All three of today’s readings begin with a reference to time. The Isaiah 2 passage says, “In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains.” In Matthew 24 Jesus says, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Paul writes in his concluding remarks to the Romans, “Besides this, you know what time is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”
“In the days to come…” “But about that day, no one knows…” “You know what time it is…”
In one sense, we are quite well-acquainted with what time it is. What time is it? It’s the Sunday after Thanksgiving, our bodies are mostly recovered from the feast of the holiday and our minds are already starting to shift into the mode of the next number of weeks leading up to Christmas and New Years. Personally, my body will be recovering for the next several months from the Bellefontaine High School Cross Country Alumni annual tackle football game that we played on Friday in the cold and wind. The bruises and sore muscles are an annual reminder to ourselves of why we ran cross country in high school rather than play football. It is also an annual reminder that high school was a long time ago and our bodies now take a little longer to recover from repeated collisions with each other. But I digress.
What time is it? Black Friday has come and gone, and, as far as we know, it yielded no casualties as in past years in the stampede for bargains. Only time will tell how the recession will affect shopping patterns and behaviors this season.
What time is it? Time to plan for Christmas gatherings with family, with friends – office parties, school parties, the church white elephant exchange and caroling. It’s the time when we feel the longing for the presence of family members no longer with us. Time to give gifts. Time to receive gifts. Time to be busy, be stressed, be thankful, be overwhelmed.
What time is it? It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Along with these things, it is the beginning of Advent – the four Sundays before Christmas when we nurture expectation and readiness for the coming of Christ into the world. Advent, Latin for “coming,” is a season when we consider Christ’s entering time through the womb of Mary, a historical remembrance, but also consider the coming of Christ in a present and future way. Better yet, Advent is a season of recognizing that our typical notion of time, the certainty and solidity of what appears to be the inevitable unfolding of history, has been permanently ruptured through the coming of Christ. Christ’s presence in the world – the coming – past, present, and future, alters the way we experience time.
Connie summed this up well in her introductory words. We’re not all that good at living in time as a full, rich gift of God. We have an abundance of things, often an abundance of food, if we’re fortunate, an abundance of supportive relationships, but we hardly ever feel an abundance of time. We are time poor. When we take the time to think about time, we lament its scarcity. We say things like: Where did all the time go? Time passes so quickly. Sorry, I just don’t have enough time.
One of the invitations of the Advent season, and the one that we are specifically focusing on in our worship this year, is time. A fullness of time. A richness of time. A spaciousness that is available to us when we wait for the coming of Christ. When we are watchful. When we befriend silence. When we stay alert.
The scriptures offer us different visions of abundance and richness that God generously offers in regards to how we live with time.
Isaiah gets the conversation going by speaking of “In days to come.” “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains.” The nations come to the mountain of Jerusalem to learn instruction, Torah, that they can walk the righteous path. This is when God will arbitrate between peoples and set the record straight, and, people will beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks. In the days to come, the raw materials that humanity has manipulated into instruments of war will be whipped into shape in a redeeming way, refashioned as instruments for producing and harvesting food – swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. Tanks get turned into combines, guns become spades, barbed wire fencing gets remade into tomato cages. Soldiers become gardeners, and the energies and resources and human capital that were dedicated to war making are redirected to community building. “Nations shall learn war no more.”
It’s a beautiful vision, one much of humanity can affirm as desirable, but when does this happen? When should we expect it to come? Isaiah’s agenda here is not to predict a date, to get stuck in a linear timeframe. He only says “In days to come.” It is something toward which we look, something we hope for. It’s a dream in the best sense of the word. A beautiful hope, a picture of God’s dream for the world. And because it already exists within the life of God, it is real. It has already been spoken into being. It hangs out there in front of us, pulls us toward it. The “days to come” are already breaking into our consciousness now, already drawing us toward this dream. As people of faith we believe that the time known as the future, already impacts us in the present. We live with a fullness of time. An expansiveness that includes God’s dreams that are not yet fully realized.
When Jesus steps on the scene centuries after Isaiah declared these words, another way of conceiving time had developed. A certain kind of apocalyptic fervor was present in different pockets of the population. As a persecuted minority under the rule of the massive, god-like power of the Roman Empire, Jewish apocalyptic preachers and writers spoke of a time when the children of the light would be separated from the children of the dark. God-like powers that seemed to be eternal and indomitable, the sun, the stars, the moon, would be shaken, would fall from heaven, and the righteous would be lifted up above the wicked.
To the reality of apocalyptic expectations, this unique way of living within time, Jesus says both Yes and No. Yes, the powers will be shaken, the sun will be darkened, the stars will fall from heaven, cosmic upheaval will occur, but not in the way you would expect. Not through the violence of wars or destruction of earthquakes, or famines. Jesus says, “Beware that no one leads you astray….You will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet.” These things happen, and, sadly, will continue to happen, Jesus notes. But this isn’t the end of the world. This is the nature of nations and the natural movements of plate tectonics. Be prepared for these things, but see that you are not alarmed.
What’s really going to shake the heavens, undo the powers that be, Jesus says, is the coming of the Son of Man, the Human One. The one who nonviolently and lovingly offers his life to the world. This is what you should really be watching out for. Don’t be convinced by false Messiahs and false prophets. But look for the Coming of the Human One, the One who lives Humanly in the midst of the inhumanity of history. This one is certainly coming.
Again we get a sense for the remarkable ways that scripture would have us understand time. In giving his life for the world on the cross the Human One has already come into the world, already completed the apocalypse, already done everything necessary to undo the powers that hold us captive. And we who live after the fact are to still keep looking, keep watching, keep alert, for the Human One, because the Human One will come again.
When? What time? What day and year? In the reading from today, Jesus says, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” In one sense this could mean that the coming of the Human One is this Divine secret. Strangely enough, not even Jesus knows, however that works. But in another sense, the coming of the Human One isn’t about days and hours. If we’re caught up in that kind of linear time, we’re asking the wrong question. Jesus redirects our attention away from an undetermined future, and back to the present moment. Jesus says to keep awake. Keep alert. We’re going to be going about our daily lives, like in the days of Noah, Jesus says, when people were eating and drinking, marrying, normal every day stuff, shopping, making lists, running errands, but they weren’t awake to this greater reality that was about to happen. They got swept away with their every day activities and quite literally missed the boat.
That’s a rather startling example for Jesus to use for the coming of the Human One, it seems to me. Because the whole point of the gospel is not that this “coming” should be perceived as a threat. The “coming” of Christ isn’t held over us as a punishment to watch out for. I came across a quote this week commenting on this text that says, “time exists for repentance, not as a threat of a day of vengeance.” (Lost the reference, sorry.) The “coming” of Christ, the Advent of Christ is this loving, forgiving presence – the Human One, self-giving love. That power which topples empires. And we’re supposed to live so we don’t miss it. Because apparently it can be missed. Christ comes to us as forgiveness, as grace, as redeeming love. Jesus says, “Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Human One is coming at an unexpected hour.”
We live in time such that each hour is, in someway, that unexpected hour. That time when Christ could burst into our lives in the form of forgiveness that overcomes vengeance, love which overcomes hatred, peace which overcomes anxiety. Be alert. Be ready. Stay awake.
This is why the Apostle Paul can write to that church in Rome, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers. The night is far gone, the day is near.”
The word for “time” here, is that wonderful Greek word “kairos.” “Chronos” being the Greek word for linear time, chronological time that we feel to caught up in and limited by. Kairos time being an opportune time, an appointed time, an occasion. You know what kairos it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.
I’m thinking this is particularly challenging for us. The way we live in time is one of those areas where we must be intentional and forthright, otherwise we will get swept away in all of the options and activities. We will entertain ourselves into a passive, non-threatening slumber and miss out on the Advent of Christ. We’ll march along the predictable chronos of our days and miss out on the unexpected kairos of God.
If we’re going to learn to live like humans, in the pattern of the Human One, we’re going to have to work at this. And it is a great challenge. We’re going to have to share ideas with each other about what is working and what isn’t working.
How can we go about normal activities – eating, drinking, shopping, errands – and still be awake? Where are we witnessing the coming of Christ in our lives? Somewhere, within what we experience as a great poverty, our time, there is a fullness, a richness, an abundance that is available to us, that comes at an unexpected hour.
Christ has come, Christ is coming, Christ will come again.