Sunday, 1 December 2013

Jesus the Thief

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

11.00 Sunday 1st Dec 2013

Isaiah 2:1-5  The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.  2 In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  3 Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.  5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Romans 13:11-14  Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers;  12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;  13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.  14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Matthew 24:36-44  "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.  38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark,  39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.  40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.  42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.  43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.  44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

I wonder what image, what picture,
            comes to mind when we think of Jesus?

Perhaps, as we approach Christmas,
            we might visualise Jesus the tiny baby,
            born into a stable environment somewhere near Bethlehem.

Or maybe, to be perhaps more faithful to the season of advent,
                        if not to scripture itself,
            we might conceive of Jesus as the unborn child,
            carried by his mother on a donkey, led by Joseph.

Or perhaps we might imagine Jesus the teenager,
            precociously engaging with the scribes in the temple,
Or Jesus the adult,
            eating meals with friends,
            annoying the religious authorities,
            and bringing healing and wholeness to those he encountered.

Or perhaps we might think of Jesus on the cross,
            or the Jesus of the empty tomb…

Or maybe we think of Jesus in more metaphorical terms:
            Jesus the good shepherd,
            Jesus the light of the world,
            Jesus the messiah,
            Jesus the bread of life
            Jesus the living water
            Jesus the gateway to eternal life

However, there’s one image that I’m going to guess won’t readily come to mind,
            and yet it’s one with strong scriptural precedent,
and that’s the image of Jesus as a thief in the night.

We’ve already met Jesus the thief in our passage for this morning,
            he’s there in verses 43-44 of our gospel reading,
                        but we can also find him in a number of other places
                        elsewhere in the New Testament:

In 1 Thessalonians 5:2, Paul says that
            ‘the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night’,
something which he reinforces a couple of verses later,
            reminding his readers in Thessalonica that
                        because they live in the light, and not in darkness,
            they will not be surprised when the day of the Lord comes ‘like a thief’ (v.4).

2 Peter 3:10  makes a similar point, taking the language of Paul
            and re-appropriating it for a later generation.
He says: ‘the day of the Lord will come like a thief,
            and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise,
                        and the elements will be dissolved with fire,
            and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.’

And in a similar apocalyptic vein,
            there are a couple of references to Jesus the thief in the book of Revelation.

Firstly in Revelation 3:3, the church in Sardis are told to,
            ‘Remember then what you received and heard;
                        obey it, and repent.
            If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief,
                        and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.’

And then secondly in Revelation 16:15 ,
            the voice of Jesus proclaims
            ‘See, I am coming like a thief!
                        Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed,
                        not going about naked and exposed to shame.’

This idea of Jesus breaking and entering a house
            in order to plunder the property within
also finds a parallel in Mark’s gospel,
            where Jesus gives his parable of the strong man:

Mark 3:27 reads, ‘no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property
            without first tying up the strong man;
            then indeed the house can be plundered.’

In this short parable, Jesus makes his subversive intentions clear,
            likening his mission to that of the thief.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ ministry can be understood in terms of
            his breaking into Satan’s house, tying him up,
            and releasing that which has been held captive.

Matthew, in our passage for this morning, presents the same idea but slightly differently,
            offering us a different perspective on Jesus the thief,
            emphasising the unexpectedness of the manner of his coming.

One of the interesting things about many of these references to Jesus the thief,
            and it’s something we find in our passages for today as well,
is the way in which they interplay
            between the language of light and darkness, of daytime and night.

Jesus the thief comes unexpectedly in the night,
            he comes suddenly into the darkness of a slumbering world;
but when he comes, what he brings with him
            is light and life, because he brings the ‘day of the Lord’.

The darkness of the night gives way to the light of ‘the day’

This is a strange kind of thief, isn’t it?
            Most thieves operate in darkness, and like to keep it that way.
            They come in darkness, steal what they have come to acquire,
                        and then leave under the cover of darkness.

But although Jesus the thief comes in darkness,
            what he brings is not more darkness,
                        but the growing brightness
                        of the dawning of the ‘day of the Lord’.

The unexpected hour of the arrival of ‘the day’,
            reveals the deeds of the night for what they are,
            bringing into view that which might otherwise remain shrouded in darkness.

As Paul says in our reading from his letter to the Romans:
            the time has come to ‘lay aside the works of darkness,
                        and to put on the armour of light,’
            to ‘live honourably as in “the day”’

Now, I’ve heard this language of the ‘thief in the night’
            used very unhelpfully over the years,
and I want this morning to offer us a different,
            and I believe better, way of engaging with it.

The application of this image of Jesus, as the thief in the night,
            certainly shouldn’t be, ‘Look busy, Jesus is coming’.
Neither should it primarily be about personal morality,
            and the risk of getting caught out doing something naughty.
In fact, I would suggest that any attempt to use the promise of Jesus’ coming,
            as a threat to enforce ethics by fear,
            is a long way from the good news of the gospel of Christ.

And neither is this passage about what has often been called ‘the rapture’
            which is a largely unscriptural and relatively recent doctrine
            that teaches Christians to expect that
                        at a sudden and unexpected future advent of Jesus,
                        they will be swept off the earth to glory in the clouds,
            whilst the world quite literally goes to hell beneath them.

Rather, this passage is about the incarnation.
            It is about the coming of Jesus into the world as a human being.
Not as a king, but as a refugee,
            not as a powerful ruler, but as a dissident revolutionary,
            not as the son of a king, but as the child of a young and unmarried girl.

Jesus, the light of the world,
            came into the darkness, not as anyone expected him to come,
            but in the most surprising way imaginable:
He came as a thief in the night,
            under the cover of darkness,
            to bring the new and unexpected light of the day of the Lord.
He came to plunder the house of the strong man,
            and to liberate those held captive.
He came to steal the world back from the forces of Satan,
            and to break the power of the owner of the house.

And the earth has been enslaved for far too long;
            the forces of the satanic empire have held power over the peoples of the earth
                        for so long that it has become normality,
            and too easily we have grown complacent to the horror of it.

The image of two men in a field,
            with one taken and one left,
or two women at the mill,
            with one taken and one left,
is a stark metaphor for the terror that the satanic empire
            wreaks across the face of the earth.

Tom Wright helpfully reminds us of the force of this image.
He says:
This doesn’t mean (as some have suggested)
            that one person will be ‘taken’ away by God
                        in some kind of supernatural salvation,
            while the other is ‘left’ to face destruction.
If anything, it’s the opposite:
            when invading forces sweep through a town or village,
                        they will ‘take’ some off to their deaths,
                        and ‘leave’ others untouched.[1]

The empire flexes its muscles, and someone dies, while someone else lives.
            And we say to ourselves that ‘it’s the way of the world’.
We justify our complicity in such satanic systems,
                        as long as it’s me and mine that live.
We comfort ourselves with the mantra that the death of others, elsewhere,
            to war, starvation, or oppression,
                        is regrettable, but unavoidable.

The force of Jesus’ image of two workers side by side,
            with one taken to their death, and one escaping with their life,
is that all humans are equal, that all workers are alike.

Whether a person is working at the top of the pile in the affluent west,
            or at the bottom of the pile
            in the dangerous and impoverished developing world,
                        we are all equal in the sight of God.

The shock of one being taken and one left
            vividly highlights the capricious nature of those principalities and powers
                        that control life and death on a global scale.
Whether it’s the Roman empire of the first century,
            or the empire of global capital of our own century,
Jesus invites us to realise
            that when someone dies in the collapse of a poorly built factory in Bangladesh,
            or at the bottom of a sub-standard coltan mine in the Congo,
they are in actual fact the worker standing alongside us
            as we wear our affordable clothes,
            using our smartphones to update our status.
The other has been taken, and we remain.

This is the darkness of the satanic empire,
            and it is into this darkness
                        that the light of the world comes,
            like a thief in the night,
                        to steal the world back from the forces of empire.

This is how Jesus came,
            it is how he still comes,
                        and it is how he will come again, and again, and again.
The light of the world comes as he has always come,
            as a thief in the night:
            unexpectedly, irrevocably, subversively.
Slipping in under the radar,
            to steal the world back from those forces that currently hold it hostage.

The strong man’s house is still in darkness,
            the military and economic forces of the empire still tower over the world,
lulling those of us who live here to sleep with the opiate of affluence,
            inviting us to close our eyes to the darkness that is all around us.

The call in the images of Jesus as the thief
            is that we should wake up,
            we should open our eyes,
            we should learn to see the world around us in the light of his dawning day.
We should be ready for the revolution,
            not napping the night away.
We may be the under-cover sleeper-agents of the in-breaking kingdom of God,
            but mustn’t to be caught sleeping with our heads under the covers.
The call is for us to be ready and alert to the light of Christ
                        which shines in unexpected places,
            never thinking we know in advance where Jesus will be found next,
                        but always ready to greet him when he comes,
            ever attentive to the dawning of the day of the Lord.

But this invitation to wake up, to open our eyes,
                        and to learn to see the world differently,
            is an invitation that it’s very easy to ignore.
You see, the world can just seem so normal, can’t it?
            It can be so hard to believe that not everything around us is of equal value,
            it can be so hard to believe that not everything we do is of eternal value.

So here, perhaps, we need to hear the lesson of Noah.
            He could see that the world was going change,
                        his eyes were opened to the darkness that surrounded him,
                                    and he started building accordingly.
But everyone else just went on eating, drinking, and marrying,
            little realizing that they were sleep-walking their way to disaster.

The story of Noah offers a clear parable,
            of just how easy it is to carry on ‘carrying on’,
                        whilst remaining wilfully or blissfully blind
                        to the darkness that is closing in all around us.

But it also offers a message of hope to those who live upon the earth,
            because the promise to Noah, at the end of the story,
            is that God is turning his back forever on the strategy of ‘re-booting’ creation.

Genesis 8:21-22   The LORD said in his heart, "I will never again curse the ground because of humankind… nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.  22 As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease."

The story of Noah explores and rejects the idea
            that God might one day re-start the earth
                        with a small group of the elect few, lifted above the tumult,
                        to survive and repopulate a re-created earth.
Our future is here, on this earth,
            and we need to wake up to the impact that the empires we create are having
                        on the created order that is ours to tend.
Because God is not, I think, going to give us a ‘get out of jail free’ card
            that re-starts it all for the favoured few on a newly-minted earth Mark II.

It’s no small irony that this passage has been used so extensively
            by those who have argued that we should expect exactly this.
But I think they are wrong.

The point of the parable of Noah is that the coming flood
            is not a flood of destruction,
            but the flood of the in-breaking kingdom of God.
It’s the flood of the dawning day of the Lord,
            it’s the coming of the Son of Man;
whose light shines in the darkness,
            exposing to the light the even darkest corners of the earth.

The encouragement to wake up, to be alert, to live in the light,
            is both an encouragement to build lives
                        that will endure when exposed to the light of Christ,
            and a warning to those whose deeds and priorities and relationships
                        are only sustainable in darkness.

As Jesus said earlier in Matthew’s gospel,

Matthew 7:26-27  Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them
            will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 
The rain fell, and the floods came,
            and the winds blew and beat against that house,
            and it fell-- and great was its fall!

The coming day of the Lord is a flood that exposes
            the very foundations on which our lives and empires have been built,
and it asks us to consider carefully
            the ground on which we’re building.

We might get away with it once,
            we might get away with it twice,
            we might get away with it for years.
But in time the behavior becomes a pattern,
            and the luxury becomes an addiction,
and our priorities slowly re-orientate themselves
            away from a life lived in the light of Christ,
            towards a life lived in darkness.
We displace God revealed in Christ as the ground of our being
            and fill the void with patterns of our own devising.
And all the while we blind ourselves to what is happening,
            closing our eyes to the light of day,
            and slowly we sleep-walk our way to destruction.

Wake up! says Jesus, because the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night.
            The days of darkness are numbered,
                        and the time has now come to walk in the light of the Lord (Isa 2.5).

‘Keep awake therefore,
            for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming’ (24.42)

In Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urberville’s
            the heroine Tess ponders the day of her death;
and she observes that everyone who has died,
            is always remembered on the anniversary of their death,
and yet they lived their whole life never knowing that date,
            passing over the day of their death as if it were just another day.

‘Keep awake therefore,
            for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming’ (24.42)

No-one expected Bethlehem,
            no-one expected a baby,
            no-one expected Mary, or Joseph, or a stable.
No-one expected the homeless wandering prophet of new life,
            no-one expected the cross,
            no-one expected the resurrection.

But, as Bruce Cockburn so memorably put it,
            ‘redemption rips through the surface of time
                        in the cry of a tiny babe’

So be alert! Keep awake!
Because the son of man comes like a thief in the night,
            to steal the world for good.

[1] Matthew for Everyone, Part 2, p.127.

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