36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
I met one of my dearest friends for lunch on Tuesday in Cartersville, which means that I spent much of the day Tuesday driving in the blinding rain, trying not to die. It is stressful, navigating through that kind of weather, with eighteen wheelers weaving in and out of their lanes, poorly lit road signs and streets filled with other flustered drivers. It’s enough to get you so worked up that you can’t focus upon anything other than your own predicament, that which is happening inside your own head.
And it was on the way home that I turned the radio to NPR, as is my habit, hoping for some peaceful music to calm my frayed nerves. The host of the program announced that the next song would be a piano piece by Franz Liszt entitled “Transcendental Etude Number 5,” which he described as one of the fastest-paced and most difficult pieces in all of classical music. I would only add that it is also one of the most stressful. As the pianist played notes all over the keyboard, it was all I could do to keep from driving all over the road.
I’d have reached for the radio dial to change it, but for the fact that the only things keeping me alive were my eyes glued to the road, and fortunately Transcendental Etude Number 5 was a short piece, and the announcer began to introduce the next song, a Scottish ballad called “Lament for Mulroy.”
And I have to tell you, I’m a little embarrassed by this, because it shouldn’t be so, but as the song started, and as the violin began to play, it was if I had never heard beauty before this moment. It was as if the violinist were magic, as if he were making the instrument make sounds ten times more beautiful than anything I’d ever heard before.
Here, I was stuck on myself and my own predicament, pinned down in the driver’s seat, and it was as if the fullness of God’s love came through the radio, and it hit me like a ton of bricks: such beauty, such art. That kind of thing will grab hold of your heart, if you’ll let it. It’s enough to lift you out of your seat and pull you straight into the presence of God.
Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever found yourself pulled into the presence of God? Is there something in your life, a piece of music, a memory, something to remind you that God is with us?
I had the opportunity to visit France for the first time about ten years ago. I don’t know if you’ve had the chance to visit Paris, but it is gorgeous, of course, and full of history. I did the usual tourist thing, looking through museums and visiting the regular sites. And I spent much of one day at the Louvre, which of course is the grand Museum of Paris. They say that if you spend eight seconds looking at each of the pieces in the Louvre, you will be there for some number of decades. It is full of precious art.
After I toured the Louvre, almost as an afterthought, I went to visit the Musee de Orsay, which is a museum nearby, much smaller than the Louvre, but filled with Impressionist pieces. I'm not much of an art historian and so I don’t feel strongly about much art, but I have never much been moved by Impressionism, by folks like van Gogh and Manet. And so I was almost rushing through the museum, because I had been to the Louvre already so there wasn't much here to move me. But I'll never forget coming up an escalator at the Musee de Orsay and being greeted by what has become my reminder.
There, on the wall, was a painting that nobody seemed to care much about, but it grabbed ahold of me and wouldn’t let me go. It was called the Floor Scrapers by the otherwise forgettable Impresisonist artist Gustave Caillebotte. He was more famous for collecting other arists’ work than creating his own, and yet, on a wall in the Musee de Orsay, I found my reminder that God breaks through the work of even the most pedestrian of artists, that Christ is continually born anew, and that God is with us. I don’t know why that painting grabbed me, but it did, and it holds my heart, still. That kind of beauty grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go, and if you aren’t careful, you know, if you don’t fill your days with meaningless tasks and your life with an abundance of possessions, you may find yourself in the predicament of constantly watching for God. Thankfully, I’m pretty busy, so I don’t have to worry about that sort of thing. I have tasks and possessions aplenty. That’s a lot for God to break through, and thank goodness, you know, because that’s a pretty hefty responsibility, to constantly find yourself in the presence of God.
But, even still, I crave it. I crave that presence. Do you?
A few years ago, I was craving that feeling so bad that I decided to go to Uganda. My wife and I were kicking around places to lead our next mission trip, and we decided that our plates were so full, that we were so stuck on our own stuff, that it was time to do something radical about it. So we gathered the troops and did the work of preparing for a mission trip to Uganda, to a school outside Kampala called the Humble School, a place for children whose lives had been affected by HIV/AIDS and poverty, a place where many children had no parents.
It was a marvelous, difficult, beautiful, life-giving trip. Oh, how we were blessed, as we played with the children who lived at that school, as we heard their heartbreaking stories of illness and loss, as we played soccer with them and as we let them play with our cameras. One day of our trip was a national holiday—International Women’s Day, which we ought to celebrate here, if you ask me—but it was a holiday, so there was no class. The teachers came down to help us move bricks at the dormitory we were building, fireman style, with a chain of people tossing bricks, one after another, until the entire pile had been moved. The teachers came to help, and the children followed, because they stood to benefit from the building of the dorm, and they wanted to help in whatever small way they could. So the children who were strong enough and the teachers intermingled with the mission team, and for an hour or so the kingdom of God was present on earth, passing those bricks, one after another, learning one another’s work songs, tossing bricks down the line. And I got so into the work that I almost didn’t notice that behind us, in a smaller line, there stood a group of small children, too small to pass the heavy bricks, but wanting to help. These small children found a small pile of pebbles, and they stood behind us, lined up, about 10 of them, taking a pebble from the pile, passing it along, passing it down, until they reached the end of the line where they would pile them up.
Watching that, watching God break through time and space and show up like that, it was Christmas all over again, not the kind of Christmas that is full of wrapping paper and candy, but the kind of Christmas that involves a birth, an inbreaking of the divine into our lives, a reminder that God is with us, even when we forget to look.
It was Christmas, even without the perfect tree, or the perfect gift, or the perfect family, and it is no surprise, really, because I’ve found that the pursuit of the perfect Christmas is MUCH more about me than it is about Jesus, because the first Christmas, of course, was anything but perfect. It’s almost cliché to talk about it this way, but that’s just because we’re so resistant to the truth of the Christmas story that we call it cliché so that the truth leaves us alone. And yet it is the case that the first Christmas happened in the cold, outside, in a barn, with an unwed mother and a child who was born among animals and placed in a feed trough to sleep. The beauty of that scene cannot be replicated in a plastic trinket from Big Lots. It cannot be contained in our own traditions, especially when they distract us from that which we are allegedly celebrating. The beauty of the nativity is the kind of beauty that comes when you look for it, or, if you are lucky, the kind of beauty that comes to you on a cold, rainy day, the kind of beauty that hits you like a ton of bricks and reminds you of something greater, something more real than your own problems, your own issues, your own baggage you bring with you to the holidays.
It’s the kind of beauty that will break through occasionally, merely because it’s more powerful than any of the rest of the things with which we fill our days. But if you don’t look for it, it will be relegated to an occasional thing, a periodic “aha” moment that leaves as fast as it comes. But if you watch, if you keep awake, you will find your life awash in beauty, for you will notice God.
Now, the thing about noticing God is that it is really hard to do when neon “sale” signs are flashing in your eyes, when the first thing I see in the morning when I open my email is a list of the incredible deals that could be mine if the price is right. It is really hard to do when you are busy making your home perfect, absolutely perfect, unfailingly perfect. Noticing God is really hard to do—borderline impossible—when you’re working harder to make more money or spinning your wheels to find the perfect gift, as if the perfect gift is what brings happiness. None of these things are the places you’ll find God; in fact, these things may well be the exact opposite of Christmas, for they are things that exist to keep you from noticing.
It ought not require a near-death driving experience, or a trip to Paris, or a week in Uganda. It ought to happen right here, right now, and in all the right heres and right nows of life, for the promise of Christmas is that God is with us, always! How dare we only notice when it is convenient for us, especially in a season that is dedicated to the birth of Jesus Christ. Rather than watching out for God in our everyday lives,, we act as if Jesus spent the month of December celebrating my birthday and that I ought to celebrate me, too.
It is one of the gifts Christmas gives that even in the midst of everything with which I fill my life, all the things I use to make me feel like a full, contented person, even in the midst of that, God breaks through. And when that happens I am reminded that it is not my own fulfillment I should be looking for. I should be looking for God rather than looking to fulfill myself. I should be looking for those times in which God is at work, because keeping watch is infinitely more life-giving than staring at my own navel.
So, in this season, keep watch. Be ready. Be on the lookout for Christmas, for Christ to be born again in you. Even in the midst of the holiday rush, do not let yourself be persuaded that this is all about decorating the house or finding that perfect gift. Don’t believe it when you see the sign in WalMart advertising that you can get More Christmas For Your Money. Christmas doesn’t cost money. It just requires opening your eyes to the birth of Jesus all around you.
So keep watch, for just as the great flood in Noah’s day surprised those who were similarly distracted , so, too, will God break through the veil between heaven and earth, and we will find ourselves surrounded in love. So, too, will God arrive, if not because of our preparations, then in spite of them. And yet, God is already here. So keep watch, keep watch.