Surprise!

A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent
December 1, 2019

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania

Almighty God,
you have poured upon us the new light of
your incarnate Word:
Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts,
 may shine forth in our lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and forever. Amen.

Advent Wreath

In the past few weeks, I have been giving a good deal of time to thinking and praying about Advent. In my reflections, I looked for a word that would help me to more fully understand what the season is about—and which might also give me some insight into how I might get as much out of the season as possible. The word which came to me this year is “Surprise.

When I googled the word, this is what I found: “to be taken unawares, a feeling caused by something unexpected or unusual.” But it is closely related to another interesting word: “amaze” which is defined as “something which causes a person to wonder and puzzle over it.”

Surprise is much more than that, though. Unlike shock, which is seldom pleasant, surprise is also related to joy, to delight, and to happiness. We do not often experience surprise. When it happens it makes an impression on us. We often remember them. We recall the moment of surprise vividly. And in some cases, it is life-changing. One example which comes to mind is that of the marriage proposal. When I have witnessed them in videos online, there is a series of emotions seen on the face of the person being surprised: confusion, embarrassment, dawning realization, joy, and often tears. We all wait, hoping that they will say “YES,” and then there is a feeling of happiness in our hearts when they hug or kiss—and the ring is placed on the finger.

I think that Surprise is a good word for Advent! I would like to share with you a few surprises which I find hidden in the season.

To “unpack” the surprise of Advent, I would like to turn to the well-known theologian, Forrest Gump: “My momma always said, “Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”’ Let us slightly modify that, “Advent is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”

Yes, my sins have found me out. I am also inspired by the single best Advent Calendar I ever had. It came from somewhere in Europe and had a calendar imposed on a little box which was opened every day. It was a candy box. Behind each door was a luscious piece of candy. And each day was a surprise. I literally did not know what I was going to get. The candy, though, was delicious. I have never forgotten that calendar!

The first Surprise for Advent is that is the Liturgical New Year. It is the beginning of the “Year of Grace.” It takes us on a journey in which we recall the main events of the Life and Ministry of Christ and of the adventures of the first disciples and Apostles. It is one story which takes us through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, and into the long “Ordinary Time” of Sundays after Pentecost.

The Second Surprise is that Advent has more than one focus. It is intentionally divided into two parts. The first 17 days focus on the Second Advent, the Second Coming. It reminds us of that statement of Faith which we make every Sunday, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” This is a future Advent. One for which we wait and long and hope. Our Gospel today makes clear to us that this will indeed be a surprise. No one knows when it will happen. And, even if we make every effort to prepare and be ready, it will take us by surprise, it will astonish us.

And then on December 18th, the focus changes to a preparation for the annual celebration of the First Advent. Again, there is a long list of surprises: Mary is surprised, Joseph is surprised, all of Nazareth is surprised, cousins Elizabeth and Zechariah are surprised. There is the unexpected and surprising trip to Bethlehem. Surprise! There is no room in the inn. The Holy Family finds themselves in a manger surrounded by curious animals who keep them company—and perhaps keep them warm. The angels take the shepherds in the fields by surprise. Herod is surprised by the magi. Mary and Joseph are surprised by mysterious gifts of gold (a kingly gift), frankincense (a priestly gift), and myrrh (a prophetic gift). All of this is completely unexpected. It is astonishing. It is the best surprise ever. It is a surprise which changes everything. In the dark season of Advent in which the days seem so short and the nights so long, in which warmth begins to seem a faint memory and the cold seems so oppressive—there is glorious light. A light which is so powerful and overwhelming that we are literally blinded and stopped in our tracks. Everything which we had thought and believed is called into question. There is a new truth which causes us to reevaluate, reassess, and which calls us to recommence a journey of faith!

There is perhaps the greatest surprise of all: “God is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to find and experience when you encounter God.”

For today, though, let us focus for a moment on that First Surprise of Advent. We hear today the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, when he speaks to us from the Mount of Olives about the Second Advent in glory and power. I am fascinated that this kind of passage has been used “frighten,” to “intimidate,” and to “threaten” people in order to get us to “toe the line.” I have always thought that this is a very poor way of describing God. When interpreted in this very narrow and dark way, it sounds like God is setting us up for failure and is just waiting to catch us unprepared–and then to punish us. I am reminded of the humorous T-shirt which I saw years ago, “Jesus is coming soon, act busy!” It also reminds of someone else who is making a “nice list” and a “naughty list” and who is anxiously working to find out “Who has been naughty and who has been nice.” But is that God? Surprise! I do not think so.

What if the words of Jesus were intended to console and comfort people who live confusing lives in troubled times? What if these words were intended to give hope rather than to produce despair? What if these words were intended to encourage and to motivate—rather than to paralyze and to incapacitate? Perhaps that is what Advent is all about?

Advent is a season in which we admit that we are powerless. As a community of Faith, we have had more than two thousand years to be light, salt and yeast. Sadly, we even had power and exercised political control—even for centuries. And yet, looking at our track record, there is not always a great deal to celebrate.

We have not eliminated poverty, war, violence, prejudice, hatred or injustice. Our world often feels dark, wounded and broken. On our own, left to only our own efforts, there might not be room for hope. As we have been told, the problems created with a certain way of thinking can not be solved with the same thoughts.

What would happen if we as individuals gave up? What would happen if we said, God, “I can not solve these problems alone!” What would happen if we asked God to take control? What would happen if we said, “Your will be done, your kingdom come?” And what would happen if we asked God, “What do you want me to do?”

We can not solve the problem. We are told, though, that God can, and God will, if we ask. Then what is preventing us from asking? I think that it is fear. It means giving up control. It means admitting that we are overwhelmed by the world’s problems. It means that we really do not even know how to get started. It means that we desperately need God to take control. It means adopting God’s agenda and abandoning our own plan.

Our Presiding Bishop and Primate, the Most Reverend Michael Bruce Curry has taken us by surprise. He has invited us to become a Beloved Community, to reconnect to the primitive roots of the undivided Jesus Movement, and to enter into the journey of a life lived in the Way of Love. Our Beloved Bishop Curry is a constant source of surprise and delight. His vision of a life lived in unity with God offers us a way forward. It is a model of how we can move from where we are to where God wants us to be. It is the discovery that God is active here and now in unexpected and astonishing ways. It reminds us that God is truly doing for us what we are not able to do alone!

What we need, though, is a model—an example, a paradigm. What does God want our world to look like? What would Jesus like to find when he returns in glory? There is no better place to turn than to the writings of the Prophets. The Prophet Isaiah shares with us the surprising vision he had of an encounter with God in the Temple. If you have not read the Sixth Chapter of Isaiah in some time, I encourage you to find time to read it again. Please note that at the very center, God overcame every excuse that Isaiah could come up with to get out of doing God’s will. Note what happened when Isaiah surrendered and finally said yes to God! No one was probably more surprised to hear himself volunteering to God, than was Isaiah: “Here am I, send me.”

The example that Isaiah gives us is of a new temple in a new Jerusalem. It is on a mountain so high that no one can miss it. It is so beautiful that everyone is drawn to it. And, here is the good news: No one is excluded! In this vision of the Prophet, God makes of one family all the nations of the earth. All join in peace, unity, and abundance to worship together in harmony. All binaries are eliminated: rich and poor, powerful and weak, every dichotomy is abolished and eliminated. This vision is accomplished by God—it is not something which we can make happen.

The promise of the Second Advent is not an escape plan in which we just wait around for God to “beam us up” to heaven. It is not a plan B—our plans will inevitably fail, but God’s plan will not fail! It is not a “you are not responsible” card which absolves us of the need to work tirelessly for the coming of the fullness of God’s reign–here and now.

Just the opposite! It means that we are responsible to use every gift, talent, ability and every bit of energy that we have, to be a People of Love and an inclusive Community of Love. IT does mean that we are not in charge. God is in charge. It means that we buy into God’s plan—because not only does God know better than we do, God loves us absolutely, completely, and totally—and truly wants what is best for us. God sees and creates options and opportunities which we would never see–and could not even imagine. Loving us so much to choose to become one with us—to become truly human and to share our life! Surprise! If we are willing to trust in God and give God control, the very best is yet to come.

In this time of darkness, and cold, and fear, I share with you a beautiful antiphon which was often chanted at the beginning of Vespers—or perhaps when the candles of the Advent wreath were lighted: “Jesus Christ is the light of the world. A light no darkness can extinguish.”

May this Advent be a time of delightful surprise and astonishment for you! May you find in your Advent box of Chocolates the transforming, life-giving and empowering love of God. As you savor and delight in God’s love for you may you rejoice with exceeding great joy. And may you, in turn,  share your surprise, astonishment and delight with every person God brings into your life.

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