Sunday, December 7, 2014

Why The Wait?

I recently watched this science program that reconstructed what happened in the very first second after the Big Bang. The short answer is: an awful lot! It began with a singularity—all the energy of our universe compressed into an infinitesimally small space (although space didn't exist then). And suddenly it was all expanding at mind-blowing speeds. There was a brief period in which none of the laws that now govern the universe existed. The 4 principle forces came into being, with gravity doing a lot of the work, creating pocket universes as it rippled out through the new creation. But what really surprised me was that the first atom wasn't created for like 380,000 years! So we had a universe that was without the basic building block of all matter. Why did it take so long?

In one sense you could say, “Who's asking?” It's not like any of us were there, impatiently tapping our feet and looking at our watches. Time, some argue, is a human construct, a matter of perception. It is our way of keeping track of events, sorting them out so we know what has happened, what is happening and what will happen.  Various things can skew that perception. People with Alzheimer's disease forget recent events but retain older memories longer. So, as the disease progresses, they time-travel backwards and find themselves living mentally at ever earlier points in their lives.

In fact time runs differently depending on how fast you are going and even how high you are in relation to the earth. Einstein famously did a thought experiment in which you had twins and one traveled into space on a ship going near the speed of light. When he returned to earth, he would be younger, perhaps by years, than his earthbound twin. Very sensitive timepieces used for scientific experiments can be thrown off if they on a higher floor of a building. The realtime GPS that your phone uses has to be artificially adjusted because of the time differential between here and the satellite that is providing the data.

So the author of 2 Peter is not blowing smoke when he says that time runs differently for God than for us. It would be surprising if it did not. For one thing, time is one of his creations. God is eternal and lives outside of time. One of the best analogies I ever read about this is to compare our lives and history to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. If you are marching in the parade you cannot see the beginning or the end of the parade, just a little of what is before or behind you as well as the scenery passing by. That like being a mortal, stuck in your timestream. Your march has a beginning and an end and your view of history is limited to the time it takes you to complete the march and the route you take. But God is like the cameraman in the helicopter. He can not only, from a sufficient height, see the whole parade, he can focus in on any part for as long as he likes. He can visit and revisit whatever portions of the parade he decides to. He is not stuck in the parade and therefore he can see what is coming and what has past with equal ease. By analogy, that is God's relationship to time.

In Advent we are looking both at the past and at the future. We look back at the first coming of Christ as well as forward to his second coming. The prophets of old seemed to conflate the two. It's like looking at two mountains in the distance. One looks like it is right next to the other. But in fact the one on the right might be miles beyond the one on the left. They might be separated by a valley you cannot see from your present position. So the prophets spoke of God sending his Messiah to decisively deal with evil and to inaugurate God's kingdom and it often sounds as if those two events take place if not simultaneously, at least in close proximity.

Only in Isaiah do we get a hint of a two-stage mission for the Messiah. He speaks not only of God's judgment and restoration of the world but also of the great and fatal sufferings of God's servant. As it says in Isaiah 53:5, “He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds, crushed because of our sins; he endured punishment that made us well; because of his wounds we have been healed.” (NET Bible) But these passages were so difficult to understand, and so hard to stomach, that people tended to focus on what they really wanted: someone to give the bad guys their just desserts and to reward the good.

But God didn't want to do that yet. He sent Jesus to reveal his love and forgiveness, to preach the good news, to die for our sins and rise to give us hope. And then Jesus leaves. Which makes a lot of people ask “Why?” Why did Jesus not wrap up the two part mission, judge the people of the world and inaugurate the full-blown kingdom of God on earth?

Let's use another analogy. Part of the reason that we are having trouble wiping out Ebola in Africa is fear and denial. Recently on NPR's All Things Considered they reported on how a village was decimated because of one case of Ebola. A man's 16 year old son came from the capital city where he was staying with relatives, 3 of whom had died. When he returned to the village and got sick, his father recognized that what he had was Ebola. But he couldn't admit it to himself or to others. So they tried country medicine, rubbing herbs on his body. The boy's siblings died; his mother died; the people treating them died; the people who handled the bodies for burial died. From this one boy, 30 people contracted the deadly disease. Only 12, including his father, survived. They blamed witchcraft, they blamed grief, they blamed each other; they did everything but admit it was Ebola. Until it was too late.

There is one way that we could stop the Ebola outbreak immediately. We could kill everyone who has it. We could forget about trying to cure them and just end them—men, women, children. No hosts, no contagion. Kill them and burn their villages. End of story. Yet, even though this is one of the most lethal diseases ever, killing 2/3 to 3/4 of those who contract it, we don't give up on the infected and adopt a scorched earth policy. We don't do it because we want to save anyone and everyone we can.

And that's why Jesus did not, immediately after securing our salvation, pronounce judgment on all the sinners in the world and ring down the curtain on the present age. To God that would be like shooting the wounded and condemning the sick to die. Another analogy: Christ's first coming is to present the world with its diagnosis and set up its cure, his blood, his life for ours. He then dispatches his healthcare team to bring the cure to the world. And he leaves it to us to set up our churches/clinics for the spiritually ill, to dispense his cure, and to enlist more healthcare workers and spread the good news that there is hope for this world in him. God wants to give everyone the chance to accept or reject the cure.

What does that cure consist of? Jesus, his self-sacrificial love and forgiveness. We receive him through the infusion of his Holy Spirit into our lives, to transform us, to change our spiritual DNA from its current self-destructive pattern to a pattern of spiritual growth and renewal.

Like all healing and like all efforts to wipe out epidemics, this takes time. And that's what God has given us. Our passage from 2 Peter says, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” Repentance is simply a turn around, a change of mind, a change in behavior. The people of that village could have stopped the devastation of Ebola if they had admitted what the problem was, if they had stopped thinking in the old ways, and if they had changed their mind about what to do. But when health officials came to them, they lied about the cause rather than asking for help.

People do that with God as well. We don't like to admit what's wrong with us or that we need help. We just drink a little too much at times; we just have a bit of a temper; we just deserve to take a bit of the money we make for our company; we just like to flirt with people a little; we just want to give that person a small taste of his own medicine; we just don't have the time to deal with that person's problem; we just want Sundays to ourselves. We don't recognize these little things as symptoms of a bigger deeper problem. You know what the first symptoms of Ebola are? It's not bleeding from the eyes and orifices. It's fever, sore throat, muscle pain and headaches. And the best time to get help is when the first, rather minor symptoms appear. In the same way our spiritual illness first appears as little sins, small defections from loving God and loving others as ourselves. After all, serial killers don't start off by killing people. They begin by starting fires and torturing small animals. However big the sins, their seeds, like germs, are small.

But so are the seeds of our cure. As a nurse I have always been impressed by how the power of a drug is often inversely proportional to the size of the pill. Heart medications are usually tiny compared to vitamin tablets. Pain meds are dwarfed by antacids. Jesus said we only need a trust in him that is the size of mustard seed in order to move a mountain of obstacles.

2 Peter 3:11 goes on to ask “what sort of person ought you to be...?” The answer, it says, is one who is holy--that is, set apart for God's purposes--and godly--manifesting God's creative, transforming love. What does it say we are to do? Wait patiently for the time when God will once and for all redress the injustices of this world. That means not passing a verdict on anyone. We can of course judge if some actions are Christlike or not, spiritually beneficial or not. But we are not to pass final judgment on anyone or decide their final state. Only Jesus can do that, taking into account things we may not know about the person.

But 2 Peter also talks of “hastening the coming of the day of the Lord...” What does that mean? If God is holding back till everyone has the chance to respond to the gospel, then we can hasten that day by making sure everyone knows about the good news of what God has done and is doing for us through Jesus. We can plant and water and nurture the seeds of God's healing love. We can do that through encouraging and supporting and listening to and reconciling with and protecting and teaching and strengthening and understanding and comforting and laughing with and learning from and hugging and helping and enjoying and accepting and showing patience with and guiding and cooperating with and trusting and celebrating the people God puts in our lives.

But first we have to get to know them. And then we have to help them get to know Jesus. And the best way to do that is to model Jesus for them. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, as Paul would say. That is, ask God's Spirit to so fill your thoughts, words and actions that Jesus shows through in all you say and do. If we do that we will reverse the main way that the church is slowing down the coming of Jesus—by not showing his love for the world. Right now in Arizona the head of a Baptist church is touting my tongue-in-cheek solution to Ebola in dead earnest... except he wants to execute all gays in order to eliminate AIDS. Which shows how little he knows about medical matters (in Africa, for instance, AIDS is largely a heterosexual disease) and how little he knows about Jesus, who told us to love both our neighbors and our enemies; in other words, everyone. People who call themselves Christians and who say and do hateful things do not advance the gospel but hinder it. No one is going to listen to, much less accept, what you say is good news if you include a corollary in which they are executed or oppressed! If you could not say it to your mother or your spouse or your child in a genuinely loving way, it is not an expression of God's love. If you could easily imagine it coming from the lips of a shrieking Hitler at a Nazi rally, it is not an expression of God's love. If you could not direct it at Jesus Christ himself to his face, it is not an expression of God's love.

Love, wrote Paul, is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious. Love is not boastful. Love is not arrogant. Love is not rude. Love does not insist on its own way. Love is not irritable. Love is not resentful. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing. Love rejoices in the truth. Love holds up under anything you can throw at it. Love retains its faith in all circumstances. Love maintains hope whatever it encounters. Love endures everything. Love never gives up. If God is love, all that is true of him. And if we're his children, so should it be of us.

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