Advent: Bracing Ourselves for God’s Unexpected Best
A Sermon for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN
Sunday, December 1, 2019 – The First Sunday in Advent
In the name of God who creates, redeems, and sustains the eternally present Now. Amen.
Since this First Sunday in Advent marks the first day in the Church’s New Year, today’s Sermon explores making a New Year’s resolution. Before the cynics roll their eyes, groan, and harrumph; this is not about the New Year’s resolutions that shrivel up and die within a fortnight. This is not about Marie Kondo, journaling, gym memberships, or diets – yes, fellow cynics, I fail dismally at those resolutions, too. I am speaking about a resolution to continually receive the Incarnate God who is with us in the eternally present Now. The “now” we prayed in today’s Collect: “now in this mortal life in which God’s son Jesus Christ comes to visit us in great humility; who lives and reigns now;” the “now” in today’s Psalm: “Now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem;” I am speaking about the “now” in today’s Epistle: “it is now the moment for you to wake up from sleep;” because our lives are at stake.
Even though today’s Gospel is as terrifying as the news cycle, replete with floods, people being taken away, and thieves breaking in, my intention is not to scare you. In fact, that’s not the intention of the Gospel either. God is calling us to make a bold resolution. A resolution to expect God Incarnate to show up in the eternally present Now, so that, in the words of the Proper Preface for Advent, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold Christ’s appearing.
But first, let’s take a brief detour, because confessing my sins is good for the soul and this is a place of Grace. Winter has clearly arrived in Minnesota and I am getting into bad habits. The typical problems persist: over-indulging in cheese and wine and chocolate and classical music records and too many books. Much worse, is that on most mornings I wake up and brace myself for the worst: injuries due to snow and ice; people being grumpy, miserable, unkind, or rude; the endless din of gross commercialism and materialistic greed disguised as “holiday cheer,” and seeing the most vulnerable and tenderhearted among us grow more isolated and afraid in their despair. Our past hurts and disappointments infect our present expectations with a fear that the worst will happen. And our expectations of the worst are all too often self-fulfilling.
Consciously or unconsciously we create our own worst expectations. We invite and draw out the very worst qualities in others because that’s what we’re expecting from them and they from us. Because our expectations are so often self-fulfilling, today’s Gospel actually calls us away from expecting the worst. Jesus calls us to keep awake and to be ready to receive God’s unexpected best: The Son of Man who is God Incarnate in the Christ. The Holy One who creates, redeems, and sustains the sacred and eternally present Now. In all of Life’s crucifixions, deaths, and resurrections, God is right here with us. God is in every experience that is, and Advent reminds us that “God is with us” in our sufferings and in our joys; in the light and in the darkness of our lives.
The words of the 13th-century poet, mystic, and theologian Rumi invite our hearts and minds to receive this truth in his famous poem The Guest House.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice:
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. (1)
Jesus knew, his followers knew, you and I know that our lives are vulnerable to floods, literally and symbolically, that sweep everything away; loved ones whom we hoped would live and work beside us for a lifetime are suddenly taken from us; and thieves, literal or symbolic, break into our lives at take everything we cherish; worst of all, our health or our dignity. And in spite of these horrors, Jesus calls us to keep awake and to be ready and to expect God’s very essence to appear at an unexpected hour.
Likewise, the Prophet Isaiah, in the midst of the gruesome Assyrian invasions of Israel and Judah, calls the people of God to expect God’s unexpected best to appear. Contrary to bracing for and expecting the very worst violence and destruction, Isaiah proclaims that in the Kingdom of God, “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (2) The sublime poetry of Rumi and Isaiah disclose the truth James Baldwin so eloquently expressed: “The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” (3)
Indulge me with one more detour before I conclude my Sermon. There is one seemingly unlimited pool of resources that never ceases to inspire and to teach me how to seek out and expect God’s unexpected best: the compositions of Franz Joseph Haydn. Before the cynics roll their eyes, groan, and harrumph again; I invite you to seek out almost any composition by the “Father of the Symphony,” and if you pay close attention and listen with an attentive and curious ear, you might be amazed by how this 18th century genius, in very small and subtle ways, joyfully, prophetically, and elegantly interrupts all our conventional expectations with the most sublime, creative, innovative, and hilarious revelations.
I believe one of the reasons why Haydn’s music is so consistently inspiring, unconventional, and brimming with unexpected miracles, is that, in the solitude he enjoyed as a court musician at the remote Esterházy estate, Haydn made time to pray. As a deeply religious man, Haydn often turned to his rosary when he had trouble composing; he usually wrote “in nomine Domini” or “in the name of the Lord” at the beginning of his compositions and “Laus Deo” or “praise be to God” at the end of them; and The Creation, Haydn’s personal statement of faith, is one of the most profound proclamations of a cheerful and assured belief in a loving God. Haydn’s life and music remind me of Nikolai Berdyaev’s belief that “the Creator and creativeness are very intimately near each other…God is in creativeness and creativeness is in God.” (4) In our own lives, prioritizing time to be fully present with our Creator is essential to creatively living into our New Year’s resolution this Advent.
Let it be resolved that we shall expect God to arrive unexpectedly in every sacred and eternally present Now. To seek out and prepare for God’s unexpected best to appear in others and in ourselves, when we least expect it and when everyone else expects the very worst. To trust in the God who transforms “never” into “nevertheless;” who makes a way out of no way. To not be ashamed or afraid or cynical, but to rejoice and to pray and to keep awake and to be ready because we do not know on what day our Lord is coming. Therefore, we must always be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour; (5) even right now. Amen.
- Isaiah 2:1-5
- Nikolai Berdyaev, The Meaning of the Creative Act, (San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009), 301
- Matthew 24:36-44