Reading: Habakkuk 2:1-4
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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!
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
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
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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