Life makes sense. Sometimes. But if we’re really honest, we have to admit that there are plenty of times that we’re just holding our breath and trusting that something will come of this mess, or we feel so much joy that we worry that it has to end sometime, or things are coming at us so quickly that they’re kind of a blur.
When my parents were getting a nasty divorce, when I married Joy, when our baby girl was facing open heart surgery, when I got my mom out of the morgue, when I was consecrated fourth Bishop of Western Louisiana, life had lots of loose ends needing to be tied up.
The funny thing about life is that we live it looking for a happy ending that we will never get to read. Life as we live it is always an unfinished story. To keep turning the next page in that story, we have to have some reason to believe that the story really will come together. Really will make sense. Our lives will have meant something.
Some voices in the world tell us to believe in ourselves. They insist that we are the author of our lives. Jesus tells us something different. God believes in us. God is writing us into his story even now.
An Unexpected Hour
The Bible can make you look for God to act with a Broadway flourish: plagues, pillars of fire, walking on water. And while God does from time to time stop us in our tracks and make our jaws drop, God’s work is usually inconspicuous.
God is bringing in the Kingdom in the work of ordinary field hands and peasant women making tortillas. If you didn’t know to look, you wouldn’t even notice. You might assume that God isn’t up to a thing. And yet, God is already at work doing God-things.
Jesus puts it like this, “The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24:44)
It’s standard practice to read this passage as a lesson about Last Things. And indeed it is. But our misconceptions about the Second Coming get in the way of what Jesus is actually saying.
Here’s a simple outline of a common misunderstanding about the Second Coming. It’s true that Jesus ascended to heaven forty days after the resurrection and that he promised to come back.
We veer off course when we think that the “unexpected hour” defines the time between the Ascension and the Second Coming as a sort of timed test with an indeterminate length. During the test period, God observes and silently grades.
God doesn’t meddle or give little hints. We’re on our own. We’re not sure when the final buzzer will sound, but we assume that God is watching and grading our performance. When the buzzer goes off, God will step in and issue a final grade. Pass or Fail.
Consider an alternative reading. The unexpected hour has nothing to do with a timed test of our own spiritual and moral performance. Instead, the unexpected hour describes the inconspicuous way that God enters our daily lives.
Think about the times we’ve surprised ourselves.
That knucklehead who usually drives us crazy has completely blown another deadline or said all the wrong things. And this time you feel compassion instead of irritation. You’ve just seen him from a different perspective.
Someone has just slapped you in the face. She used words, but the blow would have been easier if she had just used her hand. And yet, the shock and the hurt give way to forgiveness instead of the anger you usually feel.
These are signs of something deeper. These are signs that the inconspicuous God has been steadily at work.
At an unexpected hour God has transformed the soul that meets mistakes with irritation, the soul that reacts to insult with anger. God has been working subtly, often unnoticed. God was unexpected, unlooked for. God was maybe even the furthest thing from our mind. Even then, God was close, close and deeply engaged in the work of grace.
Let’s consider more fully just what it is that God does so inconspicuously in those unexpected hours.
Here’s what Jesus says: “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” (Matthew 24:40-41)
Some among our Christian sisters and brothers read this passage as evidence that there will be a Rapture. I don’t believe such a thing. Most Christians never have. The concept of the Rapture was invented around 1830 by John Darby.
Like most Christians in the history of the faith, I hear Jesus talking about something else entirely. He is talking about what God is up to. God is bringing things to completion, brining all things into relationship with him and with each other through him.
But God’s work is not merely an external rearrangement. It begins with an sort of inner shift. Let me explain what I mean.
Put yourself in this parable as the one not taken.
The person right next to you is doing precisely the same thing you are doing. Working in the field. Grinding the meal. And yet she knows something that you don’t know, something that you desperately want to know, only you don’t know what you don’t know.
She hums contentedly while she works, and you watch the clock.
She never has a bad thing to say about anybody else, but other people’s faults are so obvious to you that you have to vent.
She never worries about being too fat or looking too old and eats a second dessert without the slightest hint of guilt. When you’re feeling low you eat a whole bag of Ding Dongs, hate yourself for it, and impose an extra hour of treadmill punishment on yourself.
When you’re feeling like a louse, she has a way of making you believe in yourself.
She has no more than you do, you wear the same sort of clothes, you go about the same daily routines. Nevertheless, there’s something missing in your life.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
All the adults in your life always promised you that if you did well in school and got a good job and advanced your way up the ladder and married the right person and made sure your kids did well in school and your kids learned to push forward just like you did and they vindicated your parenting by being successful….
Why, that should make everything alright. Right?
Only, it doesn’t. It’s as if you’ve missed something. You don’t know what it is. You don’t know what you don’t know. And what you don’t know is this: All the outside stuff won’t mean a thing unless the inside stuff is right.
Some of us go though much of our life seeking to define ourselves by our externals. We push and push to get the prestigious diploma, the promising career, the impressive promotion, the attractive body, the fashionable clothes, the good social connections.
And once we arrive where we have bled and sweat to get, we discover that we just have to keep pushing to keep it all from slipping away. Perhaps worse, we see that it wasn’t all that we thought it would be in the first place.
What’s missing has nothing to do with external circumstances. What we need is an inner shift. That shift is not just an attitude adjustment, like positive thinking. The inner shift that we need is at once a gift and a paradoxical achievement.
The gift is this. God loves us. Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead all for our benefit. It’s God’s greatest achievement. God embraces our lives, gives us all the fresh starts we will ever need, and grants us an entirely different kind of life.
Or should I say that God offers us an entirely different kind of life. It’s a gift. And gifts cannot be earned. They’re gratis.
So here lies the heart of our paradoxical achievement. To receive the gift of God’s love for us, we have to relinquish the habit of piling up achievements so that we can one day say that we’re entitled to that love.
The only achievement that we can offer is surrender. The admission, “I got nothing. I need everything.” Giving away our claim to entitlement and giving ourselves over to the power of God to remake us in his image.
And that is what God does. We need an inner shift, and that is just what God provides.
A Kingdom of New Hearts
Now I don’t want you to get the idea that God is only about a series of one-to-one relationships. An infinite line of people who think that life is just about me and Jesus.
On the contrary, God is making a new heaven and a new earth. He is renewing the entire creation. Only he doesn’t do it from the top down or by rearranging the external circumstances of his children.
Instead, God is changing our world—a world infected by hunger, violence, persecution, homelessness, the unequal distribution of wealth and health care, and indifference— into the Kingdom of God one heart at a time.
Hearts committed to making sure that no child goes to bed hungry. Hearts devoted to peace and security and health for everyone. Hearts for whom there is no such thing as acceptable collateral damage and the very notion of a murder rate sounds like the ranting of a madman.
I am not likely to see the ending of this story in my lifetime. But what keeps me turning the page each day, doing the good that lies in front of me, is the belief that I am not actually the author of this story. God is. And my life is an indispensable part of the great story he is writing. And the ending of that story will be good. Very good.
The sermon was preached at Trinity, Natchitoches.