December 6, 2015
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
A Time Like This
There’s no getting around the truth: Friends, it is almost Christmas. The retailers are quick to remind us that there are, what, nineteen shopping days left? But they don’t say it like, “You have nineteen shopping days, please enjoy.” It’s like: NINETEEN SHOPPING DAYS LEFT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You can hear the twenty exclamation points!
Advent calendars are awake, and glittering, and counting down the days. Advent calendar chocolates are being eaten. Advent paper chains are getting shorter by the day. Advent candles are busy getting lit and adjusting to their staggered heights.
Now even if you didn’t care, it is nearly impossible to be unsure about how many days are left. Even if you have lived through a hundred Christmases, it is impossible to miss the urgency. NINETEEN DAYS LEFT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! All caps. Twenty exclamation points.
Teach us to count our days, that we might gain a wise heart.
This year during Advent, our worship series focuses on the theme of faithful expectation. Last Sunday, we considered the role of mystery in our work of expecting. This Sunday, our focus is on time. Whoever observed that “timing is everything” understood something about expectation —the timing matters.
We might know that a severe earthquake will strike the west coast and plunge those states into the sea. But it’s one thing to expect that to happen in nine hundred years, and quite another thing to expect that to happen in nine years, or in ninety minutes. We human people feel differently about cataclysmic events that are likely to happen in our lifetime verses those events that will happen a thousand years from now. Who can even imagine a thousand years from now?
If something’s coming soon, that makes it more important. Urgency makes us pay attention and keep watch. Urgency makes us stay on our guard. It stirs up our panic and intensifies our perception of threat; it narrows our perspective so we can focus on the immediate. Because you know God could break into the world any second now, and what if we miss the miracle? What if God is already here…
We human people can understand the panic of the ticking clock. We know what it is to be rushed, or to show up too late, to feel the terror of the deadline that will not relent for any reason. If only God would understand what we’re up against. God who is the Alpha and the Omega, the creator of all that is, or was, or ever will be, can’t you just cooperate with my schedule and save the crisis for next week when I have an open afternoon? Is that too much to ask?! Except the problem might be that it’s too little to ask.
It might be that in each of us there is a yearning for something so much greater than the hope of making it on time. It’s like we’re born with an impulse for the transcendent. And the thing about the transcendent, it will not be scheduled.
Pastor Mark Trotter says it like this:
“All of us need a purpose that is large enough to include God and long enough to include eternity. We need a purpose that makes life worth living and gives meaning to our dying. We need a purpose that calls forth our true stature and elicits the hidden fire within us. We are called to life with imagination and courage because we have a purpose that endures past sunset.”
Today our scripture comes to us from the Gospel of Luke. Some scholars believe this Gospel was written as late as the year one-ten. Which would be like if you wrote a book about events that happened in the early nineteen hundreds. Now in the earlier Gospels, there are hints suggesting the people were expecting the new age of God’s kingdom to arrive in their lifetime. You can hear the urgency, Keep Watch! Be Ready! You can hear all those exclamation points. Only problem was, the end of the world didn’t come.
But now, so many years later when Luke was written, there’s a different idea about the timing of the coming of the kingdom of God; it holds together a tension. On the one hand, the kingdom of God will be fulfilled one day far into the future, who knows when… On the other hand, the kingdom of God is already here.
On the one hand, there is God’s time, the holy breaking into our world. On the other hand, the events in our world happen at particular days on the calendar at times on the clock. Notice this tension in our scripture today. The writer of Luke spends two full verses explaining exactly what time it is: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas —that’s when the word of God came to this guy, John.
Now if you’re not sure whether to trust John, nobody would blame you. He lives in the wilderness, and he is known for rantings that make him seem unstable, and he also gets things right. He calls the people a brood of vipers and in his frantic, fervent shouting he does something extraordinary.
By plucking and pronouncing this bit of poetry, what John does is simultaneously invoke the past and evoke the future. Remember what you have always known, and imagine what is coming one day. Every valley shall be filled, every mountain made low. The crooked shall be made straight and the rough places made smooth. On that day all people will see the salvation of God.
John reminds the people of our human impulse for the transcendent, our purpose enduring past the sunset. Then he calls upon them to repent and turn away from evil today. Share what you have; don’t exploit the poor. As you wait and watch for heaven to come to earth, do something about it today.
John is not exactly sweet or subtle in presentation, but he gets this part right. If you mean to turn your heart toward the dawning of the new age, to prepare the way of the Lord, to imagine a world at peace, then we’ve got to do something this afternoon. John teaches us to pay attention to this connection between the eternal and the immediate, the transcendent-beyond-the-sunset and the little life you hold in your own hands.
Here’s one example. If you are concerned about how we’re treating the environment, I am too. On the one hand, the problem seems too big to solve. It will take a long term international effort to reform manufacturing standards and reduce consumption, to reverse the damage already done and protect vulnerable eco-systems.
On the other hand, I can do something today. We know plastic grocery bags are a problem for the planet. They drift into the ocean and harm the animals; they take a long time to decompose. I can bring my own bags to the grocery store and use less plastic in my life. That’s not everything, but it’s something, and something matters.
Here’s another example. In the past two years, we’ve heard too many news stories with the headline that goes: a young, black man is shot and killed by a white police officer. There is no easy explanation for this. One theory suggests there are just “bad apples” in every group. Not every teenager is a criminal. Not every police officer acts in response to racial bias. But the truth is, the problem is greater than all of the individuals named in the news stories. Mistrust between African American communities and police departments has been a condition in our country for centuries. On the one hand, it will take generations of work to overcome our nation’s legacy of racism. I’m not sure we’ll see this happen in our lifetime.
On the other hand, this work is already underway. Lynda Sargent, at Heart of Hope Ministries just down the block, is working with Rock Island’s Chief of Police to help Rock Island police officers get to know the teenagers who live in the West End. They are learning each other’s names; they are building trust. That’s not everything, but it’s something, and something matters to the universe. It matters to God.
These are a few simple examples, I’m sure you can think of more.
Friends, I can’t explain the fullness of the promise of one day… All I can do is plead with God to awaken our awareness of it. All I can do is stand in one spot under the stars and look to the heavens and know this hurting world is not our best hope. Really. And this hurting world is in our care.
In this season of counting the days and making our days count, let us watch for the connection. On the one hand, what vision for the world can we see? Maybe a world with no gun violence or terrorism… A world where refugees are welcomed and the captives are released and the hungry are filled with good things… On the other hand, how is this promise already in progress? Now there is more to do than counting the shopping days until Christmas. There is the kingdom of God, coming one day who knows when… And the kingdom of God is here, with us, at a time like this. Amen.
 I head this quote in a workshop at General Synod led by Rev. Cameron Trimble. For the context of her usage see http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2015/07/16/5-donts-for-church-leaders/37419
 Borg, Marcus J. Evolution of the Word. Harper One: New York, 2012. page 426.
 For further reading, start with The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. (page 28 supports the above point)