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Sunday, November 29, 1998

Divine interruptions.

A sermon delivered to the First Parish in Concord, Mass., on Sunday, November 29, 1998, by Christopher L. Walton.

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

— Annie Dillard, "An Expedition to the Pole" in Teaching a Stone to Talk

This is a sermon about interruptions and surprises, about the religious discovery of divine meaning in human life — a sermon for the season of Advent, the celebration in the Christian tradition of God's interruption of the human world in order to bring the good news of peace and deliverance.

I begin with a simple story about a simple Christmas tradition. Once upon a time, when I was very small, my parents wrapped a Happy the Clown punching-bag and put it under the tree. I unwrapped the clown on Christmas morning, and I'm sure I enjoyed that punching-bag to the end of its inflatable life. I can't remember the clown. But the box it came in has become a family tradition. That particular package has endured a quarter-century of Christmases. You see, every year, something gets wrapped in the Happy the Clown punching-bag box. Every year, when the paper is ripped away and the Happy the Clown box appears, laughter erupts. We have all been expecting it, but its appearance is always a wonderful surprise.

Why should such a simple thing bring such delight to my family? Why is that box — just a garish bit of consumer packaging — why is that box so important? How has it become wrapped up in our Christmas tradition? Why are we always glad to see it?

The box is an expected surprise. For the first several years, my parents re-used the box out of simple frugality — but over time, its re-use set up a pattern and expectations grew. There it is again! That same box! Who will get it next year? In the way of all genuine traditions, a pattern emerged gradually until it was recognized, honored, and then made deliberate. Now it just isn't Christmas without the silly thing!

Christmas is full of expected surprises. What could be more familiar than Christmas? Some people eagerly look forward to the lights, the music, the parties, gifts, the pageants, the concerts. . . They love the feeling in the air, the excitement of the season. Others know from long experience that the holidays are maddening, often lonely, traumatic. But Tiny Tim and Scrooge have something in common: they both think they already know what to expect — more or less — from the holiday.

At the religious or theological level, something similar often happens when it comes to Christmas. We treat the religious dimension of the season as if it, too, is merely an expected surprise. There they are again! Those angels, those shepherds, the family at the manger, the wise men, the proclamation of good tidings of great joy! The world is full of creches, but somehow the point gets lost in the familiar. The gospel may be good news, but at Christmas it doesn't often sound like news at all.

Christmas presents the birth of the child Jesus as a holy event. In the story, God's promise for the world is seen in the arrival of a new child, a new king, a messiah. In the story, the divine interruption of the human world arrives in the most primal and obvious form: with a birth. Everyone expects something of the child; so many dreams are wrapped up with his coming. The theme is so basic, so familiar, so much like our own experience of seeing a new child come into the world, that the story introduces the activity of God in the most intimate of human forms: like a mother in labor, God brings something new into the world.

If the story ended there, however — if Christmas meant only the nativity — then we would know nothing more than that God had already entered our world, that God's intention for the world is somehow summed up in a much-heralded birth. But there is more to the story than this. Advent throws a curious twist into the plot. Not all divine surprises are planned. Not all of them have a nine-month lead time.

Annie Dillard warns us against thinking that our experience of the divine is already all neatly wrapped up in tradition and our accustomed ways of thinking. A text from Matthew's Gospel is even more strange. Listen to this:

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 must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. — Matthew 24: 36-44 (NRSV)

What is going on? In one sense, here we have God's revelation compared to a thief in the night. How odd to imagine being burgled by God! Here we have something unexpected: no one knows the hour or the day; this divine interruption will come as a genuine surprise — and not just as any surprise, but one that tears people apart, that takes one and leaves another. It's a frightening passage. But there seems to be a basic truth at work. Perhaps you will know what I mean.

We live in a world that prizes regularity, schedules, and plans, a world that thrives on order. We depend on appointments, calendars, the systems that keep our society efficient and productive. Expected surprises fit into such a world because we can schedule them. But the Advent text from Matthew points to another truth: meaning also often involves disruptions of our order and routine.

Our days may be full of scheduled events, but the most meaningful occasions of our lives are most likely not in our appointment books. Who can schedule the hour when you fall in love? Who can schedule a child's first word? Or consider the more solemn interruptions: Who would think to schedule a life-threatening illness? Who could begin to expect a stroke? Who has any way of knowing how an accident can transform a life? To be sure, these interruptions tear away some of what we believed we knew about ourselves and our world; they also invite us into some of the most profound opportunities of our lives. These are the unexpected surprises. No one knows the hour or the day.

Advent combines two kinds of surprises: the expected story of Christmas and the unexpected story of God's future interruptions. If Christmas helps us recognize the divine in the experiences we already look forward to, the season of Advent suggests that the divine may be found even in times that seem disastrous. If Christmas has a tendency to make us a bit sentimental in our religious attitudes, Advent reminds us that the terrible disruptions of our lives can also reveal the divine — with this catch: we must remain vigilant. God may rush through our lives like a burglar in the night, or, if we are awake to greet the divine, God may become our guest and our companion. Advent gives us this much advance warning: at least we know that such surprises are in store for us, and we can learn to pay attention to the interruptions of our lives because some of them may reveal to us the divine.

Annie Dillard suggests that we wear crash helmets when we pray, and I am inclined to think this is good advice! "For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return." My hope for this season is that we may learn the discipline of watching for the divine in the surprises of our lives, that the waking god may draw us into the light of new life.

Copyright © 1998 by Philocrites | Posted 29 November 1998 at 2:26 PM

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Next: The ontological imagination.

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