The First Sunday of Advent, Year A, Church of the Advent, Nashville

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt. 24:36).

Do you remember the last time you were really surprised; taken aback by something you had not anticipated? I think that when we look back on events, we do a little bit of editing, remembering clues that pointed the way, and even premonitions or anticipations of what might happen, so that it seems that the surprise was not so surprising after all. We say to ourselves, “How could I have not seen that coming?”, as if we weren’t really surprised, when we actually were.

It’s like that in the life of men and nations, on the grand stage of history, as well. The historian John Lukas wrote that our existence is God’s greatest gift to us, “but his other gift to us is that life is unpredictable” (A Thread of Years). Not only are we capable of being surprised, but we will be surprised, because there is no way that we can predict what’s ahead. This unpredictable dimension of the future is a gift, because it guarantees that what’s ahead exceeds of capacity to plot it out. We’re not limited by our own imaginations. We have a glimpse, maybe, of the future, but we never have a grasp.

Our reading from Matthew’s Gospel today lays this out for us, in the context of Jesus’ discourse on the end times, the final crisis of history. His disciples asked him, just a few verses earlier, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). Jesus tells them what the signs will be: “wars and rumors of wars” (Matt. 24:6), the persecution of his followers, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30).

The point of knowing the signs, however, has nothing to do with being able to predict them. Jesus says in our Gospel that no one can know when these things will be, not even the Son of Man himself. We’re going to be surprised in spite of ourselves. As Jesus says in our Gospel, “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” (Matt. 24:41-42). Like people in the days of Noah, we’ll be caught suddenly. We’ll be going about our own business when we’re surprised by the action of God.

If history is unpredictable, its capacity to take us by surprise does not render us powerless. Jesus’ teaching here in Matthew is focused on preparation, on staying awake and being ready. What’s required of us is faithfulness, steadfast attentiveness to what God is doing among us in the world. Paying attention requires prayer, which we might define as the conversation we have with God. Prayer is a sacred dialogue, in which our voice ought to be balanced by the voice of God. In other words, in our prayer we need to listen to God as much as we speak ourselves.

The Eucharist we celebrate today is another form of preparation practiced by the church. We “make Eucharist,” giving thanks to God for all that he has done for us in the past, especially in sending his Son Jesus Christ to live and die as one of us. We give thanks that God has raised him to life again, and we pray that he may be present with us now, in the sacramental bread and wine which are his Body and Blood. We do this with one eye on the future, anticipating now in the sacrament his coming again with power and great glory at the end of time. Here we have that glimpse of the coming kingdom that actually does put it within our grasp, as we take the sacrament into our hands and into ourselves so that Christ is present and in our midst.

The future is unpredictable; it will take us by surprise. We have Jesus’ own word on that. We also know that faithfulness is required of us, steadfast attentiveness to what God is doing in the world. We did not see it coming; it exceeds our imaginations and is not limited by our capacity to receive it. It is the good thing that God has prepared for us, astonishing and surprising us with his grace and goodness.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee