The Days to Come, the One to Come
Carly Simon -- and I didn't imagine that the first words of my first
sermon back from sabbatical would be "Carly Simon," but there
you go -- the musician wrote a song entitled Anticipation. It's
a good song, especially its first line: "We can never know about
the days to come, but we think about them anyway."
I have been thinking about this day since I moved out of my office
on the last of August this summer, and I have been praying for you
during September, October, and November along my Sabbath. I was
thankful for the support of this parish while I was standing in a dense
crowd in the small but glorious Sistine Chapel in Rome, and I was
renewed on your behalf when my daughter and I sat alone in the tiny
chapel of San Damiano outside Assisi where St. Francis first heard the
voice of God. I was researching for you when I attended worship in
various Boston area churches, but also I was resting as guided by God,
since I take the Ten Commandments as having some authority. I was
keeping Holy Sabbath, to remember who I am and whose I am, which
empowers me for who we can be together. And I think about that
all the time.
I missed preaching and conversing about a variety of news stories
that engage our faith this fall. In the late summer, the new Atheist
Society at Harvard got press as they led gatherings (you can't call
them worship), gatherings that include required cursing of the
Holy Spirit as part of their effort to create a more tolerant world. I
think there's a sermon in that. In September, Boston's Roman Catholic
Cardinal had to explain why he attended the funeral of Ted Kennedy,
officially not such a good Catholic. In November Kennedy's nephew had
to explain why he couldn't take Communion in Rhode Island, founded as
the most religiously inclusive state. The Atlantic magazine has
a current cover story* on why Christianity caused the mortgage and
market crash, but you'll have to read that for yourself. The BBC
reports that a series of murders in
Peru reveal an organized effort to harvest human fat for use in
Apparently the world is still crazy, and Christianity is still not
only under serious pressure, but desperately needed to offer
hope to everyone, whether or not we are good at all the elements of the
practice. Apparently we move ahead a little here and there, but we move
in a broken environment, parched, hungry for the living God.
I am back for the movement.
For we can never know about the days to come, but we can think about
Fittingly, the scriptures today have two prophecies, and there are
two schools of thought about the nature of prophecy itself. One is that
prophecy is about what is to come, and the other is that it is a
commentary on the present, so I'm not sure whether to search these
texts to see what is up or to see what is ahead, although both may be
possible, because these are amazing words today. And at their heart
they ask and answer one question, which is my question, our
question today: what is God like. What is our God like? That's where we
commence our reunion and our movement.
Just look at how the folks who organize the reading of the
lectionary put this crazy world in front of us this morning. Consider
our two messages, and ask yourself if they are about the past, the
present, or the future? And consider a little of their back story.
Enter the story as both Jeremiah and Jesus speak at times when
Jerusalem has been destroyed. In the first case, all the faithful have
been exiled and separated from the essence of their belief in God,
which was that God was present only in the Temple. But they were not.
In the second case, the Temple has literally been destroyed by the time
Luke recorded Jesus' words. In both events, hometown, economy, church,
divinity, neighborhood, community -- everything -- is in ruins. The
twin towers. The historic faith. The family. Gone. A culture of
violence, avarice, greed, and poly-atheism rules instead. And amidst
all this, what do they believe? Not just what do they suspect,
not what do they wonder, not what do they wish. They
believe that God's promise from ancient times is real for the days to
come. They believe God is with them, powerfully.
Gene Tucker, an Old Testament scholar, says that Jeremiah offers
even more than that. Tucker writes that at the gate of the destroyed
homeland, Jeremiah believes that fair and equitable relationships among
people, impartial law courts, the protection of the weak, and "the
personal characteristics that make such conditions possible" --
and there's a cautious scholar's phrase for sure -- are all right at
hand. A new creation is right at hand. Read a few surrounding chapters
of Jeremiah, and you'll see that Tucker is right.
What is our God like? Ours is a God who keeps promises. And there
came the restoration.
Luke has a strange text, too. We began worship this morning singing Comfort,
Comfort ye my people, and we'll go forth today and hear Christmas
carols all about, which is fine. Right in the middle of all that comes
Luke with his little apocalypse, which seems only mildly Adventy and
not very Christmassy at all. Luke says, Jesus says, that all Advent,
all these signs of preparation and anticipation and hope, all the
cosmic cacophony is God's doing. And it affects everything. All
creation reverberates with the signs and circumstances of God-with-us.
What is God like? Well, like Jesus: present to the destruction,
manifest in the incarnation, and sharing the message with all creation
-- everyone is invited. Because God will come again, abundant life in
the face of any death.
When we hear these stories of the promise of a righteous branch
bringing justice, these stories of signs in the sun and moon and stars,
it is very easy to allow them to become distanced by language,
spiritualized by time, or metaphorized through the sentiment of
dimmed memory. But they are very particular at their heart.
They are about a people driving on the off ramp of a broken culture
who see a sign that says God has a new
They are about a global gay community injured as much by intolerance
and ignorance as by a virus, who return each World AIDS Day not only as
a memorial but as an opportunity to promote justice and health and new
life, as was Eden's hope.
They are about a nation still afraid that fallen markets are more
powerful than rising social needs, as was Israel's ancient challenge.
They are about many peoples -- in Afghanistan or Iraq or Sudan or
North Korea -- who wonder if they can draw hope out of destruction, and
Jesus says, Peter says, Paul says, God shows no partiality here, and
God keeps ancient promises, and God is with us and -- specifically --
equity, law courts, the protection of the needy, the behavior of all
members of society can be made new, and that is the word of our
Martin King reflected this prophets' message in sum when he said
that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards
justice. It keeps bending toward justice because of God's coming.
At the front end of Advent, on the first day of the New Year for the
Christian Church, we all face a world that is a little dangerous and a
little crazy to say the least. We inhabit a world that moves two steps
forward and three steps back all too often. And then we come to church
possibly for comfort, and we hear three millennia of stories of how
Jerusalem is ruined and the foundations of the earth are shaking. All
of which comes with this odd boilerplate about equity and good courts
and helping the needy. Yet through this all is one simple observation
and one cosmic revelation. The observation is that we can't fix
all this, do all this, on our own. And the revelation is that God will
not leave us on our own.
Even still, we can never know about the days to come. But we can
prepare for them, in hope. Because this season of anticipation garners
its hope not on a suspicion or a wonder or a wish
but on a promise and on the One who makes that promise. Our hope
is thanksgiving projected through trust, from the past, in the present,
to the future. Our hope is God being God, which is just what she is
So it is good to be together with this people of movement and this
people of hope.
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Copyright © 2009 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.