Sunday, December 17, 2023

Sermon: “The X(mas) Files: When?” Psalm 13/Luke 1:46-55 (December 17, 2023 - Advent 3)

I forgot to hit record - the sermon audio starts at the * in the first paragraph.

About six months ago, I dusted off my old Duolingo account and started learning French again. I’ve formally studied Spanish, French, Greek, and Hebrew at one time or another, but I stuck with French the longest, so I figured it’d be the easiest to pick back up again. I was right, but *even as the vocabulary and grammar started to come back to me, I also (re)discovered one of the most difficult parts of learning a new language: reframing the way that you think about time.

Certainly, there are plenty of ways that a person’s thinking needs to shift before they can become fluent in a second language (sentence structure, linguistic gendering, sometimes even an entirely different alphabet) but reimagining time has got to be one of the hardest adjustments to make. In addition to learning different verb tenses that may or may not exist in your native tongue, you also have to contend with new ways of describing time, which sometimes doesn’t match up with the way you’re used to picturing it. For example, English speakers tend to think of time in terms of distance and length (as demonstrated by phrases like, “What a long day,” and “I’ll be with you shortly”). But Spanish speakers (as well as many others) tend to think of time in terms of volume – instead of a “long day,” they refer to a “FULL day.”[1]

This doesn’t really seem like that significant of a difference, especially to those of us with only a single language for reference, but studies have shown that these sorts of differences not only impact the way we perceive time, but it shapes our very understanding of how the universe works. Einstein’s theory of general relativity suggests that the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously, but this idea is difficult for most of us to wrap our minds around – which makes sense, given our anglophonic frame of reference. Since we talk about time as progressing in a linear fashion, we naturally assume that individual points in time are fixed on that line and can’t be rearranged. But if we understood time more as a container to be filled, as some other languages do, then we’d have a much easier time believing that the points within that container would be able to interact more freely.

You may be wondering at this point what a conversation about physics is doing in a sermon that’s supposed to be about the question of WHEN the Messiah is coming, so it’s probably a good time for us to put our detective hats on and dig in. The reason for all this background is that any time we ask the question of “when,” we have to take into account how our own understanding of time might be influencing the answers that we find – especially if the “when” we’re investigating involves God.

It may seem like, of all the questions we’ve asked so far this Advent, “when” should be the easiest to answer. Even if we concede that the date and year of Jesus’ birth can’t be determined precisely, we all agree on the general timeframe – we all follow the BC/AD Gregorian calendar, after all. But this sort of linear thinking, while helpful for organizing history, isn’t as helpful in theology. Just as it limits our understanding of the physics of time, it also limits our understanding of how God works within time. We need a different language, with completely different ways of understanding and expressing time, in order to properly address the “When” of Christmas.

We COULD all go to seminary and learn the language of theology, with Greek and English and Latin co-mingling in order to communicate complex ideas like “eschatology” and “premillennialism.” OR, if you don’t have time for that, we could just dust off the other language we all have at least a passing familiarity with, the one that allows our minds to embrace a more expansive concept of time. No, I’m not talking about Pig-Latin; that’s ridiculous – I’m talking, of course, about the language of poetry.

Religion and poetry have long gone hand-in-hand for exactly this reason: the language of poetry allows us to stretch our thinking in ways that prose simply can’t accommodate. That’s why liturgy has its own unique feel and lilt; it’s why we sing congregational hymns each week, even though many among us don’t consider themselves singers – not just because poetry is pleasing to us, but because it provides us with a different way, beyond our usual frame of reference, to understand divine things.

Today’s scripture readings are both examples of biblical poetry that help us get to the bottom of this week’s question. The Psalms famously express human experience through the language of poetry. Psalm 13, in particular, does an excellent job of encapsulating the experience of the people awaiting the Messiah: “How long, O Lord? How long must I bear pain in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” Certainly, a relatable sentiment for many of us – and exactly in line (pun intended) with our usual way of thinking about time: we are situated here in the present, and the Messiah, our salvation, is located at some point in the future. We’re separated from God by a vast expanse of time.

But in the last two verses, the Psalm pivots. You may not have even noticed, since we’re usually more fluent in poetry than we realize. In the last two verses, the psalmist weaves the future and past tenses together in a way that would make a Middle School English teacher cringe. “I trustED in your steadfast love; my heart SHALL rejoice in your salvation. I WILL sing to the Lord because he HAS dealt bountifully with me.” Past and future, bumping up against one another in God’s presence. Even as he desperately awaits his salvation, the psalmist recognizes that the Lord has and is already working in his life.

In her Magnificat (an even more famous example of biblical poetry) Mary goes even further in breaking down our linear thinking of time. As an expectant mother, one might think that Mary’s song would be all about the future: her hopes for her unborn child, what God will accomplish through him, how the world will be changed for the better. But only one line of the Magnificat is about the future – and it’s about how Mary will be viewed by generations to come because of what God HAS ALREADY DONE.

We instinctively know that the Magnificat is a celebration of what WILL happen (the coming of the Messiah, God-With-Us) yet Mary jumps between the past and present to express her joy. Her soul magnifies now, her spirit rejoices now, God’s name is holy now, God’s mercy is for those who worship now…AND ALSO God has already looked upon her with favor, God has already done great things, God has already scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, and filled the hungry with good things. All while she anxiously awaits the future arrival of her son, Yeshua, the salvation of humankind.

This poetic theological understanding of time isn’t limited to scripture. When you get a chance, take a look at the Christmas carols in our hymnal. Our favorite verses, the ones that we hear repeated the most frequently, tend to be set in the past, telling the beloved story of that very first Christmas, but there’s plenty of language reminding us that God isn’t limited by our understanding of time. “Away in a Manger” looks to the future, asking Jesus “to stay close by me forever and love me, I pray.” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” invites Jesus into our present, imploring him to “be born in us today.” And “O Holy Night” covers all the bases in a single verse, singing, “Truly he TAUGHT us to love one another; his law IS love and his gospel IS peace. Chains SHALL he break, for the slave IS our brother, and in his name, all oppression SHALL cease.” Once you start to look for it, it becomes hard to miss.

So it appears that the answer to the question of “when” for the Messiah is “soon”…AND “already”…AND “right now.” At different times of the year, we emphasize each of these to a greater or lesser degree, but they are ALWAYS all true. And now, we know that we have the language to express that, even if we still don’t completely understand it.

But the good news is that understanding isn’t really the important part at the end of the day (or maybe the fullest point?). It’s helpful, but it’s not essential. What matters is how “God-time” shapes our response to the Messiah in a way than our normal perception of time doesn’t. If we’re inactive because we believe that God’s work has already been done in the past, we’re missing something. If we’re basking in God’s presence to the exclusion of everything else, we’re missing something. If we’re immobilized because we’re waiting for God to return in the future, we’re missing something. We must
always be remembering the past, acting in the present, and preparing for the future – only then can we even begin to perceive the true fullness of God’s movement in the world.

Waiting for the future is important – that’s why we have seasons of preparation built into our liturgical year. But for every time we ask, “How long, O Lord?” let us also remember to give thanks and praise for what already was and currently is. For every time we anticipate the Messiah’s coming, let us also remember to lift up what God has done in the past and take part in God’s love and mercy right now. God’s salvation cannot be restricted to a single “when” in our limited perspective of time; neither should our response to God’s grace be temporally constrained.

Therefore, friends, let us embrace this strange, holy sense of time, where past, present, and future meet. Let us recognize that even as we wait, God’s fingerprints are on every part of our lives – which is good news even better than anything that may be still yet to come. And may we come to understand our faith through the language of poetry: we were, and are, and ever shall be beloved members of God’s kindom. May every moment of our lives be a testimony to this timeless truth. Amen.


[1] This article from the BBC was a fascinating read and very helpful as I prepared this sermon:

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