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Expecting Christ


Old Testament Reading: Habakkuk 2:1-4

New Testament Reading: Mark 1:1-8


Advent, as you certainly know, is that season of the church year when we expect, or pretend to expect, the Coming of the Christ. I have for some years wanted to begin the Advent season with a sermon on what one might call the phenomenology of expectation. That is, is there a particular state of mind or mode of life that takes form in that strange zone we call expectation? I think there is, and Advent is an occasion for us to experience it.

First a word concerning expectation, then, before we treat of expecting Jesus Christ in particular. The common, indeed the universal experience of expectation is a hidden experience of faith. I say hidden because there are many people who think they do not and cannot have faith, who nonetheless do have faith in that they expect. Because expectation of anything is faith in that thing.

You do not, of course, expect something if it is present. You would use a different word for your stance toward the thing. You only expect what is yet future, what is not yet present.

There are plenty of things which are yet future which you do not expect. This is either because you are utterly ignorant of them, so they cannot help but take you by surprise. Or it is because something that you know full well is coming, you do not take very seriously. It remains purely theoretical. Here think of the prospect of your own aging and death. It is a safe bet that these things will happen! But you live as if oblivious of them.

It is a near certainty that if you neglect your spouse and family emotionally there is going to be trouble. It can't be otherwise! How could it be? Yet many do not expect this. And in not expecting it they are as oblivious to reality as someone who sees it is raining but somehow does not expect to get wet.

But suppose something is coming and you do expect it? Then you live in a strange metaphysical penumbra. I have said that it must not be present, or you would not have still to expect it. Yet isn't the expected thing already a potent reality in your life?

It is already sending out its ripples, its report, its shockwaves. You are already planning around it or in accordance with it. It is already looming in your thoughts. If something is coming, whether an incapacitating operation or a pleasant visit from a friend, then it is already present in your life before it arrives. Is it there, or is it not there? Somehow both!

And did you know that is exactly the dynamic of faith? It is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen (Hebrews 11:1). It is calling things that are not as though they were (Romans 4:17). It is staking the visible present on the invisible future. "The future has taken root in the present" (as Merlin says in the movie Excalibur).

Tillich is right (so what's new?): there is no one who lacks faith. Where the parting of the ways comes is over the question of what people have faith in.

I know there are plenty of people with great faith in the negative. Because, you see, dread is faith too! You fear that something bad will happen, something terrible. It is just a question of when.

Anyone recognizes that tragedy ­might­ strike. Few are such Pollyannas as not to reckon with the possibility on some level. One of you told me how recently a doctor's report was initially questionable, so you had further tests. But you were soberly optimistic. Sure the news might be terrible, but it might not. And in fact, thank God, it wasn't! She didn't dread; she didn't have faith, negative faith!

But there are others of you who are sure that doom will befall you! And why? Could the facts have made it so clear that every endeavor will fail? That no dream can be realized? That love or success will never come your way? No, for you it is a faith proposition!

You are in precisely the same position as the theist, the believer in God. If pressed you would have to admit that your assertion goes beyond the evidence, but you will venture it any way! You have faith that ill will always befall you. And there is no other word to use for this but faith, as odd as it sounds.

Only it is a faith in doom.

And you live the life of faith! You practice what you preach! It doesn't have to have happened yet for you to be miserable about the dashing of your fortunes! You already live in bitterness and resentment over the fact that your luck is sour and others' is not.                     

You are already mourning the loss of what or whom you love because by faith you are already living in that dark future which you most certainly expect! I envy the strength of your faith -- and I thank God I do not share it!

I must ask of you: why do you not expect the good? I suggest that your dreads are self-fulfilling prophecies!

I will suggest that if you have not yet given up entirely on success in your pursuits, in your desires, then you do have faith in the good as well. The trouble is that you are a polytheist! You have two faith commitments at the same time, and you are having the predictable trouble serving both masters.

Yes, you do have faith in the good coming your way! How do I know that? I am no mind-reader, but you are speaking your mind in your actions just as surely as in your words. If you keep seeking, there must be an implicit faith that you will find! The very directedness of action contains the presupposition that what you are seeking may in fact be found!

You are homing in; you are following a set of tracks. You must believe that your quarry exists or you would not continue to pursue it! You have not yet despaired!

The despairing person knows a certain terrible comfort not unlike the comfort of the grave. For him all efforts have been laid down. But if you seek, if you pursue, yet all the time tell yourself your efforts will be vain because Fate conspires against you, you lack even the forfeit-peace of the despairing. Your two faiths are crossing signals and causing static.

I am suggesting you begin to recognize that you are listening to two diametrically opposed inner voices. And I suggest that you make up your mind to stop listening to one of them, the voice of doom. I am telling you to renounce one of your faiths! Become an apostate! Cast away the creed of despair! Become a skeptic about the wild assertion of faith that you always must fail! The evidence does not support it! Be intellectually honest with yourself!

So to live in expectation is to live as if the future has already entered the present, which in a strange sense it has. To live in expectation is to live in faith.

Do you have faith in Christ?  I want you to consider whether perhaps you do not. And do you know how to tell? I suspect, at least this is my thought-experiment for the day, that you do not have faith in Christ if you do not expect Christ!

I think it works both ways: just as to expect something means to have faith in it, so does real faith automatically imply some expectation.

I don't mean an expectation of a literal Second Coming of Christ. That might or might not be so. Like Schleiermacher, I regard that article of the creed as a matter of opinion, not of faith.   

But you do not have faith in Christ if you do not expect Christ to make some new difference that he does not already make in your life! There must be some sense in which Christ still awaits you! In which a deeper experience of him is possible for you! There must be some advancement, at least hope of advancement, to meet him as he summons you. There must be something new he has in store for you. Do you hope to grow morally as his disciple, or have you pretty much decided that you won't? Do you expect Christ will broaden your ethical horizons? Deepen your religious experience? Change your opinions for the better?

One caution: he has not told us what to expect, save that it will be unexpected! "For the Son of man comes at an hour ye expect not!"

If you determined to remain open to the leading of Christ (manifest perhaps in your study of the gospels, your interaction with people that seem to you to have taken Christ seriously), who knows where the future might find you? What kind of person might you be? How much better? What might you be doing? Where might you be living? What might you be believing? I don't know. I can only say I have seen such surprises first-hand.

Advent is the time to prepare the way of the Lord. And I believe you can prepare his path in your heart by expecting him! I hope you will.






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