What comes to mind when you think of the word “taken”?
Some of us might have the uncomfortable response of feeling “taken” advantage of. We may have known people to take advantage of loved ones or of those things that we hold dear—our labor, our kindness, our friendship, our ignorance, our money, our beliefs, or our naïveté.
I would venture to guess that none of us have enjoyed being “taken” in this manner.
And then we may also consider the times that we feel swindled or taken by deceit. Someone has promised something and we took them at their word. Someone does not tell the truth or purposefully alters reality to fit their practiced storyline and we fell for it…We’ve been taken for a ride, or for a fool, taken out to pasture, or over-taken by circumstances or events beyond our control.
If you ask my sons about the word, “taken,” my one son, Eli, will probably tell you that his brother was “taken outside” of the restaurant on Thanksgiving Day for a quiet talk in the car. “To be taken” outside in this context definitely has a negative association for the twins; “taken” means that someone is going to lose something: a toy, a dessert, a privilege, Mommy’s approval, or time with family. One does not want to be taken to Mommy’s car for a talk; this means that counting to three has not worked for anyone, including Mommy.
But we can also have positive associations with the word, “taken.” We can be taken up by an idea, or a cause, a hope, a dream, or a relationship with a person. We can become positively smitten with the Divine, taken by God more deeply into God and by the joy of Jesus and his way of perceiving life.
At the beginning of Advent when we have, in the U.S., often filled ourselves with a Thanksgiving Day meal and satiated our appetites, we may find that Matthew’s words strike a sour apocalyptic note at a time when we seek simply to make merry and make plans to get our shopping and holiday decorations underway. But before we get to the birth stories, Advent presents us with this difficult story about being swept away by a flood, separated from our companions in the field and in the daily grind, and about the Lord coming like a common household thief.
So let’s begin today with that word, “taken.” We need to begin here because Matthew seems to favor this word at least twice in this story and each time the word “taken” is used, a sudden separation occurs between two companions—whether while working in a field under the hot sun or laboring to grind out the daily meal.
There are primarily three ways to understand this story from Matthew.
Some suggest that this passage is about the end of time, the Second Coming of Christ, about which we have no knowledge of time or season.
Some suggest that this passage is actually about the end of one’s life also about which we have no certainty and also about which our lives will be weighed by Divine scales of justice.
And some suggest that this passage is primarily about this day—the uncertainty and the judgment that we each face in the daily happenings of our lives and in our everyday relationships.
Do you see a pattern here?
No matter which interpretation you choose, you would be hard-pressed to read Matthew’s words and not find the pairing of judgment and uncertainty, two themes of which we can be highly uncomfortable.
Yet, befriending both judgment and uncertainty are necessary for our spiritual development. Who among us would wish to live in a world where there was no judgment rendered by God—at all? For Matthew’s community, judgment was anticipated as a time when those things that were out of balance were put to rights. We take our cars to the mechanic to have our wheels aligned so that the wheels will wear better and the ride will safer, smoother, and we can drive our vehicle better.
Likewise, the judgment that is given by the Son of Man in connection with our soul is a kind of preventative maintenance so that the evil to which each of us may inadvertently participate and we collectively lament is held in check. Through the quiet and not-so-quiet promptings of the Spirit and the difficult conversations with God in the stillness of the night and in our relationship, what is out of balance in our daily lives is gently and mercifully corrected as we participate in the promptings.
Befriending uncertainty is also a spiritual task. No one knows how long we are given on this good earth and so we may find ourselves either looking forward with anxiety or looking ahead with resignation or apathy. To greet the new day like a child who has discovered the sun piercing through the clouds for the first time or the marvel of rain puddles or crunchy, fallen leaves often escapes our adult minds that stay preoccupied by “what ifs” and blind self-preservation.
Yet we all know uncertainty, don’t we? We all suffer from unexpected events. David Lose suggests, “what if we updated the examples Jesus employs just a bit. Two colleagues were working; one was diagnosed with cancer, another not. Two candidates applied for a coveted job; one was chosen, the other not. Two kids were navigating their way through high school; one succumbed to a drug addiction, the other not. Two couples were joined in marriage; one stayed married, the other did not…
“Our lives are filled with unexpected, surprising, and life-altering events. And in the midst of all of this, we are invited – actually, commanded – to keep watch for the presence of the God we know in Jesus. This isn’t always easy, especially when the unexpected event is tragic. Sometimes you have to wait a while to see where God is at work and that can be painfully hard. Yet the promise throughout Scripture is that God reliably meets us at our point of greatest need and accompanies us even and especially in the most difficult of circumstances.”
Friends, our spiritual task becomes then to ask, “What gifts *might* this uncertainty bring? What might we learn from living in uncertainty before a Divine joy breaches our defenses and leaves us in awe again? What might we gain from knowing that while we cannot control the timing of God’s manifestation or coming, we can live with the daily expectation that God can be found whether we are away in the fields laboring for someone else or transforming our daily ration of hope into bread that can be savored and enjoyed by someone in addition to ourselves.
Some of us, I venture to guess, have felt a Divine Deficit which is not at all helped by Matthew’s likening Jesus’ coming to a thief coming in the night.
For those of you, I share this story:
I have a drawer in my home which I place all kinds of stuff. I hesitate to call it a junk drawer, though some might. The drawer is in a painted white cabinet with a small plaque that reads, “Celton Paris.” There is absolutely no significance behind the plaque or the color except that I bought the cabinet in an out of the way place in Delray Beach, Florida. My husband was not impressed at the time of our combined blending of household goods, but it was the first piece of furniture that I truly owned and it was bought in a place that flipped furniture like one might flip houses. Which is to say that it carries emotional weight in my surroundings and not because it is heavy.
Anyway—in this cabinet, in the center drawer, I tend to put sharp things, things that have both cut me and cut others. I put broken things there too—there always another item or relationship to mend, a letter that I haven’t gotten around to sending, the good intentions that are taken away by time and circumstance, the hard things that have yet to soften, things that I don’t want my kids to see, and things that I haven’t looked at for a very, very long time because it is just too painful or I am too busy.
Do you have a drawer like this too? Inside, there may be moments that I have taken for granted which spill out every which way when I open the drawer, and there are skeletons there too, though they have moved from the closet to the drawer clattering all along the way and dragging their proverbial heels. There are directions that I have tried, but failed to follow, and disappointments that I haven’t gotten over, and a few batteries that have long since lost their charge and never seem to be the right size anyway for the task at hand.
And then way, way back in that drawer—back where the light struggles to reach—there are other drawers, a Pandora’s box of drawers, drawers behind drawers like an M.C. Escher drawing or like the fabled wardrobe of C.S. Lewis opening into Narnia. There are entire worlds behind that drawer—hidden and remote—some are labeled financial, some are labeled health, vocation, and psychological and some have completely lost their labels because it definitely was too hard to keep them straight.
I think everyone has a drawer like this; it’s just that some of us just refuse to discuss it.
And Jesus, coming like a thief in the night, will try to access those drawers like Santa sliding down a chimney without any WD-40, and in stealth because God knows that the minute Jesus opens the drawer that we have labeled “junk,” he will surely find all the relationships, people, situations, and events that we have worked so hard to keep from his meddling, poking, healing, and understanding. He will gently pry the handle or knob from our grip and instead place a flashlight in our hands and invite us to come and see what treasures lay hidden there. And the judgment we will experience will not be the kind of talk that my children fear as their Mommy takes them to the car when she has reached the limit of her patience, but the kind of talk that open eyes and aligns hearts to hear anew the fullness of life that God intends for us, the kind of life that we secretly wish for but do not know how to bring about ourselves, with ourselves only.
And when that moment happens, there will be one taken with love, while another works oblivious.
There will be one taken with generosity, while one continues to hoard their belongings or their happiness.
There will be one taken with a renewed lease on life, while one gives in to despair and meaninglessness.
There will be one taken with the reaching for justice, while one labors at maintaining the status quo. The strong man or woman who bars the door and does not admit the Master to his or her house will have good reason to see a crucified Robin Hood as a threat. The strong man or woman who does not want God to gain entry will question the right of God to break-in upon us unawares.
And there will be one left behind. But the one left behind will not be a degenerate cast-off beyond the reach of God, but a regenerate soul who will point like the prophets of old and show another way to open the drawer that we have refused to open except by love’s persistent entry.
Sisters and brothers, Advent is here. Keep awake that you may not miss God coming into your life—through a prophet, through a woman, through a man, through a baby, and through these odd apocalyptic passages that seek your willingness to engage with the Divine and disengage your defenses.
Thanks be to God and a blessed Advent to you.