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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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 First Sunday of Advent

Matthew 24:36-44

Surprised by the Thief

Stories of Thieves

Thieves use the element of surprise to pull off a crime successfully. The owner does not expect to be robbed at that particular moment. Their guard is down and they are vulnerable to the criminal element, but even with the element of surprise, some thieves just are not smart enough to be successful criminals.

His Face Rings a Bell

The New York City newspapers have dubbed one band of robbers "The Three Stooges" after one particularly comic heist. The trio managed to bypass multiple checkpoints and security guards and escape with $1.17 million in cash, but they removed their masks before they got out of the building-and before they were out of range of security cameras. The pictures of all three of the men's faces were immediately rushed to media outlets all over the city. "Me and my friend Joey opened the newspaper and said, 'Holy cow! There's Mikey!'," said one bartender. He was not the only one who recognized the suspects: more than 60 people called police to say they recognized at least one of the men.

Just Follow the Trail

A robbery at the Dunkin' Donuts in Northbridge, Mass., was relatively easy for police to solve. The robber grabbed a bag of coins as part of his $1,400 of loot, but tore the bag in the process. Officers followed a trail of change from the front door of the doughnut shop to the front door of a nearby apartment building. They found the suspect with the money, the ski mask and the weapons used in the robbery.

While these thieves may not pose a threat to our security, others do. It was suppose to be a vacation away from the pressures of studying and the hassles of city life. The weekend was supposed to be a wonderful winter holiday in the mountains. The snow was dry and fresh. The skiing was the best New England could offer. Carol and I returned to the city with are spirits renewed and ready to reenter the world of graduate studies and work. We were not expecting any surprises. We were not worried about any threats or dangers. However, after a long and tiring four-hour drive, we arrived at my house and found the front door standing wide open. We were shocked and scarred. Where was my roommate? What had happened? Was anybody inside?

We called the police immediately from a neighbor's house. They escorted us into the house. Once inside we discovered that the house had been robbed. The police were not surprised. An empty house in the ghetto was an easy target for almost anybody. The thieves had rummaged through my roommate's and mine closet and had made a mess of things. They did not take much, my roommate was poorer than I was but they did take the only two items of any value-our guitars. His was a beautiful Gibson electric and mine was a Gibson acoustic that I had bought from my cousin. They also took our sense of security.

Unless you have been the victim of a crime, you cannot appreciate the feelings a person experiences after the theft. You are angry with the person who stole your personal property. You feel insecure. Every time you return to your house, you wonder if someone else has broken into it. You blame yourself for leaving the house unguarded. You long for that which cannot be replaced. 
A theft reveals many things about us. It exposes how much we value things. And it discloses how unprepared we are for the unexpected.

God as Thief

Jesus was trying to do both during his conversation with the disciples that is recorded in Matthew 24. The subject matter was initiated by one of the disciples. Jesus had recently made his final entrance into the city that nearly ended in a riot. He had over turned the moneychanger's tables. The city was preparing to celebrate Passover. He and his followers had just visited the Temple and were walking out. Someone made a comment about the grander and beauty of the Temple. He told the man that a day would come when not one stone would remain on another. The entire Temple would be torn down. Later the disciples asked him to explain when exactly this would happen. They wanted dates. They wanted to know the details. Matthew records that Jesus gave them a rather long evasive discourse. In his lecture, he mentions several events that would take place but.

First, many will come in his name and lead people away from God. They will confuse the message. They will claim to be acting on his authority but they will be deceivers. Then rumors will spread about wars and famines. Nations will battle nations. Many will suffer and many will die. He warned them that just as things are looking bad they will get worse. After the famines, after the earthquakes, and after the wars they will be persecuted for their faith. The good news in all of this is they will have an opportunity to testify to the nations and the message of salvation will be proclaimed throughout the world.

"But when will it come," the disciples asked, "Can't you give us dates and times?" Jesus told them that no one would know the hour. It will come unexpectedly. It will come as a surprise. It will come without warning. The same way a thief comes.

Some commentators suggest that news of a burglary was circulating through the grapevine. With the report still fresh in their minds, the people would have easily understood the importance of his message. They knew their vulnerability to thieves. Their only defense was to be alert and ready to assume that the bandit could come at any time, at any moment.

A thief is a rather strange image to describe God. Thieves come not only unannounced but unwelcomed. The authors of Scripture frequently startle us with their images of God. In the parable of the persistent widow, God is likened to the judge who only grudgingly grants the woman her request. In the story of the friend, who comes at midnight, God is seemingly portrayed as the sleepy eyed neighbor who answers the door only so he will be able to return to his bed. Five times in the NT God is referred to as a thief. There are more appealing images of God. We prefer to think of God as that shepherd who tenderly cares for each defenseless lamb. We would rather see God as that waiting Father who is willing to love us even when we have rebelled and squandered all that he gave us. Or, we hope that God is more like that mother hen that shelters her chicks under her wings. 

The imagery of God as thief is jarring. It startles us. We prefer to think of God in polite docile terms. He is our personal friend, he does not pose any danger or threat. He is the comforting person who walks with us in the quiet of the early morning when the dew is still on the roses. The reality is that this sentimental portrait of the Creator is both a limited and distorted view of the awesome and character of the Divine.

In his children's stories about the land of Narnia, CS Lewis also startles the reader by portraying God as the dangerous but loving lion, Aslan. Before they meet Aslan the four children Edmund, Peter, Lucy, and Susan hear rumors about him from Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. These rumors make them a little nervous about meeting him. When they learn that Aslan is a lion, Susan asks:

"Ooh! I'd thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."

"That you will, dearie, and no mistake," said Mrs. Beaver, "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they'er either braver than most or else just silly."

"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.

"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."

In another book, Lewis continues this theme about the subtle but important danger any encounter with the Divine should hold. He writes:

I wonder if people who asked for God to intervene in our world, really know what they are asking . Will they want to be there when God really does intervene?

Jesus suggests that his return will be no more welcomed than a thief that comes at midnight.

How shall we live with this image of God? How shall we live with a God who wants to take from us? That seems to changes the rules. Isn't God suppose to be a god who gives? Isn't Advent the season of receiving and giving? We prepare to receive his Son, to making room for the baby Jesus. We prepare to receive presents and give them! What do you mean God is going to take from us? What is he going to take...the same things that a thief takes but the things that should be least valuable in our eyes.

When a thief scourers a home, besides the cash, they only take the things that will sell quickly - TVs, stereos, jewelry, crystal, ...and guitars. When we honestly think about it, those things are the least valuable possessions we own. I would much rather have the thieves steal my stereo than the tapes of my girl's first words. I would gladly exchange my camera for the pictures  of my children. But the reality is that if our housees were ransacked the first things we would look for would not be the tapes or the photographs, we would search for the recorder, the cameras, the jewels and the cash. 

God wants to steal those valuables that have distorted our vision of happiness. He wants to break down the superficial barriers that we hide behind for security. He wants to scare us into the realization that the only thing that matters in this life is our relationship with him.

Peter Levi wrote a book about life in a monastery entitled The Frontiers of Paradise. He noticed that the monks have let go of so much of that which the rest of us tightly cling, have a sort of lightness of being. They seem to have made peace with the truth that this life is passing and the possession of this world have no eternal value. He says , "Old monks perch more lightly on the globe than the rest of us." Sometimes it takes a thief to help us discovery what is truly valuable.

Preparing to be robbed

Advent is not the season in which we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ. That is past history. Advent is the season to prepare for the future. It is the season to look ahead. You might say to stand on that mountain and look for the Coming One; to expectantly prepare for the unexpected. You might say Advent is a time to prepare for the return of the Thief. The God who comes to steal all that we value so that he can replace it with all that is valuable. May he rob us of everything we should not own.

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