So, we begin at the end. That’s what Advent asks us to do. It throws linear time down and sideways. We look at the end and let it interpret and give meaning to the present.
I saw an attempt at this perspective a little while back in an advertisement in an airline magazine I was perusing while on a flight. The title was: “Timisis: Biological Clock with a twist.” It began with, “Think time is on your side? Think again. Chicago inventors show just how quickly life slips away with the Timisis Lifeclock.”
What you do is program your age and sex in the memory, and this $100 clock shaped like a 3-D isosceles triangle counts down the hours, minutes and seconds in your life-time, assuming 75 years for men and 80 for women. If that’s too depressing, every minute the clock also flashes one of 160 motivational messages designed to inspire productivity and creativity. They range from the pragmatic “All resistance begins in the mind” to “Eat your vegetables.” It sold 15,000 in 8 months the article said.
A hydraulic operator, 62, in Glacier, Washington, knows this. His clock on his refrigerator, says he’s got 152,078 hours left (set on 80). But he’s not complaining. “Boy, I really do hope I have that much time,” he laughs. It’s a sharp jab in the ribs once in a while to remind you that, hey, you’re mortal.”
The attempt then, is that by a stark reminder of the end, in this case death, one is to be inspired to live life more fully now, in the present.
There is a point here, not unlike what we hear in our scriptures for today on this First Sunday of Advent. The people of Isaiah around 550 BCE are completely disoriented in the wake of a devastating exile. The temple is in ruins – the desolation of Jerusalem. Nothing is the same. The community’s religious foundation has been shaken to the core and they want to know where God is! Their plea is “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down…to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” The hope of God coming again changes the present.
In Paul’s letter he is encouraging the faithful of the first century Corinthian church to use the gifts given them to grow in faith as they wait “for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will strengthen you to the end.” And when that church gathered for Eucharist, they did so in anticipation, expecting the Lord to come at any moment and usher in the fullness of God’s reign. Again, a vision of the end changes the present.
Even in Mark, the people are in fear and uncertainty. Jesus dismisses the desire to cling to the temple for God is not in the temple made by humans. God will not be in the place where we look, where we worship, where we try and grasp onto old forms. The Son of Man is coming with power and great glory as the Kingdom of God is here right in the midst of the uncertainty - “We remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.”
So the end and how we view the end changes the now, even a now of uncertainty and anxiety. On the clock, time is running out. Our faith is much more than that, however, and gives a very different perspective. My guess is that the clock is not enough of a motivator. We change the now, as the people of God, so that it more clearly reflects God’s vision of the future. We make, if you will, the future-present. The Kingdom of God is already a reality among us and in us. Our motivation is the love of God and his vision in Jesus to make all things new, on earth as it is in heaven.
Henri Nouwen once said, “You are a Christian only so long as you constantly pose critical questions to the society in which you live – so long as you stay unsatisfied with the status quo and keep saying that a new world is yet to come.” Christian hope always views the reality of the present world from the perspective of the end – and sees the present through the eyes of God’s desire for the creation. The end judges the present and is why we pray “Thy Kingdom Come.” The Christian is never satisfied until the new heaven and new earth have arrived. In this sense we are always an Advent people, unsatisfied with the way things are that are less than God’s hope for the world.
Yet, having said that, we also discover that our hope is not in our own human ability to change ourselves or the world. If we could, we would have done so by now. What we are about is not merely becoming a little better, a bit more good or moral; we are not here only to create a better behaving child in order to be a better citizen or even merely to instill a healthy value system. All of these are good things to be sure. Jesus, however, is calling forth a whole new creation – changing the world order and its people as a part of it. Jesus comes not to make us good, but to make us holy. To wake up and be on watch is to act as if it all depends on us, but believing and knowing that in the end it all depends on God. Our hope is not in our ability to change the world. Our hope is in One whose birth we celebrate in 3 weeks.
You and I, as affirmed in our baptism, belong to a God shown forth in Christ who promises that the end is already secure. We live now and seek to change the world now, as an act of thanksgiving for the promised life to come. The promise changes the present. Our hope, past, present and future, is held in Christ Jesus. His call to us now is to “Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come…and what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”