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December 2, 2018
Will Willimon reminds us that “one of the things we do well in the church is continuity. We worship in buildings that look as if they are older than they really are. We do fairly much the same things every Sunday, just like we did them last Sunday. Last year, last century. We call it an “Order of Worship,” because that’s what it’s for – to order our acts of worship into a continuous, flowing whole. Church specializes in continuity.” 1
“And here we are, just like clockwork, again at the season of Advent. We could have predicted it. Advent is the beginning of the church’s liturgical year, but not too much about it feels like a true beginning. It feels like something in the middle, one more thing in the orderly progression of the church’s year.” 2
Yes. We often think of our lives as an orderly progression. There’s birth, childhood, youth, adulthood, and so on. 3 And we often think of God as the divine source of order and stability. But, what if these notions are misguided? 4 In a good
story, “something happens, something intrudes, and things are disrupted, turned upside down. Interruption surprises, dislodges, and disorients. So what if an orderly story with no surprises and interruptions is not only boring but also a lie?” 5 And where are we to find God’s true promise?
Fred Craddock recalls a time when he went to visit a woman in the congregation that he served as pastor. She had never been at the hospital before and was there anticipating a major surgery. “I walked in there,” he writes, “and immediately saw that she was a nervous wreck. She started crying. She wanted me to pray with her, which I did. By her bed was a stack of magazines: True Love, Mirror, Hollywood Today, stuff about Elizabeth Taylor and others. She just had a stack of them there, and she was a wreck. It occurred to me, there’s not a calorie in that whole stack to help her through her experience. She had no place to dip down into a reservoir and come up with something – a word, a phrase, a thought, an idea, a memory, a person. Just empty.” 6
From time to time, I offer the following confession in our time of shared worship. The prayer reads, “God of birth, God of joy, God of life, we have come to you as a people hungry for good news. We have been so dead to miracles that we have missed the world’s rebirth. We have preoccupied ourselves with pleasures and have overlooked the joy you offer us. We have been so concerned with making a living that we have missed the life you set among us. Forgive us, gracious God. Open our eyes and our hearts to receive your gift; open our lips and hands to share it with all humanity in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
This prayer reminds me that one’s faith rarely stagnates or is ripped to shreds in an instant. More commonly, something feels off for a long time. We become bored and complacent with the same routines. Or, in time, disillusionment sets in when our best efforts appear to yield such little fruit. We want the world to change for the better. But some things appear to be getting worse.
Our institutional suspicion only intensifies when religious language is co-opted by political parties and is used to bludgeon opponents. Soon, we become weary of explaining to friends and family members that we are not one of those kinds of Christians. In our restlessness for continual progress, the wait for Jesus seems far too long. If God is truly sovereign, then where is the faithful revolution?
That’s why I still remember him. He was well dressed and well spoken. He kindly asked if he could join us at the table. And though he was more than twice our age, his posture was one of humility. Was he a professor? A doctoral student? A field placement supervisor? He told us that he was just visiting the campus. And over lunch, he asked us questions about the classes we were taking and our plans for the future.
In time, we learned more about him as well. A graduate of that same seminary, he originally entered the ministry and served as a pastor until, for reasons that remained hidden, he decided to leave it all behind. Had he been unfaithful in his marriage? Was he struggling with an addiction? Did he feel burned out by the administrative functions that bog so many pastors down? Was he depressed? Anxious? Isolated? Did he feel ill equipped? Was he lured away by the promise of a corporate paycheck? Did he simply stop believing?
While none of those answers were forthcoming, it was obvious that our new conversation partner was carrying a heavy burden when, through a pained expression, he told us that his fateful decision to leave the ministry was the worst mistake of his life. An undeniable sincerity was present, and his profound sentiment served as warning call to all would-be pastors within earshot. Don’t take what you have for granted. This is a man who had tried to follow God’s call, who believed that he had failed, and whose presence among us was a testament to his daily longing for redemption. That day, a stranger ministered to us by offering his life story as a form of personal confession. The message that I received was very clear – that God continues to seek us out despite our brokenness and our best efforts to turn our backs and walk away.
Friends, “Advent is God’s great discontinuity worked on a world in which many people believed that we were going along rather fine on our own devices.” The texts we read at this time of the year “speak of a God who steps up, steps in, and interrupts the flow of human history.” 7 Today’s scriptures, like “all of our biblical texts during the season of Advent, speak of a God who loves us enough to interrupt us. Here we are, proceeding down our comfortable runs, creatures of habit and routine, getting by just fine on our own. And then, in a place we don’t expect, in a way we don’t expect, God comes. God is born among us in a form we didn’t ask for. Emmanuel, God with Us, is God’s grand, gracious interruption.” 8
May it be so, and all thanks be to God for the promises fulfilled in him. Amen.
1 Will Willimon, Lectionary Sermon Resource: Year C, Part 1. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018), 2.
2 Ibid., 3.
3 Ibid., 4.
4 Ibid., 5.
5 Ibid., 4.
6 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001), 30.
7 Ibid., 3.
8 Ibid., 5-6.