“Gradually, then suddenly.” This is how a character describes going bankrupt in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises. This punchy turn of phrase typifies Hemingway’s trademark economy of language. Its notoriety as a quote is justified not only for its wit, but also because Hemingway manages to sum up a true, deep governing dynamic of life in three words. “Gradually, then suddenly” isn’t just the way bankruptcy works—it’s also, if you think about it, the way basically anything happens at all.
Take a moment right now to read Jesus’ genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. Go to a quiet space and read it aloud as deliberately and patiently as if you were reading for an audience. I’ll wait right here.
Did you do it? If so, how did you feel? Chances are that it took you a couple of solid minutes to make it through. After a few lines, you may have started to zone out as name after name flew by. It’s not a short reading process if you settle down into it. A tinge of impatience might have easily settled as you waited for the genealogy to end and the story to actually begin.
But then, suddenly, it does. Name after name may have lulled us into a trance and tested our concentration . . . then bam! Jesus appears in the story. He has arrived, and the account of his life can finally get underway.
The genealogies help us catch a glimpse of what waiting for Jesus, the long-foretold Messiah, must have felt like for the Jewish people: “gradually, then suddenly.” Bit by bit, then all at once.
Why is this important? If “gradually, then suddenly” describes the shape of the world and also the shape of the Christmas story, what can it tell us? How can it draw us deeper into the life of God and his kingdom? Let me briefly suggest three ways.
Jesus entered into the shape of the world.
Like us, Jesus was born. He submitted to the flow of history and time, coming at a certain moment to certain people in a certain lineage. He grew up, was part of a family, learned, and “grew in wisdom and stature” (Luke 2:52). He experienced the long, slow years between his birth and the beginning of his public ministry. Jesus could have powered down from heaven as a fully formed person, just appearing one day in the synagogue and starting to teach, skipping all the boring parts of growing up. But he didn’t. Just like the generations before him experienced as they awaited his birth, Jesus himself entered into the “gradually, then suddenly” dynamic of growing up and becoming that is part of our shared human experience—that is the shape of the world itself.
Jesus understands the shape of the world.
Because he did not exempt himself from the world’s shape, Jesus also understands it. If you’ve ever reflected on how you’ve grown or changed in the past few years, I’m confident you’ve noticed that it always seems to happen according to this “gradually, then suddenly” paradigm. A person deeply wounds you, and you spend years fighting not to hate them. Then one day at the supermarket or the bank, you notice you aren’t angry anymore. Or you struggle with insecurity and self-doubt, waiting decades to truly love yourself. Then you wake up one morning and realize you haven’t said anything mean to yourself in weeks. This is how most change works.
But in the intervening time, the “gradually” before the “suddenly” can be hard. As we long to be different, to grow and to change and to be transformed into someone more like Jesus, we often live through discouraging seasons where it feels like nothing is happening. Growing slowly can often feel like we’re letting God down.
But Jesus has lived in the “gradually.” He was born into it, felt it, and understands it. He knows that it is the default pattern for God’s story and work in the world. And because of this, you can trust when Scripture says that God is patient with us. He is tender and compassionate with our “gradually” times, rejoicing over us in every step of change, however invisibly small (Heb 4:15, 1 Peter 5:7).
Jesus is at work in the shape of the world.
By God’s grace, what we see in the genealogy is that “gradually” does indeed eventually become “suddenly.” The wait does end. Morning does come. After seemingly endless generations, Jesus finally arrives. His story on earth begins, and God’s redemptive story for the world enters a new chapter.
Perhaps you’re in a “gradually” time of your life right now. Maybe you’re feeling the angst of waiting for new spiritual breakthrough. Or you’re longing for freedom from sin that just feels like it’s never . . . ever . . . coming. Or laboring to tear down some broken system or unjust power structure. It’s tempting to feel like nothing is happening. That God has somehow left you behind or dropped you completely. That this “gradually” time will never end.
But Jesus is at work in the shape of the world, through the shape of the world. “Gradually, then suddenly” is the shape that transformation takes in God’s kingdom. It can be hard to see with our limited, sin-damaged perception. Yet, it is happening nonetheless.
Seasons of waiting, of longing, of hungering for more of God’s new creation in your life are not necessarily times of desertion or abandonment. The genealogy of Jesus shows that he is at work through this “gradually, then suddenly” dynamic. And someday, somehow, “suddenly” is going to come.
Drew Larson works as a writer on InterVarsity’s Communications Team in Madison, Wisconsin. You can buy his new book here (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09V21MXDF) or support his ministry at donate.intervarsity.org/donate#15790.
Pastor Russ Ramsey offers 25 readings ideal for the Christmas season, showing how Christ's story encompasses the whole of the Old Testament and all of human history, and how it unveils God's longsuffering, loving pursuit of his people.
In this month of Advent, our thoughts usually turn to Jesus and Mary. Yet lately I’ve found that I’m more drawn to Elizabeth. Perhaps it’s because I’m older. Or maybe it’s because I know what it’s like to yearn for something and then to see days, months, years pass without having that yearning fulfilled.