November 27 Sermon

Surprise!
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
November 27, 2016, the First Sunday of Advent
Based on Matthew 24:36-44

One of the difficulties in mainline Protestantism is that we get comfortable with the routines of church life. We like predictability. We like familiarity. We hold to patterns from previous years. We tend to dislike disruption. But here it is, right in the gospel in black and white (or red and white if your bible marks the words of Jesus with special ink): the return of Christ will be like a thief breaking into your home, unexpected, unsuspecting, vulnerable. Can Jesus break into our secure houses of worship with a new message of hope and promise? Are we willing to listen to this message if it is delivered in a new way?

Today’s reflection comes down to eighteen words: “I trust God is at work, but I’m having difficulty finding God – so I keep searching for God.” If you hear nothing else that I say this morning, I want to make sure you hear that.

For me, writing a weekly reflection involves looking for the relationship between things: the scripture lesson for the day; current events; and the liturgical activity of the day. Let me address them in that order.

The gospel lesson today is gloomy. I get the message: as people of faith we’re to remain alert to God’s activity, we’re to anticipate God is going to do extraordinary things, things that will surprise us, things that will astound us. But it describes Christ’s return being like the acts of a burglar. I don’t know if any of you have ever been burglarized. My home was broken into once; it is not a good feeling. I’m not really sure I want to look forward to that kind of surprise. I would rather God surprise me with something pleasant – like the little gifts in an advent calendar.

My belief is that God desires reconciliation more than judgment, growth more than destruction. This image of God as a thief confuses me. That is why I say “I trust God is at work, but I’m having difficulty finding God – so I keep searching for God.”

There’s a story about the Theologian Karl Barth. He hand-wrote his manuscripts, then gave them to his secretary to type. One day the secretary went in and asked him, “Dr. Barth, what does this line say?” Karl read his notes, but he could not interpret his own handwriting. He said to his secretary, “When I wrote that, only two people knew what I wrote: myself and God. And now, only God knows what that says.”

Saying “I trust God is at work, but I’m having difficulty finding God – so I keep searching for God” could be interpreted as “there is no way I am going to make sense of this so I am giving up – after all, only God knows God’s mysteries.” I hope instead I am placing proper emphasis on that last phrase: “I keep searching for God.”

The second item I consider when writing a reflection are the current events. I’m worried for the way our culture has turned. I am worried about the president-elect’s appointments and the prejudices they reveal. I am worried how hatred, racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, homophobia, sexism, classism anti-intellectualism are being systematically made part of our government.

A few weeks ago I met with a priest who grew up in Bagdad. Since our conversation was right around the time of the election, we got to talking about the candidates and the faults of both parties. This priest from Iraq then said, “You know, every member of my congregation survived as Christians under Saddam Hussein. Trump or Clinton, either one has to be better than Saddam Hussein – so God bless America!” I get his point – but what kind of endorsement is “at least they are better than Saddam Hussein.” We are heading into uncertain and unprecedented times. Right now I am perplexed about what I can do about it – as a citizen, as a pastor, as a person of faith and conscience. For the moment I have to say “I trust God is at work, but I’m having difficulty finding God – so I keep searching for God.” I could sink into the second part of that statement “I’m having difficulty finding God” but it is the first and last parts that help me move forward.

That brings us to the third item I consider in a weekly reflection: the liturgical day. This is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is a season of expectation – expectation that the promises of God made in scripture will be fulfilled; expectation that Christ will return again for the fulfillment of God’s intentions; expectation that since we are in between the time when Jesus walked the earth and the time when Christ returns, God is revealing God’s self to us so that we can be aligned with God’s intentions. As I said last week, the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.”[1] And God is Still Speaking. This first Sunday of Advent bears the additional theme of hope.

With a gloomy scripture and an overdose of cynicism, it has been difficult for me to find hope. Until I wrote that sentence: “I trust God is at work, but I’m having difficulty finding God – so I keep searching for God.” To me, this is a statement of hope. No matter how difficult it is for me to find God, my trust in God being at work is greater than my despair, greater than my depression, greater than my cynicism, and also greater than my best abilities, greater than my most talented coworkers, greater than any college or parliament or congress that could be assembled.

And since God is at work, even when I cannot find God I am compelled to continue looking – because the fault is not with God but with my humanity. It is that ongoing search – not the certainty of discovery but the commitment to keep searching – that makes us faithful, identifies us as seekers of Christ’s way, and keeps us alert. It is that ongoing search that helps us be ready for God’s activity – however it may surprise us. And that is the ultimate gift of Advent.

[1] Quoting John Robinson’s sermon to the Pilgrims before they left Amsterdam for North America.

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