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Surprised by God

Personally, I’ve never been a big Second Coming of Christ person. It’s always sounded like wishful thinking by folks who take the Bible literally. If we look at the concept, we see that it emerged out of the theological belief by early Christians that Jesus was the Messiah and was going to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. Yet, by the time of his death, nothing much had really changed. And his death itself didn’t usher in the end of the world either. So, it appears that early Christians covered this disappointment by expanding their developing understanding of who Jesus was to include the idea of the second coming.

John Shelby Spong, in his book The Fourth Gospel, talks about how early Christians began to think of themselves as living in the in-between time and awaited the time when he would return and finish what he’d started by bringing a true end to oppression, poverty, disease, pain and suffering and ushering in that golden era of peace, harmony and abundance. 

However, as the years stretched out, those who literally expected to see Jesus return from heaven began to die of old age, which created a problem. Paul addresses this in 1 Thessalonians (written around the year 50 CE) by promising that all those who die believing in Jesus will rise first when he returns and then all the living will rise up with him and meet him in the air (1 Thess 4:13-18). Paul is the first to use the metaphor that Jesus (or God) comes like a thief in the night, and encourages all of Jesus' followers to remain sober, awake (spiritually) and ready.

The authors of the gospels picked up this metaphor and ran with it. And so we have passages like the one in Luke12:35-40, written around the year 80, with the metaphor of the staff awaiting – alert and ready - for the homeowner’s arrival back from a wedding. The homeowner rewards only those staff who are awake and prepared. Luke repeats and expands on Paul's metaphr that the Promised One (aka Jesus) will come like thief in the night.  Luke says, what homeowner would let the thief break in if they know they were coming? So, now you know, Jesus is coming, so remain awake, aware and watchful so you will join him in heaven and be rewarded.

To me, it sounds like great way to keep people in line. Don’t screw around! Don’t slack off or you won’t be rewarded. Jesus is watching and is coming again to judge the living and the dead. Frankly, I have personally been so far from this concept that it sort of floors me when I hear people refer to it. I recently went a committal service and we were standing and chit chatting about life and death with the presiding pastor when he said, “Well, I plan on living until Jesus comes again.” I’m afraid I looked at him and said, “Well, good luck with that.” 

Still, I think there is a message for us in this passage if we can get off the literal translation and stop expecting to see Jesus, robes and all, descending feet first from the sky.

The passage begins, 

“Be ready and keep your lamps lit.” It seems to me that the lamp we need to keep lit is the light within each of us. Doing this ensures that our hearts are open and ready whenever God can use us.

This passage also speaks to me of mindfulness. It calls us to remember that God moves in unexpected ways and we may miss invitations or opportunities if we aren’t paying attention. We may simply miss the presence of God if we’re not being mindful of the passing moments.

Sue Monk Kidd, in her book God's Joyful Surprise, wrote that she thinks we’ve “lost touch with the God of surprises.”  She suggests that the Spirit is present in our lives always working for good and wonderful things if only we’ll listen for “the knock.”

In her book, she tells the story of how she found herself one December rushing to the doctor’s office with chest pains and a racing heartbeat. After multiple different tests that found nothing wrong with her heart, the doctor asked her about the stress in her life. Well, she said, nothing out of the ordinary.  Of course, she had two young children, worked three evenings a week at the hospital as a nurse, spent two hours a day writing (she really wanted to be a writer at that point), was team mother for her son’s soccer team, always answered yes to people who asked her to volunteer, plus PTA grade mother, program chair of the city writer’s guild, church committees and more and more. Super mom, super wife, perfect Christian. (It just about made my chest hurt reading all the things she was doing!)

Stress? Absolutely not… but, then again, the little blue tranquilizer pills did work to ward off the chest pains and racing pulse. So… maybe…

She finally came to the conclusion that she was “fast asleep in [her] busyness… and so didn’t know that God was knocking, stirring her awake." If only she would listen. (Sounds like the staff fast asleep when the homeowner returns, doesn’t it?)

Kidd tells a story about learning to listen to God. She was on a silent retreat and having a conversation with her pastor who asked her if she’d been listening for God during the retreat.

“How do you listen to God?” she asked.

“The main thing is that you resist the desire to jump in and start talking. In other words, you suspend the notion that you must get across your message to God and concentrate instead on God’s message to you. Don’t demand. But attend to God’s presence with sensitivity.”

“What do you mean about sensitivity?”

“I mean you must listen with your heart… When you listen with your heart, you put up sensors for God’s words hidden around you and within you. You listen for God in the sights, sounds, thoughts, feelings and awarenesses that occupy your silence. What does God say through a crotchety old man who feeds a pigeon? Or a child who skips? What does God say to you through your reluctance to forgive or your inclination to visit a friend?  Above all… remember you have not listened with your heart until you have risked allowing your vision to be changed. Listening can be very dangerous business.” 

This passage about the staff and homeowner and Jesus coming like a thief in the night speaks to me about our need to remain spiritually, metaphorically awake, not fast asleep in our busyness or our distractions.

Meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg tells a story of how after many years of studying as a Zen monk in Korea and Japan, he went to Thailand to study in the Thai forest, with meals brought by an attendant at regular intervals. It was the ideal situation for furthering his meditation studies – except that the forest was also crawling with wild chickens whose primary occupation was running around squawking all day.

This strikes me as what it is like on a normal day in this world trying to listen for the knocking of God. How on earth do you hear it with all the wild chickens running around?

Learning to hear beyond the chickens is difficult and tricky and it involves courage… the courage to hold our opinions and identity lightly so we can be touched by the Divine. The courage to open our hearts instead of walling them off and becoming insensitive to the world around us.

Nepo talks about “unplanned unfoldings.” That despite all our planning and our striving, it is the unexpected moments that can touch us most deeply. He talks about the blind “saxophonist down an alley in Greenwich Village whom he listened to until he wept; the trapped bird in the apse of the Duomo in Florence whose cavernous flapping made him realize his own entrapments.”

I know we all long for a time of peace and harmony. I'm sure it would be nice if Jesus would finally decide to come back and use his power to make all things perfect, equal, full of justice and compassion. But, honestly, I think the 2nd coming, and the 3rd, 4th, millionth and so many more have already happend. I believe that we see the face of Jesus/God in each person if only we'll look hard enough. I believe God has messages for us everywhere - within and around us - if only we'll listen. Those messages are all about forgiveness, grace, mercy, acceptance, understading, compassion... all the things that will bring us a world of peace and prosperity. But we need to stay awake, pay attention, and listen.

Love & Light!