December 4, 2011 Now and Future Salvation
Isaiah 40:1-11 Psalm 85 2 Peter 3:8-15a Mark 1:1-8
Advent begins a new year for the church – out of sync with secular society which celebrates beginning of new year on January 1. The church is also out of sync with holiday celebrations that are part of this year as they rush to Christmas, forgetting Advent. Personally glad for a respite from celebration, enjoyed Thanksgiving, but needed a break before Christmas celebrations began, experiencing the letdown after a good party.
So here we are at the beginning of another church year. New year begins with end times, not the birth of Christ but the second coming of Jesus. Jesus has already been born, is already present in the world. What we celebrate is the anniversary of the birth. God does not repeat himself, always new. The unique event of Jesus’ birth will not be repeated. Jesus will come again but not like the first time; Jesus will come at the end of time. Readings remind us of this, remind us of the need for salvation for our lives are not meant to last forever, nor is the world going to last forever.
Psalm for today considered a lament by some, a prophetic liturgy by others. Beautiful psalm that transcends time, encompasses past, present and future within the lines of poetry. Verses 1-3, begin with past, recalling the “good old days,” a time past when circumstances were better. Recalls how God restored the fortunes of Jacob – the nation, not the man. Psalm could be referring to any number of incidents, in this better time God restored them to physical prosperity by restoring the land; God forgave their sins and restored their relationship with God by withdrawing his anger. It was a golden age romanticized in remembrance as we so often do when thinking about the past.
Verses 4-7 refer to the present, a time of some danger. The people stand before God in their need and plead for God to once again restore their fortunes, reflecting on how God restored their fortunes in the past. “Show us thy mercy, O Lord, and grant us thy salvation,” they say, pleading for salvation, a restoration of relationship with God.
Verses 8-13 take us to a future time. God responds to his people and the poet bursts forth in beautiful poetic images of a time in the future when all will be restored, order will be restored. At times this passage is considered eschatological referring to end times, the glories of heaven, but it is also situated on earth, God’s glory shows forth on earth. It is a both/and situation – vision of heaven and of heaven on earth. It is a time when love and faithfulness will meet once again, righteousness and peace will kiss. Implication is that these natural pairs have been unnaturally separated in this world but will now be brought back together. Faithfulness will spring up from the earth, righteousness come down from heaven and join together in perfect harmony, between heaven and earth. Earth will finally live in accord with God’s will, how God intended earth to be and God will give what is good.
We see in this psalm past, present and future held together in a way that transcends time, a new sense of time that encompasses all time. All those of you who are older understand how this can be. There is a new sense of time that can come with age, which has been termed gerotranscendence, or climbing over age. Memories of past events from our childhood seem like only yesterday, are as real now as when they first happened. You can hold the past and present together in a new way you couldn’t before. The veil that separates this life from the next gets thinner as we age and grow closer to our ultimate future. Time takes on a whole new meaning as we are caught between this world and the next.
Isaiah passage, beginning of second Isaiah, includes the first words of Handel’s masterpiece, the Messiah. We hear the beautiful oracle – “Comfort, give comfort to my people.” God is calling the prophet to speak words of comfort. First Isaiah is dominated by words of warning, calling upon the people to repent, return to their God, to true worship of God, before it is too late. Second Isaiah speaks words of comfort to a people in exile. The Hebrew people did not listen to God speaking through the prophets; their country was overthrown by Babylon and their people were taken away. God lets them know through the prophet that their time of exile will soon be over. God will make a path for them in the desert. God will clear the way for them, lowering the mountains and raising the valleys to make the way smooth for God’s people. There is a sense of an immediate, soon to happen, future, as well as a distant future, foretelling the return of the exiles as well as foretelling a much more distant future when all nations shall be gathered together under the one Shepherd. Such is the beauty of prophetic passages, they can apply to a concrete situation as well as another future time, the end time. The events in this passage have happened and yet haven’t happened: another situation of both/and, both are true.
In the passage from Mark, we have the beginning of the story of Jesus, Christ, Son of God. John the Baptist prepares the way. Just as God prepared a way in the desert for the Israelites, John is preparing the way for Jesus, who proclaims the kingdom God. Jesus’ birth inaugurated the kingdom so that we live in the kingdom while anticipating the kingdom, it is both present in the here and now and for the future.
2 Peter reminds us of the last days, end time. Thanks to Jesus, we are already living in the end time; God’s kingdom is present yet not complete as we work for the fulfillment of God’s word in this world. A thousand years are but a day in God’s time and so we wait for God’s time, staying ready, prepared for Jesus whenever he might come again and busy about the work of building God’s kingdom.
Our psalm for today is all about salvation, a plea for salvation. We already have salvation and yet we need to be busy about salvation. Jesus was born, walked this earth and died for us, to save us. Like God’s kingdom, it is now, ours already, and yet for a future time. In our psalm, peace is related to salvation. God will speak peace to his people, his salvation is at hand, not only is at hand, is here and now because of Jesus. Certainly that is reason enough for feeling a sense of peace, the peace that the world cannot give, that only God can give, a peace based on justice, doing what is right, God’s justice. Wherever there is injustice, there is no peace, which is why there is so little peace in our world.
So what are we to do, we who are living in these end times? Sometimes we can wonder about our lives, have they had meaning, have we made a difference, does it matter that we walked on this earth, a hundred years from now, who will remember, who will care, for we like grass will die and our memories fade from the land as the prophet reminds us. Advent is a good time to wonder about these, a good time to ask what remains undone in my life, what do I need to be busy about in order to be ready for Jesus when he comes for me? Advent is a good time to wonder about salvation.
C.S. Lewis tells us in Mere Christianity, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither. It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters. Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining there is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more –food, games, work, fun, open air. In the same way we shall never save civilization as long as civilization is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more.”
And so what are we to do? Conduct ourselves in holiness and devotion, as Paul tells us, thereby waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of the Lord. We need to be busy about building God’s kingdom, busy about our own salvation as well as the salvation of the world, building a world of true peace based on righteousness. We need to be ready when Jesus calls just as the Hebrew nation had to be ready to return. Perhaps they had gotten accustomed to Babylon, made a new life there, might have been hard to leave, but leave they must just as we must when called. We need to both prepare the way for ourselves and for others and be ready to take the way whenever Jesus calls.
Copyright December 2011, Robertson