Father Nicholas Lang
In his Novel, Enduring Love, author Ian McEwan tells about an Oxford professor, a very rational and modern sort of man, who liked his world in order. On a beautiful and cloudless summer day, a middle-aged couple celebrate their union with a picnic. Joe Rose and his long-term partner Clarissa Mellon are about to open a bottle of wine when a cry interrupts them.
A helium balloon, with a ten-year-old boy in the basket, screaming his lungs out, his grandfather being dragged behind it, has been ripped from its moorings. Onlookers gathered and attempted to pull the balloon down but with no success. Joe immediately joins several other people in the effort. In the rescue attempt one man, a doctor, dies, but the little boy eventually lands safely. All of this proves to be very disrupting in the life of this staid Oxford professor. He knows that he will never be the same after that day.
McEwan’s work is fiction, but the story could be real and like any good story it is about the normal course of one’s life moving along as usual until something intrudes and things are disrupted and become topsy-turvy. It’s that sense of disruption that makes for the stuff of a good story. Stories that have little or no surprises are boring and unrealistic.
If you ever watched the old afternoon soaps on you may remember a scenario when a doorbell rings, the music gets intense, and you know that someone on the other side of the door is about to turn things upside down. There is about to be a huge disturbance in some character’s orderly life. In truth we don’t need novels or television programs to demonstrate that. We saw it on the news—another random shooting at a busy mall on Black Friday. A man in Pennsylvania shot by a stray bullet while eating Thanksgiving dinner. Flash mobs looting stores in Los Angeles. But then in that dark place a woman in the same city invites an Afghan refugee to her Thanksgiving table.
Advent—the season of the church year we enter today—is also a kind of disruption, albeit benign and unobtrusive. It is a season that messes with our sense of time. While we typically live with a linear view of time -- one event coming after another -- the church's liturgical and lectionary calendar is cyclical -- patterns of events repeating themselves. For this reason, the church year that begins in Advent puts in front of us passages about the end of history and the end of the world as we know it.
It assails us right after the festivities of Thanksgiving, even as we savor the leftover turkey and its trimmings. It unsettles our pre-Christmas shopping and decorating. It seems so counter cultural. The malls have been playing Christmas songs for weeks and the world is already in full holiday trim. In church, however, we have changed to blue vestments, the color of hope and expectation.
What is peculiar is all this talk of destruction and endings. Once again, we find Jesus using apocalyptic literature, a language of mystery, strange beasts, global catastrophes, distress among nations, and the roaring of the sea and the waves, the form of writing that emerged among Jews and Christians when they faced the worst of times.
The disciples, understandably, were alarmed, and asked if this would be the sign of the end of the world as they knew it. It would seem that throughout the ages, those facing hopeless situations, threats on their lives or families, have found a friend in Apocalyptic portions of Scripture. Strangely enough, it gave them hope to know that their misery and suffering would come to an end and that God would bring in a new order, a realm of justice, liberation, and peace.
Yet to us, sated with turkey, Cranbury sauce, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie and anticipating Christmas, all of this somber talk in the scripture may come as a disruption—much like the invasion of an air balloon on a couple enjoying a picnic on a beautiful day.
Major and minor disruptions are a part of life. Let’s face it, we like our world in order. Yet, as much as we like to think of our lives that way, isn’t that a delusion? Aren’t interruptions the true order of our lives? Isn’t change the one constant on which we can count? We may think of God as the origin of order and stability but then we get these texts that speak of a God who steps into the world and interrupts the flow of history.
Today’s Gospel is another text that has been used by preachers to frighten their audience. If, however, we listen to this text with imagination and in the context of the promise we hear in the reading from the Prophet Jeremiah, we might not see this as a Gospel of fear but rather a Gospel of assurance. God loves us enough to intrude on our world, to interrupt us. In a place we don’t expect, in a way we don’t expect, God comes and is born among us in a strange and wonderful way. God in Jesus is that magnificent interruption who came to usher in a new creation and bring good news of redemption and with it the hope for the future in which God brings all things into harmony with one another and with the creator.
Yesterday I took a good look at my yard and realized that the trees were almost bare, the leaves ready to be carted away, a cold winter feel in the air—all a reminder of an ending, an interruption in life I don’t personally much like, but I know that it will be followed by a spring renaissance of living and green and colorful things—signs of new creation. Look for moments of joy and peace during Advent. Brew a cup of tea, pick up a good book, eat homemade cookies, take a nap!
Maybe we can make good use of this darker, barren time of year. Look for the fig trees in your life this Advent and discover where and how God is reaching in, interrupting, and surprising you—those moments when you can see through, see into, see beyond what is going on to what is really going on—not because we are some kind of genius but because God decided to let us in, and we happened to be paying attention at the time.