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On being one step ahead of the owner (sermon)

November 28, 2010

Matthew 24: 36-44

“As it was in the days of Noah …so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

As we began our service we highlighted the fact that as Christians we live in history between two great interruptions. The coming of Christ to Bethlehem and Calvary in a life of suffering love on the one hand, and the completion of his mission on the other – sometimes called the ‘second coming’ of Christ, sometimes called the parousia, or the appearance of Christ – in which the truth of our lives will be revealed. That’s the frame around our lives in which they make sense. We live on the wave of an interruption, which is not yet complete. And will not be complete apart from a new interruption

The gospel sets the scene by saying ‘as it was in the days of Noah’ … So how was it in the days of Noah? The story of Noah is one of those ancient stories with mythological elements – it tells of giants on the earth and gods meeting with human women to give birth to them… But it also has what I call anti-mythological elements. It does something that myths don’t. It begins (I stress ‘begins’) to deal with the problem of violence. It is part of the Old Testament’s gradual exposé of violence. And so in Genesis 6 the main thing about how it was in the time of Noah, is that “violence filled the earth”. Clearly not all the time. The story talks about them eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, and yet according to the story it is a violent world. These apparently peaceful acts are encased in a pervasive violence. And God is unhappy about that. And in the ancient world of mythology that is a strange thing, the gods usually legitimate violence… but here we see the beginning of a new way, and with it a new way of writing stories of history.

This same violence, then is what Jesus envisages in the future also. You can see that in many of his apocalyptic sayings – his warnings about the dangers his disciples will face.

Today’s text, I suspect, links with the Noah story with this kind of background in mind, the thought the characteristics of the world in the future at Christ’s final revealing will be tipping out of control, that society will be overcome by violence and some will be swept away. Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left, two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Jesus envisages dangerous times before the coming of the Son of Man. Times that require vigilance. Times in which his followers are likely to suffer as he did.

“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

To keep awake also means to persevere, because they have insight into how it will end that others don’t have. So they have a responsibility to keep the hope and life of Jesus alive.

The way I’ve just been talking about this passage may be unfamiliar to you. The American fundamentalists who read ‘The Left Behind’ novels have a quite different take. They are worried about being ‘left behind’. They would rather be ‘swept away’, something they call ‘raptured’ – a word they kind of invented to explain this passage. I remember a song from my childhood entreating me ‘don’t get left behind’ when the Christians a taken away.

But as I see it, it makes much better sense to see that Jesus is concerned that his disciples wait for a coming kingdom in this world, than expect to be extracted from this world. His concern is that they will be swept up in the flood of violence, some will be taken… either as victims, or seduced into being participants. He doesn’t want them to be taken. He wants them to stay alert precisely so they can avoid being swept away in the flood of violence that he sees coming, something he sees symbolised by the flood of Noah. So he wants them to be left behind, and be alert.

He wants them to be different and to persevere in it all. A meltdown may well be on the cards, but he has complete confidence that this is not the final story. God’s final day will be different. In fact it will be so different that it will be a complete surprise to all. No one will know the coming of the Son of Man. It will be like a thief in the night. Jesus is comparing himself to a thief.

And the metaphor he uses to capture this total surprise is the metaphor of a house being threatened by himself as an invading burglar. As I read this text this week I asked myself, Who are the householders in this metaphor? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Let’s play with this image just a little bit…

It occurred to me that the western church has read this text with blinkers on. We have tended to think that we are the householders. That’s what Christendom is all about. It assumes that those who wait for the coming of Christ are somehow in charge of society, that we somehow live in a Christian society. I don’t think Jesus sees his followers in that way at all. So I want to suggest that the Christians are not the householders of this violent world. The householders are the ones who are threatened by the thief. Jesus says, if the owner of the house were alert he would keep the thief from breaking in. But for the Christians, the coming of Christ is not a threat to their kingdom. The followers of Christ are the ones who look forward to the coming of Christ the thief… and wait with hope and joy, alert to the dangers all around them. It is the householder who finds the coming of the thief as a threat.

Both the householder and the disciples have a need to be alert, so Jesus can link them in his discourse. But their needs for being alert are very different. The whole shape of their alertness is different. It is precisely in their similarity that they appear as stark contrasts to one another.

If the house owner is awake to keep the burglar out, our job, as disciples of the coming Christ, is to stay awake because we want to let the thief in, to be a counter-force to that of the owner of the house. The house owners, we might say the gate keepers of this world’s systems, are going to be caught by surprise. They don’t expect a burglar, but they don’t want to lose control of their house either. They have security systems in place.

So what does this mean for us? We need to be unlocking the doors of the house, practicing the ways of Christ… If the owner of the house is going to be completely surprised, we will need to be getting the welcome party organised, disabling the alarms, unsnibbing the windows. We are on the side of the burglar. In relation to the house owners we will end up being subversive. We serve another Lord – a strange future.

All of this presupposes the notion of advent that we began with, i.e. that we are not at the end of history. They we are not the culmination of a great story of human progress, nor are we about to descend into nothingness and destruction. We are an interrupted people and an interrupted world. Our hope and faith is that God will not let our violence against one another and against the planet be the last word.

 

We do not need to despair. Neither do we need to put our faith in the householders, whether they be the democratically elected or the financially dominant. Our job is to quietly open the doors for the burglar who brings the peace of God.

When we broke a gun at the beginning of our worship we reminded ourselves that we are called to live as a sign of the future. Our house and all its guns is going to be invaded by One who has rejected the sword (and the gun). To live differently and hopefully is to start to open the doors for the thief.

 

Bruce Hamill 28.11.10

 

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