Sunday, November 27, 2016
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to see the musical, A White Christmas, performed at the Orpheum. Now, I LOVE the movie A White Christmas, with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney. I thought that seeing it live, with the tap-dancing, costumes, and live band would be glorious: and it was! But just like when you see a movie after reading the book, I found myself having a hard time embracing the show for what it was, and not comparing it to the movie: that’s not how Bing Crosby sang that song…or Danny Kaye delivered that line better! On our journey of faith, we can do this with God, too. We have certain expectations of what we think SHOULD happen, how God SHOULD respond, and our experience doesn’t always match our expectation. The good news about the gospel we just heard for today, however, is that we don’t know what Jesus’ coming again will be like. People have tried to imagine what it might be like, most notably in the Left Behind series – but those are novels. The scriptures are clear: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father,” Jesus tells us in the gospel for this morning. God invites us to be surprised, to prepare for the unexpected this Advent season.
Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas, but it’s also a time where we remind each other that God still has plans for us – God isn’t finished with us yet! Jesus will come again. Our gospel this morning reminds us to keep preparing for Christ’s return, his second coming. This is difficult, because we don’t know what to expect, or when to expect Jesus coming back. When we retell the first Christmas story from Luke and Matthew’s gospels, it’s pretty obvious that NO ONE expected the son of God, the Messiah, to come to earth as a little baby born in a stable in Bethlehem, even though the prophets foretold some of what would happen. Jesus’ birth was a huge surprise. Yet often our Christmas preparations are very routinized – like watching the same Christmas movie, year after year. We think we know everything about what will happen. We have our shopping lists and requests for what to get whom. We pull out our pre-labeled boxes of decorations. We almost don’t even need to mark our calendars for the special Christmas events we plan to attend just like we do every year. We know what we’ll be eating– we pull out all the traditional recipes, often handed down by generations. I think most of us Americans have the “preparation” part of Advent down pretty well: at least, we know how to get ready for Christmas. It’s the “unexpected surprise,” part that we struggle to make a part of our lives of faith, because the unknown can be frightening and disruptive to our usual comforting Christmas traditions. Jesus’ coming again will not be the same as he came the first time, but it probably won’t be as peaceful as a baby born in a manger, the scriptures tell us.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus compares the coming of the Son of Man to a few somewhat terrifying events we could relate to: the coming of a natural disaster, like Noah and the flood, to an unexpected kidnapping while going about our daily tasks (in the field or grinding meal), to a thief breaking into a house in the middle of the night. We don’t know exactly what will happen when Jesus comes. We should take seriously Jesus’ call to be alert and prepared, like stocking up on supplies for a big storm. However, we also see a vision in scripture for the day of judgment bringing a new age of peace and well-being. In our first reading from Isaiah this morning, we hear about the beating of swords into plowshares. After a period of turmoil, the book of Revelation gives us a vision where mourning, crying, and pain will be no more. The unexpected surprise of Jesus’ coming is not just something to be afraid of and worry about, but something to look forward to. How do we prepare for a surprise, prepare for the unexpected, for something that is both scary and full of hope and promise at the same time?
I thought of two things in my own life that I can compare this to. The first is giving birth. Modern medicine makes it possible to plan and prepare for a child better than parents have been able to for thousands of years. You can know whether you’re having a boy or a girl, if the child is healthy, and the due date. You can get a 3D ultrasound to even see what the baby looks like in utero. But did you know that less than 10% of babies are born on their due date? And as a woman going through childbirth, you can talk to as many women who have gone through that experience as you want to – until you’ve experienced it yourself, you really don’t know what it’ll be like. Every birth is different. Every child is different. As new parent, you don’t know what your child’s personality will be, what they’ll do when they grow up, and so on. Childbirth is a little scary, a little (or a lot) painful, but the end result is more joy, hope, and promise than I have ever experienced elsewhere in my life.
It also seemed fitting at the beginning of this Advent season that another surprise came just last week. I have mentioned that I have been working with one of our Latino ministers here in Omaha to bring his family here from El Salvador. Sergio has been working and living here in the U.S. since 2008 – 8 years. He has gone back to visit for about 3 weeks every year, and Skypes regularly with his family, but of course that is not the same as being together with family. Sergio has a wife and three sons ranging from 5 years old to 19 years old. We had been working with the Salvadoran consulate to petition for the family to come here as the gang violence in El Salvador escalated to direct threats toward Sergio’s two older sons. So I got a phone call two weeks ago that Sergio needed to leave for Dallas for a few days to pick up his family. They had arrived safely in Texas. It took years of preparation, paperwork, and legal fees. I have documents in my office that weigh twice as much as a phone book. We didn’t know the day or the hour, and the family will have a lot to learn as they acclimate to a new culture and learn to be a family together again here in Omaha. It will not always be easy. But they are safe here in a land with much more opportunity, and so again, I see God at work in the unexpected, bringing hope.
How are you preparing to be surprised by Christ’s coming again this Advent season? I don’t mean to add another list to your usual checklist. Instead, what if we thought of being prepared to be surprised as a spiritual discipline? It could be as simple as carving out 5 or 15 minutes to pray, read an Advent devotional or scripture reading, or take a walk to notice God at work outside of your normal routine. It could mean starting a new Christmas tradition with family or friends, in place of or in addition to what you usually do. If you are familiar with the Serenity prayer, often used at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, it could be as simple as praying this prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”
This Advent season, let’s challenge each other to be prepared to be surprised. Let’s trust God to do the work that we can’t do ourselves. Let’s look for signs of Christ’s promised return. And let’s celebrate the hope, joy, and peace God promises to bring us, now and always. Amen.