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Advent 1, 28 November 2004
Matthew 24:36-44,
Hugh Beck
(->current sermons )

“Expect the Unexpected”

The trouble with ordinariness is . . . is . . . is . . . well – is that it is so ordinary!

On the one hand, of course, the ordinariness of life is very helpful, for it keeps us from stressing out under changes and unexpected turns that so quickly and easily twist life into utter turmoil. We thrive under ordinariness, for we know very well what to expect day after day. Oh, we all know that unusual things can interrupt this flow of ordinariness . . . sometimes caused by our own actions, good or bad, and sometimes caused by forces outside ourselves over which we have little or no control . . . but when this ordinariness of life fails for one reason or another we become very troubled and we are highly relieved when the confusion and bewilderment pass and we can return to our ordinary life.

Ordinariness can be troublesome, however, as we suggested from the beginning. It suggests that the way things are ordinarily is the way things should always be. Because it gives us such a high level of comfort, it is quickly accepted as the norm.

That’s the way it was “in the days before the flood” when “people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage . . . and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them away.” Although those around Noah must have been impressed – undoubtedly in a very derisive way, of course – with the strange activity in which Noah was engaged, they saw nothing to compel them to deviate from the ordinary course of their lives. Even Noah’s words, both explaining what he was about and warning them against what was soon to happen, meant nothing to them. There was no reason to think that the comfortable ordinariness in which they were engaged would be disturbed. They only saw a madman foolishly ranting and raving!

There, however, is where we see the problem with ordinariness. It hides from our eyes other possibilities – and particularly the possibilities that God proposes! For God is not especially interested in letting things be as they are, for they are far too distant from what he made them to be or for what they can be when he steps in. God gets mixed into the ordinariness of life in most unexpected ways . . . and that is always disturbing in one way or another! He keeps pressing on the world to look beyond the ordinary, to move into extraordinary ways and have extraordinary visions.

Isaiah presses for seeing beyond the ordinary in the First Lesson for today. God’s will is moving toward new ways for the world. “In the last days . . . “ Ah, what a vision of what is yet to come! Then . . . when God steps in and ends the ordinary course of human events . . . then “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks!” This will be the work of God, for humans are too caught up in their own limited plans and visions. They are stuck in self-seeking ways devoted to power-mongering that have proved futile in the past and have no promise of anything other than futility in the future. But God . . . yes, God . . . can break the old apart and bring the new to pass. Unless one expects the unexpected, one will never catch this vision
. . . nor will one be able to live beyond the ordinariness of the present.
“That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of man,” we read in the Gospel. “Two men will be in the field, one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” God will dip down into the ordinary activities of working in the field and grinding at the hand mill, and the unexpected coming of the Lord will cause a great separation between those expectantly waiting for his coming and those whose lives have been so caught up in the ordinariness of life that they see no reason to expect anything other than the ordinary. The word for “taken” is a word typically used after the fashion of Joseph taking Mary from her home to his or Joseph taking Jesus and Mary from Bethlehem to Egypt. It is akin to the separation of the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff. One waiting for the Lord’s coming will be glad to go to the side of the one who comes for him while the one who waits for nothing other than what she can do with life will be left with nothing but the dregs of the ordinariness of life, standing all alone. That is what it will be like when the Son of man comes. “Who will he find waiting for him?” Jesus is asking.

Is there not a similarity at this point with that momentous event toward which we are now pointing as we begin this Advent season? Where was the tension, the expectation, the hope for that which came to the stall of Bethlehem? Mary is puzzled when her ordinary life is so astonishingly interrupted by a messenger of God. Joseph hasn’t an inkling of what is happening until God breaks into his sleep. The shepherds are surprised in the midst of their ordinary activity to hear that something had unexpectedly broken upon the earth. When inquiry is made about this event in Jerusalem by the magi, nobody is aware of anything having happened. Life had been going on quite as usual, and anything as extraordinary as that of which the magi spoke seemed quite unlikely. Still . . . Herod admittedly wondered if perhaps there was more to this than met the eye. He didn’t expect the unexpected, but if the unexpected had happened, he was determined to reduce it back again to the ordinary course of events he had in mind.

Nobody expected anything unexpected, for only God can break into the ordinariness of life with the power and force of eternity. And we are not given to expecting this on the daily level of our existence. Yet, of a sudden . . . there it was! And . . . there it is!

But even then there was a certain “hiddenness” about all this, for this most extraordinary and unexpected event was concealed in an infant . . . a most ordinary child to all who viewed him. At first one could only see what was ordinarily expected of human births
. . . a man-child born to a most ordinary young woman. One would have to follow him, to listen to him, to watch an unfolding course of events to even begin to recognize what an extraordinary person this was. The work of God was wrapped up in this man and concealed even on a cross where all who saw him viewed the moment basically as a monumental miscarriage of justice.

But to see the work of God there in that crucifixion, one of hundreds of crucified Jews at the hands of the Romans . . . that was preposterous. Who could have possibly expected anything of this death other than the deepest of sorrows and the dreadful lament of a good life wasted? Only three days later did it become clear that more than a miscarriage of justice had occurred or that the end of a good man had taken place. Yet it took days . . . months . . . years . . . to this very day, in fact . . . to unravel the meaning of this death, to see in it a most extraordinary and unexpected way by which God not only changed the course of the world but also the way by which he brought life into the midst of our dying, restored hope where hope had vanished, brought light into utter darkness.

Is there not also a connection here between the body of that ordinary man whom we confess as King of kings and Lord of lords made flesh and the waters that were poured on us at our baptism and the bread and wine received regularly at the altar of the Lord?
Is there not an ordinariness there also that, to the casual eye, means little other than water we use to wash dishes or the bread and wine that make a dinner table delightful?
When one expects nothing other than that, to be sure, that is all there will be to the viewer. But when we hear Jesus speak to us and say that hidden there within the water and bread and wine he is present for us, we believe and know that this is the washing of grace, the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation. To expect the unexpected here is to receive life and hope and a new vision of what our lives can be by the blessing of God.

An imortant thing about the text that opens to us the secret of the Advent season is this: Jesus never speaks of us going anywhere! We are simply there. We are just waiting. The action is on his part. He is coming to us. That, after all, is what adventus means
. . . he comes. Five times in today’s Gospel reading a form of “come” is found. Advent is a time of waiting . . . but not just waiting aimlessly. It is a waiting expectantly, a waiting for a word to be fulfilled, a waiting for something beyond our imagination or our dreams, a waiting for the unexpected that will surprise us It is a waiting for what God will do, and what he does is always hidden within the majestic light of his glory – a glory, in fact, so brilliant that it, itself, hides from our eyes what he is doing! And yet he makes what he is doing visible among us in the shadows of a child, a cross, water, bread and wine. He only asks us to expect him to do what he sees necessary to do . . . and then to receive what he does with thanksgiving.

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” Just know that he will come unexpectedly like a thief in the night. The hour of his coming is known only to him who comes, and it will be “at an hour when you do not expect him.”

That is why Paul writes to the Romans, as we hear in the Second Lesson: “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed." Those who wait for the Lord, who expect the unexpected, know that they are to keep their lives in order. “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime,” Paul says. “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” People who wait for the Lord conduct themselves as though the Lord will appear at any time. That is what it means to “keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.”

It is amazing how “expecting the unexpected” changes the ordinariness of life into a perpetual flutter of hope. It lightens the darkness. It breaks apart the chains of sin and death with a lively life that leaps for joy. For it knows that the ordinariness with which we are surrounded every day is not the last word. It is not a binding word. Into it and around it and through it there is a God who has transformed this ordinariness into an unexpected extraordinariness. A child who will be his means of changing the world is at hand! God asks us to be living birth announcements of him through whom God is bringing a totally new thing to pass upon the face of the earth! “Keep watch!” Wait and see what God has done – will do – is doing!

Our lives cry out to the world, “Expect the unexpected!” For we have seen the unexpected and we can hardly contain ourselves for joy and gladness!

Hugh Beck