December 10, 2017

The One Who is Coming

Passage: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 2, Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8
Service Type:

He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

We read today from the Apostle Peter’s second letter that gave this counsel about the relationship of time and God’s promises. “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” (2 Peter 3:8)
A certain economist who read this passage was quite amazed and wanted to probe this wonder further so talked to God about it. "Lord, is it true that a thousand years for us is maybe like one minute to you?" The Lord said yes.
The economist said, "Then a million dollars to us must be like one penny to you."
The Lord said, "Well, yes."
The economist said, "Will you give me one of those pennies?"
The Lord replied, "All right, I will. Wait here a minute."

1. In his comment about God and time, the Apostle Peter is applying a truth about God stated in Psalm 90—“For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90:4) It isn’t given as a formula for figuring out when God will do things; like calculating that the biblical statement “the day of the Lord” refers to a thousand year period. It is a way of stating that God isn’t limited by time. Think about how time seems to fly by as we have gotten older compared to how long things seemed to take as a child. Christmas for most of us is racing here all too fast; for children it seems it will never come. What the Bible expresses here in this “day like a thousand years” allegory is the wonder that was seems long to us is brief to God; when it comes to God’s patience with us we ought to be glad for such wonder; that he is “slow to anger.”

Children often pose this question; a question that is anything but childish. What was God doing before he made the world? The question assumes that both the world and God exist in a temporal continuum we call time. This is not the picture the Bible paints. God creates time as he creates the world—“there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” God created the world not in time but with time. As Augustine pointed out long ago: “It is not in time that you precede all times, O Lord. You precede all past times in the sublimity of an ever-present reality. You have made all times and are before all times.” Eternity isn’t understood as endless time but the nature of God in his ever-present reality. Eternity embraces time on all sides, preceding, accompanying, and fulfilling it.

I admire those who have the intellectual capacity to probe the wonder that is this subject of God and time. When I read such work I have to go slowly making sure I have grasped the ideas expressed in one sentence before moving on to the next. Sometimes my head hurts trying to understand. I think this is one reason I do love the scriptures; the scripture contain profound things said in a simple but not simplistic ways. “… with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” Think of the wonders about God gathered up in this profound yet easily apprehended scriptural saying.

What I would invite you to reflect with me today on the One who is coming. “The one,” exclaimed John the Baptist, “who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” Now the magnitude of that understatement by John would be hard to quantify. But what do you say about this One who is coming that could ever do justice to him? Words are inadequate.

Just as Mary and Joseph were anticipating the One who would come so we too anticipate the coming of this same One. Just as faithful Israelites longed for Messiah to come so we too long for the same Messiah to come. We Christians speak of him as the one who came and is coming. But let us think on him. This is precisely what the gospel writer Mark is encouraging his listeners to do. Mark has come to Rome where the Christians are suffering the wicked persecution against them unleashed by Nero; Nero who needed someone to blame to turn attention from himself who cleared Rome’s slums by setting fire to them. These Christians who have witnessed the execution of two key church leaders—the Apostles Peter and Paul; Mark comes to them with a word of hope; a word to hold on to; a word about Christ the victor. Mark calls them to reaffirm their grip on the One who gave his life for them so he tells the story …

This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God
It began as the prophet Isaiah has written …

2. I have chosen as a theme for the sermons of Advent a phrase from the third stanza of the Christmas carol Silent Night—“love’s pure light.” I want to highlight this idea that in Jesus we see love in all its purity. In that carol the whole line from which that phrase is lifted is, “Son of God, love’s pure light.” Love isn’t an abstract concept but the very definition of a person. AS the Apostle John wrote, “for God is love.” This is what Mark wants underscores with beleaguered Christians—the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark knows that Jesus is love’s pure light.

Tradition tells us that Mark’s family home was adjacent to the garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. We believe he was with Jesus and the disciples that night of Jesus’ arrest. We believe Mark tells us of himself on that night of betrayal when he wrote, “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” It is one thing for a follower to desert Jesus in his dark hour but to be in such a hurry to desert that you don’t care if you leave you clothes behind must have been an act that Mark found hard to confess and admit he had done.

But here he is now in Rome encouraging persecuted Christians to hang in with Jesus. Mark knows that the one he abandoned in the garden never abandoned him. The risen Jesus was eager to see all those who deserted him; to gather deserters to become his ambassadors. Love’s pure light refused to give up on Mark—this one who is coming is the Son of God. This is why Mark cites the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah chapter 40—the chapter from which Mark quotes—is a word of comfort to the Lord’s people living as exiles. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” A voice cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” The gospels all agree that John the Baptist was the fulfillment of this Isaiah prophesy. The way that was being made was for God himself to come. Mark, in citing Isaiah, tells us the same thing the angel told Joseph—they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.” When we celebrate Christmas it is to make this proclamation—in Jesus God has come to us.

Some may wonder—well, that is fine and wonderful but what does it mean for my life in a practical way. We are so used to our world telling us that such things belong in a compartment called “spiritual”; that is ok for use at home in your private life but don’t bring it out in the open. It isn’t very tangible. Lights and decorations and presents and meals and parties and a donation or two to a charity that is ok—and well call it a holiday season. But God come among us?

According to a July 2017 article in Network World we touch our smart phones 2,617 times a day. A research firm recruited 94 Android device users and installed special software on their smartphones. The tool tracked each user's "interaction" over five days, all day. "And by every interaction, we mean every tap, type, swipe and click. We're calling them touches," the researchers explained.

The heaviest smartphone users click, tap, or swipe on their phone 5,427 times a day, according to researchers. … the rest of us still touch the addictive things 2,617 times a day on average. Averaging out the numbers, the aforementioned figures mean the heaviest users are touching their devices a couple of million times in one year.

Now there is nothing wrong with having smart phones. But I wonder if these devices are often used for distraction; something to distract us from the haunting reality that there is more to life than what the five senses can apprehend. The connection via a smart phone to the myriad of things available through the internet creates the illusion that we are connected to something greater than ourselves. And in those myriad of possible connections are a lot of thin things; things of little substance. Further, consider how quickly technology moves such that what is today the best device is soon obsolete.

The point being that what we count as the tangible is soon gone and in focussing merely on what we think is the tangible in life renders existence flat and two dimensional. The gospel proclamation that God has come to us in Jesus is of the substance of true reality. God is what is real and the world exists according to his reality. To embrace this relationship with Jesus is to encounter reality himself and helps us recognize all those thin things for what they are, thin things. Tinsel is only tinsel—yes we might find a place for it as decoration—but that is all it is, decoration.

Let me come at this another way. Do you ever wish for a bigger home or a more expansive vacation property? I sometimes wish I had a country property and a house whose principal rooms were expansive enough to accommodate large family gathering. I envision a pond on this property with lights around it so in the winter I could flood it for skating and host a giant family hockey game; I see myself bumping a my grandsons into the snowbank as they try to skate past me with the puck. I realize that I need none of those things to enjoy family and a little rough housing with grandsons.

I see in Jesus, love’s pure light, that relationship with him is the reality that is of the eternal. Houses and ponds and smartphones will pass away but not him. The Psalmist declares, “Long ago I learned from your decrees that you have established them for ever.” (Psalm 119:152) I like how this Psalm sentence is translated in the Common Book of Prayer; “As concerning thy testimonies, I have known long since: that thou hast grounded them for ever.”

Relationship with him, engaging with Jesus in life teaches me to hold loosely in my hands things that are temporal. It is of greater and eternal value that I pray for my grandchildren than that I pour out my life to buy that country home for the sake of some idyllic winter hockey game. There is a home that is eternal in the Son; the Son who went to the cross to prepare that place. That Jesus is God come to us is of great practical value showing me how to live now occupied with the love that is eternal and to treat the temporal as that—temporal. It also shows me that to engage in relationship with others is of the eternal. The promise of life to come in Jesus is that my friends in faith are forever friends. As I encourage my children and grandchildren to believe that Christmas is God coming to us we take hold of this One by faith whom to know is life eternal.

3. As beautiful as it is to sing the Christmas carol Silent Night some find it hard to sing of love’s pure light. The vagaries of disease, for example, strike some with multiple difficulties and leaves people feeling they never had a shot at life; the idea that God loves them grates on the ears. We must acknowledge that there are things we experience in life that contradict the gospel claim that God loves us. But that just what these are; contradictions. These contradictions do not originate with God—and God comes to us in the Son precisely to overcome these contradictions.

We lit our Second Advent candle today proclaiming that in the coming of love’s pure light there is peace. In our Advent video it was noted that this Son of Bethlehem would be our peace. First peace with God. We may not think we have anything against God but God has plenty against us. Our indifference to God is, in reality, contempt for God. But God’s love compels him that God can’t leave things this way. He so loves his creatures and desires intimacy with them such that he comes in Jesus and at the cross bears our sin making it possible to be set right with God through faith in him.

Further this peace of God is understood in terms of the Hebrew idea of peace or shalom. It is the idea of full orbed peace—human life flourishing in every aspect. There is a now about this peace that in relationship with Jesus we will experience aspects of that flourishing now whatever maybe those contradictions we face. And there is a not yet aspect to this full orbed peace. When we see Jesus we will be like him for we shall see him as he is—and in his resurrected life, the new humanity, nothing inhibits full human flourishing. It is beyond our ability to conceive the glory of that life; what we can say is that the contradictions of the now are never the final word about us.

Isaiah’s vision is a fitting word for conclusion. “See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” (Isaiah 40:10-11) Amen.