+ + +
It was about fifteen minutes before the end of my shift as hospital chaplain on call when I was paged to the cardiac catheterization lab.
I’d never been to the cath lab before. It’s not a place chaplains usually have a reason to visit. Patients usually go there for a procedure, then go home, or back to their inpatient beds. As I answered the page I could hear the shock in the nurse’s voice as she told me what had happened. A man in his fifties—let’s call him James—had come in for a test. Things seemed to be going routinely, until they weren’t. Without any warning, his heart stopped. The team performed CPR, but despite their frantic efforts, James died there on the table.
Through their tears his wife and daughters told me that he’d walked the dog in the park that morning. That evening they were planning to have dinner. Instead, for James and his family, that was the day the world came crashing down around their heads and their predictable lives changed forever.
Sometimes those moments come in other ways. For many here in Sonoma County a moment like that came in the early morning hours of October 9, 2017. We had an aftershock of that moment again this October. But whether it’s a natural disaster, a medical emergency, or some other unforeseen crisis, there are moments that crash through the bubbles of security and predictability we may try to construct for ourselves. Moments as unexpected as the flood in the days of Noah, or the coming of a thief in the night.
It feels a little jarring to think about the cryptic sayings of Jesus about the end of the world at a time when we might rather think about what to do with the leftover turkey or what to put on the Christmas wish list. But every Advent the Christian calendar does this to us: it prods us out of complacency and into self-examination. Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Jesus. Not only the coming that already happened at Bethlehem, but also his future coming at the end of all things. Christians have always proclaimed that the God who brought new life to Jesus after his execution also intends to bring a new life to the whole creation. The reading we heard this morning from the prophet Isaiah gives us a glimpse of what God has in mind, a beautiful vision of the world at peace. But just as there is no resurrection without the cross, so the peace and reconciliation of the age to come can’t come without the confrontation and judgment of the present age.
That can feel like good news, or like bad news, depending to a large extent on how safe and secure our lives feel in the present. The apocalyptic sayings of Jesus about judgment and the end of the world were experienced as good news by early disciples who were poor and on the margins. When you already live on the edge of being hungry or getting arrested or assaulted, the idea of the world being turned upside down and God being ultimately in control can sound comforting. Not as much so if you’re relatively comfortable already. There’s a reason it’s been said that the good news of Jesus comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
I know how much I would like to live a relatively comfortable and safe life. The kind of life that includes paying off my student loans, accumulating a non-extravagant but sensibly flush retirement portfolio, providing my children with everything they need and some of what they want, and dying in my bed at a ripe old age. The fact that on a lot of days that kind of life seems not only possible, but actually within my own control to achieve, has more than a little to do with the class and race I happened to be born in. And it has more than a little to do with the messages in our culture that say that prosperity is just a matter of working hard enough, acting moral enough, and planning carefully enough.
That’s why I need to hear Jesus’ words from Matthew’s gospel this Advent. If my life is built on the illusion of self-made security, what will happen to me when that foundation comes crashing down? Following God offers an alternative to that illusion. But following God isn’t exactly a recipe for security. Jesus himself is the prime example. As he speaks the words we heard today, he is in the last week of his life, facing his own “end of the world.” And instead of protecting himself, he prepares himself by living in a relationship of total trust in God. It doesn’t keep him safe in any of the conventional ways. By the end of the week, he will have lost all his possessions; his friends; his good name; and his life itself. And yet even in the time of greatest disaster, Jesus is held safe in the love of the same God who carried Noah through the flood, and who carries Jesus through his own passion, so that his tomb becomes an ark, bringing him to resurrected life. There is no true safety in this world … but there is permanent safety in trusting God.
Maybe you’ve seen the musical Les Miserables, or read the novel. It has a story about a thief in the night. The convict Jean Valjean finds lodging at the home of a kind bishop and steals the silver as he leaves. The next morning he is caught and dragged back to the bishop’s home. He’s astonished when the bishop tells him, “My dear brother, I’m so glad you’ve come back. You remembered the silverware I gave you, but you forgot to take the candlesticks!” In that moment, Valjean’s life changes forever as he is stricken to the heart by the bishop’s love and mercy.
That bishop was prepared for the coming of the Son of Man. He prepared himself not by safeguarding his life and possessions, but by cultivating a loving heart and a set of priorities that matched the values of God’s kingdom.
It is Advent. Jesus is coming. He came to us once as a poor infant without a safe place to sleep. He will come again in glory to bring in a new creation. Meanwhile he comes to us each day in the face of our neighbor. May we recognize him now, so we will know him when he comes.
 Actually a phrase coined by Finley Peter Dunne to describe the role of journalism, but often used in the twentieth century in connection with preachers and Christian social reformers like Dorothy Day. See “God Comforts the Afflicted and Afflicts the Comfortable,” https://www.dictionaryofchristianese.com/god-comforts-the-afflicted-and-afflicts-the-comfortable/; cf. James Allaire and Rosemary Broughton, “An Introduction to the Life and Spirituality of Dorothy Day,” https://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/life-and-spirituality.html.