...in the meantime...
1 Samuel 2:1-10, Mark 13:1-8, November 15, 2015
Christians live in two worlds. We might call one of these worlds, “the here and now” and the other world could be called “the coming reign of God.” These is a necessary tension between these two worlds. But we often collapse into one world and ignore the other. I’ve been a Presbyterian all my life, so I know our tendency is to live in the here and now world. We keep our collective eye on the ground at our feet and our collective noses to the grindstone. If the coming reign of God is going to come, let it, in its own time. In the meantime, we’re safe, or at least we feel safe, taking care of life as we live it every day.
Other Christians, not many in this community, live in the other world. They are convinced that the coming reign of God is so imminent that they stop functioning in this world and put all their hopes and dreams into the future, when the struggles of history will end and we will all live [or at least all of the right kind of believers will live] eternally in God’s presence. A lot of Paul’s writing, which composed a lot of the New Testament, is written to people who expect God’s reign to break into history dramatically, and in the very near future. For example, Paul advises the Corinthian Christians not to go to the bother of getting married; to those who are in mourning he advises them to act as though they have nothing to mourn and those who are rejoicing to act as though they have nothing to rejoice about, “…the appointed time has grown short… [I Cor 7:29] “For the present form of this world is passing away.” [I Cor. 7:31]
Last week someone passed on a newspaper clipping about two pastors who had spent years studying scripture and had concluded that the end times are upon us. They pointed to passages like this morning’s gospel lesson in which Jesus mentioned “wars and rumors of wars” and that “Nation will rise against nation” and “there will be earthquakes in various places, there will be famines…” And they mentioned the eclipse in September when the earth’s shadow covered the moon and the moon appeared to be an eerie shade of red. They cited the second chapter of the Book of the Prophet Joel, which says this
I will show portents in the heavens and on earth, blood and fire and
columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon
to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone
who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and
in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and
among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.
And it’s hard to argue with these two pastors. There are signs all around. And in the 21st century when we hear about natural disasters and conflicts among nations instantly. There are always signs of the beginning of the end times, or what Jesus called “the beginnings of the birth pangs.”
Now I’m only 51 years old, but all my life I have heard of wars and rumors of wars, and earthquakes in various places—it seems as though we have always lived in times that Jesus identifies for his disciples as “the beginning of the birth pangs.” How can we know whether the coming reign God is imminent? What would be a sign for us to start living with the assumption that end was coming next week?
Perhaps it’s not a question of either/or—one world the here and now—against the other, the Coming Reign of God. Perhaps it’s a tension that we have to manage as we live in both worlds at the same time.
In the Here and Now World we do things like gather for worship and praise God and remember, even rehearse, God’s activity in history. We tell stories from the Bible of how God heard the prayer of a woman who was heart broken because she hadn’t had any children. And how Hannah poured out her heart on the annual trip to sacrifice at Shiloh and the priest thought she was drunk, but she was pouring out her soul in prayer to God. And her prayer was answered, and the vows she made before the Lord she kept and she dedicated her son, whom she named Samuel, to the Lord’s service.
Our Old Testament lesson this morning is the song that Hannah sang when Samuel was dedicated to the Lord’s service at Shiloh. A song about how God hears the prayers of the lowly, and raises the poor from the dust and brings down the mighty. It’s a song about God acting in the here and now. And a song that points to the future: “The Lord will judge the ends of the earth…” The Lord’s not done yet!
And Samuel grew up and God worked through Samuel and he was the one who anointed Israel’s first king, Saul. And Samuel was the one who anointed their greatest king, David. We’ll hear more about David next week. This whole story began with a troubled woman pouring out her heart in prayer. God heard, God answered, and so we know that God works in the here and now.
It’s appropriate that we talk about the here and now world on a day when we renew our commitment to the Day by Day Warming Shelter. What could be more real than working to keep vulnerable people protected and fed during the coldest months of the year? And next Saturday, we will host our monthly Community Breakfast and guests from the warming shelter and from throughout the area will be welcomed and fed. I am very pleased, and proud, of this ministry. We claim our location as a downtown church—here and now—and merge it with our insistence of having food at all functions to make a real, substantial, meaningful impact in the lives of lots of people. And we’re making friends!
Our gospel lesson this morning is the opposite of the here and now world. Jesus is preparing his disciples for what they will encounter after he dies—false messiahs, people who claim to be the savior come back, wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines…And we could think, “Well, obviously, he’s talking about now.” And I wonder about the news coverage in Jesus’ day. I mean today we have CNN and the worldwideweb and the 24 hour news cycle that is always putting events into our consciousness. We hear about every minor earthquake and every plane cash around the world. In fact, there’s even a term for people like us, in the First World, who simply are worn out with hearing about tragedies far away: Compassion Fatigue.
I doubt that wars, famines and earthquakes are more common today, but our awareness of them is much greater than 2,000 years ago.
Jesus said, “these are the birth pangs.” To which his disciples must have asked, “Well, Jesus, when is the baby coming?” And we’re still waiting. We are STILL waiting. Some of us have forgotten that. Most of us, probably. But the fact is we are waiting for Christ to return. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we recite The Mystery of Faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. It’s only ten words, but it’s a powerful reminder that Christians really have a foot in both the Here and Now World and The Coming Reign of God. Those words are so familiar they’re almost meaningless, but they remind us, at least once a month, that we are waiting for Christ to return.
And no one knows exactly when that will happen. In fact, Jesus said, “About the day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.” [Matt. 24:36] And that verse gives us an interesting way to approach when Christ will return. If no one knows the time when Christ will return, then the one moment we can be certain that Christ will not return is when someone claims he will! All of which is a long winded way of saying we live in history, but God is above and outside of history and is working in ways that we cannot even conceive.
We worship God here and now, but we’re living in the meantime, awaiting something even greater. We need to cultivate our faith in God, we need to learn to share it with other people, we need to celebrate expressions of our faith wherever we find them.
Our God, the Creator of the universe will one day bring history to an end. And we will dwell with God and God will dwell in our midst. God has something even more marvelous that we know in mind for the universe. Let us bring some of God’s future into our present, and put our own desires aside as we try to imagine what that might be. Amen.