In the Name of God, who creates and knows us; Christ, who loves and befriends us; and the Holy Spirit who guides and sustains us. Amen.
In his Novel, Enduring Love, author Ian McElwain tells about an Oxford professor, a very rational and modern sort of man, who liked his world in order. On a beautiful and cloudless summer day, a middle-aged couple celebrate their union with a picnic. Joe Rose and his long term partner Clarissa Mellon are about to open a bottle of wine when a cry interrupts them.
A helium balloon, with a ten-year-old boy in the basket, screaming his lungs out, his grandfather being dragged behind it, has been ripped from its moorings. Onlookers gathered and attempted to pull the balloon down but with no success. Joe immediately joins several other men in the effort. In the rescue attempt one man, a doctor, dies, but the little boy eventually lands safely. All of this proves to be very disrupting in the life of this staid Oxford professor. He knows that he will never be the same after that day.
McElwain’s work is, but the story could be real and like any good story it is about the normal course of one’s life moving along as usual until something intrudes and things are disrupted and become topsy-turvy. It’s that sense of disruption that makes for the stuff of a good story. Stories that have little or no surprises are boring and unrealistic.
If you ever watched the old afternoon soaps on you may remember a scenario when a doorbell rings, the music gets intense and you know that someone on the other side of the door is about to turn things upside down. There is about to be a huge disturbance in some character’s orderly life.
In truth we don’t need novels or television programs to demonstrate that. People in Paris, people in Colorado, people in Newtown have experienced huge disturbances in their lives. Let’s not sanitize this. We are quick to label the terrorist acts of ISIS as evil and insane. Surprise attacks with deadly weapons that kill innocent people in our schools, theaters, churches, malls, and health institutions are no less acts of terrorism executed by insanely fanatical individuals. Let’s name it for what it is.
Advent—the season of the church year we enter today—is also a kind of disruption, albeit benign and unobtrusive. It is a season that messes with our sense of time. While we typically live with a fairly linear view of time — one event coming after another — the church’s liturgical and lectionary calendar is cyclical — patterns of events repeating themselves. For this reason, the church year that begins in Advent puts in front of us passages about the end of history and the end of the world as we know it.
It assails us right after the festivities of Thanksgiving, even as we savor the leftover turkey and its trimmings. It unsettles our pre-Christmas shopping and decorating. It seems so counter cultural. The malls have been playing Christmas songs for weeks and the world is already in full holiday trim. We have hung greens in the church and changed to blue vestments, the color of hope and expectation. What is peculiar is all this talk of destruction and endings.
Once again, we find Jesus using apocalyptic literature, a language of mystery, strange beasts, global catastrophes, distress among nations, and the roaring of the sea and the waves, the form of writing that emerged among Jews and Christians when they faced the worst of times.
The disciples, understandably, were alarmed, and asked if this would be the sign of the end of the world as they knew it. It would seem that throughout the ages, those facing hopeless situations, threats on their lives or families, have found a friend in Apocalyptic portions of Scripture. Strangely enough, it gave them hope to know that their misery and suffering would come to an end and that God would bring in a new order, a realm of justice, liberation, and peace. For an audience living under Roman oppression and third century Christians threatened by persecution, all this came as good news.
Yet to us, sated with turkey, Cranbury sauce, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie and anticipating the enjoyment of Christmas, all of this somber talk in the scripture may come as a disruption—much like the invasion of an air balloon on a couple enjoying a picnic on a beautiful day.
Major and minor disruptions are a part of life. Like Joe Rose in McElwain’s novel, we like our world in order. For most people, at this time of the year, that means a nice, satisfying Thanksgiving holiday weekend as a prelude to the Christmas season and all that comes with it. Advent—and its awkward disruptive Scriptures—is not on that menu.
Yet, as much as we like to think of our lives as in order isn’t that a delusion? Aren’t interruptions the true order of our lives? Isn’t change the one constant on which we can count? We may think of God as the origin of order and stability but then we get these texts that speak of a God who steps into the world and interrupts the flow of history.
Today’s Gospel is another text that has been used by preachers to frighten their audience. If, however, we listen to this text with imagination and in the context of the promise we hear in the reading from the Prophet Jeremiah, we might not see this as a Gospel of fear but rather a Gospel of assurance. God loves us enough to intrude on our world, to interrupt us. In a place we don’t expect, in a way we don’t expect, God comes and is born among us in a strange and wonderful way. God in Jesus is that magnificent interruption who came to usher in a new creation and bring good news of redemption and with it the hope for the future in which God brings all things into harmony with one another and with the creator.
From Moses to Martin Luther King, Jr., history is full of examples of those who, because they had been to the mountaintop, had peered into the promised land, and had heard and believed the promise of a better future, found the challenges of the present not only endurable, but hopeful. We, too, amid the very real setbacks, disappointments, or anxieties of this life, can “stand up and raise our heads” because we have heard Jesus’ promise that our “redemption draws near.”
Although it may sound like scary stuff, this passage does not point to destruction but to life—a new order under the reign of God which will not be a cataclysm of terrible doom but the liberation of the world from evil and the restoration of the entire cosmos to unity and wholeness.
Why not let Advent disrupt your life in a different and nourishing way? Embrace its counter cultural character. Recognize that the signs we see are evidence that the world desperately needs God’s love and mercy. Commit to doing Advent in a way that brings hope.
Give, don’t just spend. Write a check to feed the hungry, not just to boost profits for a commercial business. Listen to strangers who appear in your life. Listen to your significant other. Listen to your kids. Find a time to just be quiet. Read a good mystery. Say “Thank you” a lot. Go out for a meal with someone you love and leave your phone in the car.
Turn off all your devices for an hour. Before you do, pull up EpiscopalReflief.org and make a gift on line so someone living in unspeakable poverry will have clean drinking water. Pray spontaneously in your car or in the kitchen and tell God like it is. Seek opportunities for gentle conversation. Be kind on FaceBook. Go for a walk.
Try a weekday Eucharist that’s a new experience for you. Take naps. Brew a pot of tea and eat homemade cookies. Bake them first! Marvel at the Creator’s artistry in a December sunset. Savor the coming of each dawn.
All of this may prove to be very disrupting to our life, when the world wants us to march to its raucous drum and fill our time with commotion and deadlines and endless worry, but if we embrace these holy interludes, welcome them as gifts of God, we—like the fictional Joe Rose—may never be the same. And, in some small way at least, we and all humankind may be the better for it.