One of the most fascinating aspects of parenting young children is their concept of time. Yesterday, tomorrow, five minutes from now- it’s easy to see that Little doesn’t quite grasp these amounts of time. When she’s waiting for Mom to finish the dishes and come play, or waiting for it to be late enough in the morning to get out of bed-, even two minutes seems an eternity. She hasn’t been so regimented on a clock that she can know the passing of ten minutes rather than two. Still, we silly parents insist on using time-related phrases.
So, she picks up time phrases without knowing exactly what they mean. I see the effect of this language when I put her to bed, or when she plays “pretend bedtime.” She’ll tell me I get to snuggle for one minute, or maybe five. The other night, she used her fingers to show me how long one minute of snuggle time is — this long. My little one isn’t focusing on a precise measurement so much as a feeling that waiting to be together is always too long, and spending time focused on each other is too short.
Elsewhere in the Bible, (Mark 10:13-15) we heard words encouraging us to have a childlike faith. It’s in talking about time that having a childlike understanding makes sense. A childlike understanding of time is especially appropriate when we’re waiting for what comes next in God’s action for us.
This season of Advent is heavy in the theme of time and waiting for the hoped for time. Our Old Testament lessons will speak the voice of the ancient chosen people, waiting for God to renew God’s promise to establish a kingdom.
This voice of the Bible often asks, “How long, O Lord?” or “When?” “When will you answer us, when will you change the way things are, when will you act decisively to save us? When will you forgive us so we can be blessed again?”
The Gospel lessons in this season guide us into waiting, both through Jesus’ teaching and the words of those who first understood Jesus as God’s response to their waiting. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus describes a world about to fall apart. Jesus speaks of signs that the fulfillment of hope is about to occur. The writer presents Jesus talking directly to the situation his Christian community faces. For the early Jewish Christian community, signs of a world in the midst of decay were around them: the savior rejected, the holy city threatened by tensions, and the occupying empire as strong as ever.
Today, it’s not so difficult for us to look at the world around us and notice a world falling apart. The lament of Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (64:1a) might just as well be on your lips or mine. They are the words of those who long for healing, for reconciliation, for justice. The cry echoes around the world, in Palestine and Israel, in West Africa, in Central America, in Ferguson, in our homes and those of our neighbors. Depending on where you’re looking, it can look like we’re at the very worst already. So does it mean we’re at the end?
Any student knows that watching the clock slowly tick the minutes away doesn’t really make math – or English- or Physics- go by any faster, but it is helpful to know that the end is coming and to watch the progress of time towards that longed-for goal.
Jesus talks about knowing the signs when the time has come. Could it be that by noticing enough of these signs, we’ll be able to know when that end-of-the-hour buzzer is about to ring? There’s a strong voice in our culture that tries to do just that. It might feel better to know how much longer we have to endure the pain of grief, the horror of violence, the cruelty of injustice. Like a runner who finds the strength in him to push through the final lap rather than give up to exhaustion, if we knew we only have to push onwards in faith for another month, or year… maybe that would be helpful.
But Jesus isn’t so precise.
For us, the point of Jesus’ teaching is not to guess at what exact time God will act, as if we have to get our act together before that, but to have a childlike faith, with a childlike sense of time. As children, we can be sure that God will act, without being too connected to a timetable. Five minutes from now, tomorrow, ten years from now, the span of time doesn’t matter so much as the anticipation.
Way back in September, Little started talking about Christmas. The stores weren’t even decorated yet, but she wanted to know if we’d be going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for Christmas. We said yes, and for the next week, she’d wake up and tell us that we’d be going to Grandma and Grandpa’s on Christmas. Every time we were on the phone with them, she’d excitedly declare, “I’m going to your house on Christmas!” We’d try to explain it was really a long time until Christmas, after all the leaves would be gone, and the snow would be falling. But none of that dampened her excitement. She remembers the promised trip to her beloved family and even though she doesn’t have much sense of how many days are left until Christmas, continues to be excited for it.
We’re given a faith that encourages us to wait for God to act decisively, to bring life and healing. Some days, it can seem unbearably long. Will the day ever come? When will God answer prayer? When will God end suffering? When will the space between earth and heaven be destroyed? When will Jesus return, to never leave us again?
How can we live with this tension of anticipation? Are we fools to continue waiting? Is there anything to wait for?
Secular culture picks up on the human capacity for longing and hope. This is the season for cheesier than usual Hallmark movies. We find the theme of waiting even in these storylines. It might go like this: The mid-life mother who hasn’t spoken to her daughter for the last twenty years, sets a place for her at the Christmas table every year, hoping she’ll come home. In the Gospel according to Hallmark, the mother’s faithfulness, her loving devotion to her estranged child is rewarded with a miraculous return and a renewal of relationship. Love is at the center of her longing and her hope. Love has the tenacity to hold on when rationality would let go, give up, and forget.
That’s where even outside of the church, people get it right. It’s love that makes it possible for us to live in hope, and to trust that the one in whom we hope will not abandon us. God has shown God’s love for you in Jesus. Jesus enters our human life: joy and suffering, and goes deepest in the places of despair, so that you would never be separated from God. Jesus forges the connection of love through his death and resurrection, so that you would always be held in God. Jesus invites you to be people of love. Let Jesus’ show of love for you inspire you to greater love, and in that love, find hope for longing fulfilled.
When will all be fulfilled? Some day. Maybe sooner, maybe later. Time to one who operates with a child-like faith isn’t what it is to those who operate according to watches and calendars. It’s not only in waiting for God to come again that we operate in a time that is out of sync with the world.
We Christians live our lives on a messed up time table. We live backwards into eternity. Today we have the joy of welcoming J* through baptism into the life we share in Christ. He was born just a few short months ago, but today he will die- he will drown to a life lived to himself, a life lived alone, a mortal life. He will be born again. Jesus will raise him to new life- a life lived to God, a life lived with God, with the whole people of God, beginning now and lasting forever.
We will say that J* has already died and been brought into Jesus’ life. But he is not yet completely living the resurrection life that is wholly in God’s presence. Still, we might count his eternal life as beginning today, and going on without end and without decay. That’s the life you also share. The sand of your span of life isn’t slipping through the hourglass. Your end has already occurred and your new beginning through baptism has changed the quality of your life, so that you remain forever renewed in the presence of God.
There’s a phrase we use to describe the time in which we live in relation to what God is doing. To describe what it is to live as a baptized Christian who has already died and is united with Christ, but still subject to the decay of this world. The phrase is: Already and not yet. Jesus has already won over death, fear, and sin. But our world is not yet changed by Jesus’ victory. So we wait, confident in the love of Jesus, looking forward to that day when creation will be restored and the eternal life in God’s presence will continue on forever. May God continue to fill you with longing for the time when God’s answer to our hurting world will be Jesus’ victory already and now and forever. Amen.
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