The Full Read: God’s Other Name is Surprise

The readings for the first Sunday of Advent all place us in time: “In days to come,” “You know what time it is,” and “that day and hour no one knows.” On the face of it, that sounds simple. But it isn’t. What time is it? And what is time? Are we close or far, near or distant? Is time a line, a circle, a spiral, or a cylinder? Is it easily ordered by clocks and calendars, or does it flow like a river or blow like a breeze? Is it divided into past, present and future? Does it mark our lives? Or is time primarily our experiences of dislocations, disruptions and disjunctures?

Advent is particularly confusing when it comes to time. Advent, of course, reenacts a past event as if it is new each year. And every week, in liturgical churches, we are reminded that “Christ will come again.” That’s the other Advent — the future one that hasn’t happened yet. Advent is about both of those times: the first coming of Jesus’ birth and the second coming of Jesus’ return. It is also true that Jesus comes to our hearts, a kind of personal Advent for every Christian. We’re waiting for Jesus — a memory, an experience, and a hope.

Perhaps we aren’t supposed to make sense of sacred time, of Advent and the multiple advents. The season of Advent invites us to see beyond the shadow, to be able to go behind the darkness and discover the pure love hidden on the other side.

It isn’t a straight line from Alpha to Omega — it is a wrinkle in time. Moving through time is where unexpected edges touch, mystery overlaps mystery, the journey of ages and eons and epochs dancing together like stars and planets. Maybe that’s the only way we glimpse the Bright Star.

Advent is much more than an arrival. It is more of a tesseract (Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time) a journey through time, flowing with wonder, a mysterious winding way to the place behind the darkness.[1]

When we reach the season of Advent, we know it’s time to start over. Isn’t starting over what we need? So often, we wish to wipe it all away and take a fresh look, make a new start, or take a first step all over again. Advent is a new beginning for those willing to prepare themselves.

John Claypool was fond of saying, “God’s other name is surprise.”[2] God is a God of surprise not only for the first century but also the 21st. So what God was doing in 1st Century Palestine and throughout the centuries, God is doing in the 21st Century, visiting God’s children with a divine surprise of presence and strength so that the kingdom might be built.

[1] Diana Butler Bass, Sunday Musings: Advent 1, The Cottage, November 27, 2002

[2] John Claypool, lecture, “God’s Other Name is Surprise,” Whitworth Institute of Ministry, Whitworth, WA, courtesy of the Northwest Digital Archives, 7/23/85

The church has traditionally considered Advent a penitential season – a time to change one’s mind and a time to return to God. Thus, this morning, it’s a time to prepare ourselves for the way of the Lord who will come to consummate all things in the rule and reign of God. Our gospel story in Matthew today is meant to help us prepare.

But apocalyptic words have a tendency to heighten our anxiety without sharpening our readiness. It is amazing how often good-hearted Christians invest so much time and energy in keeping track about the signs of the end times, and fail to keep their hands to the plow of how God wants to partner together in the needs of the now. When we get distracted by the fireworks and the promises of extraordinary events, we lose sight of how God has purposefully been acting in history and how God wants to be at work in the present moment. Jesus addressed this sense of knowing plainly, “Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matt. 24:42).

French novelist, poet, and Nobel Prize winner, André Gide, wrote in his autobiography that when he was small, one day during his arithmetic lesson, he happened to look on the windowsill and was amazed at what was occurring there. At that very moment a caterpillar was turning into a butterfly, and he watched with awe as those magnificently colored wings began to emerge from the casing of the chrysalis. He could not contain his exuberance and interrupted the teacher by shouting: “Look! Look! A miracle!”

But to his dismay, the teacher sniffed dryly, walked to the window and said, “What are you so excited about? Didn’t you know that every butterfly was once a caterpillar? What’s so special about that?” Gide was crushed. On that day, he said, something happened to him; a capacity for wonder was doused. And it took him a long time to recover, to learn to value again a spontaneous reaction to something special.

The unkind, dismissive remark of the teacher was clearly sad and inappropriate, but there is a wonderful lesson to be learned:  It is incredible, a little frightening perhaps, how routine life can become, how domesticated we can become to miracle, how easily we miss the glory of the present moment and the beauty of the commonplace. And more serious still, how easily we miss a glimpse of God’s presence in the everyday.[1]

Barbara Brown Taylor gives us a hint of how to live consistent with a biblical sense of apocalyptic expectation:  Every morning when you wake up, decide to live the life God has given you to live right now. Refuse to live yesterday over and over again. Resist the temptation to save your best self for tomorrow.[2]

Mystic Anthony de Mello tells of a group of disciples who asked their master what death would be like. He said to them, “It will be as if a veil is ripped apart and you will say in wonder, ‘So! It was You all along …’”[3]

And, so it is with the God whose other name is surprise, who is someone behind the curtain waiting for us to be so curious we pull the curtains back to see who’s there.

© Dr. Keith D. Herron 2022

[1] Dr. David Burhans, “God’s Other Name is Surprise,” Sermon preached at First Baptist Church, Richmond, VA, 4/6/08

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “On the Clouds of Heaven,” The Seeds of Heaven, 107ff

[3] Larry Bethune, “Are You Awake,” Sermon Preached at University Baptist Church, Austin Texas, 11/29/92