and grace. It demands the letting go of grudges and judgements, prejudice and private, reserved bias. It demands that at any moment, we are ready to receive the judgement day, to be surprised by God doing exactly what Jesus has asked us to do: to make ready his table, his house, to keep his doors open to all.
And it demands that we have mercy on ourselves, when we fall asleep, when we fail to love as Christ loves us, keeping our hearts open to that love for us, and Christ’s forgiveness.
That’s why Jesus breaks in. It’s a paradox, but as we are bustling around the house making ready, he has snuck in through the service entrance and is working with us as one of the waiters in disguise, the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve. As we are trimming our oil lamps and counting our reserves, he is the light of the world, unextinguished. As we are wondering how on earth we will get it all done, he has already set a table for us, lit a barbecue on the beach, divided the loaves and fishes,made a cup of tea and sat down at the kitchen table.
The Son of Man will come again in clouds and great glory; but he has also already arrived, slipping in through the very human entrance, through the womb. He is coming, and he is already with us.
And just as he came as a small, defenseless child, so we are defenseless against the tenderness and faithfulness of his just and forgiving, always surprising and deeply subversive love.