962) Surprises; Pleasant and Unpleasant (b)

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Matthew 24:42-44  —  (Jesus said), ““Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.  But understand this:  If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.  So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

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     (…continued)  This idea of surprise is illustrated in a true story from the early days of the American colonies, a story that is, in fact, about the coming of a thief in the night.  It concerns a middle aged man named Mr. Dorsett who was respected by everyone in the small New England town where he lived.  He was admired for his strong faith, his honesty, and his kind and gentle spirit.  Late one night, Mr. Dorsett was awakened by a noise in the cellar.  He got out of bed and walked silently to the top of the cellar stairs.  There he was surprised to see light in the basement, and could hear for certain that someone was down there.  Mr. Dorsett quietly walked down to the bottom of the stairs, and there saw a man with a candle in one hand, taking pork out of a barrel with his other hand.  Mr. Dorsett stood still and watched the proceedings until the thief had taken the last piece of meat.  Mr. Dorsett then walked over, placed his hand on the man’s shoulder, and said in a perfectly kind and friendly voice, “Neighbor, you act unfairly, because you are not leaving a proper share for me.”

     Now, it was the thief’s turn to be surprised.  Even though the voice was friendly, the hand on the shoulder was a shock, and he was very ashamed to be discovered.  Being filled with guilt, he dropped to his knees begging for forgiveness from this good man that he had know since childhood.  Mr. Dorsett cheerfully forgave him, and promised not to report him to the authorities.  He did, however, seriously admonish the man for his crime, and firmly advised him to be in church the next Sunday to ask for and receive that forgiveness from the Lord.

     There was one more surprise to come.  Mr. Dorsett knew this thief was not a criminal, but was an otherwise good man.  Upon questioning, Mr. Dorsett learned that the intruder had come on hard times and was having difficulty feeding his family.  Then, in an incredible act of forgiveness and kindness and generosity, Mr. Dorsett divided the pork into two equal piles, and even helped the repentant robber carry half of the meat over to his own house.

     There are several surprises in the story.  First, Mr. Dorsett is unpleasantly surprised by an unwelcome guest at an inconvenient time.  That is the kind of illustration of surprise that Jesus used in one of his parables.  Then, it was Mr. Dorsett’s turn to do the surprising, and his surprise come first as unpleasant, and then as pleasant; first as judgment, and then as grace.  Certainly the thief was most unhappy to feel that hand on his shoulder, for it meant guilt and shame and punishment.  But then Mr. Dorsett turned out to be a gracious judge, as he was more than ready to receive the thief’s apology and forgive his sin.  Once forgiven, the thief received far more than he could have ever imagined.  Not only would he not receive the punishment he deserved for his crime, but he would receive what he wanted in the first place; now, not be by his dishonesty, but by Mr. Dorsett’s goodness.  The similarities to Christ’s offer of forgiveness cannot be missed.  Our sin is forgiven by God not by any of our own deserving, but by the goodness and sacrifice of God himself in Christ Jesus.  Not only are we then forgiven, but we continue to receive abundantly God’s blessings every day.  The thief did his part only by admitting his guilt, asking for forgiveness, and then with gratitude, receiving the undeserved blessing.

     This is a true story with a happy ending, but let’s imagine another possible ending.  What if upon being discovered, the thief would have responded not with shame and repentance, but with fear and anger and desperation?  Mr. Dorsett did not have a weapon and was not prepared to defend himself.  The younger, stronger thief could have easily pushed him aside and run away.  Or, he could have knocked him out, even killed him, and then completed his crime unhindered.  That was, you recall, the treatment Jesus himself received when he first came to earth.  He came offering forgiveness, eternal life, and every blessing, but there were parts of his message that offended and threatened some people.  When these people threatened Jesus, Jesus did not take back anything he said, but neither did he fight back.  He allowed the forces of evil to have their day, and then responded in his own incredible way by rising from the dead, and then, by repeating again, his gracious offer.  Jesus issued many warnings about the eternal danger of continuing to refuse him, but he never stopped making the invitation.

     Add one more twist to this imaginary ending as a further illustration of our standing before God.  Let us imagine that in his shock and surprise the thief did push Mr. Dorsett aside, and did run up the stairs and out of the house.  Then imagine Mr. Dorsett getting up and pursuing him, not to apprehend him and bring him to the police, but to make that kind offer of half of the pork in the barrel.  Picture them running across the yard, Mr. Dorsett yelling as loud as he could, “Stop, sir, I only want to help you; I know you are hungry, and I want to give you half of the meat, and then you will have it honestly. I will give it to you freely.  Come back, come back, I mean you no harm.”  But the thief, though he hears the words, is suspicious of the true intentions of his pursuer, so he runs all the faster, and finally escapes.

     In that hypothetical ending there is only one barrier to the thief receiving what he needed most of all– he did not believe in what was being offered to him.  He felt he could not trust in the word of Mr. Dorsett.  Even though from long experience he knew Mr. Dorsett to be a kind and good man, the thief could not believe that Mr. Dorsett could be offering him grace and good will, instead of judgment and punishment.  The offer was too good.  There was not even a demand to work and earn what was being offered.  It would be completely free, all by grace.  All he needed to do was believe and turn back.  All he needed was to have faith, and he would have received the food that he and his family needed.

     The Bible has much to say about what God has already given us, and it has much to say about how we have done God wrong.  The key for making our whole relationship with God right again, and the key to all his future blessings is simply to believe in him, simply to believe that God is there and wants to help us.  “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved,” the New Testament says again and again.  But just like the thief in the story, there is much unbelief in the world, much running away from God, much neglecting of God and what he wants to say to us, much disregard for his word and promise.  

     The offer of God’s grace really is quite surprising.  That is why so many of Jesus’ parables contain the two themes of surprise and unbelief.  We are quite used to hearing about such grace, so we think nothing of it anymore.  But to receive such an invitation from God is even more surprising than to hear about a man like Mr. Dorsett offering to give half of his pork to a thief who had broken into his house.

     This story of forgiveness and kindness shown to a repentant thief is not from the Bible, but it was inspired by the Biblical message.  Mr. Dorsett was a good Christian man and was acting upon what he learned from Jesus about forgiveness and generosity.  Actually, what Mr. Dorsett did for that thief was not too different from what Jesus did when he was one time confronted by a thief.  While dying on the cross, Jesus said some of his last words to a repentant thief– “Truly, truly I say unto you, today, you will be with me in paradise.”  There too, undeserved grace was shown to one who simply believed in what Jesus offered.  That thief on the cross had expressed his faith in Jesus by saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into you kingdom.”  That’s a pretty good prayer for a thief.  Actually, it is a prayer we could all pray each day.  For even as we pray, “Jesus, remember me,” we are remembering Jesus, and that is what we are supposed to be doing every day until he comes again.

     If we do remember Jesus, and do believe in Him as our Lord and Savior, we will indeed be prepared for his second coming, and it will be for us a pleasant and not an unpleasant surprise.

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Jesus, remember me.

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