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He Will Come Like a Thief

Rev. Kate Layzer
Sun, Aug 07

Texts: Philippians 2:1–11, Luke 12:32–40

In my late teens, a year or so before I began sneaking into churches and sitting in the back, trying not to be noticed, I had a dream.

It came on me totally unawares. I dreamed that the Second Coming was at hand. Jesus was coming back. This was not supposed to be generally known. Somehow it had been leaked, and now the whispers were going around. I heard about it, and I was afraid.

I knew, you see, without having to be told, that there would be a fire to go through. Not the eternal fire of hell we’ve all heard about, but a fire of passage. A purification. I pictured it like a bonfire set between me and Jesus, to burn away my faults. I dreaded the thought of such an ordeal. And yet…

And this was the strange part, because I wasn’t a church goer, I wasn’t a pray-er, none of it was part of my growing up…

And yet, apprehensive as I felt in this dream, I also felt ready. I wanted to pass through that fire. I wanted to be with Jesus on the other side of it.

No sooner had I realized this in my dream than people were saying, “There he is!” I saw a man standing a little distance away. But, oh, the disappointment! He wasn’t what my soul hungered for at all. The man who was supposed to be Jesus looked vaguely… professorial. (Is it okay for me to say that this close to Harvard?) I realized that this wasn’t the real Second Coming at all, but a fraud. Not the first, and surely not the last. (Election 2016, anyone?)

I woke up from my dream with two strong convictions. The first was that Jesus was real. Real in my soul, at least. For all my secular, cultured upbringing, I had genuinely yearned for him, the real and living Lord.

The second conviction made me laugh out loud. It was this: My father, my cultured, professorial, Harvard-educated father, was not the second coming of Christ.

He will come like a thief. Jesus is teaching his disciples, but there’s a crowd around them, and they are listening too—listening in on the warning to stay alert, and not be caught napping. Maybe my 18-year-old self was like a member of that crowd, not yet a follower, yet finding myself drawn in, almost without realizing it. I imagine myself edging closer through the press of people, straining to hear what the teacher is saying, and lingering there a little longer than I meant to.

It’s a slippery slope.

He will come like a thief… slipping in the back door of our souls while we’re busy defending the front door. He will come, not as we’re expecting, not as the one we think we need to defend ourselves against, whoever that is for each of us—
perhaps the precious Nordic-looking Jesus surrounded by adorable Nordic-looking children— or the stern autocratic Jesus watching from his throne, ready to exact punishment— or that Jesus we see on the Internet who lives up in the billowy clouds, welcoming people with giant man-hugs— some Jesus we know better than to be taken in by…

No, that Jesus is not the one who is going to find his way into our house. The one who is going to find his way in is the one we need like we need nothing else. The only one who knows exactly where those dark basement stairs lead, or what’s in the jumble of cobwebby boxes in the attic; the one who has seen past the spotless living room into the grimy corners of our souls and never flinched. That Jesus will find us, because consciously or unconsciously, we want to be found. Consciously or unconsciously, we’ve left a door ajar somewhere.

He comes because God wants to give us the kingdom, give it away for free: the kingdom of justice and love which comes from the heart and not from thrones. Jesus has come to wake up our hearts.

I love the playful way the two contrasting households, the heavenly and the earthly, echo back and forth through this teaching. It starts with an invitation to trade the false security of worldly possessions for the genuine security of treasure in heaven—a place whose only currency is goodness! It conjurs up an image of heaven as the house no thief can break into, and ends with the image of Jesus himself as the heavenly thief breaking into the household of earth. It moves from a parable about human slaves waiting for the return of their heavenly master, to Jesus himself as the slave, waiting on his followers at the table. “This is my body, given for you.”

And when you think about it—how did he get in, anyway? This one in whom heaven and earth meet, this unlikely marriage of human and divine?

“…who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness…”

He snuck in like a thief, didn’t he, when no one was looking, wrapped in swaddling clothes—that most innocent of disguises. Stories about King Herod and shepherds and wise men notwithstanding, it’s pretty apparent that no one noticed. No one. So far as the historical record goes, the world went right on with what it was doing, and no one gave a second glance to a Jewish peasant baby born under Roman rule. For most of his life Jesus attracted no attention whatever. And even at the height of his ministry, when he was supposedly drawing vast crowds as a healer and preacher, not one of his contemporaries once seems to have thought to put anything in writing about him—though he was noticed enough to be arrested and put to death. After all, that was a fairly everyday occurrence under Roman occupation.

He was born, he lived, he died in total obscurity—God’s best-kept secret. And yet we’re still talking about him. Still gathering in the power of his spirit, still bound together by those connections he began with his first followers, shared person by person down the centuries, like the seeding of mustard weed.

In this year of pomp and noise and self-importance, of candidates vying with each other for power and attention, it’s striking, isn’t it, that when God comes, it’s as a face in the crowd. One who speaks, and people get thoughtful; who reaches out to touch, and life flows again. Grace in the midst of the very ordinariness of human life. That’s what he comes to awaken in us—so that at any moment, we might be caught in the very act of offering friendship, or bread, or forgiveness, or clothing, or comfort. (Or NOT offering these things; hence the warning.) Jesus’ way of transforming the world is to transform our everyday-ness, the thing that is hardest for us to fake. That’s why it’s so easy to be caught claiming to be followers, without actually changing anything about our hearts or our thoughts or our lives.

“Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked or sick or in prison?”

He comes like a thief. He’s there—but he’s elusive. Try to grasp him, and he slips free.

Look for him in the face of the other, we tell each other. Yet that’s slippery too. If I go seeking him there, I miss the people I’m looking at. They are themselves, not him. They matter in themselves. Jesus didn’t come to put a theological veil between us and other people, but to help turn us face to face. And yet somehow, when I give my whole attention to another person, and really see them, and see their needs…

…when I dare to submit to Christ’s gentle, insistent pressure on my awareness—when I give in and try it his way…

imperfectly following, in real life, his risky strategy of seeing every single person as human, being present to every single person as fully human, offering compassion and respect and dignity to every single person, even those I see as enemies or threats… when I am able to yield even just a little to that kind of grace… Jesus is present.

He’s present in the grace-filled things that happen. He’s present in the beauty that just seems to emerge as we practice community together, and in the changes within my heart and in my life. I can’t grasp him, but I can discover him bit by bit in becoming more fully an expression of him: for am I not a part of his Body? Haven’t I taken his body into my living self again and again, in the sharing of the bread and cup..?

So take care. He will come like a thief in the night. Like salt in the soup, like yeast in the loaf. He will come stealthily, when you are most undefended, and he will rob you of your stifling self-involvement. He will strip you of your ease in your place of privilege, your indifference to your neighbor’s suffering, your secret store of shame and self-loathing—whatever keeps you distant or disconnected from God’s outpoured love. He will take these things from you, because he loves you more than you know how to love yourself.

And he will give you treasure in heaven that no one can rob you of. Love and freedom, communion and justice and joy. And the kingdom will come, it will come, it is coming, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

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