“Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
I was just wondering, now that we are standing at the threshold of another Advent season, with just 4 weeks to Christmas, 23 more shopping days: do you have everything under control? Have you made your list? Checked it twice? Have you begun your shopping, baking, wrapping, running around? Or is this holiday season already spinning out of control? How important to us human beings is this whole matter of control. It is one of the most important factors in our having a sense of security and significance in this world. Never does a person become more disoriented or even depressed than in those times when he or she feels out of control—climate control, population control, birth control, border control, remote control—or at least the illusion of control.
I read that in one psychological experiment groups of people were asked to solve a puzzle. The groups were put into rooms with very loud blaring blasting music. Half the groups in the test were put into rooms in which there was a control knob which they could use to adjust the volume of the loud music. The other half of the groups worked in rooms in which there were no control knobs. Which groups do you think were able to put the puzzle together most efficiently? Answer: the groups which worked in the rooms with the control knobs did significantly better than the groups in rooms in which there was no way to turn down the music. But here is the most interesting part of the test results: The majority of the groups where there were volume control knobs never used the knobs. Just thinking that they had control, even if they did not choose to exercise it, was enough to make them feel better.
And I suppose that’s why every day I start out with my schedule carefully calibrated right down to the nano-second, my list of all I’d like to proactively accomplish in the course of a day: my prayer time, study time, exercise, vitamins, appointments, meetings, calls, correspondence, deadlines, on 4 legal pads, one for study, one for schedule, one for long-range, one for calls and correspondence. I have learned however that there will come a moment in every single day of ministry in which I will have to toss them, all 4 of them: A phone call, an emergency, an unexpected turn of events, person in tears standing in my door, “you gotta second?” something beyond my control.
I remember on September 11, 2001 when I first got the news about the twin towers. I had been working all morning on an article which I immediately abandoned. Much later that day when I returned to my computer, I saw on the screen that what had seemed so important only that morning, was totally irrelevant. It was as though decades had transpired. I remember my daughter saying, “Mom. Everything is changed now.” She was right. Everything. No longer could the USA think of itself as a land with unassailable borders and impenetrable defenses. We had been invaded by something beyond our control.
I remember when Katrina struck, watching CNN in Leesville, LA where we were evacuated, helplessly witnessing with unbelieving eyes the water rise to the rooftops, a city set on fire, the dawning realization that life as we knew it would never again be quite the same. And how will I ever forget for as long as I live this past Monday, the day we got the call about our beloved Jerrell Mathison, on a peaceful walk with Joyce in a beautiful park on a gorgeous day, hit by a car careening out of nowhere down a pedestrian path. And suddenly, whether we are ready or not, everything is changed.
Life is like that, Jesus said. “So it was in the days of Noah, when the flood came. Some were eating, and drinking, getting married, just going about their business,” when suddenly the end—the end of your life, the end of a loved one’s life, the end of life as you know it, and one day the end of the world as we know it–whether you are ready or not. Every one of us, whether we are aware of it or not, stands even now on the edge of that much mystery. Each one of us is but a heartbeat away from an unknown future. And it comes, Jesus said, “at an hour you do not expect…of that day, of that hour, no one knows but God alone.”
How scary it is: not knowing. If anything makes us feel out of control it would be not knowing. Remember the huge 3 inch tall headline on Friday’s front page of the Times-Picayune: UNPREDICTABLE. It was an article about the end of the hurricane season (hallelujah, we made it through another year!), a season that was forecast by all the experts to be another year as active and devastating for the Gulf Coast as was 2005. They were wrong, again, but, we are warned, do not become complacent! Stay informed, prepared, alert, ready. “The atmosphere has a 2 week memory,” said the article, and is entirely UNPREDICTABLE. You do not know when, where, how hard the next hurricane will hit. You only know that it will. What a way to live!
But let me ask you this: if indeed we had the power to know the future would you really want to know it? If at the end of worship today you could pick up an envelope which would inform you of the exact day on which your life would end and precisely how it would happen, would you want that envelope? would you open it? If you were to learn today that 10 years from now you would tumble down 25 steps onto a concrete sidewalk and be hospitalized for a month, what would you do with that information? Would you never leave home? never climb stairs? go through the rest of your life clinging to banisters and wearing a crash helmet?
If you could know on the day that you exchanged vows as newlyweds that 40 years from your wedding day your wife would develop the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s and that you would spend the rest of your life taking care of her every need until the day she died, would you still make that promise: In sickness and in health, til death us do part?
I think about all that we do know, all that we can forecast, all that we are able to predict: we can engineer the birth of a child, the moment of conception, in vitro fertilization, designer conceptions, we can monitor a pregnancy, perform tests on the fetus, know if it is healthy or not, whether male or female, we can even schedule the delivery, induce the labor, speed it up, slow it down, surgically bring forth the new life in a timely fashion that suits our schedule. When one of our grandchildren was born, the superstitious doctor was afraid little Matthew might come on Friday the 13th, so she set it up for Thursday the 12th. It can be done! We can do all of that and more, and yet there is no way that we can remove the element of complete surprise, wonder, awe, and joy in the moment of birth, the moment in which you see your child’s precious face for the first time, this tiny, unrepeatable, utterly unique individual within whose soul there already exists an entire universe with constellations of as-yet-to-be-revealed needs, wants, desires, hopes, gifts, talents. Brace yourself! Clearly, in spite of all that we know and all that we can control, something bigger than we are has got the power. Someone bigger than we are holds the future. And I for one would not want to have it any other way.
In one of her books, Corrie Ten Boom tells about a day when she was a child traveling by train with her family, pressuring her father to let her know more about something that was way beyond her ability to grasp as a child. Her father answered by standing up, taking his suitcase off the overhead rack, setting it on the floor, and telling her to pick it up. She stood up and tugged at it. She couldn’t budge it. “It’s too heavy,” she said. And he said, “Yes, and it would be a pretty poor father who would make his child carry such a load. It’s the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. One day you will be able to bear it. But for now, you must trust me to carry it for you.” “And I was satisfied,” she wrote, “wonderfully at peace. There were answers to this and to all my hard questions. But for now I was able to leave them in my father’s keeping.”
This is what sets us free to live as God has intended us to live: We don’t have to know all the answers to our hard questions. We don’t have to know what tomorrow holds. But we don’t have to live in fear of the mystery of life and death. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know the One who holds the future. That’s what our scripture lesson is about today. Jesus is telling us what the perfect position is for standing at the edge of the mystery, for facing forward, trusting whatever tomorrow might bring: be watchful, be ready, be prepared, be awake, alive, alert. But don’t be afraid. To live in this way is what it means to be truly alive.
When my daughter Sarah graduated from LSU last year, she enclosed in all her graduation announcements, a poem I had never seen before by George Frederick Cameron (1854-87) entitled “Standing on Tiptoe.” How perfectly this poem expressed all the eagerness and anticipation of a young woman at the edge of a great adventure, at the threshold of a great unknown, the mystery of what the rest of her life might hold:
STANDING on tiptoe ever since my youth,
Striving to grasp the future just above,
I hold at length the only future—Truth,
And Truth is Love.
I feel as one who being awhile confined
Sees drop to dust about him all his bars:-
The clay grows less, and, leaving it, the mind
Dwells with the stars.
Standing on tiptoe ever since my youth… as if you can’t wait to see what comes next, not afraid of what comes next, trusting there is only one future—held in the hands of a truth that is love. For the One who comes in his own way, in his own time, on his own terms, is One in whom we can place our ultimate trust. In his hands there is no ending that is not also a new beginning, no death that is not also a new birth, every exit is also entrance, and not even a sparrow can fall from its nest beyond his reach, and come what may, no matter what, we belong to him. There is only one future—him, his truth, his love.
This is what hope is all about. Hope is not knowing, but looking forward, trusting tomorrow, come what may, standing on tiptoe. This is what Advent is all about: the word itself mean “to come” Something is coming, someone is coming, a new day is dawning, a future we have never seen before, an old order is passing away, something brand new unfolding in our midst: a baby is being born, and all the world is standing on tiptoe to see his face! And what a beautiful face: the face of truth. And truth is love.