That Thieving Christ and Advent
In this season in which we find ourselves there is an anticipatory feeling in the air. A waiting, a longing, and yearning. This is a time filled with preparations and signs and symbols. Everything leads to this promised future. With our turkey stuffed bellies, we awaken from a tryptophan-induced coma of carbohydrates to the coming of what feels like the end time -- for there will be sales and rumors of sales. So stay awake my brothers and sisters because the doorbusting shopacalypse is upon us. Yet my heart was glad when they said to me, let us go at 5 a. m to the house of the Lord and Taylor. For on that holy mountain, people will stream from east and west, north and south, and all nations will come. They will turn plastic cards into shiny promises of love in the form of bigger plastic and cloth and metal and wire. They will go down from this mountain to wrap their bits of plastic and cloth and metal and wire. They will wrap it all in paper, to wait for that day. The day of mythical, sentimentalized domesticity when the hopes and dreams of love and family and acceptance and perfect, perfect reciprocity will come to pass. And the children shall believe that they shall be always good and never bad for Santa will come like a thief in the night. No one knows the hour so you better be good for goodness sake.
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This distorted bogus version of the story of how God entered our world in Christ seems to be playing all around us. It can be difficult to discern the real contours and dimensions of our actual Christian story during a time of the year when TV specials and bill boards and radio ads seem to be kind of telling it. So conflated are the symbols of faith with the symbols of culture that it can be hard to discern the difference. This, this is why I prefer Lent … a season when we are at least not assaulted by doorbuster sales for sack cloth and ashes. The world leaves us quite alone to celebrate that one by ourselves.
But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
So, as a perfect foil to the noise of cultural Christmas, on this first Sunday of Advent we are greeted not with images of the virgin Mary or the soft cooing of a new born savior, but with a text my friend Russell described as "the anticipated threat of Jesus kidnapping someone at work and then breaking into my house and robbing me." Yes, our gospel text for today will not be alluded to in Peanuts Christmas specials or sales at Target.
Be ready, says Jesus. Be ready. During this season of Advent we talk a lot about wakefulness and waiting and anticipation … which are all lovely. But the thing this text talks about the most, the quality attributed first to angels, then to Jesus then to you is not longing or watchfulness -- it's the quality of not knowing. While absolute certainty has long been the hallmark of religion, here we see that perhaps being in a state of emptiness and not knowing is actually quite hopeful, since a full cup has no need of more wine or as my Mom used to say, "Once someone is right about something, they stop taking in new information."
Be ready, says Jesus. Be ready. And while it's easy to assume that being ready is the same as knowing what to look for, I'm pretty sure that when we think we know what to look for we often miss what we were meant to find altogether. So I began to wonder if the angels not knowing, Jesus not knowing, you not knowing, and the word "unexpected" might point to something other than putting all our eggs in the "knowing what to look for basket."
Like when our ears already know the story we might miss the fact that Jesus then says be ready, for the "Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." Maybe just maybe being awake and alert and expectant has nothing to do with knowing and certainty, and has a lot to do with being in a state of un-knowing -- of having what Richard Rhor calls a beginner's mind. Maybe we use our knowingness -- our certainty that we're right -- as a sort of loss-prevention program -- a system by which we actually protect ourselves from the unknown and the unexpected. That is to say, maybe it isn't certainty at all, but a spiritual not-knowing that is what "being ready for Jesus" looks like. And maybe to me that's a little scary.
Because here's the thing: Like the house owner, knowing what to look for -- as a way of avoiding being robbed -- is only advantageous if we assume being robbed is a bad thing. Perhaps having an un-knowing beginner brain allows us to be taken unaware by the grace of God … the grace of God which is like a thief in the night. When we actually don't know what to look for, everything that happens to us is the unexpected. Perhaps the good news here is that Jesus has been staking the joint, and there will be a break-in.
The promise of Advent is in the absence of knowing we get robbed -- that there was and is and will be a break in -- because this God in which we live and move and have our being is not interested in our loss-prevention programs, but in saving us from ourselves and our culture and even our certainties about the story itself. This holy thief wants to steal from us and maybe that is literal and metaphoric at the same time. Because in this season of pornographic levels of consumption in which our credit card debts rise and our waistbands expand, maybe the idea that Jesus wants to break in and jack some of your stuff is really good news. I started thinking this week that maybe we should make Advent lists -- kind of like Christmas lists, but instead of things we want Santa to bring us, we write down what we want Christ to take from us. You know, in hopes he could pickpocket the stupid junk in our houses, or abscond with our self-loathing or resentment … maybe break in and take off with our compulsive eating or our love of money in the middle of the night. Don't you kind of long for God to do something unexpected?
Then as we listen to our sacred story this Advent let us tune out not only the noise of cultural Christmas, but also our own assumptions and expectations about what we think this story means. Let us listen together with beginner's ears -- with ears that listen for God's surprising grace. The kind of grace which will knock the wind out of you.
Under the cover of a deep blue Advent darkness may Christ, this holy thief, rob you of your certainty about what you think the story of Jesus is all about. May this thieving God envelop you in the surprising story of God's suffering love which takes from us that which we can really really do without and replaces it all with God's own self.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she serves the emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.sarcasticlutheran.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television.