Don't Be Afraid of the Thief

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 19
August 7, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: This is a message that challenges our fear, on a couple of levels. It challenges the fear that confronts us now - fear of plague, loss, disease and death. And it challenges our hidden fear of Christ's return like a thief in the night - and the loss that that will bring.

"Don't be afraid, little flock," Jesus says. Don't be afraid of what afflicts you now, for the kingdom is coming; Christ will come again to set all things right. That is the promise we must unabashedly proclaim and live for today: the kingdom is coming, God will wipe away every tear, death and sighing and pain will be no more - truly a message and a promise to challenge all we fear.

There is another fear to consider, though: fear of the kingdom itself. It will come like a thief, and thieves are scary. Nevertheless, don't be afraid of the kingdom, either. It is coming - and that is a good thing! There is nothing to fear. This is what Jesus has to say to us in our passage from Luke. Even a thief can't take anything that we really need.

So we ought not to be afraid. But this may not seem readily obvious if we read carefully. We seem - and not for the first time! - to be getting from Jesus a mixed message. In the opening passage, Jesus says, quite plainly: "Don't be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." So we're being handed a kingdom; what's to fear?

Nevertheless, Jesus finishes this exhortation by comparing his coming to a home invasion! We are homeowners, householders. A thief is coming to break in! We know not when the thief will come, but we have solid reason to believe that the thief will come. What is a responsible homeowner/householder to do? Be ready! Ready, one would expect, out of a certain amount of fear ! Ready to fight to protect what's ours!

So, what's going on? To fear, or not to fear? Is it a good thing coming, or is it something to dread? He seems to be saying that the Second Coming will be like this, too. Something to be dreaded, to come at an unexpected time, something that will take things away from us that we regard as our property.

Waiting ... and ready

These verses are meant to prepare Jesus' followers - that would be us - for his return, in glory. "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again," proclaims one of the Lord's Supper rituals. Those first hearers of these words of Luke's were among those waiting, after his crucifixion and resurrection, for him to come again. And here we are, a couple of millennia later, still waiting. In this passage, Jesus is telling us how we are to go about waiting, what we must do in the meantime. It is the Father's good pleasure to give us the kingdom, in God's own time - but we need to make sure that we are ready to receive it, that we are prepared for it.

How do we make ourselves ready to receive the kingdom that the Father has prepared for us? What we are being told here is that responsible waiting consists, not in passively "waiting" as we perhaps usually understand the term - just "waiting" for God to do it for us, for God to hand it to us or for God to bring it - while we idly enjoy ourselves in the meantime. Instead, we need to prepare . We need to make ourselves ready. The waiting to which we're called is an active exercise. It is not a passive "waiting around" in the usual sense of the term. We are being called to be, not only waiting, but ready.

Marching orders for active waiting

We get some specific instructions for active waiting. These could almost be reduced to a series of terse commands.

This is what we are to be about while waiting for Christ to fulfill the promise, to come again.

How much of this is vivid imagery, and how much are literal commands?

Don't be afraid! Okay; good to be reassured by that, but we're still as those waiting for a thief, right? Maybe we can set that one aside for a moment.

Sell your possessions! No imagery or metaphor here; this is as real as it gets. Sell your possessions - but don't sell them just to make a great show of being stripped for action, lean and mean and ready to move out at a moment's notice, and all that. Instead, sell them to acquire money and give alms .

This begs the question of how much we really need. How many of our possessions really are just holding us down? Where is the point where we are more focused upon clinging to and maintaining our possessions than we are on the need out there beyond our church parking lot - physical need that could be met with the cold hard cash we'd get from selling things shiny and extraneous? What spiritual and emotional needs might we be freed up to address those needs if we consciously and intentionally freed ourselves from maintaining some possessions?

Make purses that do not wear out! Jesus is dealing here in metaphor. Exchange a physical wallet for a spiritual one. See our storage space as if being in a kingdom promised, but not yet here, and not in our hip pockets or hanging from our shoulders.

Be dressed for action! More metaphor here; this is an exhortation simply to move beyond passive waiting and be prepared to go out in the world and proclaim the coming kingdom, and to live and move as if it were already here.

Have your lamps lit! Be like servants anxiously waiting for the boss to return, which is to say, not sitting around, but getting the place ready! Get all caught up. Have everything filed and put away. Have the place swept and clean and ready to receive him. No matter what time of day it is, get to work! No, we don't have to be busy, busy, busy, never sitting down and studying or reading or resting or re-creating - but it needs to be emphasized that waiting is not passive.

Watch until he comes.

When he does come, he will wait on us !

Watch, and wait

Really, what else is there to say about all this? Are we waiting for him now? Really? Are we living now in a way that amounts to waiting with bated breath for his return? Or are we simply seeing a word like this as a pleasant sentiment we don't really think much about?

How shall we wait, from now on? What needs to change, so that we signal to the world that we earnestly expect him to arrive at any time? Might there be behaviors, now, that are signaling that we're not really waiting, we really don't expect him to return and we really can't believe that there will be any Second Coming - that it's all a nice fairytale that we don't really believe, ourselves? Might we be signaling that, rather than earnest expectation?

What does it look like to be really, honestly, genuinely, earnestly waiting for the coming of Jesus Christ? Our political polarization - is this the attitude of a people earnestly expecting the arrival of Christ at any time? Our anxiousness about our life - is that the attitude of a people earnestly expecting the arrival of Christ at any time?

Maybe we need to ask ourselves every morning before we go out into the world, "How will my behavior signal my belief that Jesus will return, in God's own time? He might return in a couple thousand years, but he might return today.

Savior, or thief in the night - or both?

Oh, and what about that mixed message, introduced above? Don't be afraid! But ... a thief is coming! What are we to make of that, after all?

"Don't be afraid," Jesus said. Nevertheless, it could be argued that the promise, or maybe threat of the coming kingdom may indeed be something to fear. The coming of the kingdom will indeed be something like the arrival of a thief, for it will take things from us - things we regard as "ours." We will be required to exchange the familiar for the unfamiliar, to give up the worn-out purses to which we've grown accustomed and to exchange them for new ones, made of a strange new material that won't wear out. We will be called to question what we have come to think of as our heart's true home, and exchange that home for another home - to exchange our earthly treasures for "treasure in heaven" - whatever that is!

Yes, this is a fearsome thing - we all know how much we treasure the familiar, how tightly we cling to what's "ours," even if what's ours is a leaden anvil holding us under! This change, this coming of the kingdom is indeed a fearsome, strange, outlandish, foreign thing. It does indeed come as a thief, gently but relentlessly prying our grasp from treasure we've known. It is fearsome, this miraculous dawn of a new age!

Nevertheless, Jesus said, "Don't be afraid!"

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