Editors Note: This the annotated text of a sermon I preached on 12-1-13 at the Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd.
I am to some extent an Advent newbie. I had not even heard of it before attending Beeson and only started participating as a leader of a church in Wheaton. Reading up on the themes of the season has been fun and amazing. Perhaps the most suprising theme has been that of surprise. Do the readings and you come again and again to that of surprise/ When Bishop Jones first mentioned preaching during Advent, I immediately knew that I wanted to name my sermon Advent Surprise or perhaps in an, I think, appropriate nod to Gomer Pyle, USMC: Surprise, Surprise, Surprise. But then I got worried. What if none of the verses for the day mention this theme? I am committed to the scriptures and preaching them and them alone? What would I do then? The question, literally, keep me up at night. But then I checked and sure enough it is there in the Gospel reading. Reread it with me:
“The Son of Man’s Arrival will be like that: Two men will be working in the field—one will be taken, one left behind; two women will be grinding at the mill—one will be taken, one left behind. So stay awake, alert. You have no idea what day your Master will show up. But you do know this: You know that if the homeowner had known what time of night the burglar would arrive, he would have been there with his dogs to prevent the break-in. Be vigilant just like that. You have no idea when the Son of Man is going to show up.” (THE MESSAGE)
Here it is. The idea of surprise. No matter how vigilant we may be, the coming of God and His Kingdom is almost always surprising. And so I think that if we as Christians are to understand God and to be as vigilant as asked, we must come to terms with what surprise means. At our graduation ceremony the speaker made an argument that surprises come in 2 basic forms. Now I could pull out Websters and read you those definitions, but that would be boring. You might get a good nap in, but if a nap is what you want you would have stayed home, warm and alone. So allow me to explain surprise by telling you a story I would like to call, Matt’s long, frustrating, cold, very long day. Two warnings: first the story is about me but I am not sure that I could be the hero, though I don’t tell it to make you feel sorry for me. It was a long day, like we all have. I hope that you can enter into my world and join in my story and see something of yourself reflected back at you. Additionally, to quote a friend, “all my stories are true, but some parts of my stories are truer than other parts.” So in the places where I might exaggerate a wee bit, mea culpa.
So to set the scene. It’s Christmas Eve. It’s Chicago. It’s snowing. And I have tickets to fly out of Midway tomorrow to spend a glorious week in sunny, warm Birmingham. But before I can do that, I have to make it through my day. I have stayed in Chicago for two reasons. First, I have been in charge of leading the Advent celebration at my church. I was told that if I lead the services and took charge of the Christmas Eve Service, then I would be allowed to take the next two Sundays off. Additionally, I was working for a coalition of law firms, doing research at the DuPage County Courthouse, and I had swung a deal with my boss. Cover the Cook County Courthouse for the week before Christmas and he would have someone cover my work at DuPage for the two weeks surrounding Christmas. This meant that on Christmas Eve, I would be expected to be in downtown Chicago by 10 am completing my work there before 2 pm, so as to be leading the Christmas Eve service in Carol Stream at 6 pm. My communte to both places would involve two 45 minute train rides, two 20 minute walks, 30 minutes of snow shoveling, and a 15 minute drive between house and church.
So I woke up at 6 am to shower and layer on the clothes necessary to keep me warm on the train ride and walk to the DaleyCenter in the heart of the Chicago business loop. I stepped out the door just after 7 and got my first piece of bad news for the day, I looked to my left and through the blizzard of snow saw the train I had hoped to catch idling at the station. I yelled and went running down the street as the train rolled by me. As it whizzed by I looked at the printed schedule I had to see another train should pull in shortly. So I stamped my feet and waited.
Thanks to slow-downs on the way in. We pulled into Ogilive Station 30 minutes after I had planned on being there. I yanked my zippers to full. Minimized the amount of skin exposed to the wind and snow, and exited the building for my walk to the DaleyCenter. Now a little background. Mayor Daley and the County had been feuding all fall over the budget, and Daley had announced the day before I was to start covering Chicago that if the County wasn’t going to cover some thing he wanted; then he wouldn’t pay for crews to clean the sidewalks of Chicago. The County didn’t seem to care because they had a fleet of Caddies to drive over cleared roads. I, however, had to walk over snow covered sidewalks and was not amused. I hit the first intersection at a bad time. The Snow plow had just come by. A thing about snow plows (if you are from the South and like me have no experience with 15 inches of snow falling overnight), they don’t so much move snow off the road as push it off to the side. That means that while the roads are clear, there are huge mounds of snow piled off to the side (and I think the drivers take extra caution to push more of it in front of driveways and intersections that they know people want to use). Now if there are people out shoveling the snow off the sidewalks, these mounds are cleared out so that you can walk through the intersection. When the Mayor is refusing to pay for them that means that the only way the intersections get cleared is by the morons unafraid to walk through or over them. And when you are a dumbkid who grew up in a warm Southern town, you are not aware of this. So you walk up to the mound and hesitate. You are already cold. You know you do not want to be wet and cold. It’s a conundrum.
You know these scenes in action movies or horror movies when the main character decides, “hey I’m going to run up to the roof because it will be so much easier to escape from there, than if I just walk out the front door.” Then finds themselves glaring over the roof staring at the space between roofs, deciding if he can make the jump. Well that was probably how I looked as I stared dumbly at the knee-high drift of snow separating me from the road I needed to walk across. I began plotting if I could jump over the snow bank. So as I watched the lights turn, I visualized myself jumping and pulling my legs up to hurdle the snow bank, thus staying cold but at least not wet. The light changed and I scared all the sane Midwesterners around me by doing the standing long jump over the bank. Surprisingly I cleared the bank with ease, and was in the process of congratulating myself when I looked down to stick my landing (because as any Olympics fan can tell you, the jump is only good if you stick the landing). It was then that I realized something new about snow plows. They have the snow plow thingee on the front, and a sand / salt / melting mixture dispenser on the back. That means that snow is pushed aside up front, and anything left is then melted by the mixture that is left. What that means is that on the sidewalk side you have dry snow, followed by a snow bank, followed by a puddle of melted snow. Even as my Doc Martens hit pavement and gripped surface, the ankle deep puddle of water flowed over the top of my boots and began pouring into my boots.
And that my friends is the first definition of surprise. Surprise is jumping over a snow bank, only to land in an ankle deep puddle of ice water. Surprise is the sound that an Alabama boy makes as his feet instantly become numb as ice cold water soak them. For the record this is the not-so-nice version of surprise. It is the drunk waking up to find a stranger sharing their bed. It is the seemingly normal person sitting in a doctor’s office hearing the doctor say, “It’s cancer.” It’s your husband walking into the hospital room and saying, “honey, I want a divorce and here are the papers.” It is your supposedly virgin bride saying, “um. I’m pregnant” when you know you can’t be the father. It’s when life grabs you by the collar and the slaps you awake. Surprise. Surprise. Surprise.
Having learned my lesson and unable to feel my feet, I proceeded to DaleyCenter and got busy doing my work. I was sitting in a public access records room with a laptop sitting beside as I recorded information from the terminal in front of me. Not being a regular I did not know any of the others in the room (as I knew and was known by the regulars at the DuPage County Courthouse). Yet one of them looked over at me around noon and we started discussing how annoying the snowstorm was, how much we wanted to get done, so we could make it back to our homes before we found ourselves stuck in the city on Christmas Eve. Then he said the worst thing I had heard all day, “You know the storm has even knocked out all the wifi in the loop.” If I wasn’t already numb from the waist down, I would have gone numb at those words.
Here’s the deal. I collected my information at the courthouse. Then I was supposed to walk across the street to the coffeeshop beside the Chicago theater and send a series of emails with the necessary information to a collection of clients. The night before my boss had called me and said, “No pressure, but [don’t you hate it when bosses say that] you know that everyone is planning on having their work done by noon which means that as soon as you send these emails, they can download the files and send it off to the correct places so that they can leave the office and go home.” No pressure, but 7 people will be sitting at their desk on Christmas Eve watching their watches and waiting for you to send them an email. No pressure but 7 Christmases depend on your ability to send an email. And what do you need to send emails, a wifi connection. I hurried to get my work done, and ran across the street. I ran up to the counter and asked, “hey, is your wifi working?” The dude glared at me and said, “no.” I went white as I thought of 7 people waiting for me to send them an email. “Do you know of anyone else with wifi,” I continued. The dude just walked away. Now this was before smartphones. So I was standing there in an unfamiliar area, wondering where I could find a wifi connection.
So I as sons have done since time immemorial, I called my dad. In a panic, I asked if he was by a computer. I listened as he pulled up his browser and began searching mapquest for nearby coffee shops, and such. The nearest was a Barnes and Noble five miles away. As I considered grabbing a cab, I remembered that the Ogilive Station food court had wifi. I began running down the sidewalks (the same sidewalks that still had not been shoveled thanks to Mayor Daley). Every couple of blocks I would come across a building that looked promising and run in the door, and with a looked of glazed terror I would shout at the poor person at the counter, “do you have wifi?” As I stared at them with a look that was probably close how Hannibal Lector looked at Clarise, they first tried to understand my panicked Southern twang; because when as I get more nervous or excited, I get more Southern. I did not know this before moving to Illinois; but well, that’s what they said. Then I watched as they decided whether they wanted to give Southern Hannibal Lector access to their network; before realizing that it did not matter because the storm had knocked wifi off across the city.
Eventually I managed to make it to Ogilive; where I could get a signal, and join a network; but could not get my stubborn laptop to actually use it to send an email. In myt mind’s eye, I watched as 7 people sat at their desk, cussing me. A security guard noticed my terror and asked if he could help me. Trying not to cry I explained that I needed to send some emails before catching the 1:45 train to Wheaton.
A note, I had two options for trains back to Wheaton. The 1:45 should get me back to Wheaton by 3:30 which would give me time to shovel the snow out of my driveway, shower, eat, and get to the church by 5 so I could set up for the service and be ready for those working the service to arrive and walk through the service. The other option was the 3:30 train which was a local and would not get me to Wheaton before 5 pm. Which would mean people showing up to a dark, locked building and getting their own definition of an Advent surprise.
The man calmly explained how to get to a Kinkos across the street, and I run up the stairs and towards that location. If I was sprinting up the stairs, I saw a Caribou coffee to my left. I made a turn that any Alabama running back would be proud of, and dashed to daylight. Running into the door, literally, I screamed out my Southern glibberish as two white-faced teens stared at me in horror. One of them coughed, and mumbled something. “What did you say…,” I said way too loudly as every person in the shop now sat there staring at me with the same look that Clarise used to give Hannibal Lector. “We have wifi for paying customers. Can you afford a cup of coffee,” he asked condescendingly. Without missing a beat I was grabbing for my wallet, and… well, have you seen the Bogart movie Treasure of Sierra Madre… If you have I was doing what could only be described as the same dance that Bogie did when he stuck gold. I was doing the “I found gold” jig as I shouted “Hallelujah” at the time of my lungs. So now the denizens of that coffee looked on as the crazy, wet, Southern with wild eyes, proceeded to have a mini revival right there as he ordered a dark roast with room for cream.
And that, my friends, is the second definition of surprise. It’s finding a coffee shop with working wifi when 7 people are waiting and counting on you to send them an email. It’s being handed a hot, steaming cup of hot coffee when you are cold and wet and tired and have not been able to feel your feet since 9 this morning, It’s a chance to sit in a warm room, sweating, and happy as the browser reads, “message sent.” It’s running onto the platform and seeing the train you need, sitting and waiting for you. It’s sinking into a sit tired but joyful. Excited and ready to preach at the Advent service that night. It’s the cops showing at your door, and saying, “don’t worry we found your child who ran away. They are safe. And they are on their way home.” It’s waking up in the post-op room and hearing the doctor say,” we got it all. You are safe. You are healthy.” It’s the judge saying, “I find in your favor.” It’s the wife, saying, “Honey. I’m pregnant and it’s a boy.” It’s the angel showing up at your bed and saying, “do not fear. I bring good news of great joy.” It’s sitting in the dark, disparate to hear from God, and surprise of surprises, He shows up. He taps you on the shoulder and he says, “well done my good and faithful servant… enter into my rest.”
In his book A Public Faith, the European theologian Miroslav Volf points us to these same two surprising elements of our public faith. He calls these elements: blessing and deliverance. These seem to be two sides of a coin that calls us to a radical new way of living; one in which we can trust God to provide and sustain us.
There is a story about a Jewish man trapped in an concentration camp who spent night after night worrying about his parents, only to find out afterwards that they were buried in a mass grave right at the foot of his cabin in the camp. As he longed for his family, they were right there all along. In some ways God is like that for us. Even in the darkness. Even in the grave. His presence is surprisingly before us. Right there in that grave. Right there in that dashed dream. Right there in the hidden puddle of ice.
Perhaps one of the best demonstrations of this idea comes from author Sarah Bessey who in relating her story has said this:
“I tried to be a Christian by myself. And in my deepest hurts from the body of Christ, it did help to cocoon away in the in-between space for a while. It helped to step away from… the self-perpetuating machine, from the politics, from the religion, the expectations, the behavior modification, the CEO-style leadership courses, the unstable pedestals for pastors and the way that the grind of modern ministry life seems to chew up and spit out again, and the easy consumer spirituality.The wilderness transformed me in a way that no ‘spiritual high’ or certainity or mountaintop moment had ever done. I shed a lot of performance anxiety in those ‘in-between’ years. I reconciled what I believed and why. I embraced the glorious kaleidoscope of God at work in the global world. And most importantly the wilderness was the birthplace of my intimacy with God.”
In a surprising move for me, Bessey makes an unique comparison between the wilderness experience of God and one of the most common experiences of a woman’s life. And one that it quite apropos to the Advent season:
“While I was preparing for childbirth, I learned how much of the pain women experience during labor is related to our own fears and resistance to pain. Dr William Sears calls it the fear-tension-pain cycle. Because we are afraid, we naturally hold back and tense up, and then there is more pain, so we experience even more fear, and on it goes, around and around, building with intensity on every turn. To interrupt the cycle, we need to surrender to what is happening, right now. We must lean into the pain instead of resisting it….It seems counterintuitive; we should run from pain, right? But believe me: leaning into the pain makes giving birth easier….Lean into the pain.Stay there in the questions, in the doubts, in the wonderings and loneliness, the tension of living in the Now and the Not Yet of the Kingdom of God, your wounds and hurts and aches, until you are satisfied that Abba is there too. You will not find your answers by ignoring the cry of your heart or by living a life of intellectual or spiritual dishonesty. Your fear will try to hold you back, your tension will increase, the pain will become intense, and it will be tempting to keep clinging tight to the old life….”
How many of us is caught up in the pain, tension cycle as we feel like we are in the pains of childbirth? How many of us are seeking to avoid the hurt, the pain, the tension? Yet here is the surprise of Advent. The way out is the way in. We must lean into the pain and trust that we will find God precisely there.
I think of the young minister standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial disparately trying to connect with his audience. His speech is falling flat between millions of viewers. Then a voice breaks from the audience saying, “tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” The minister takes his eyes up from his prepared text, and leans into his pain. The pain of being considered less than human. The pain of having to use a different door, a different restroom, a different water fountain. The pain of being chastised as a worthless, troublemaking Communist intent on destroying America. And he stops. He regroups and he says:
“I say to you today, my friends… even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream… I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up’ live out the true meaning of the creed: ‘ We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…”
I think about the Bishop asked to speak after a rally. He stands up to the pulpit and looks out at his crowd. He sees the black faces expectant and disparate. He also sees the ring large, white police officers standing menacingly around the edges of the crowd as if to say, do what you like here, but you must go past us to get into the world. He stops and for a moment is scared. And then he looks to them and says: “Today is the day of salvation. Today is the day to repent of your sins. Today is the day to join the right side.” Later on he would reflect on his words saying, “I was concerned as much for the white officers as my black parishoners because I knew that the system of Apartheid was every bit as destructive to the white Afrikaners as to the black tribesmen.”
There is no comfort in this world apart from this most surprising Advent of God’s grace. In a recent column talking about the most recent round of Pentecostal bashing by John MacArthur, Jonathan Stormont relied this story:
“I was talking to an Anglican priest friend last week about this, and his answer was so good I think it might be helpful here.He said something like, the main problem really isn’t what we think it is. The real problem is that we’ve lost our imagination.There is a fundamental difference between a Catholic Christian’s imagination and a Protestant Christian’s imagination. In Catholicism, the whole world in enchanted, God is closer than we are to ourselves, and the entire Creation is dripping with the Glory of God.So back to us Protestants, both the Charismatics and the Cessationists are basically talking with the same limited imagination. We believe that either God punches a hole in the roof of the world and tinkers in from time to time in order to heal our Aunt’s cancer or give me a better parking space…or we believe that He doesn’t do that.But both are operating from a posture that fundamentally believes God is somewhere else….”
So here’s the surprise of Christmas for Charismatic, Calvinist, and Cessationist, Christ is here, now, right here, right now. He is moving. He is acting. He is inviting us into fellowship with Him in both the Father’s blessing and His own suffering. To those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see, he is here in puddle and the wifi enabled coffee shop. Our problem is not that God is not here; it’s that we are stunted in our imaginative abilities to see Him for who He is and for what He actually doing.
In the coming days you will hear many people talking about the war on Christmas. And yes there is a war on Christmas. But it does not involve whether the local government has a nativity scene. It does not involve saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” These are the made up battles that our enemy would want us to focus on. Yet the real battle over Christmas is this. Do you have the kind of Godly imagination to see the world as He does; or are you content to survive on warmed-over traditions that make you feel all warm and fuzzy for an hour or two but surrender to the cold winds of our current age? If Christmas is about tradition, about correct phrases, and town hall sculptures; then you have lost the divine imagination and ability to be overcome by the surprise of Advent.
I love what a Methodist pastor wrote this week:
” The Christmas season should not be about obligations. It shouldn’t be a fast-paced frenzy at all, but rather a time of waiting and reflection. The people who got to hear about the baby Jesus first were not the busy, responsible people rushing around checking off all the items on their list and fulfilling all their expectations. They were shepherds who spent all day and night out in a field just sitting and watching. What if we spend Advent lounging around like laid-back country shepherds instead of anxious, competitive Christmas shoppers? It might feel lazy. Others may judge us. But maybe we’ll experience something like a sky filled with angels singing glory to God in the highest. Maybe the people who get to the stores last and pay full-price for everything because they weren’t more “responsible” will be the ones who get to the manger first.”
When you pass the beggar to go into the store, will you spend your money on a present that your loved one does not need; or will you buy the hungry man a warm meal. When you pass the woman suffering through a problematic pregnancy, will you say, “Merry Christmas” and move on with your list of ultimately meaningless tasks; or will you stop and place your arms around her. Will you cry with her? Will you mourn with her? Will you lean into her pain, and help her lean into her pain? At some point this month you will be looking over your Christmas list and fretting about getting the right presents for the right person; when into your room will come a family member with a problem. Will you stop with the show of love through a cheap trinket they will have forgotten by New Years or will you take the time to deal with their pain? Will you show love for your family next year or will you focus simply on showing your affection by buying them off next year?
Here is the question: will you take real actions or just make a good show of it this year? Will you come alongside the leper and bring the healing of the Gospel to your community or will you fret about whether there is a Santa or Baby Jesus at City Hall?
Can you have the divine imagination to see and grasp the divine surprises in store for you this season?
I once had someone say that I preached in a way that called him to action and to deeper and more involved life than his past pastor. I didn’t apologize; because yes, the Gospel I preach may really be more complex and deep and involved than you will hear at Joel Osteen’s church. But hear me now; unlike Joel, my Gospel is not based on you or me. My Gospel is based on the surprise of Advent. That God is here now, He is living and active. He is here to change your life completely. He is here to transform you into a new creation; not a different person; but a version of you that truly and deeply reflects the love of God back into your community. This change surprises. This change is scary. But this change is needed. This is the change that we must embrace. There is no where left for us to go; for in the surprise of baby’s birth in Bethlehem we have found the bread of life. And this is the bread that fills us. Sustains us. This is the bread that is everlasting. We just need to get back to the place where we can see this, taste this, and live out this life.
Allow me to conclude as Bessey concludes:
“Jesus said, ‘You must begin with your own life-giving lives. It’s who you are, not what you say and do, that counts. Your true being brims over into true words and deeds.’ You cannot be full to the brim with Christ’s love and peace without spilling out into the lives of others. You learn how to love by being loved. You yearn to heal once you are healed. We receive goodness and bread, and then, of course, we ant to point every other hungry beggar on the road to the source.”
This Advent I leave a charge for you: can you lean into the surprising Kingdom of God. Can you lean into the surprising nature of God’s peace and God’s love? We have four weeks to prepare for the surprising visitation of God to earth, will you be vigilant or will you like the Pharisees and Sadducees be surprised and miss it entirely?
 Miroslav Volf. A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. Brazos Press: Grand Rapids, MI; 2011, 24-29.
 I believe I find this story in Marcus Gray’s Jesus and the Holocaust: Reflections on Suffering and Hope. If it’s not there sorry; but it is a great book that you should read anyway.
 Sarah Bessey. Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women. Howard Books: Nashville, TN; 2013, 49.
 Bessey, 49-52.
 Story taken from “One Man.” Jon Meachum. Time Magazine, 8/26 and 9/2/13, 38.
 I believe this story can be found in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s spiritual memoir of his time fighting Apartheid: God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time. I have read a couple of Tutu books and may be wrong about the source, mea culpa.
 Bessey, 53.