Father Nicholas Lang
The First Sunday of Advent
In the movie Sister Act 2, reuniting with the Reverend Mother played by Maggie Smith, Deloris van Cartier (Whoopi Goldberg) learns that the nuns now work as teachers at St. Francis Academy in San Francisco, a school Deloris herself had attended, and is facing closure. Deloris reluctantly agrees to help teach their disastrous music class, once again taking on her persona as Sister Mary Clarence.
She finds the students uninterested, unruly and rude but she finally takes control of her class, instituting strict rules. She starts by writing these words on the blackboard:
If you wanna be somebody If you wanna go somewhere You better wake up and pay attention!
One of the students puts it to music and when the whole class breaks out in spontaneous singing, showing their true potential, Mary Clarence decides to turn the class into a choir. At first, they are skeptical, but change their minds when they find out that the school is destined to close. The class rebuilds the music room themselves and becomes a successful choir under Mary Clarence's guidance.
Then some of the nuns find trophies in the old music room which show that in years past the school had repeatedly won the all-state choir championship, so they enter the choir in the contest. At the championship, the choir is intimidated by their talented competition and considers quitting, but they change their mind after Mary Clarence sternly lectures them, reminding them how far they have already come. They go on to win the competition and the diocese rescinds its decision to close St. Francis Academy—something they never dreamed possible when they sat in their apathy and dissatisfaction in that unruly music class. Only when they started to pay attention to what could be, did they see their potential and save their school.
Near the end of his life, Jesus began to prepare his friends for what was ahead of them—to get them to pay attention. Jesus told his friends to wait in hope and to actively participate in creating a future. “Watch, be alert, keep awake,” were the buzzwords he used. He wanted his followers to trust that a new order would replace the old one, a new order that meant wholeness, justice, and peace—the world as God intends it.
“That is why Jesus will come back like a thief in the night,” Mother Barbara Brown Taylor wrote in her sermon on this text, “so that we do not have time to lock him out. As long as we are successful in that, we will never know what a peculiar thief this really is, who comes not to take but to give. Keep awake, therefore—not to keep the intruder out but to let him in.”
Like so much of Scripture, this text it is a combination of story, metaphor and mystery. First Jesus uses the example of Noah and the Ark. A non-sailor, Noah, built a boat 450 feet long, 75feet wide, and 45 feet high—miles from the sea and without seeing a cloud in the sky to suggest he needed do this. His only blueprint was trusting God that, being alert, his paying attention, was the key to being prepared.
Next, we hear two theoretical situations, one set in a field and another in a mill, in which two people are working but in which one is taken and the other left. This snippet has, of course, helped to support the concept of an early nineteenth century theological perspective among fundamentalist believers known as “the Rapture.”
This passage is probably better rendered: “Then two men will be in a field: one will be seized and one will be released. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be seized and one will be released.” It’s better to be “let go” or “released” than “taken” or “seized.” Who was “taken” in the days of Noah? It wasn’t the righteous and upright—they stuck around and inherited the earth after God removed the wicked.
Finally, the burglar and homeowner. Is God going to come as a thief? What a really strange image. A thief invades our home, violates our security, steals things that we value and we’re supposed to get ready for this thief to break in? If we’ll never know when he’s coming, how do we do that? The big surprise is that God will come not as a robber who takes your cherished possessions, but one who takes away the things in our life that are bad for us. Matthew’s passage is a challenging one but it offers us an opportunity to name the anxieties and fears of our lives and to move past them by putting on the armor of light.
“Therefore you must be ready…” What does it mean for us?? The warning to be alert we get carries with it the call to live wide awake so that we will be aware of how God is working in us and through us to bring about God’s reign. It means that we need to pay attention to the ways we can resolve conflict and separation—in our families, relationships, neighborhoods, government, schools, and churches.
“That is why Jesus will come back like a thief in the night,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor, “so that we do not have time to lock him out. As long as we are successful in that, we will never know what a peculiar thief this really is, who comes not to take but to give. The threat,” she says, “is not outside the door. It is inside us: in our misplaced fears, our misguided defenses. Keep awake, therefore—not to keep the intruder out but to let him in. He may be a thief, but he is God’s beloved thief, who has come to set us free.”