Saturday, December 12, 2009

It's About Time

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2009.

Text: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18

Somebody asked a couple of weeks ago where to buy an Advent calendar. I pondered a minute on the fact that I don’t think I have ever actually bought an Advent calendar. When my kids were growing up, we used a red and green chain made of construction paper. Inside each link was something to do to get ready for Christmas. Each of the four of us, and even the dog, had a special day during Advent. Then there were some feasts like St. Nicholas Day which we always celebrated in lieu of a big Santa Claus to-do at Christmas time.

It’s fun keeping track of time when you think you’re waiting for something special—as special as Christmas is to a kid. I don’t know that it is so much fun counting the days until you go in the hospital for surgery, or the weeks left before your case comes to trial. But we are creatures who are peculiarly attuned to time. We are conscious of past and future, although we only know of them in the present.

If you are waiting for Christmas, you can quite literally count the days, the hours, the minutes before it arrives. You can know precisely when it will be here, how many more shopping days left between now and then, and when it will be over with. That is because Advent calendars and date books and Blackberries and Palm Pilots all measure clock time. Χρονος it is called in the New Testament. But there is another kind of time, just as real, maybe even more real, than the time measured by clocks and watches. It is what the New Testament calls καιρος, and it has more the sense of “season” or “the right time” or “the favorable time.” It can also mean a fixed point in time, and can mean a period of time, such as the span of time when Pontius Pilate was procurator or when Augustus was Caesar. One of the things that καιρος means is the time of crisis or the last times. There is a good deal of interest in the last times, or the Messianic times, in the New Testament. People in general start thinking about the last times when they become increasingly convinced that things are bad and getting worse (and that is a good deal of the people a good deal of the time). When John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea preaching repentance, he appealed to people who were already on the tiptoe of expectancy, ready to welcome the arrival of the last things. Of course, the “last things” did not necessarily mean the end of the world so much as it meant a thorough housecleaning by the Coming Messiah. Wheat and chaff would be separated, good and evil sorted out, and a great big bonfire set to take care of worthlessness. If you are waiting for that kind of event you are definitely waiting for a καιρος, not a χρονος, moment.

It is frequently said that when Jesus came people were particularly ready for him because they were expecting such a καιρος moment. That is partly true. We rarely experience καιρος time unless we are open to it, awaiting it, anticipating something different. That is one of the funny things about these καιρος events: they are frequently missed, dismissed, undervalued, and misunderstood if we are not attuned to them. But it is partly not true because there was a very old idea that God was going to show up in human history, and was going to look quite different from what Jesus turned out to look like. Our prophet in today’s first lesson, Zephaniah, was one of the clearer voices proclaiming the Day of the Lord. He did this six hundred years or so before Jesus actually appeared. (That is to say that Zephaniah was about as temporally close to Jesus as, say, Henry VIII of England is to us.) Most people don’t remember what was in the news three or four years ago, and couldn’t care less about what was happening a generation or two ago, let alone what somebody was announcing six hundred years ago. But this is exactly where our community of faith has a different sense of time and of reality from the sense that prevails in the world of ordinary human affairs. We think not so much in terms of χρονος as in terms of καιρος. What’s a year? What’s a century? What’s a millennium? These things don’t matter nearly as much as the coming to birth of a Truth, a Presence, a Reality that folks are open to, ready to embrace, eager to greet.

The Day of the Lord, Zephaniah said, was not pretty. It would be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry. He doesn’t sound too different from many a voice in the present period who are telling us about climate change and terrorism and global economic meltdown and endless war. And, generally speaking, Zephaniah was saying all these things with the hope of making a point: that Jerusalem—Judah—had to change, had to renew its Covenant with the Creator, had to change its ways. Think of Zephaniah as proposing a massive intervention in Jerusalem, much as we might confront an alcoholic or substance abuser. The point is not just to predict doom; it is to get a change in behavior. You can see the parallel between him and John the Baptist. John’s idea, like Zephaniah’s, was not to announce the great and terrible dies irae of God’s judgment; it was to confront and exhort people to repent. It was, after all, as Luke says, “good news.”

A piece of relatively good news is that this is not the only Advent season that we are likely to see. There will be others and others and still more, well past the lifetimes, I suspect, of everybody here. Of course, there are always predictions of Doomsday, and a great many people buy into them. The Mayan calendar runs out in 2012, and many see that chronological time as a kind of καιρος moment signaling the end of the world. Conservatives and reactionaries swear that as the old order crumbles, the world will simply go to hell. Some of them seem plenty pleased with that. But liberals, too, predict dire consequences of economic disasters and climate apocalypse. Nobody seems to be selling much hope.

Unless it is the faithful proclaimers of the gospel, like, I hope, you. With our eyes open and with clear heads, we are once more articulating an Advent message. “My spirit rejoices,” we say, “in God my Savior.” Sing aloud, O daughter Zion! The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst. Look at him: a victor dancing in the midst of you like a young, strong, vibrant warrior, far more intent on singing than on fighting, far more taken with his own dancing than with his enemies, for more enchanted with you his beloved than preoccupied with his enemies.

We keep talking this way because we believe it is the Truth. It may take six or seven hundred more years, or maybe not, for it all to come around. But we know. We have seen it before. When we thought there was absolutely nothing to be done and no hope for the morrow, a young woman conceived and brought forth a son. He showed us how life could be lived out of love and not fear. He came among us and washed our feet when we could only compete, forgave our sins when we thought we’d be stuck in therapy forever, taught us that in giving we would become rich, and that in learning to die we would strangely learn to live. In him, the old Day of the Lord stopped being something to dread and became something to celebrate. And we even believe that when we gather around a table today, hearing and seeing a new priest speak words he spoke, he is powerfully and surprising present, making out of many individuals one body capable of actually adding joy to the world.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009

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