Coming in Suddenness - Advent Reflection - Week Two
These reflections can used in a variety of ways, by individuals or groups, please amend as necessary. The complete series on PDF including introduction is available here.
Someone read aloud: Matt. 24. 36-51.
Reflection: Preferably read by one voice, with everyone having a copy to follow.
Why is it that some things appear to take so long to arrive and others are upon us before we can believe it!? When I was a child it seemed that neither Christmas, nor summer holidays would ever come. As a young mother I was frustrated by the late arrival of my first-born. In my more mature years I am irritated by the slow pace at which wisdom and patience develop in the character!
But other things can arrive before I know it. Never mind my favourite things, these are a few of my shockingly sudden things: disappointments; viruses; loss of loved ones; gain of impediments; accidents and incidents of quick temper; news of earthquakes, tsunamis, and financial instability. Oh I don’t have to spell it out, I’m sure you all have your own list of such things. Even good things in themselves can be too overwhelming if they arrive suddenly and unannounced. I have a friend who cannot bear the thought of a surprise party! Some of it is about being out of control of the situation.
So when Jesus spoke about coming back like a thief in the night, he left me with a real sense of ambivalence: thieves in your house are a dreadful thing, -a threat. They take from you, invading your privacy and leaving you worse off. Why did he chose such a horrible simile to describe what it’ll be like when he returns to us one day? I’d have preferred something like: the Son of Man will come like an oasis in the desert; or like the first rush of unexpected romance; or maybe like a winning lottery ticket at a time of credit crunch! O yes, I think I could have written him a better script.
But then, …. that all sounds so small-minded in the eternal scheme of things. Having shared the same human life and needs as I have, he knew that when people are left to get on with a job on their own, long-term, there is a tendency to relax a bit and let standards drop. There must have been a great buzz of expectancy within the early Church, waiting each day to see if he would return. Days lengthened into months and years, then centuries, and now it’s millennia. So are we to deduce that we misunderstood his message and he’s not coming back? Or is it just that his time-scale is on a different range from ours?
There’s almost a secrecy here about when he will return. Repeatedly Matthew wrote that no-one knows when it will be, -not even Jesus himself, because he took on our humanity to such a degree that he sort of emptied himself of his God-ness in many respects. The theological word for it is ‘kenosis’, and we’ll come back to it in week four.
So here’s our dilemma: we know and we don’t know. We know he will return but we don’t know when. And that adds up to living with a degree of uncertainty. We will definitely be surprised by the suddenness of his unexpected arrival, but we must work towards always being ready. This sort of constant vigilance is difficult, it needs a more edgy motivation, -perhaps the’ thief in the night’ image is more appropriate after all. And the comparison with being left out of the Ark to drown, is a pretty attention-grabbing one, too. These images arrest me more than the softer ones of romance and lottery tickets.
Perhaps Jesus wanted to imprint on the minds of his hearers the serious responsibility of the task with which he was leaving them. It’s not about hanging around for 2000 years waiting for a comfortable reward, but it’s about working for his Kingdom for 2000 years, so that more and more people are blessed and made whole.
That’s why the last picture in this passage is a strong one. A servant is left in authority over his fellow servants, with a charge to care for them and feed them. The anger of the master is great when he returns to find not only neglect and hunger in his household, but actual brutality and abuse.
These strong images are not comfortable, but they help us put God’s imperatives into perspective. The question is, are we working faithfully for our Master’s return, or wasting his, and our, time?
Of course there is another way in which we can suddenly have to explain ourselves to our Master. The least welcome, and often sudden, interloper into life, is death. Chances are that we will come face to face with him then, rather than having to wait until the end of time. Death is the condition most out of our control. But let’s not forget that it was to overcome death that Jesus came to us the first time. The Master who returns suddenly is the one who gave up everything for love of us. We respect him, we serve him, we worship him, but all in the knowledge that above all else, he loves us.
The complete series on PDF including introduction is available here.
E. Christine Bailey, 17/11/2008