Here on the threshold of Advent this reading from Matthew chapter 24 is not for the faint hearted. Wars, rumours of wars, a world in turmoil ....
Advent, we say, means 'coming'.
But it means more than that.
venio is 'come'
'ad venio' is come against
An advent people know that they are up against it. We get both Adventure and Adversity from the same word.
Well we know we are up against a world that is indifferent or even opposed to us.
But our deepest challenge is always theological.
We are up against God.
There is a sense in which we always meet God as both ally and adversary.
Every work of blessing must also be a work of destruction at some level – simply because to take us into a greater vision and life in God it must always be breaking through our defenses, our lesser securities, our narrow understanding.
In these chapters Jesus uses two contrasting images to speak of his coming at the fullness of time.
He describes the deep, violent upheavals of the world as birth pangs (). Contractions.
This is a world in labour.
He also speaks of his coming as a thief in the night ().
So what is the difference between a birth and a burglary?
Both are unpredictable – 'no one knows the hour or the day'.
Both tend to happen in the night
Both are shattering intrusions into our private worlds
But there the similarities end.
For one, we trust, has been an event loved, longed for, joyfully anticipated, prayed for unseen for a long time. Though out of sight there were signs of life growing and stirring unseen, kicking in the dark.
Before they were born I used to sing to my boys last thing at night. Jackie reported how they always moved vigorously at such times. But we could never agree if they were dancing or writhing.
And the moment comes when we greet and welcome face to face. I remember very clearly how as I held Josh for the first time he recognized my voice.
Simeon was born 15 years ago last weekend. It was a Monday evening. I had gone over to church for a PCC (church council) meeting. We had just got to matters arising when the phone went.
They were probably not the only PCC in the CofE to stand and cheer at the sight of their vicar fleeing from the meeting. I'm sure there are plenty of other PCCs just longing to have the same experience.
He was born during 'any other business'.
It was a particular gift to that meeting which had been a place of much conflict at times. I confess I came close to wearing a cricket box to some of those meeting. Ah, the things they never teach you at college!
Don't you assume you are so wonderful they will have to love you!
PCC's, like God , are our ally's and adversaries,
Now a burglary is something else. Any of you had your house burgled? Those who have say that the house never quite feels the same again … knowing that a stranger has been through your most personal possessions.
But that of course is the point.
Burglary is an issue of possession.
It's about what we think is ours.
It is very paradoxical that Jesus describes himself as a thief.
For all he is doing is coming to his own.
What kind of world only knows the coming of its creator as a break in?
It is a world unknowing of him and possessive of what it not ours to own.
What is so striking about Jesus likening his coming to the 'days of Noah' is that you expect Jesus to list the grievous sins and evils of those days. Instead he describes people eating and drinking and getting married. Nothing wrong with that .But it is a world living completely obvious to it real needs and challenges.
So 'he came to his own but his own did not receive him' (John 1)
In my experience theological college can feel like theft - for spouses and family too. The things we were at home and established with before we came, that we knew were ours – gifts, jobs, communities, our home church - can feel taken from us. And here even our personal ways of thinking of God and praying are being rummaged through, assessed and reported on.
But this is not the coming of a possessive God determined to claim his own property back.
I am not that comfortable with the saying that does the rounds, 'Jesus wants his church back'. It's one of those sayings you can't argue with without sounding unspiritual. Drop it into a sermon and everyone feels they have nod meaningfully and look prayerfully concerned. We know what it means - and of course it matters.
But it so easily gives the wrong impression of God.
Phil 2 says: 'though he was in the form of God he did not cling' … Jesus emptied himself. He makes himself pure gift . And this is what God is like. He does not grasp. The Trinity is a community of divine poverty … lived out of the simple ecstasy of pure gift.….
This is a burglar to welcome … a loss to not resist …. because at last this human home will be complete … there will be no need to defend it anymore.
In my experience the previous occupants of houses we move into always, by definition, have very poor taste. It's true isn't it? How did they live with that wallpaper?
It is a particular gift to be able choose the textures and colours and furnishings that enable a home to be most truly home.
Far from robbing us - Jesus beings us home.
Far from some sort of possessive takeover - he makes it complete.
He is our home maker.
In him all things find their true place.
So he comes and we come against - ally and adversary - because we don't yet know or can quite trust the difference between birth and burglary.
But our hope lies in the fact the Jesus can.
The contractions begin
And our eyes at last shall see him.
Come Lord Jesus
Birth or burglary?
- an advent sermon
‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 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.
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. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.