“Expect the unexpected, or you will not find it — it cannot be searched for or found out.” This is one of my favorite quotations from the presocratic philosopher, Herakleitos. It’s a paradox: How do you know what to expect if it’s unexpected? And if you somehow manage to expect the unexpected, it’s no longer unexpected — but if you don’t, then you failed to expect it!
It’s always struck me that Jesus’ parables reveal that he thinks of the Kingdom of Heaven in a similarly paradoxical way. We can’t make the Kingdom appear by choosing when and where; and worse, when we try to take charge of it, we miss completely, mistaking our own expectations and fears for the Kingdom. The Kingdom isn’t on anyone’s schedule, but if we aren’t ready for it when it appears, we lose our chance to participate in it.
Like Herakleitos’s dictum to expect the unexpected, the Kingdom requires us to live in a constant state of readiness to act when it does turn up.
Imagine a young woman in an insignificant town, going about her business. Perhaps the most exciting and momentous thing in her life may have been her recent betrothal. On a perfectly ordinary day, with no advance warning, a messenger from God just appears, right in front of her. The innocuous words of most translations, “and she was very perplexed,” seem like the understatement of the century. But that’s not all: This messenger tells the young woman that she has been chosen for a singular mission. When she questions how this is going to work, the messenger tells her not to sweat it: This is God we’re talking about. Besides, he says, God’s already at work on this project. As unlikely as it sounds, your cousin — who incidentally is far too old for this — is already six months along.
Of course, many of us recognize this story. It’s a story so well-known in the Christian tradition that there’s a name for it: The Annunciation. Christians hear and retell it every year about this time, and it always signals the coming winter, Christmas Eve, time off work, gifts, and even things like our favorite Christmas cookies.
Many of us are on a roll toward Christmas expectations, but let me ask you to pause and think again about the Kingdom parables. It’s as if Jesus is giving us an inventory of the ways we dodge the call of the Kingdom: Sorry, maybe next time. Sorry, I’m busy — people to see, places to go. Sorry, can’t right now — I have to take care of myself, my family, my people.
Of course, in the story Mary is perplexed and even protests that there must be some mistake. Totally understandable. But, when the Kingdom comes into focus, here’s what she doesn’t do: She doesn’t turn away or snap back into the mundane world — the kingdom with a little k. She doesn’t change the channel, or think about the coming winter, time off work, or baking cookies. She doesn’t complain about those annoying Neighbors next door, or whether she should “do something” about the sick or the poor or the suffering in her town.
This year, don’t let familiarity dull you to the way this story calls you to a Kingdom mindset. If you think about this familiar story in this unfamiliar way, Mary’s response is all about expecting the unexpected.
And while you’re thinking about that Kingdom mindset, think about this, too: When the messenger reminds her that nothing is impossible for God, he’s laying another paradox on her — and on us. If nothing is impossible for God, then God doesn’t really need her, or us for that matter, right? So, what’s the point of sending a messenger in the first place?
Nothing is impossible for God, but we aren’t optional extras in the story.
That’s the weirdest thing about the Kingdom: It’s there, but it’s not there. It is what it is, but it doesn’t happen without us. We are needed — you are needed — to notice the Kingdom, hidden in and around us, to respond with a Kingdom mindset, and to act — to enact the Kingdom where and when we find it. When we do, when you respond and act, the unexpected, unsearchable Kingdom becomes a real presence in this world, the presence of outrageous acceptance of our Neighbor, impractical compassion for anyone in need, and a thoroughly unwise willingness to act on their behalf.
Now back to Mary: When the Kingdom comes into focus, how does she respond?
“Bring it. I’m ready.”