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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

1st Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2013

 What Time Is It in Your Life?

Isaiah 21:1-5; Romans 13:11-14

             Paul writes his Epistle to the Romans, his longest, most substantial letter, to a waiting church.  It was now almost four decades that had passed since Jesus had been crucified and the early church had been witness to the resurrection.  The days immediately following the resurrection must have been thrilling and electrifying, with the risen Christ appearing here and there, miraculously re-entering their world.  But with time, that excitement and a sense of urgent anticipation must have cooled.  Most early Christians thought that when Jesus said, “I will come again,” He meant that He was coming soon, surely within their lifetimes, while the first followers were still alive.  But now decades had passed, and Jesus had not yet returned.  I suspect that for many this meant that they had lost their sense of urgency, that they had settled into life as it always had been, as if Jesus had never come.  Paul would have none of this!  Paul never waned in his rock-sure conviction that Jesus would return imminently, any day, and he wanted the church to be ready.

             Let me begin by being candid: Paul turned out to be wrong about the time or date of Jesus’ promised return.  And in every age since, there have been those who have been convinced that their age was the time for Christ to return, and so far every one of them has been wrong.  Jesus has yet to return, and I will be the first to admit that I don’t have a clue as to when He will.  But theologically, Paul was not in error to expect that promised second coming of Christ.  We state it in this place every time we recite the creed: “And He shall come again to judge the living and the dead.”  Paul was right to believe that any moment in time could be THE MOMENT, that every moment in time is rich with divine possibility.  Paul was right to urge the waiting church to “wake from sleep.”  His argument is powerful: “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone; the day is at hand.”

             Paul is telling us all that Christians, and his own Jewish people, should be people who look at time differently.  The Greeks called the god of time Chronos, and this served as one of their words for time.  This is time that is simply the passage of seconds to minutes, minutes to hours, hours to days, days to weeks, weeks to months, months to years.  And as many of you know, the years have a way of catching up on you.  We talk about passing the time, or marking time, or worse, killing time, and tragically, of wasting time.  This is chronos time, and Paul would have none of it.

             Paul knew that time was short, that time was running out, and hence, that nothing was more precious to us than God’s singular gift of time.  Paul knew that all time belonged to God, and as such, that all time was what Karl Barth would call “the time of great positive possibility.”  The reason for this belief was not some feeling in Paul’s bones, some intuition or some sixth sense he possessed.  No, the reason was that God had already done something in time to transform time forever.  To the Galatians Paul could say that “in the fullness of time” God sent His son, “born of a woman.”  For Paul, the coming of Jesus into the world was the turning point, the transformation of all time.  We used to be far more explicit about this in the way that we referred to time.  We used to refer universally to time’s great marker by using the initials BC and AD – “Before Christ” and “Anno Domini,” Latin for “the year of the Lord.”  This was the so-called Gregorian calendar that we still live by around the world, but the phrases BC and AD were adopted in 525 AD as a way to make the 365.25 days of Julius Caesar’s calendar Christian.  I lament the practice of changing this to BCE and CE, “Before the Common Era” and “the Common Era,” as it removes Jesus from history, as if we ever could have the power to do such a thing.

             The whole point of Jesus Christ is that God cared so passionately about human history that He chose to enter into it, and promises to return to redeem, reconcile and to bring it to its intended close.  And this is a very different way of thinking about history and about time itself.  One of the things the modern world wants to do is to banish God from time.  If we insist on having a God, we prefer a distant, detached god who may care about us enough to make us, but never actually shows up anywhere to intrude upon our lives.  I suppose in much of our world we have gotten the sort of god we wanted, so we could have time as our time, sealed off and safe from any intrusions or reckonings with the Living God.  BC and AD, “Before Christ” and “Anno Domini,” “the year of our Lord,” are reminders that all time belongs to God, and all time will one day be brought to a close by this same God.

             In 1959 a New Testament Swiss theologian named Oscar Cullman wrote a book called, Christ and Time.  Cullman, who taught at the University of Basel, said that the advent or coming of Jesus was “the noon day of history.”  He said that all that happened before this moment in time and all that follows it pass through this singular event of God’s self-revelation in by Jesus Christ, the judge of all time.  Cullman, along with Paul, said that all history finds its meaning in Jesus Christ.  This means that Jesus Himself is the turning point in time.  In Jesus, the new has truly come.  And this Jesus left with the promise that He would “come again to judge the living and the dead.”

             When Paul said, “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed,” he was not so much circling a date on the calendar as he was speaking about hope.  We don’t need to fear the future, or dread it like some sentence.  We can anticipate it with joy and excitement because it belongs, and we do too, to Jesus!  To live as Paul lived, as though time were short, as though any day could be your last one, is a good way to live.  It is to live not in fear of what tomorrow may bring, but in joyous hope and anticipation of what God holds in store.  “So let us live honorably as in the day,” says Paul, because that day is sure to come, in all its glory.

             The truth is, none of us know what tomorrow may hold.  “To sensible people, every day is a day of reckoning,” said John Gardner.  “Time is the deposit each one has in the bank of God,” said the great Methodist preacher Ralph Sockman, “And none of us know our balance.”  It may be decades, and it may be only days.

             So wake up and live!  You are not here to mark time or to pass the time – you are here to make the most of your time, for all time is God’s time.  In 1971 I hitched home from my freshman year of college to attend games three, four and five of the World Series, which included the first ever night game for a World Series.  My parents were not all that thrilled to welcome me home, but my two best friends were thrilled.  Unfortunately, we did not have any tickets.  So we showed up each morning and waited in line all day, for our standing-room-only-tickets.  A group of guys in front of us were Cretans, and they partied hard and fast all day before that first night game.  And when the end of the game came, one of those guys was passed out cold in his folding chair, leaning on the shoulder of his barely awake buddy.  He stood in line all day to see the first ever night game of the World Series, and he missed the very thing he came to see.  He slept right through it!  It is funny, even trivial to sleep through a baseball game, but it is tragic to sleep through a life and miss it completely.  So wake up from your sleep, and live in joyous hope!  “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.”  I love how Dag Hammarskjöld, that great Christian statesman who died too young in a plane crash put it.  Dag was Secretary General of the United Nations, but he was also a Christian in all his thinking.  He was treating time as a gift to be lived fully before Christ when he wrote in Markings, “For all that has been – Thanks!  For all that will be – Yes.”

                                                                                     Amen.

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