Text: Matthew 24:36-44
Special greetings from Galilean Lutheran, Ocean Shores. Next week I will be at Spanaway Lutheran in Spanaway right near the Synod Office.
Thank you for your ministry. Here and in the community.
Today we begin Advent season. We begin 24 days of celebrating the advent, the imminent arrival of God and Christ in our midst. This is a time not just to remember back 2000 years ago to God’s coming in the birth of Jesus, but in this season we prepare for God’s Advent, God’s arrival in our life right now in a new way.
“Stay awake,” says Jesus, “you do not know when and how God is coming.” God urgently wants to come and change your lives and give you fullness of life and change the world. But you resist it, you fall asleep, you sleep walk through life, and so God breaks in. When you least expect it, in the middle of the night God breaks in like a thief.”
Which poses an interesting question to think about during Advent: If God is a thief, what is God wanting to steal from us?
The season of Advent was designed by the Christian community to be a time of self-reflection and thinking about our life, so that we might be open to what God wants for us, when God born into our midst once again on December 25.
What does God the thief want to steal from us? The answer, basically, is that God wants to snatch away from us is anything that keeps us from being fully alive. Anything that gets in the way of being one with God and united in love with each other.
The third century Christian teacher, Irenaeus, said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
For starters, God wants to steal away from us the fears and self-judgments that keep us trapped in a place of shame.
I remember one of my good friends in seminary, Mike, who I always admired for all of his talents and accomplishments. He was a 4.0 student, he played on the tennis team, he sang in the choir and also play flute in the seminary music ensemble. We were talking one day and I was startled to hear him say, “I just wish there was one thing that I could do really well.” He said it with a sense of sadness and discouragement about himself, and as I thought about it, I realized that he carried that sadness a lot of the time. Everyone else looking at Mike saw talent and accomplishments. But, Mike, looking at himself, could mostly only see what he hadn’t accomplished and what he still struggled with.
We Lutherans know that God loves us, at least we know that in our heads. But the question is, can we love ourselves?
We are often our own harshest critics, our own worst judges. We can so easily feel in our hearts that we just aren’t enough. We work hard to have a good, presentable life, but we see our own mistakes and it just doesn’t feel like we are enough. Our life doesn’t add up to what we want it to be, our family has problems, our health falters. Deep inside we feel ashamed.
And that’s where Jesus breaks in and says, “Please see who you really are. You are one of God’s dear ones. At your birth, God breathed life into you. In your baptism, God washed you with life-giving waters and claimed you as God’s own child. Of course, you have struggles. Of course, you make mistakes along the way. But, you are one of God’s beloved and always will be no matter what.
So, part of the purpose of Advent is that it is a time for God, like a marvelous, liberating thief to break in and steal from us our internal judgments and accusations and shame about ourselves, no matter how much we want to hold onto them, so that we can be set free to live as God’s dear children.
But, secondly, God also wants to snatch and take from us the outer judgements and rejections that we point towards others. We live these days in a time of such division and accusations and bitter attack against one another in our society and in the world. God’s family, the world-wide family of God is so divided and splintered right now. We experience that in our nation, in our families and our churches. A big cause of that is, in our insecurity and judgment towards ourselves, we attempt to lift ourselves up in status and importance by putting others down. In order to feel important and right and on top, we treat others as bad and low and wrong. God wants to take away from us these patterns of cold rejection and unrelenting attack by which we divide a human family that God wants together.
Sixty-four years ago today, on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery Alabama, Rosa Parks, a 42 year old African American woman refused to be forced from her seat on a public bus.
The practice in Montgomery, established by city law, was that the first rows of seats on each bus were reserved for white people. Buses had what they called "colored" sections generally in the second half of the bus for people of color. The sections were not fixed but were determined by placement of a movable sign that said “colored” on it that the driver could move back and forth, depending on how many seats the white people would need. Black people could sit in the “colored” rows until the white section filled. If more whites needed seats, the driver would move the “colored” sign farther back and African Americans had to move to seats in the rear, or stand, or, if there was no room, leave the bus.
On December 1, 1955, after working all day at her department store job, Rosa Parks boarded a Montgomery public bus, paid her fare and sat in an empty seat in the first row of available seats reserved for blacks in the "colored" section. It was in the sixth row back, near the middle of the bus, directly behind the ten seats reserved for white passengers.
As the bus traveled along its regular route, all of the white-only seats in the bus filled up. The bus reached the third stop in front of the Empire Theater, and several white passengers boarded. The bus driver, James Blake, noted that two or three white passengers were standing in the aisle, as the front of the bus had filled to capacity. He moved the "colored" section sign behind Parks and demanded that four black people give up their seats in the middle section so that the white passengers could sit. Years later, in recalling the events of the day, Parks said, "When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.” ‘ [I decided] that I would have to know for once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen.’
While the other three passengers in her row moved, Rosa Parks refused to move. The police were called. She was arrested. With the publicity, she lost her job at a department store. Her husband quit his job when his boss said he could never talk about his wife or her legal case at work.
In response to all this, the local African American community, with the support of the NAACP, began a Bus boycott. to work or school. 381 days. The local organizing committee voted in as president a recently arrive young Baptist pastor who almost nobody knew by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. The bus segregation law was finally repealed by the city of Montgomery, following a ruling by the US Supreme Court.
Through that whole process of Rosa Parks staying in her seat, and the Montgomery black community joining together in action, and eventually the leaders of the land saying, “This is not right,” God slipped in and stole away from the city of Montgomery a set of Jim Crow laws and practices by which the white community tried to prove they were first and best, by forcing the African American community to the back. Repealing the segregation laws was a great step forward. It began a journey of great progress. But we still have so far to go.
We are still so divided in our nation and in the whole world by the judgments and the mistreatment by which one ethnic group tries to hold onto its place of privilege and keep others down. Sometimes this is overt, like China rounding up a million Muslim citizens of one of its northern provinces and putting them into camps. Sometimes it just part of the system of how things work and we don’t even realize it, like the common practice here in our own country that we whites have the best chance at getting a job or renting an apartment or being treated respectively walking through a department store.
In the same way that we internally judge and shame ourselves, we also slip into patterns of judging and shaming each other, whether it is around color, gender, sexual orientation, or how rich or poor we are. And the result is that the whole human family is so broken and splintered right now. This grieves God. This is not what God wants for us so God says, “Like a thief in the night, I will break into their world and snatch away from them these patterns of judgement and disrespect that they can’t or don’t want to give up on their own. I will send, once again, the Christ, who will help them see that they are my dear ones. They are all completely and equally my dear ones, and Christ will set them free from the old way and teach them a new way where there is a place at the table for all and the hungry are fed and children are safe and there are decent jobs and a place to sleep at night. That is what I want for my family,” says God, “full life in each heart, full life in their relationships, and full life in the world and for creation itself.
Here is a spiritual practice that I suggest you try out this Advent. Make two Christmas lists. On the first list, write down all the things that you want God to take from you. If God is a life-giving thief in the night, what’s not working. What keeps getting in the way of peace in our hearts, peace with God, peace with each other. For each one of us that list will be different.
Make a list of what you don’t want. Then, once a day, for the next twenty-five days, or at least once a week, say a prayer. “O God, come and take from me all that which is hurting me.” Then name those things on your list. Whatever they are. Chronic sadness, depression, self judgement, conflict in your family, racism in our country, religious conflict around the world.
Everything you don’t want, make a list and then once a day, pray, “O God, come and take from me all that is hurting me.”
Then, make a second Christmas list: what do you want God to give to you?
For God comes not only to take away that which is hurting us, God even more importantly comes to give us the gift of new life and new blessing, new joy with God and with each other.
So, what do you want for Christmas? Include the actual presents you want to be wrapped up under the Christmas tree. The new iPhone. The stylish sweater. A trip to the Superbowl to see the Seahawks play. That’s going to need some divine intervention, I think.
But along with those delightful physical gifts, what does your heart need this Christmas, what does your soul need, what does your family and our nation and the planet need right now. Put those on your list and pray:
“Dear God, please bring to me (all that is on your list.) Perhaps, healing, strength, peace in my family, healing in our country, justice for all people, reconciliation between old enemies
This is the work of Advent. Along with the shopping and the decorating and the baking and gathering with family, this can be a part of our Advent preparation. Tell God what you want God to take from you and what you need God to bring, and pray them once a day through the whole season of Advent.
God bless you in this Advent time of waiting and watching. As Jesus said, may the Holy Spirit keep us awake to all that God is at work doing in us and in the world.
May the divine thief come to us in this mysterious nighttime of Advent to free our hearts and bring us life. Amen.