Sermon - 11th August 2013
Like a thief in the night
Scripture - Luke 12:32-48
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Have you ever been burgled? Have you ever been burgled at night? What was it like?
I've been burgled three times over the years. Once in a flat I hadn't moved into so there was nothing to steal, once in a flat where I had moved into when I was out of work – it was my neighbours - and one attempted burglary at our home now – when my mother in law, who was asleep in the downstairs room at the front of the house, had left the window open. The dog alerted us to someone trying to climb in – my mother in law slept through all the drama!
The common factor for all three incidents for me was that they were all unexpected! Over Christmas four of the twelve houses on our street were burgled – the householders got together to be better prepared and various anti-intruder devices have been fitted which has stopped them.
Our emotions can be all over the place if we are burgled or if we fear burglary; there is anger that someone has dared to break in and steal our hard earned possessions; there is fear – what if we had been there?; there is annoyance at all the inconvenience; there is a sense of violation and a deep sense that we may not be safe in our own home. All these emotions make today's passage where Jesus refers to his coming again as being like a thief in the night, so powerful.
One of the things that struck me with the burglaries, and near misses, that I've experienced over the years is a sense of anxiety. I'm sure that if you've experienced burglary you will have the same feelings. A sort of dread as you turn onto you street, wondering if you've been burgled, wondering if the door will be open or the alarm going off – we had this a lot over the Christmas period when the other houses on our street were burgled. It's a horrible feeling, but anxiety is horrible. Indeed if we are too anxious we can ill – it's a recognised illness and many people suffer from it in our society. So it is striking that Jesus starts this passage with encouragement to his little flock telling them not to be worried.
Jesus' words were to his original disciples facing an uncertain future as he drew ever closer to Jerusalem and the conflict that awaited him there, but they are also relevant to us as we seek to live our our lives of Christian discipleship in an irreligious age. In all that we face in our live together as church – issues of numbers, viability, a spiritualy searching public that don't think to search in Church for God, issues of finance, of balancing our church life with everything else we do it's easy to worry and to get despondent yet Jesus tells us not to worry as the Father has been pleased to give us the Kingdom. He then goes on to give an example of this kingdom in his parable of the master and the slaves.
Masters and Slaves
I really wish Jesus hadn't used slavery as an image in his parables. It's an institution which was, and is, despicable and the fact that the Bible is, at best, neutral on slavery gave carte blanche to slave owners in the modern era. Yet Jesus, and the writers of the epistles in the New Testament, did use slavery to illustrate their messages. It was a facet of the ancient world where, probably, most people were slaves. To us it is a dreadful facet of life; to the ancients it may have been dreadful but it was part of life and there wasn't much you could do about it as the whole of Roman society was founded on slavery as an economic reality – in much the same way that our society is founded on the lending of money with interest.
Jesus, therefore, uses the images of slaves having to be ready for their master's return to make his point. The slaves are to be ready and show they are ready by being dressed for action. The King James Bible renders “being dressed for action” as “let your loins be girded about” and “girding your loins” has become a phrase in English is used a lot without being clear about it's meaning or origins. The long flowing robes worn at this period had to be tied in the middle with a girdle in order for the wearer to be able to work. At night the girdle, or rope, would be untied in much the same way that we may loosen a belt or undo a button or two when relaxing at home. You see something similar with clergy who vest in the Anglican and Catholic traditions where the long flowing white alb worn as a base vestment is tied at the middle with a girdle to stop it flapping around and getting in the way.
The master may return in the middle of the night but the slaves will be blessed if they are ready for him. The Romans divided the night into four watches of three hours each. The first watch was from 6 until 9, then 9 until midnight, midnight to 3am and the last watch from 3am until 6am when dawn would wake people. The master could arrive at any time, but the slaves who are ready for him – even in the later watches of the night would be rewarded.
Here Jesus really gives us a glimpse of the kingdom. The master might return like a thief in the night but this thief will turn the tables on all that is. Like all his parables of the Kingdom things are turned outside down. The master will tighten his belt – gird his loins if you like – and wait upon the slaves. This didn't happen ever! Slaves were there to serve not be served, yet in the Kingdom the tables are turned and all is set right. Those who were at the bottom of the social pile will be raised to their proper place, those who were oppressors will be made to serve those they oppressed. It is as if the dictator is made to be the servant of all.
But it doesn't stop there, the thief in the night does come to steal and surprise us. We are surprised as we are not expecting the visit. The thief steals our false priorities and our unjust structures. When the kingdom comes we shall see the world as it really is and see how it should be.
The Return and the Kingdom
When we read the Gospels we have a tension with two themes in particular – the theme of the return of the Lord and the theme of the coming Kingdom. They are linked – it's why the Church often thinks about them in Advent. The tension is that both seem a long time coming! The earliest Christians believed Jesus would return before they died, then they believed that Jesus would return before the last of his apostles died – it's an infectious idea. In the Victoria era there was a church called the Catholic Apostolic Church which mixed a very high church “smells and bells” liturgy with exuberant Charismatic worship. They believed the Lord would return before the last of their bishops, called angels, returned. He didn't. The delay in the Lord's coming led to the writing down of the stories about Jesus into what we now call the Gospels. There was an expectation that Jesus would return. As it became clear that the Lord's return was delayed, the Church started to organise itself for a future where the Lord's return would be rather delayed. So we have this tension – a belief that Jesus will return (after all the central cry of our faith is that Christ will come again) and the fact that 2,000 years have passed since Jesus walked the earth.
Then we have the tension of the Kingdom. All of Jesus' teaching was about proclaiming the coming Kingdom. A kingdom that he inaugurated, a Kingdom that we pray will come every time we pray the Our Father, a Kingdom that, like the Lord, seems a long time coming. Jesus tells us about this Kingdom in his parables, a Kingdom where the values and priorities of our world are turned upside down, a Kingdom sung about by his mother Mary and lived by him and his followers, a kingdom that we long for but which we catch glimpses of when we seek to make God's will dominant in our own lives.
So, like the slaves in the parable we have to wait, to dress ourselves for action – or gird our loins, if you prefer - to put aside anxiety and prepare ourselves. We prepare ourselves by being careful what we treasure, how we use our money, how we treat others and by living as if the Kingdom was here. We seek to serve not be served, to live in a just way even though our world isn't yet just, to welcome the poor and the excluded to the feast – even though our world is structured to keep the rich and powerful secure. We are prepared for that thief in the night who will come to unsettle us and steal the world's priorities as we try to live in a way that, instead of stealing our comfort from us, he will find us ready and willing to work with him in bringing about his kingdom on earth.