Sunday, November 27, 2011

How to Know What to Know

A Communion Meditation

© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011

Mark 13:24-37

But about that day or hour no ones knows...

And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.

The television interviewer, having taken a full 90 seconds to plumb the depths of some complicated issue like abortion or the Supreme Court nominating process with two people representing opposing viewpoints, turns to one and says, “We’re just about out of time. George, in the 15 seconds we have left, just what is the future of Western civilization as you see it?”

“We’re just about out of time.” If we think of it as more than a code phrase from television, meaning a commercial is coming soon, it sounds just a little ominous, doesn’t it? How does being near the end change things? How much time do we get, exactly? Is there any chance that – like the television interviewer – we will know when our time has just about expired, or will it sneak up on us, surprising us from behind, like a “thief in the night”? When we hear people talking about the “end of the world,” what do they mean? Is the world’s end the same as its conclusion, its finish? Or is the world’s end more analogous to the old catechism, which asks, “What is the chief end of man?” suggesting that the end is the goal, the purpose of time, not just its termination?

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus questions the assumption that people can know anything about the timing of the world’s finish. He declared that even he didn’t know: “...about that day or hour no one knows,” he said, “neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” I have to wonder about the authors of those Left Behind books which were rather popular a few years ago. They were forever predicting some cataclysmic termination of the world with all the assurance of a meteorologist forecasting dry weather for the Sahara. How do they know? If they claim scripture as their authority, why have they overlooked this passage? Jesus says even he won’t know the day or hour.

While Jesus doubted those who answer questions about end times saying, “Here!” he seems to confirm those who say “Near!” when he declared flatly, “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

What is he saying? It has been many generations since Jesus’ time. Anyone who has waited at the station for 2,000 years for a train that has not yet arrived may be reasonably certain that it is not coming, at least not in the way we had imagined. There must be more to this truth about the nearness of the kingdom of God, the coming of the Son of Man. What is the end of time exactly? Why is he telling the church this?

I am convinced that these are not intended to be passages of imminent threat or terror – which some would make them out to be – but rather words of hope and invitation.

Like the widow with only two remaining pennies, which she gave away, Jesus spoke to people who realized that reliance on themselves and their own tiny resources for salvation was useless. They knew their utter dependence on some other Word to save them, some Word beyond the words they could fashion for themselves. Like them, as long as we cling to the myth of our own self-sufficiency, we are doomed to misunderstand Jesus’ words.

This Word from the Bible affirms a world very different from our own world, a world in which God is in command, despite all appearances to the contrary. It is a world in which the “end,” the goal of God’s creation, will become apparent in God’s own time. This is a Word which speaks to us and says the kingdom is near in spite of the powerlessness, the disillusionment we may feel with our governing authorities, with the crazy-quilt process for such things as electing presidents, and with the ascendancy of world powers at odds with our own. Even in spite of our anxieties closer to home, when a sudden blizzard or hurricane cancels our travel plans, when we stand by helplessly as our child drives into the distance on their own behind the wheel for the first time, when the oncology report arrives and informs us we have cancer, God is still Lord of the universe, still ruler of God’s own creation, still near to his people.

Jesus declares that just when things seem lost, that is especially when we may know that God is truly near to us. The kingdom of God is at hand. It is near. Not as a threat, but as a promise. Not as an added cause for anxiety, but as an assurance that the outcome of all we do is not ultimately up to us.

Think again on the phrase, “We’re out of time.” Looking at it quantitatively, we think of time as a commodity. We have a certain amount of it. Some is gone, some remains. We keep careful track of the amount gone by, we record our birth dates and after age25 or so, we celebrate them every year with less enthusiasm. The amount remaining to us is a mystery, and apparently was just as much of a mystery to Jesus as it is to us. But look at the sentence qualitatively. “We’re out of time.” We are beyond time, we are living a reality of the kingdom of God which is not earthbound, not beholden to the stopwatch, not measured by the tick of the clock or the dating of half-lives of isotopes, but by the standards of eternity.

The Greeks had two good words for time. One was chronos, as in chronological, and it refers to measured time, the counting up of one day, one year after another. The other word, though, was kairos, and it refers to those points in time which are decisive, bursting with possibility. The end of chronos, or chronological clock-ticking time is of little concern to the biblical writers who cared not so much how the world began or will wind up as they puzzled over why.

What meaning is there in time other than its amount? Marking its passage chronologically will never tell us. We must look for the meaning of time in its kairos, in its decisiveness and our response to opportunities to decide. Paul said, “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly...”[1] He didn’t mean that particular hour in that particular day in that particular year. He meant that God’s mysterious plan for who we are and what we may be had moved to the decisive point when “word made flesh” also made sense.

Because of the ministry of Christ, we are spiritual people, outside of time, living over and above and beyond clock-bound time, and as such, we are near the kingdom of God, eternal time. Near, but not here, because we live in two worlds at once. We’re not there yet. We are not now fully in the kingdom of heaven. We have some distance, some time to go. But we know it is real, as real as the world we inhabit on every single day of our lives. We know all too well the world of deadlines, of schedules, and time-frames. But knowing Christ, we know that this is not the only time in which we are at home. We are also at home beyond time, in kingdom time, in the eternity for which Christ has made us fit.

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Romans 5:6