“Keep alert!” “You do not know when the time will come.” “Keep awake!” Our readings today and our Bible are full of words of judgment, renewal and expectation. This age will end and a new day will dawn. There comes hope for deliverance from the oppressor. There is hope for entrance into the promised land, for return from exile, for a renewed city and temple, the day of the Lord, the birth of the messiah, the return of the Messiah, the new garden, the new age. An end to this present time can be presented in dramatic imagery. Along with earthquakes, plagues and famine, there are signs in the heavens, when the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. The vision becomes song: “My Lord, what a morning; my Lord, what a morning, When the stars begin to fall.”
Cartoons on the theme feature a robed and bearded man in the sandwich boards with their message that “THE END IS NEAR.” Then we are told how the four major New York newspapers would handle the story. “The World is to End,” leads the New York Times in its major front page column.” See section B, page 5 for details.” “The End of the World Has Come,” The Wall Street Journal informs its readers; “Markets to Close Early.” “IT’S OVER!” banners the New York Post across its front page. “The World to End,” instructs The Village Voice; “Woman and Children to Suffer Most.”
But, in fact, the secular world doesn’t believe any of it. Secular time is a nearly endless stream, born with the creation of the solar system and before that from some unimaginable big bang. It will continue to the death of our sun and then on to an end of the universe either in fire or in ice. Meanwhile many things happen but, in the larger perspective, much does not change. Things go on and on. The future, as this version has it, is much like the present, only longer.
This linear understanding of time actually evolved from the biblical approach that had, in its turn, transformed an earlier cyclical view of life. In earlier ages, time was often viewed as repeating itself in great cycles. The ordered, habitable world–sometimes pictured as a garden–was always tending to wind down toward a chaos from which it then needed to be renewed, same as before. The biblical idea of judgment broke open this cyclical view and flung the garden to the beginning of time with its counterpart as another garden at time’s consummation. In Christian faith there is a third garden–that of Gethsemane, which through suffering and self-giving helps to bring on new life and the new day.
Having given up on judgment, the secular worldview, influenced by tremendous expansions in our understandings of space and time–stretched linear time out behind and before. Any hope now was invested in the idea of progress. In this century, which has seen such scientific and technological marvels by means of which we now communicate, process information, travel and extend the human life span, such a faith may often have seemed not unreasonable. On the other hand, it has been a century soaked in terrible wars and genocide. If people alive in 1899 could be transported to this day, they would be amazed to see what we are capable of making, having and knowing, while saddened to realize that human sympathy, kindness and generosity continue to be so fragile. So many goods, they might observe, with little or no growth in the common good.
While yet looking for technological fixes, hope now seems to have turned into worry about the environment, disease, over population, a loss of human dignity in the midst of so much consumption (a kind of technological affluenza), and wondering whether life has any meaning at all. “Progress might have been all right once,” suggested Ogden Nash, “but it has gone on far too long.” There may be individual accomplishments, but hope recedes and a kind of stoic view pervades. Life, as Satchel Paige intimated, is like baseball. “Some days you win; some days you lose; and some days you get rained out.”
In a poem I’m called “Ponies,” I tried to catch some sense of the time of our lives going round and round and not much of anywhere. It begins with a little boy on a merry-go-round.
From somewhere my picture was taken,
Thin smiling in hope I’ll be found,
Riding for dear life a pony,
So merrily we go round and round.
Bigger ponies made me feel older,
Higher up the pole, up and down,
My child, I’ve pushed to be up there
As merrily we go round and round.
I climb on a horse yet more gilded,
Hurly-gurly churns out gay sound.
Then I would try something simpler
While merrily we go round and round.
Now in our postmodem world we have even come to a questioning of the significance of our understandings of time. Like literary texts, time in deconstructed. It is only, some would contend, what we make of it. It all depends on perspectives, which, of course, in another perspective, is exactly what Einstein told us about the warping of space and time and time’s relativity. Time, as regarded in quantum mechanics, is still less linear and more foldable and fungible. It can be seen to bend all sorts of ways, leading to ideas about ten or eleven dimensional worlds with only four of them part of our direct experience. There might even be more than one dimension of time.
In interesting ways such seemingly outlandish views of time have something in common with perspectives in the Bible. There we often find more concern with moments in time and their connection than duration. This has sometimes been called kairos time (from the Greek word for “opportunity”) as opposed to kronos time measured by clock and calendar.
What is kairos or opportunity time? A story is told about the philosopher-teacher Paul Tillich whose efforts to explain such matters in English heavily accented with his native German sometimes went right past his students. One day, the story goes, Tillich was taken from his home at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City to Yankee Stadium. There he was made to watch a baseball game that he seemed to find interminable and difficult to understand. Finally, however, it was the top half of the ninth with the Yankees leading 4-3. The opponents had the bases loaded with only one out when one of their batters hit a sharp ground ball between first and second. Ranging far to his left Bobby Richardson got a glove on it and rifled it over to Kubek who then threw just in time to Collins on first. Tillich jumped on to his seat and, waving his hat in the air, shouted, “Kairos, kairos, kairos!”
In opportunity time there are decisive times and times of decision–times which must be seized upon. In other words, there is judgment.
Judgment may sometimes seem like a harsh word, but it is the possibility of judgment that brings hope to our world. A world without judgment is a world without discernment between good and evil, between caring and cruelty, between fairness and fatalism. A world without judgment is a world in which nothing matters–in which there would be no story.
In opportunity time there are moments of significance, and occasion is found for the dots to become connected. They become part of a story–God’s great story of creation, which involves the chaotic and the ordered, choice and necessity, the conservation, innovation and selectivity of evolution, the dawning of human self-awareness and moral choice and love, mystery and memory, suffering, compassion and new opportunity. Our stories of agony and caring, of grace and growth, are made up of moments linked together more like poetry than mere chronicle. They become part of the story of the context of all life–the divine awareness of the universe.
This is a drama of significant times and decisive opportunities when what Jesus called the kingdom of God–God’s reign–God’s ways–become known, indeed, have already begun.
These are the surprising ways in which the humble of spirit are blessed as are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Those who make peace and show mercy are to be made happy. The fruit of the Spirit of all life is gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, patience and self-control. In this time people grow beyond selfishness toward a true maturity of human life. People choose who and whose they will be in life’s greatest adventure. This is the intent of the universal drama, in which God’s time is bendable, too. In God’s perspective, with the all-merciful eyes, God sees not only who we are and have been but who we will be. In this time, from out of the time of our often chaotic and suffering world–even from death–come new opportunity, the new age, the new world.
No doubt, now as then, people would say to Jesus, “Jesus, what do you mean? How could God’s ways even now be part of our life? How could the new age already be begun when there is so much that is wrong in the world?” And Jesus responds with story after story. The kingdom is like the treasure hidden in the field. It is the pearl of great price–worth everything you have. It is leaven in the meal. It is like a mustard seed–the tiniest of seeds planted in the ground of life. In the face of so much selfishness, suffering and wrong, it may seem impossibly small. The birds of the air, the searing sun, the thorns and thistles will all work against these seeds. But if you have eyes to see and cars to hear, you will see, and you will begin to live by God’s ways. “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
Still today you can hear that hope and expectation almost breathless in Jesus’ teaching. “The kingdom of God has drawn near.” God’s ways are so close they are already bringing new possibility into our lives.
When teaching students, I would try to give them some sense of how the face of time might be wound up in this manner. “Christmas is coming,” I would remind them and us. Oh, I know it is still a month away. And we are not supposed to observe it until the twelve days of Christmas. But, even a month away, it is already beginning to change our lives–our holiday plans, how we will spend our time, our money. It affects our spirits. We may even begin to hum its melodies.
Or, I would say, “Do you remember the test scheduled for a week from Tuesday? I’ve changed my mind. It will be this Tuesday.” “You can’t do that,” they would complain. “We’ll tell the Dean.”
But, for a few moments, I had them. By telling them that their time of testing was nearer than they at first believed, I had forced them to begin changing their plans. “Maybe I’d better skip going to the movies. Maybe I’d better get my notes out and read those chapters.”
God’s ways are near to you, Jesus tells us. You may already participate in the ways of sharing and love. You may already begin to live in the new age. At any moment it is breaking into your lives in times of great friendship, of love flooding in, of mercy and forgiveness, of courage and beauty, of servant ministry and sharing with others. It will not always be joy. It will be testing, too. Sometimes you will think the ways of hungering for fairness, showing mercy and trying to make peace are pointless. Some days your own self-centeredness and anxiety about others getting more than you will mount up. Some days evil and suffering will seem to overwhelm so that you may even think it is smart to give up on trying to advocate for, and support and mentor all our young people. You may wish you could stop striving to overcome oppression and the humiliation of others in poverty or racism. But, know this, the God who is the divine awareness of all life–the Abba who is like a caring parent to all people–this God stays in covenant through evil and suffering. Pain and wrong are part of creation, and God takes them on so that what happens to us also happens to God. Despite all their power and life’s tragedy, God remains faithful, giving us the hope and courage to carry on in God’s ways. Amid the color and pageantry, the drama and heartbreak of this creation, the story of divine love goes forward.
Paul put it rather like this:
It appears to me that whatever we suffer now will show up only dimly when compared to the wonders God has in store for us. It is as though all creation is standing on tiptoe longing to see an unforgettable vision, the children of God being born into wholeness.
Although creation is unfinished, still in the process of being born, it carries within a secret hope. And the hope is this: A day will come when we will be rescued from the pain of our limitations and incompleteness and be given our share in a freedom that can only belong to the children of God.
At the present moment all creation is struggling as though in the pangs of childbirth. And that struggling creation includes even those of us who have had a taste of the Spirit. We peer into the future with our limited vision; unable to see all that we are destined to be, yet believing because of a hope we carry so deep within.
So stay awake. Stay alert! We do not know when God’s time in its fruition comes, but we know something of what it is like because the kingdom of God–God’s ways–have already drawn near. For a people of hope and of faith the new age wakes; God’s ways inbreak and the new time has begun.
And so to God we offer our hope and thanksgiving, our service and our love, both on this day and on into the age that comes. Amen.