Bracing for What’s to Come

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, December 10, 2020

Bracing for What’s to Come[i]

All we can do is wait. For how long? Nobody knows. From the thick of our broken world-as-we-have-it we dare only with trembling to hope for things eventually to get better. When everything finally gets set right, will we be happy with the new order of things? Will we ever be able to return to tried-and-true comfort zones?

I’m talking about the end of the COVID plague, of course. Or, maybe, I’m talking about the coming of Jesus. Perhaps both?

Our presbytery meeting today occurs just two weeks after Thanksgiving, just when many infectious disease experts predicted a new peak – on top of our current surge – in COVID cases. The meteoric rise over the past two weeks in COVID infections, hospitalizations, and deaths grimly testifies to the accuracy of those predictions. They warn that we have not yet seen the post-Thanksgiving peak – and that things could get even worse after Christmas.

Many of our congregations have closed their doors again on Sunday mornings to minimize risks of COVID transmission as the outbreak intensifies. Those that remain open are strengthening their commitments to distancing, masking, screening, and sanitizing. We are doing everything possible to prepare for what may be coming, bracing ourselves for the impending onslaught as best we can, erecting all the barricades at our disposal. We may not agree on how big the storm will be, or when it will arrive, or how much our mitigation efforts matter. But we all want to be as ready as possible for whatever lies ahead.

Might this anticipation of something unknown, yet sure to come, help us grasp better an appropriate Advent mindset? This year we can’t ease gently into Advent with our cherished traditions of hanging the greens, singing the hymns, gathering around the wreath, and lighting the candles. Likewise, the coming of the Lord is anything but gentle; it is more like the prophetic note in the classic hymn, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” (a reference to Revelation 14:17-20).[ii]

Annie Dillard – one of Pittsburgh’s great art gifts to the world, alongside the likes of Fred Rogers, August Wilson, Mary Cassatt, Andy Warhol, and Art Blakey – suggests that meeting the Lord is anything but a bed of roses. In Teaching a Stone to Talk, she asks those who go to church, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we blithely invoke? …. We should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” She’s talking here about ordinary Sunday worship services; how much more does that apply when we are in the season of Advent?

The One for whom we wait and hope does not always come quietly. For a fundamentally disordered world, revolution may be the only cure. Bastions of the status quo are no safer when Messiah returns than they were when he came two thousand years ago. Economic systems get upended like the temple traders’ tables. Those on the margins get prime seats at the Master’s banquet. The privileged tremble while the disenfranchised rejoice.

Are we ready for this Messiah to arrive among us? Perhaps Advent anticipation is best expressed by bracing ourselves for what lies ahead in God’s program, however unexpected and disconcerting it may be.

Getting things set right may require disrupting the current order, just as COVID has done. Presbytery meetings reinvented. Church Advent schedules suspended. The world upended. Perhaps God is getting us ready for a brand new thing. Can we perceive it? (Isaiah 43:19) Can we receive it?

Yours in awaiting our Lord’s coming,

[i] This letter is an expanded version of the cover letter for the Presbytery Meeting Packet for the December 10 meeting of Pittsburgh Presbytery.

[ii] It is also true that the coming of the Lord takes place silently, without notice, as suggested in the line from O Little Town of Bethlehem, “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” I explored this tension between Jesus’ coming as being on the one hand imperceptible and on the other revolutionary in last week’s letter, “By Shout and By Whisper.”

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