Let’s jump right into this text, shall we? There is something deeply disturbing about reading about human companions being divided somehow and taken—one disappearing and one staying—in the middle of their daily tasks. There is something unsettling and unusual about being called to remember Noah, and the story of the flood, this close to our hanging of Advent wreaths and stringing of our Christmas lights. There is something of a rip-tide, a cross-current in our holiday drift to Christmas when Matthew declares that in the days of Noah, destruction came without warning. We can’t simply float along casually in the story as if we didn’t notice.
Noah’s companions were eating and drinking, marrying, and merry-making—it’s what some of us have tried to do in the past few days, and Matthew insists that “they knew nothing until the flood came.” We may disagree with Matthew as we ask for more helpings of mashed potatoes and a bit of gravy on side too, please. I suppose that among some of Noah’s contemporaries there must have been a few who took note of his obsession with saving his family, the frequent trips to the biblical equivalent of Home Depot, the raised voices with Mrs. Noah about bringing a couple hundred animals under the roof along with provisions to feed them all, like the way we might notice raised voices arguing in the kitchen over who is going to make that last minute grocery run, or the latest news about your in-laws. Surely someone noticed, in the midst of her daily grind, that the world was about to flood or fall apart or be on the evening news.
But no, Matthew says. The world just went on and on and people did what they had always done.
“Keep awake,” Matthew urges, because the coming of the Son of Man will be like this, like destruction unfolding suddenly, with disappearing fellow co-workers in the field and spouses disappearing from the marriage bed. And we think to ourselves, “Why are we reading this on the first Sunday in Advent?”
Here, there is uncertainty, judgement, and an imperative to keep awake. Who can be expected to deck the halls and sing Christmas carols after reading this? How are we to get any sleep at all after reading that Jesus—our Jesus—THE PRINCE OF PEACE– is going to come to us like a thief in the middle of the night? Several of us have known unwanted nighttime visitors and we have installed locks for good reason. We’ve been left unprotected in the past and will not abide any comparison of a Savior with a scoundrel.
And yet, Matthew seems to want us to pay attention and stop simply going through the motions of life, as if we had all the time in the world to mend hidden hurts, or to heal raging disagreements, to sow love, or to experience forgiveness in our relationships, including our relationship with God.
Matthew’s “coming of the Son of Man” has something to do with end-times, and with something scholars call the eschatology, but it also has everything to do with NOW. As in, this very minute and this very present present. In the days of Noah (the past), in the days of Matthew and us (present), and in the days to come (future), there are subtle signs of our transitioning from the world that is to the world that will be. We might begin to notice the Advent of the Son of Humankind, the way that we might notice the more subtle signs of aging in our loved ones: the recent hand tremor, the unsteadiness when rising, a slight bewilderment in answering, and the reluctance to wander far from the comforts of home and the preferred network of favorite doctors. That is, the signs point to a kind of preciousness of time and a liminal moment where all things can happen and nothing can happen.
It is with fear that we may look forward to the future, but scripture declares that it need not be so. The coming of the Son of Humankind is a coming that promises to set to rights those things that humans have generally made a mess of, including those principles and policies and powers that lead us further along self-destruction and communal annihilation.
But understand THIS, Matthew says to us, “If the owner had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into.” Whose house, we ask? Who is doing the breaking in? And how can we presume ownership over anything including our own lives when we experience such uncertainty?
Dear Jesus, what part of our dark night will you arrive? We’ve known nights of the soul where shining stars were few and far between, and therefore wonder, “Is one part of the night any better than another part?” If Jesus were to steal something from me, I’d want him to steal our forecasting of the future as just more of the same. Meaning, we tend to think that the future will harbor only more hidden mischief, pain, and human error. We tend not to imagine that around the next corner, over the next hill to climb, and just beyond the setting sun, there just might be something entirely better and more sustaining than “more of the same.”
Now, it is possible that those who are most set on protecting their house and status quo have not fully considered God’s judgement in this lifetime. And Matthew’s text might be a less-than-gentle corrective. But it can equally be the case that God’s judgement less resembles the worst of times and looks more like rising out of a suffocating self-preoccupation, a refusal to protect our own at all costs, and an inability to harbor a pessimism or cynicism about life that makes us complacent and sleepy about the things that truly matter.
Perhaps Jesus coming as a thief in the night is to help us to wake up to goodness approaching quietly and on tip-toe so that we don’t purposely put walls around our hearts and install elaborate security systems that guard the wrong things at the wrong time when we have so few hours and such little awareness to begin with. What in our souls do we leave open to Jesus and what do we protect from joy’s intrusion? How does complacency with our lives give way to actively receiving the day and the life that we have been granted with all its possibilities instead of all its probabilities as dictated to us by news, studies, or family forecasting? How do we cultivate the faith that God’s coming in the night could be less to frighten us and more to propel us out of complacency into a life of joy and trust?
Perhaps, dare I say it, it is time to jettison this image of Jesus as a thief and imagine him more like a door. It is a door upon which we wait and knock from time to time, but more likely, it is a door that opens when we ready ourselves to receive God’s good gifts and we begin to shed the unwanted visitors that crowd our souls with misplaced hungers.
Yes, Jesus will arrive at the unexpected hour—perhaps you will see something of him in the glow of a child’s face, or the resonance of a particular song, or the opening of your life’s story to a dear friend who listens well and often. Perhaps Jesus will arrive in the moment you and I decide to give him a chance to live inside our protected hearts and our fortified lives that have all the comforts and conveniences this world can give but which lack the peace and the promise of better things to come. Perhaps Jesus will arrive when we take faltering step after faltering step towards a vista for which we yearn but can’t yet see, a horizon that blesses despairing souls and gives those who are still yawning a purpose-filled reason to rise from their sleep.
And now a story from Maya Angelou. She writes:
“When my grandmother was raising me in Stamps, Arkansas, she had a particular routine when people who were known to be whiners entered her store. Whenever she saw a known complainer coming, she would call me from whatever I was doing and say conspiratorially, ‘Sister, come inside. Come.’ Of course I would obey.
“My grandmother would ask the customer, ‘How are you doing today, Brother Thomas?’ And the person would reply, ‘Not so good.’ There would be a distinct whine in the voice. ‘Not so good today, Sister Henderson. You see, it’s this summer. It’s this summer heat. I just hate it. Oh, I hate it so much. It just frazzles me up and frazzles me down. I just hate the heat. It’s almost killing me.’ Then my grandmother would stand stoically, her arms folded, and mumble, ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh.’ And she would cut her eyes at me to make certain that I had heard the lamentation.
“At another time, a whiner would mewl, ‘I hate plowing. That packed-down dirt ain’t got no reasoning, and mules ain’t got good sense….Sure ain’t. It’s killing me. I can’t ever seem to get done. My feet and my hands stay sore, and I get dirt in my eyes and up my nose. I just can’t stand it.’ And my grandmother, again stoically, with her arms folded, would say, ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh,’ and then look at me and nod.
“As soon as the complainer was out of the store, my grandmother would call me to stand in front of her. And then she would say the same thing she had said at least a thousand times, it seemed to me. ‘Sister, did you hear what Brother So-and-So or Sister Much-to-Do complained about? You heard that?’ And I would nod.
“Mamma would continue, ‘Sister, there are people who went to sleep all over the world last night, poor and rich, and white and black, but they will never wake again. Sister, those who expected to rise did not, their beds became their cooling boards, and their blankets became their winding sheets. And those dead folks would give anything, anything at all for just five minutes of this weather or 10 minutes of that plowing that person was grumbling about. So you watch yourself about complaining, Sister. What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.’”
Friends, sometimes a knock on our door in the middle of the night can be a fearsome, loathsome thing. But this knock is different. This knock is one that can free us from leading lives of complaint or complacency. This knock is one for which we have been waiting; one that becomes a door through which we can be more fully present and more fully the soul God has called us to be. So may it be for you.
 Maya Angelou, “Complaining,” cited at: csua.berkeley.edu. Retrieved
October 26, 2001. Also cited in Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now.