I can still vividly remember the doctor’s appointment my husband and I had the day before our son was born. It was a week before my actual due date. Our doctor was a family friend in the way that almost all Mennonites are, and we had enjoyed getting to know her better over the nine months of my pregnancy. She was explaining to us that she would be out of town the week of my due date and that one of her colleagues would be on call for me. But then she remarked that since it seemed as if the baby was ready to come, she would be able and willing to induce me, so that we could have him the very next day.
This was the best news I could have gotten. I had traded off my scheduled preaching for that coming Sunday, my desk was cleared, the house was cleaner than it had ever been - I was ready. And the idea of a friend instead of a stranger walking me through the delivery seemed ideal. Honestly, my doctor seemed excited as well.
My doctor and I looked over to my husband for confirmation of this blessed event, and he in all sincerity said, “I just don’t think I am ready.” I am pretty sure my exact response was, “you’ve had nine months to get ready. What could you possibly do in another week to prepare yourself for this?”
We might ask the same question of the church. We have had two thousand years to get ready to welcome God to earth again – what could we possibly do in the four weeks of Advent that we haven’t been able to do up to this point?
Another prominent image that we draw upon from scripture during the season of Advent is that of God coming like a thief in the night - a far less comforting and joyful event than that of welcoming a child, and certainly not one that feels very Christmasy in this season of holiday preparation.
We hear of this thief not just in
gospel but also in the writings of Paul and in John’s revelation, all
surrounding the unexpectedness of God’s coming to earth. Matthew
chides us, saying: if only the homeowner had known, if only he had kept watch,
then the burglar would not have broken in. We could say this any time something
unexpected and horrible happens. If I had known the car in front of me was
going to stop, I would have been ready. If only, if only….
We had a break-in at our home a few years ago while we were on vacation. They didn’t take anything of great value (it helps that we don’t have much of great value). But we did not take the precautions we should have. We did not expect it. We have no alarm, no house sitter staying there to keep the house from looking attractive to thieves. Obviously if we had known it was going to happen, we would have been ready. This analogy could not be more apt. You never know when to expect a thief. The element of surprise is the most valuable tool of their trade.
This is how we are told it will be when God comes to earth again – we will not be expecting it. Many will not be prepared. We are called to be attentive and watchful, for at any moment the world will turn upside down.
That’s what it felt like to me to have a baby - the world turned upside down. Everything that I used to think was important seemed to fade away. My husband and I often wonder what we used to do with all of our time before our son was born. He claims we used to clean the house. I can’t really remember.
Things that used to be bought as luxuries were abandoned to buy diapers and clothes for a child who wouldn’t stop getting taller. Vacations have stopped being about relaxing, meals have stopped being about experimentation with flavors, and playing bingo on our son’s bedroom floor was the most exciting thing that happened for many weekends.
This of course makes it sound like having our world turned upside down is all bad – but it is almost impossible to express or describe the changes for the better that have come from having our son.
Having our house broken into certainly turned our world upside down, including all my dresser drawers all over the bedroom. But it also changed my attitude about our neighborhood and, unfortunately, about our neighbors, as I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a connection. It’s an unfortunate wakeup call and shook my feeelings of security and trust.
As Christians we believe that when God comes again the world will almost literally be turned on its head. Twice in the gospel of
Matthew Jesus warns the disciples of this event,
saying that the first will be last and the last will be first. Hopes that we
have held on to for the future will become a reality, and dread at the
accounting that will have to take place will be realized. In Advent we try to
grasp this strange and indescribable combination of celebration and awakening,
a radical reorientation of the world that is beyond comprehension.
A central part to our Advent focus as Christians is in preparing for the coming of Christ again to the earth, a coming that will be as unexpected as a thief in the night. Even so we already have signs all around us of the presence of Jesus Christ, and glimmers of hope in a new reality. As indescribable as God’s Kingdom come might be, don’t we already have a sense of what it will be?
As radically different as life is with our son, he is so much like my husband and I, so much a product of our genetics, our lifestyle, and our values that it is rare for anything to come from him that we did not plant there. In him we see ourselves, and in a way, at least for me, it is as if I have always known him. Yes, our world has changed, but in many ways it is a world that I completely recognize.
As God’s children, created by God in God’s image, we look to a time when we will be reunited with God our parent - a day when the signs of God that we have surrounding us today: goodness, generosity, compassion and love, will rule the earth. In the fullness of time when Christ comes again and peace is truly on earth, we will say – ah yes, this is how I knew it would be.
And yet the other side of the coin is true as well. In all honestly it wasn’t really a surprise that our house was broken into. Almost all of our friends in the neighborhood have had that same experience, I never walk outside at night alone, and shootings have happened within blocks of us. We should have known it would happen some day. But until it was in our face and unavoidable, we could deny or ignore the inevitable
This is where we get into the call for preparation, for how many things do we ignore or turn our heads to avoid in the world, not just in our present but our collective past as well - things that we really should be willing to speak out against in Christ’s name, but which can easily be ignored as long as it never happens to us. So too in those coming days when we as individuals and as humanity will face the judgment of God, I am sure we will not be all that surprised at what we did wrong.
I would suggest that this Advent, instead of focusing on the baby, and shying away from the language in scripture about God’s coming to earth again because it might make us face some uncomfortable realities, that we meditate upon the language and used it to reflect on our lives in the present.
Maybe the best way to be prepared for that thief in the night is for us to contemplate what it might mean that the first shall be last and the last shall be first? Maybe instead of going along with popular movements that warn of the devastation of the coming of Christ and the fear of being left behind, we do what we can to teach the world of the peace that will reign in God’s kingdom on earth.
Honestly we cannot really be ready for a baby, for a thief, for the coming of Christ to earth - but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Today’s post is adapted from a sermon I wrote about five years ago for the first Sunday of Advent.