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God’s Other Name is (Surprise)

A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City Mo., on November 28, 2010

The First Sunday of Advent

Matthew 24:36-44

When we reach the season of Advent, we know it’s time to start over. Isn’t starting over what we need? So many times in life, we wish to wipe it all away and take a fresh look, make a fresh start, or take a first step all over again. Advent is a new beginning and a fresh start for those who are willing to prepare themselves.

Catholic theologian James Alison describes it this way:  This “beginning again” is a cycle by which “God breaks through the clutter … to announce that the Presence (of God) is very near, irrupting into our midst, hauling us out of our myths, our half-truths and the ways we have settled for what is religious rather than what is holy, alive and real.” Our shortsightedness in this season is marked by our miscalculation that Advent is merely a religious warm-up to Christmas. In the season of Advent, “Someone wants to speak to us – Someone who is not on the same level as us. The oomph behind the “isness” of everything that is wants to invite us into our fullness.” But he wonders, “Can that One get through? Will we be able to hear that One? How trained are our ears?”[1]

John Claypool was fond of saying, “God’s other name is surprise.”[2] God is a God of surprise not only for the first century but also the 21st. So what God was doing in 1st Century Palestine and throughout the centuries, God is doing in 21st Century Kansas City, visiting his children with a divine surprise of presence and strength so that the kingdom might be built.

I

The church has traditionally considered Advent a penitential season – a time to change one’s mind and a time to return to God. Thus, this morning, it’s a time to prepare ourselves for the way of the Lord who will come to consummate all things in the rule and reign of God. Our gospel story in Matthew today is meant to help us prepare.

Carlyle Marney once observed, “We are a pilgrim people or we are dead.” Thus we are summoned to stay awake and alert on this journey with God that eventually leads to God’s kingdom. In that summons, we are called to the future, not the past, remembering that even the prophetic vision of a world over the horizon is a part of God’s work in our time.

Apocalyptic words can have a tendency to heighten our anxiety without sharpening our readiness. It is amazing how often good-hearted Christians invest so much time and energy in keeping track about the signs of the end times, and they fail to keep their hands to the plow of how God wants to partner together in the needs of the now. We get distracted by the fireworks and the promises of extraordinary events we lose sight of the sense in which God has been acting in history purposefully and how God wants to be at work in our time.

Maybe the biggest problem of apocalyptic teaching, some of which is anything but biblical, is the sense of knowing that is claimed. It’s not a knowing about the present moment as much as it’s about the mysteries of the future. There are popular teachers who claim to know more than even Jesus said was possible. End times teachers answer questions that Jesus himself claimed to not know. They seem to know who will be saved and who will be lost. They know who the Antichrist is and where the Messiah will appear. Much of what is passed as biblical teaching is not from the Bible but from teachers who have created scenarios of knowing that are foreign to the biblical writers.

Jesus addressed this sense of knowing plainly, “Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matt. 24:42).

But we can know this: The return of Jesus at the end of history is not only explicitly set forth in the Bible, but it is consistent with the overall vision of history. We know that because we believe all creation has been depicted from beginning to end as a purposeful endeavor. Creation and the on-going journey of life have begun like a drama with a specific idea in mind. Creation occurred in what Rollo May calls “intentionality,” meaning there is a plot: There is a beginning, middle, and an ending to the drama of history.[3]

II

Barbara Brown Taylor has written that the 24th chapter of Matthew reads like a 3-act play with each act lasting approximately 15 verses. Each contains a description of the events still to come, and each ends with a renewed call to discipleship in the here and now, perhaps something we could label as, “readiness.” She goes on to suggest that Matthew’s three movements proves he’s a pretty good psychologist as he links together anxiety and apathy seeing them as two emotional states that appear as different phenomena but having certain similar traits in how they are to be considered. They may look like two different disorders, but they both respond to the same treatment, namely a focused assignment on living and acting in the now. In Act One, the theme is enduring love. In Act Two, the theme is discernment, and in Act Three, it is alertness, or mindfulness.

Christians even today are living in normal times just like everyone else. And so believers look backward in celebration at the birth of Jesus and forward toward the end of time. But even in the chronos of ordinary time where minutes turn into hours, hours turn into days, days into weeks, weeks into months and so on and so on …even in the midst of such ordinariness, we understand that God is at work. So the Greeks described time as more than chronos – the mere sequential passing of time – and claimed God was working in kairos time implying, time with meaning. “When the time came,” Luke 2:6 says, meaning that something ordinary was afoot.

Back in Kentucky the old-timers used to tell of that cold day in February of 1809 when a rural mail carrier made his weekly trip through Hardin County. A local man met him at a crossroad and inquired about the goings on in the outside world. The mail carrier reported there was talk of a National Bank being created in Washington and it looked like there might be trouble brewing again between the United States and England.

Then the mail carrier turned the conversation around and said, “Tell me, what’s happening in these parts?” To which the local man answered, “Shucks, Mister, nothin’ ever happens back here. There was a baby born last night to Nancy Hanks and Tom Lincoln, but shucks, nothin’ much ever happens back in these parts …” Sometimes God is at work in the everyday nothingness doing unusually amazing things right under our noses!

Being ready is one of our toughest concerns because we dull so easily to the life that is pulsating all around us. We fail to perceive it even as it occurs.

Annie Dillard insists we spend much of our waking hours in a kind of unconscious slumber, like so many dolphins that occasionally jump out of the water into wakefulness only to plunge almost immediately back into the depths of unconscious dullness. We’re only awake for the briefest periods of time before we fall back into the ruts of the everyday where we go back to not seeing what’s going on around us.

French novelist, poet, and Nobel Prize winner, André Gide, wrote in his autobiography that when he was small, one day during his arithmetic lesson, he happened to look on the windowsill and was amazed at what was occurring there. At that very moment a caterpillar was turning into a butterfly, and he watched with awe as those magnificently colored wings began to emerge from the casing of the chrysalis. He could not contain his exuberance and interrupted the teacher by shouting:  “Look! Look! A miracle!”

But to his dismay, the teacher sniffed dryly, walked to the window and said, “What are you so excited about? Didn’t you know that every butterfly was once a caterpillar? What’s so special about that?” Gide was crushed, and, on that day, he says, something happened to him … a capacity for wonder was doused. And it took him a long time to recover, to learn to value again a spontaneous reaction to something special.

The unkind, dismissive remark of the teacher was clearly sad and inappropriate, but there is a wonderful lesson to be learned:  It is incredible, a little frightening perhaps, how routine life can become, how domesticated we can become to miracle, how easily we miss the glory of the present moment and the beauty of the commonplace. And more serious still, how easily we miss a glimpse of God’s presence in the everyday.[4]

III

Barbara Brown Taylor gives us a hint of how to live consistent with a biblical sense of apocalyptic expectation:  Every morning when you wake up, decide to live the life God has given you to live right now. Refuse to live yesterday over and over again. Resist the temptation to save your best self for tomorrow.[5]

During this busy season, intentionally decide to carve out moments of quiet when you can pay attention to what’s happening all around you. The End Times prophets tell us Christ will break in suddenly and dramatically from the outside like a rescuing superhero and who will vanquish all our problems. The problem with that view is that it ignores the fact that Christ is already present within our problems, giving us the opportunity and the ability to grow by overcoming them ourselves.

Mystic Anthony de Mello tells of a group of disciples who asked their master what death would be like. He said to them, “It will be as if a veil is ripped apart and you will say in wonder, ‘So! It was You all along …’”[6] And so it is with the God whose other name is surprise, someone behind the curtain waiting for us to be so curious we pull the curtains back to see who’s there.

So hear the words of our Leader:  “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord may show up” (Matthew 24:42, adapted).

[1] James Alison, “Punctured,” Christian Century, 11/13/07

[2] John Claypool, lecture, “God’s Other Name is Surprise,” Whitworth Institute of Ministry, Whitworth, WA, courtesy of the Northwest Digital Archives, 7/23/85

[3] John Claypool, Ibid

[4] Dr. David Burhans, “God’s Other Name is Surprise,” Sermon preached at First Baptist Church, Richmond, VA, 4/6/08

[5] Barbara Brown Taylor, “On the Clouds of Heaven,” The Seeds of Heaven, 107ff

[6] Larry Bethune, “Are You Awake,” Sermon Preached at University Baptist Church, Austin Texas, 11/29/92