Embracing Surprise (Matthew 24: 35-44)

Flickr Photo by Herr Olson
Flickr Photo by Herr Olson
# Embracing Surprise

This is the Gospel reading for Advent 1 and the text my sermon was based on for yesterday:

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
(Matthew 24:36–44 NRSV)

Let’s Get Out of Here!

This passage has been the root of many a children’s sleepless nights and nightmares. Children laying in bed, terrified from what they learned in Sunday School, or a story they heard.

But is that really the intention of this passage? No, I don’t think so.

You might have wondered why this passage is being read for the first week of the advent season. So do I. When I first saw this was the Gospel reading for this week in the lectionary I instantly began thinking about what other things I could preach on this morning.

All I could think about for awhile was [Image] the rapture.

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I’m going to be upfront with you and tell you I’m no fan of the whole rapture thing. If you are, that’s fine, I just don’t think it’s been all that helpful to the church.

I think things like Left Behind, the Christian haunted houses like “Judgement House,” the rapture movies and constant obsession with trying to predict the end of the world is not only a major distraction from what it means for us to live out our faith right here, right now, but that it has wrecked havoc on our biblical imaginations. It paints the end of the world as a vengeful coming.

After hearing all of these ideas we have such a hard time imagining any other possible interpretation, so much so that end up either just believing this pop culture theology, or rejecting it all together. It’s really hard to hear a new word in this text because of the bad theology that has been presented to us.

All this is, in my opinion anyways, is about escapism or what some call “evacuation” theology.

Rapture is relatively new in the landscape of Christian ideas. It’s main development goes back to 1827 and a man named John Nelson Darby from London. He’s know as the “father of dispensationalism.” This was a new idea, and there were other ways that people understood and read this text before Darby developed this idea.

The critical point for me – and should be for you – is that Quakers have not traditionally believed in the rapture (we started almost 200 years before it), we believe in the continual coming of Christ, as James Alison’s calls it, “the constant arrival.” This is not a vengeful coming, but a coming of love, healing and redemption for all creation. If there is to be a second, physical coming we don’t know and we aren’t going to waste our time worrying about it. We have all we need right now to be awake and present and participate in the bringing about of a new world.

Quakers need to reject evacuation theology. We are here in a tradition that believes that faith is rooted in action and presence, in showing up and responding. Not in getting out of difficult situations.

What we should concern ourselves with is:

Instead of worrying about whether there is life after death, we should be more worried about whether there is life before death! -De Mello

And this is the connection to Christmas. It is not about getting out of the world, but about God coming into the world. It is about a new awakening, a surprise that will turn the world to rights.

A Life of No Surprises and Embracing Surprises

There’s another reason why kids lay awake in bed, besides being scared of monsters, and death, and nightmares. And that’s out of anticipation and excitement.

Our daughter M. had a birthday was on Wednesday and we had a little party yesterday for her and she has basically not slept well all week. A lot of what I think was going on was that she was really excited and probably a little anxious about this week’s festivities. Earlier in the week, after Emily took our oldest daughter L. to pick out a gift for M., the two girls were standing in the living room and L. asked M., “Do you want me to tell you what I got you for a present?” And M., said, “No, don’t tell me, it’s supposed to be a surprise!”

Or what about on Christmas Eve, how many of you growing up got really good sleep on Christmas Eve? I mean, I mostly remember it being one of the longest nights of the year. The anticipation and excitement, the waiting, all made it impossible to go to sleep.

And just as much as we can be scared from uncertainty and surprise, it can also make us excited and really alert.

Q: How do you do with surprises? How are you with the unknown? What about the uncertainty of the future?

I tend to love being surprised and Emily really doesn’t like surprises at all. Emily’s the kind of person who if she gets me a gift for Christmas today, she’ll want to tell me by tonight what it is. I feel more like M. – “No, it’s supposed to be a surprise!”

What I think Jesus is getting at in this passage is this idea of surprised and anticipation. This isn’t about a terrifying kind of surprise, but a watchful, alert, anticipatory kind of awareness. This passage names our anxiety about the uncertainty of the future, and it invites us to leave that behind in favor of becoming present and mindful.

But when it comes to life, we want to know what’s going to happen.

  • We want to have a five year plan.
  • We want to make sure we have enough money stocked away.
  • We want to know how the story ends.
  • We want God to tell us what to do, rather than leaving it up to us.

This is because we experience a lot of anxiety around the uncertainty of the future.

Think about some of the major life surprises that have caught you off-guard, that you were not expecting, not prepared for? Some of these things are far more tragic than others, personal health, lost jobs, kids moving away, death of loved ones, personal setbacks or more large scale tragedies like gun shootings, terrorism, hurricanes.

Because we want no surprises we often shield ourselves from risk. We do whatever we can to protect ourselves from stepping out into adventure, from doing something a little different. Instead of accepting change we rail against it.

Part of what we call the American Dream, is to build a life that has no surprises. That helps us life safe, protected lives, where everything goes according to plan.

Then we read these words of Jesus:

But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.

In other words, never live as though things will go according to plan, live as though you are fully alive and awake right now. This is it, this is your moment. Wake up! Embrace surprise.

Otherwise we’re just living in an illusion, a dream world.

I then told a story from Anthony De Mello which can be read here

The less we are able keep awake and face reality, be ready for the unexpected, embrace surprise, and work with what material we have to make a difference, the more we will desire the kind of escape that the rapture signifies. ”

But the prayer for the Christian who has been shaped by the Christmas reality is:

“Lead me not into the time of trial. Help my courage not give out. Help me to keep awake. Help me to be ready for Christ’s constant coming.”

And this is what the Gospel is about this morning. Jesus is calling his disciples to remain calm, to remain grounded and centered in the promise that God is with us and for us right here in reality – no matter how uncertain it seems.

The goal is not to get out of challenges of this world but to remain awake and present within them. Because of this we can accept uncertainty as part of our lives. Let us accept the adventure of following Jesus into the uncertainty of the future.

Wake Up!

So I challenge you this advent season to do something that will help you wake up! Let’s be present to what we have, to who is with us. Let’s take one step into a deeper relationship with Christ. Let’s take a chance. Let’s stop rushing through the hours and days missing the gifts that are before us. Let’s become non-anxious and un-excited. Let’s dwell in the here and now and welcome Christ fully into our lives. Let’s go on adventure together.

I usually try to avoid giving ideas and answers about how to respond to sermons, I feel like that parts up to you, but I want to do something a little different today. Here are some daily practices you might consider that will help in waking up during the month of advent:

  1. Practice waiting worship
  2. Gratitude Journal
  3. Tell People specific things you are thankful for them about
  4. Take a risk
  5. Be present with someone who is hard to be present with
  6. Give a gift that someone you don’t know and who can’t give back
  7. Ask each other around the dinner table each day these two questions:
    A) What was your favorite part of the day?
    B) What was most challenging?
  8. Admit that you were wrong
  9. Return love for hate
  10. Make time for more prayer and silence

We may not be able to escape from an uncertain future, but we don’t have to walk through it alone and we don’t have to go through it asleep. We can embrace the gift of surprise and be ready.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.