Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Already But Not Yet

Advent 2
9 December 2012

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Baruch 5.1-9; Luke 1.68-79; Philippians 1.3-11; Luke 3.1-6
            From time to time people ask me why I believe in God.  Their question often begins or continues with a list of the problems and evils that human beings are presently experiencing.  Each person has a different list, but these lists usually include such things as poverty, disease, natural disasters, environmental degradation, human rights abuses, the oppression of minorities and wars, to name but a few.  The reasoning behind such questioning is this:  If there were a God, then these evils would not exist.

            Every once and a while the question comes with a personal story.  Some people will ask me how can I believe in God when they were the victims of sexual or physical abuse by a person who claimed to be religious.  Other people will ask me how can I believe in God when they or someone they love is suffering a cruel disease.  A brave few ask me how I can believe in God when there are so many atrocities perpetrated by so-called ‘religious’ people.

            These are not new questions nor unknown accusations.  Throughout human history people of faith have been challenged by the realities of their present, so challenged that questions about their faith were the natural outcomes of their sufferings and their doubts.

            The writer of the book we know call Baruch wrote during a time of cultural and religious turmoil for the people of Israel.  Although they had been released from exile in Babylon and had rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, a new conqueror had come from the north:  Greek culture embodied in Alexander the Great and planted throughout the Middle East by Alexander’s generals after his death as they divided up the spoils of his conquest.  Time and time again the Jews were subject to religious persecution.  We can almost hear the question, “Why have you abandoned us?  Why did you allow us to return to our land only to be subject to a new oppressor?”

            Baruch’s answer is one that other scriptural witnesses have used:  We live in the already but not yet.  Baruch reminds the people that they have been the recipients of God’s mercy at various times in their histories.  It is true that misfortunes have come upon the people, whether through their own bad choices or as victims of the political forces that moved around them.  But the greater truth is that God has acted for them and God has promised to act for them again.  So, Baruch writes, let us live in the already of God’s history and await in hope for the promise of God’s yet to come.

            We can see the same dynamic in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Of the many communities that Paul established, the church in Philippi seems to have been one of his favourites.  But even they were beginning to ask questions about the future, and Paul answers them by writing, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”  (Philippians 1.6)

            Paul doesn’t try to explain away the challenges they are experiencing; he simply calls them to remember what God has already begun in them and to hope in the promise that what God has begun will be fulfilled.  In the meantime, Paul exhorts them to live their lives as if that future were already here.  Even though we live in the already but not yet, Paul might say, God still gives us life, abundant life, in the here and now.

            This same message can be found in Luke’s account of the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist.  The ministry of John takes place in real time and in real places, but it is an embodiment of a promise made generations before.  For John the kingdom of God is both a present reality and a future promise.  The question he asks of those who come to him is this:  Are you willing to live in this present as if God’s future were already here?

            It is, I think, unfortunate that the New Revised Standard Version does not give us a more helpful translation of Luke’s description of John’s message:  “[John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  (Luke 3.3)  A more helpful translation of Luke’s original Greek is from the Common English Bible:  “John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.”

            How shall we change our hearts and lives so that we can live abundantly in the already but not yet that is our daily lives?  Surely we begin to do so when we learn how to look at the world as a people who are expecting signs of God’s presence rather than mourn God’s absence in our lives and the lives of those around us.

            To the people of his generation Baruch seems to say, ‘Yes, these are hard times, but so was the exile, so was the exodus.  We came back from near death then.  Surely God is not finished with us yet!  Are there no signs of God’s presence today?’ 

            To the church at Philippi Paul seems to say, ‘Yes, the return of Jesus has been delayed.  It’s not what we expected, but look at what God has already done among us.  Look around.  Isn’t God continuing to work among us now?’

            My colleague, Sallie McFague, is fond of quoting the words of another theologian whose name I cannot remember:  “Be careful how you look at the world, because that’s the way it is!”  Some of you may remember I’m just as fond of quoting this as well.  This is what John is saying to his audience:  ‘Are you prepared to change the way you look at the world?  If you are, then you will see the signs of God’s kingdom.  If you are not, then you will continue in darkness.’

            Do I believe in God?  Yes, I do.  Why?  Because when I look around me, I see signs of God’s activity all around me.  I also know how people’s lives are changed when they begin to look for God at all times and in all places.  I know that when people live this way, they change themselves and their neighbourhoods.  When we look at the world in this way, our problems and challenges do not magically disappear nor do the cruelties and injustices that we inflict on one another vanish. 

            But what does change is our sense of our role in God’s saving work.  Because we have begun to see with new eyes, eyes looking for the kingdom of God, hope replaces fear and uncertainty.  We are no longer tossed by the waves and winds of fate.  We become mariners of the sea of history and learn how to use the winds and currents to tack our way towards God’s promised future.

            With Paul I can say that I am confident of this, that God who has begun a good work among us will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ, the day that this season of Advent bids us await with joy, with hope and with confidence.  So let us keep our eyes open and our hearts expectant as we live in the already but not yet!  Amen.

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