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First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019 | 4:00 p.m.

The Moment of Visitation

Joseph L. Morrow
Minister for Evangelism, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Isaiah 2:1–5; 12–18
Matthew 24:36–44

When I was coming of age I remember the thrill of a good radio contest. Before the advent of the Internet, the radio served, and to a certain extent it still does, as a kind of social network through which knowledge was exchanged, ideas about tastes and style were spread, and goods could be bought and sold, including a good number of tickets for concerts and other special events. Some arcane form of trivia or some promotional question would precipitate a frantic guessing game of what it would take to become the tenth or the first caller to the radio station and the recipient of such coveted prizes. Once, I recall that prize being two near-front-row tickets to a Janet Jackson concert at the height of the singer’s popularity. One of my intrepid eighth-grade friends ended up winning that contest, because he had the radio station’s phone number on speed dial on two different phone lines and served up the right answer at just the right time. The occasion ended up being the first live concert I ever saw.

Moments like these come and depart in a flash. Whether catching a bus just before it pulls away from the curb, taking advantage of a holiday sale, or a chance interview for a desired job, some events in life seem totally predicated upon timing. An opportunity can come knocking only to vanish without a trace if left waiting too long. A window to confess one’s love, seek forgiveness, or redeem a wrong can open and just as quickly close without warning. There is no guarantee that such moments will come again, which makes our response to them all the more consequential.

Last week I mentioned the importance of Kairos time within a Christian framework. In contrast to the regular rhythm of chronological time, Kairos time interrupts everyday life with a moment of truth or display of power. But these too can slip away. Recently I was reading through the works of some prominent twentieth-century Christians, specifically the famous American Catholic monk Thomas Merton, and was struck by how he wondered out loud in his journals whether in the tumult of the 1960s at the height of the civil rights movement the United States had missed its Kairos moment. He lamented the lackluster or resistant response taken by many Americans toward the strides taken for greater freedoms among women and minoritized peoples. Merton felt that perhaps God had called and found us unwilling to answer. Would such a promising moment, he though, ever visit this country again?

But some Kairos moments don’t simply come and go. Some arrive overwhelmingly like the tide and irreversibly alter everything in their wake. Back in the early 2000s, philosopher stock market trader Nassim Taleb wrote a trend-setting book on the concept of black swans. Up until 1697, Europeans thought that swans, a natural part of their habitats, were all white in color. That is until European explorers in western Australia found black swans. The discovery, for Europeans, marked an occasion where something was proved a possibility despite being previously deemed impossible. Taking his cues from the story of the black swan, Taleb uses it as a symbol of unpredictable and disruptive events for which few are adequately prepared. These transformational experiences are a new reality that defy common descriptors of what is possible.

The scripture for this first Sunday in Advent treats the conclusive arrival of the Son of Man, whom the Gospels regard as Jesus, as just such a transformational experience. It is the thief in the night from whom no owner is prepared to defend their property. It is the mysterious disappearance of a worker in a field or the miller at their kitchen. Matthew’s Jesus wants us to know that the final arrival of the messiah in God’s future would be unparalleled and unavoidable—there is no running or hiding from God in glory.

Our passage uses the word Parousia in the Greek to indicate that this is a kind of visitation by Jesus. Parousia often described the arrival of an emperor, a figure in the ancient world whose rule was absolute and inescapable. Paul even used the word in 2 Corinthians 7 in referring to the arrival of Titus as an event that comforted the downcast. Like the distant hoofbeats of imperial horses, the visitation of the Son of Man might be barely perceptible at first, but in due time its enduring significance will become fully apparent.

The Advent we celebrate this season anticipates that time by teaching us to expect the unexpected. It is a season through which we shed anxiety and cherish the visitation of God through the child Jesus and look forward to God’s conclusive visitation at the end of all time. The entry of Jesus into our lives and world is an occasion that unsettles the usual patterns of our lives. It comes in a season of shopping, trying to scrape to get what we can afford. It comes when season affectedness turns our lives upside down for winter. It comes when trying to make our awkward peace with family and friends. The visitation of God stops us in our tracks and leaves us unsure of how to react.

In a work of speculative fiction, the author Naomi Alderman tries to imagine in her novel The Power what it is like to be seized by events and powers beyond one’s control. She takes us to a contemporary setting in which the world is swept up in a frenzy over a little understood power, a kind of electrical spark, found in women across the globe. Early in the novel it becomes clear that no one is sure of how the power originated, how it spread, or how it may be used. The Center for Disease Control says this power is caused by a virus that naturally runs its course. News anchors laugh uproariously, assuming the electrical buzzes are merely practical jokes caused by some well-hidden contraption. An anthropologist suggests it is a sign of an evolutionary development in human beings. A local town’s mayor goes so far as to cancel school as a precaution. The uncertainty and anxiety culminate in a fight that breaks out on television between a scientist who demands that the power be scientifically examined and a preacher who believes the women’s power is a harbinger of a deadly apocalypse.

In a similar way the coming of God can appear to us like an unknown power that inspires fright because we do not fully comprehend its origins. Rather than see the potential goodness in such uncanny power, it is easier to regard it as a menacing threat. The intrusion of God into our lives, whether in the child Jesus or in Jesus’ glorious second coming, can reveal our insecurities at the way we have mistreated others or left much good undone. For many who came of age on talk of a violent apocalypse and frightening images of the end of the world, the coming of God in Christ is a moment marked by arresting fear.

The great Jesuit storyteller Anthony de Mello tells the tale of a community of Christian monks that were down on their luck with only a few last members to their name. A nearby rabbi commiserated with the abbot, the head of the monastery, about the poor fortunes of religious communities but left his counterpart with a word of hope: “I have no advice to give you, but I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the abbot told the other monks about the rabbi’s words, they all began to speculate about who it could be. “The Messiah is one of us here, at the monastery? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Of course. It must be. The abbot has been our leader for so long. On the other hand, it might be Brother Thomas, who is undoubtably a holy man. Certainly, he couldn’t have meant Brother Elrod—Elrod is so irritable and fussy, but also very wise. Could he have meant Brother Phillip? No, he’s too quiet. But then again, Phillip is always there when you need him. As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect, on the off chance that one of them might be the Messiah. And on the off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect. Visitors stumbling upon the monastery were intrigued by the aura of welcome and hospitality that surrounded those precious few monks. They began to come more frequently, bringing their friends, and their friends brought friends. 

Just the notion that God might be visiting among them completely changed the outlook of this community from one of dread and despair to one of hope, renewing not just faith in God but appreciation for each other and their common humanity. To a great extent that is the most important thing about Advent: as much as it marks the arrival of a great and transformative event, at its core it is about the welcome of a person, God with a human face, knocking on the doorstep of our world. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said that “a face,” by which he meant the face of an Other, a stranger, “is in and of itself a visitation and a transcendence.” Every face is like a visit from the divine knocking on the door of everyday life, refusing to leave, setting up camp outside our entrance, waiting to greet us.

How might we encourage one another to answer the divine call at our door? Try a daily form of prayerful reflection. Here are a few questions to ask ourselves this season. Pay attention to the people you encounter each day.

  • Who are the people you have met this day that are least like you? How might you learn from them?
  • Who are the people you have met this day that are most like you? How might you learn from them?
  • How might your interactions with those most and least like you become holy moments?

You may not feel ready for this season. Greeting God and other people with hope rather than fear may take some practice. But if your heart is in anyway troubled by this, remember the words of poet Mary Oliver as she awaited Advent:

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. . . . What shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.
(Mary Oliver, “Making the House Ready for the Lord”)

This Advent, may you see in the face of another a glimpse of the divine and be welcomed by God who stands at the threshold of hope. Amen.