Advent 1 Year A
November 27, 2016
“Put the book down!”
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer. Amen.
When I was pregnant with our first child, Ryan, I discovered the book, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” For nearly 30 years now, it has been considered a must-have book, “the bible” for pregnancy, and supposedly – according to people to track statistics like these – more than 90% of all pregnant women who read any pregnancy book read this one. And yes, I fell into that 90%, consulting it on an almost daily basis for a while so I could learn more about prenatal tests, morning sickness, and week-by-week fetal development.
Now, because of its popularity, a whole series of “what to expect” books cropped up. There was “What to Expect the First Year,” “What to Expect the Second Year,” “What to Expect Before You’re Expecting,” and so on. It was as if every minute of pregnancy and early childhood could be charted and explained, and these books’ timelines and explanations were supposed to reduce the anxiety of mothers and mothers-to-be.
Only, for me, that wasn’t the case. There was a down side to these books for me, because instead of emphasizing the incredible process of fetal development, the book seemed to focus largely on the complications that could take place in pregnancy. And of course, there are many. For example, one woman, toward the end of her pregnancy – and no, this wasn’t me - felt the rhythmic little jerks in her belly because the baby had the hiccups. So she turned to her copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” and it told her that a baby’s hiccups late in pregnancy could be a sign of a knotted or tangled umbilical cord. So she and her husband, panic stricken, rushed to the doctor, who told them, of course, that a baby’s hiccups were nothing to be concerned about, and they were in no way life threatening! Some started calling it a ‘worst-case-scenario handbook,’ while others nicknamed it, "What to Freak Out About When You Are Expecting." And the books about early childhood development were no different. If your child didn’t hit particular milestones within a certain number of months – turning over, sitting up, walking, speaking a certain number of words – you were cautioned to consult experts in pediatrics or neurology. The assumption of course, was that there must be something very wrong with your child. So, for me, there came a point when the anxiety the book produced far exceeded the medical risk for me or my baby, and I finally just had to put the book down.
Well, this morning, on our first Sunday in this Advent season, Jesus is teaching his disciples the same lesson - to “put the book down!” About that day and hour no one knows. You see, Matthew wrote his Gospel roughly 50 years after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And so, for roughly 50 years, early Christian communities were watching and waiting, hoping and expecting Jesus to return. They were frustrated and fearful that either they had missed it, or that it might never happen, and so Matthew was writing to encourage Jesus’ followers to carry on with their faith and ministry in the world. I can only imagine how much they longed for a “What to Expect” book of precise dates, times, and events leading up to Jesus’ return. Frankly, 2000 years later, there are still some who read their tea leaves, interpret world events and biblical texts in an attempt to guess the day and time for Jesus’ second coming.
But Jesus, in this morning’s Gospel, offers us an entirely different perspective. About that day and hour no one knows. Jesus says, “Put the book down,” because only God knows. Only God is the Lord of time itself, and God is not bound by our predictions, calendar seasons or even our expectations. The in-breaking of God among us, Jesus says, is and continues to be a remarkable surprise.
Of course, many of the scripture readings that we hear during this season of Advent are stories of Jesus arriving in accordance with ancient prophecy. But in other, even more important ways, Jesus’ arrival is also the story of surprise, the story of a Messiah coming for an unlikely people, born of an unlikely family, wrapped in unlikely clothes and laid in an unlikely manger. It is the story of God’s grace encountering us in unexpected ways.
Now, our church goes to incredible lengths to separate this Advent season from the Christmas season, and I love that. During Advent’s four weeks, our liturgical color is blue. There’s not a red or green decoration in sight. We sing only those hymns from the “Advent” section of our hymnal. We count time by the growing light from our Advent wreaths, and acknowledge that this season is about watching and waiting rather than engaging in the culture of hustling and bustling. We push back against the commercial Christmas season which has clearly pushed through the Thanksgiving firewall, and now goes as far back as Halloween. We protect this season of Advent - and defend the 12 day season of Christmas, which begins on Christmas Day, not before – which I believe is an important prophetic witness for us as a Church, and a real gift for our spiritual growth as well.
But this year, especially this year – and please don’t report me to the liturgical police for saying this – I have to wonder if that means, during this Advent season, we are supposed to put the baby Jesus back into the bottle, so to speak, as if he hadn’t been born already? You see, if what we celebrate at Christmas is the surprising entrance of God’s grace into an unlikely world, the in-breaking of God into our world, then perhaps it’s counter-productive for us to restrict or limit the time when we allow God to show up. God’s movement in our lives isn’t restricted by our calendar pages, by our church seasons, or by any check list or schedule.
Instead, Jesus tells us to keep watch for that in-breaking – in all times, in all places, in all seasons, and in all people. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Keep awake. Jesus has not left his disciples – or us – to a life of anxiety or loneliness without him. Rather, Jesus suggests, we should remain watchful, because we live in this world not only with the assumption that God shows up on cue – yes, on Christmas Day - but also with the expectation that God’s grace still has surprises in store. In Advent, we remember that God is with us, at all times, though God has not yet redeemed all things. So we remain watchful people. People who watch for the surprising grace of God, born in a manger, born to walk among us . . . and still walking among us. So this Advent, let’s put the book down and be a little bit counter-liturgical, because truth be told, it is Christmas every day. May we watch for the unexpected and surprising in-breaking of God into our lives and into our world. Amen.