Do you like surprises? I do. I like to be surprised by the new and different and unexpected, by things that add a little zip to life. I also like those surprises to be safe. I don’t like surprises that threaten things I depend on. I shy away from surprises that destabilize things I count on, things in which I find security. It’s nice to see those surprises in a movie, where I can walk out of the theater and back into a life that’s predictable and seems to be under control.
Heroic adventures, for example. The great sagas stir my soul, but I’d just as soon read them in the comfort of my chair or watch them on the big screen. Ulysses, Ishmael, the Mariner, Bilbo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, George Bailey who stayed in Bedford Falls, the Mr. Smith who went to Washington. In the book or on the screen we know where the story’s going, everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to do, and we’re safe. We get no surprises.
The advent of the reign of God has been like that for me. It gets me excited, passionate, committed to what it promises. And part of me would like it to remain onscreen, where it doesn’t really disrupt the life I’m living. Let it disrupt other people’s lives, only there are some things in my life I’d like to keep safe from whatever it is that Jesus says will shake the powers of heaven (Mark 13:25). Go ahead and have your new and topsy-turvy way, God, only I’d like to maintain control over some things, please.
So it’s hard to prepare for a time when “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven” – images in ancient cosmology that point to a time when the rich and powerful and the movers and shakers of the world will be put down from their positions of power (cf. Luke 1:51-53).
Life on the big screen doesn’t prepare us for an ordeal that. Yet, that’s how the reign of God comes in real life: sudden, salty, pulling the rug from under all our predictabilities and securities, where we don’t know the story and life is complicated. “Beware, keep alert,” Jesus says, “for you don’t know when the time will come” (Mark 13:33). Get ready to let go of the life you’ve known and to live the life you’ve dreamed about.
The world waits to hear the good news of God’s coming today in flesh and blood, and you and I have the good news, the gospel, in our mouths, on our very lips. The other day I cleared my throat or sighed or something and then paused, and Sheryl said she thought I was getting ready to say something. And I thought: How like this preacher’s career of mine, and how like us in the church, always getting ready to say something to a world that longs to hear the good news, and then stopping, never quite able to speak Incarnation, never quite able to be Incarnation, always pointing the way and never quite daring to go there.
Advent is not about waiting for the future or yearning for the future; Advent is the beginning of the future, and we are those in whom the future has begun. It is not a season in which we make ready for God’s entry; it’s a season in which we make real God’s entry by responding to God’s promise today. It’s a time, maybe, when we stop holding the holy story at a safe distance and let it loose in this real, complicated life of ours, when we trust that if we don’t know the lines, God does.