”Jesus said, ‘See I am coming soon…surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”
Revelation 22:12, 20
In today’s reading from the Revelation to John, the writer claims he has had a vision in which Jesus is saying, “See, I am coming soon…surely I am coming soon’ —to which John adds this exclamation: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”
And, of course, as we move through the seasons of the church year, we are in the habit of reciting numerous prayers from the Book of Common Prayer that express the same sentiment — that voice an eager hope and expectation that the kingdom of God will soon come among us.
For example, on the Third Sunday of Advent, we pray, “Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us…”
And there’s that phrase in the Lord’s Prayer — “Your kingdom come” — that we’ve said so often that we tend to mumble it on cruise control.
So concerning Jesus and his kingdom, it seems to me that we are repeatedly offering the same prayer that the author of the Book of Revelation utters in our reading — “Come!”
And we’re so accustomed to saying and hearing these prayers on automatic pilot that most of the time they tend to scoot right past us without even causing the slightest ripple on the surface of our consciousness.
Because we say these prayers for the coming of the kingdom with such numbing regularity, it becomes all too easy for these words to casually, mindlessly trip off our lips.
But maybe we ought to think twice, or maybe three or four times, before we pray for the coming of Jesus’ kingdom — because this short, simple prayer, “Come!,” is actually a dangerous prayer laced with TNT!
I’m not at all sure I’m ready to pray this prayer, because it seems to me this is a risky, unsettling prayer fraught with all sorts of complications and repercussions that might be a whole lot more than I bargained for.
Because to say yes to this prayer is to say yes to various interruptions, changes, and intrusions that will most certainly ransack our plans and thrust upon us obligations and assignments we never intended to take on.
To say, yes, let your kingdom come, is to open ourselves to a host of unimaginable surprises that will stretch, provoke, and remold us, that will overturn our apple-cart, that will challenge and rearrange the way we think and believe, that will propel us into pursuits and adventures we never dreamed of.
Like the grandmother in New York who had retired from four decades of teaching in the public school system and was looking forward to reading the stack of books on her bed stand, going to concerts, taking leisurely walks, and traveling — but when her daughter landed in prison and there was no one else to care for her two children, this grandmother did not hesitate to take them in — and as she watched the 6 and 8 year old girls playing in her living room, she said, “This wasn’t what I planned.” — but then she smiled and said, “But this is my retirement now — they’re mine!”
To say this prayer, come, let your kingdom reign, is to acknowledge that there are surprises in the pipeline headed our way that we can’t manage, manipulate, or control — which is a tough piece of reality for us pragmatic Americans to swallow who like to think that if we devise the right system we can manage anything.
And, of course, we don’t know if the surprises about to roll in on us are going to be welcome and refreshing like a gently spring zephyr or harsh and worrisome like a fierce Alberta Clipper — we don’t know if the surprises looming on the horizon will be reassuring or nervous-making, delightful or disturbing.
For, as we all know, surprises come in all sorts and sizes and degrees of magnitude — these are little surprises and big surprises — there are the mild agreeable surprises like waking up to a cloudless, achingly beautiful day and there are the monstrous, awful surprises when we feel we have been run over by an eighteen-wheeler — there are the thrilling surprises and the disappointing ones — and then there are all those moderate, in between surprises, pleasant and not so pleasant.
Now we hear folks say, I don’t like surprises — and I understand this — because I’m a person who relishes his routines — you know, like sitting down first thing in the morning with my bowl of Cheerios with three kinds of fruit and a pot of tea and the sports page spread out and the NPR news in the background — I like the day to proceed in a predictable, orderly fashion with minimal adjustments and spur of the moment detours.
But think about it — when we scan the years and survey our personal history, doesn’t it seem that almost every highlight and turning point of our sojourn on this earth, every memorable adventure, originated with a surprise?
Doesn’t it seem to you that almost all the critical incidents we recount when we tell our story came to us as surprises? — the friendships that have sprung up, the conversations we will remember for a lifetime, the events that precipitated a seismic shift in our outlook, the vacation that turned into a comedy of errors.
So probably more than we suppose, surprises have figured prominently in shaping the path we have trod.
More than we know, we depend on surprises to keep things interesting, to keep us on our toes — and, of course, not knowing what surprises are coming also keep us running a little scared.
The Kingdom of God is the kingdom of surprises.
And maybe it’s not too far off the mark to say that trusting in the kingdom is trusting that certain kinds of surprises will continue to startle, refresh, and renew us.
Trusting in the kingdom of surprises is trusting that our daily coming and going will continue to be spiced and seasoned with those small, scintillating, head-turning surprises that suddenly remind us that our everyday lives are full of wonders and revelations if we have eyes to see.
The other morning I was walking past the Biltmore and, as I approached the corner of 1st and Main, I noticed that among the cluster of pedestrians waiting for the signal to change was one of the downtown construction workers holding a two by four—when the light changed, everyone started to cross the street except the construction fellow in the hard hat—he stood motionless, stock-still—what in the world, I wondered, is he doing just standing there like a statue?—and then as I drew nearer, I realized that he was a statue, one of J. Sewell Johnson’s City Life statues that just that morning had been positioned at various spots around town—a Biltmore resident sitting nearby was highly amused at my being taken in and let out a snort—I gathered that I was not the first to be fooled and that this was his morning’s entertainment to which I was happy to be a contributor.
Trusting in the kingdom of surprises is to trust that certain surprises will come our way that will make the impossible possible.
When we are up against it, when circumstances have cast us into what the Psalmist calls “the Pit” and we’re beyond “getting a grip”—in fact, we can’t even get a toe-hold—when things seem impossible and all self-help measures have been tried and found wanting—when our hope has shriveled to a mere nothing and, in fact, is dead in the water, it’s precisely then that trusting in the kingdom of surprises means trusting that some surprise that we cannot for the life of us imagine will somehow resuscitate our hope and gladness and make the impossible possible.
When Alice Lesch Kelly was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer at the age of 41, she plied her doctors with all sorts of questions they tried to answer—but none of them could answer her most pressing question which, to quote her, was: “How in the hell did I get breast cancer?”—she had no family history of breast cancer and no major risk factors. She exercised regularly and ate healthfully. She did not smoke and had yearly mammograms. A surgeon told her, “You can do everything right and still get breast cancer. Unfortunately, you drew the short straw.”
Ms. Kelly continued to be obsessed with the question, “Why me?”—that is, until she found herself in a hospital elevator with a bald woman. Ms. Kelly relates that “I had no hair at that time, either, so we started to chat.”
“‘What have you got?’: she asked me. We were like prisoners in the same jail comparing crimes. ‘Stage 2 breast cancer,’ I told her. ‘I’m a Stage 4 ovarian,’ she said.
I could tell by the look on her face that I wasn’t doing a very good job of concealing the look on my face. We both knew that her prognosis was not good. But she wasn’t grieving. She seemed happy.
‘When I was diagnosed, the doctors told me I had two months to live,’ she said with a huge grin. ‘That was more than three years ago.’
We stood in the damp parking garage, talking. She is a single mother with two teen age children. She gets chemo every couple of weeks and works full time because she needs the money and the health insurance. As we chatted, I realized that if she weren’t bald I would never know she was battling a terminal illness.
‘How do you do it?’ I asked her. ‘How do you live each day with cancer hanging over your head?’
She smiled, understanding. ‘I treat every day as an adventure, and I refuse to let anything make me sad, angry or worried,’ she replied. ‘I live for the day, which is something I never did before. Believe it or not, I’m happier now than I was before I was diagnosed.’”
To trust in Jesus’ kingdom of surprises is to trust in surprises that make the impossible possible—it is to trust in the words of the 30th Psalm: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”
And then there are those surprises that seem to carry the message, “Lighten up.”
These are the surprises that seem to say to us, “Don’t take yourself so seriously—and don’t wear your religion as though it were a prickly, scarcely bearable hair shirt causing you no end of misery.”
Preachers can take themselves very seriously—especially when they’re preaching.
Early in my ministry two incidents occurred in which two individuals, with perfect timing, dramatically upstaged my preaching—and I always thought this was God operating as trickster, jokester, demonstrating to me that when all is said and done, cosmically speaking, my sermons are no big deal.
The summer after my first year of seminary I was officiating at an evening service in the tiny hamlet of Cave Junction, Oregon—the chapel was set deep in the woods among spruce and Douglas firs—a beautiful setting that spoke volumes about the majesty of creation—and that night I would have been wise to let creation speak for herself—there were about fifteen people of varying ages sitting on wooden benches—I was just rounding into the heart of the sermon when I looked up and a teen age girl in the back row was in the process of throwing up all over the man in front of her—end of sermon and service—later the senior warden said to me, “Don’t take it personally—your sermon wasn’t that bad.”
I guess I didn’t learn my lesson–several years later I was serving as vicar at a new mission church in Eugene, Oregon—we were holding services in the junior high cafeteria with wall to wall windows facing the parking lot and walkway into the building—we’d been meeting for some months when Jackie made her debut—
Jackie was a tall, glamorous, statuesque blond in her late 30s with a striking figure and her clothes always accented her assets—on a certain Sunday just as I was launching into the sermon, Jackie pulled into the parking lot—all heads turned toward the car door now opening—all adult eyes were riveted on Jackie as she got out of the car, walked the length of the windows to the entrance, and then unhurriedly strolled down the center aisle and, and taking her time, slowly got herself situated in the first seat, second row, right hand side—this performance was to be repeated at regular intervals and never failed to elicit a kind of rapt attention that preachers could only dream of—if I had gone on in Pig Latin, no one would have noticed.
To trust in the kingdom of surprises is to trust in surprises that turn our grimness and glumness into peals of redemptive laughter to which Richard Maxwell bears witness.
He writes, “I was walking up Broadway in the low 90s enjoying the warm air and bright sunshine—stopping for a traffic light, I noticed a couple of women on the opposite curb, also waiting for the light to change. When it did we all started to cross the street.
A fast moving car appeared from nowhere, speeding toward us. We all froze as the car screeched to a halt only a few feet from us.
One of the women I had noticed earlier wheeled to face the driver. I expected to hear a few choice epithets—
Instead, with a hand gesture worthy of the Supremes, she sang, ‘Stop, in the name of love!’ Without a thought I sang the next phrase, ‘Before you break my heart.’
Startled by our spontaneity, we stared at each other for a moment, and then sang together, ‘Think it o-o-ver.’
We laughed, high-fived, and continued on our ways.”
The Rev. Robert Dwight
Christ Episcopal Church