Thursday, January 31, 2008

“Walking in the Light”

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44[1]

It’s getting harder all the time for me to imagine what life was like before the technological advances we use everyday. What did we do before cell phones and the internet? How about microwave ovens and copy machines? Or personal computers? I simply don’t remember what life was like before the advent of television. Television was invented before I was born. Some of you may be able to remember life before the telephone, or before your house was powered by electricity, or before indoor plumbing. But there are some things none of us alive can remember: life before automobiles, before the printing press, or before Copernicus “discovered” that our planet is not at the center of all creation.

I think it is impossible for us to imagine what life was like before Copernicus. It was an age when people could believe that all that is and ever was has been there just for our sakes. Even philosophers and theologians could still speak of humankind as the crown of God’s creation and the focal point of all God’s works. We were the favored child wearing the coat of many colors. No wonder so many people—even “educated” ones—attacked Copernicus for his discovery that we are not the center of the universe! Of course, we know how much more true that statement is today that probably even Copernicus could imagine!

Now, I want you to shift gears with me and imagine a “Copernican” revolution in the Christian faith. It happened in the 4th century after Christ, when a Roman emperor named Constantine “converted” to Christianity. (In reality, it would seem he was “converted” to the idea that through Christianity he could gain victory in battle and prosperity for his empire!) The complete revision of Christian faith didn’t take place overnight, but soon most people believed that emperors and kings were bringing in God’s kingdom, with the bishops of the church at their side.[2] Of course, this meant that they were using human methods to “produce God’s justice”; and that justified pretty much anything and everything, from conquest to crusade, from inquisition to genocide. They made the fatal mistake of equating the ways of war with the ways of the Lord!

Believe it or not, that wasn’t the worst part for the Christian faith. The worst part was that since people believed that kings and bishops are “bringing in God’s kingdom” by their own means here and now, they had no more need of the hope that God’s kingdom would one day make everything new. Instead of joyfully anticipating the day when God restores all creation to life through his saving justice, the only thing people had to look forward to was their own death and what comes after![3] In that situation, the most pressing question became, “if you died tonight do you know that you would go to heaven?” Heaven or hell became the focus of the gospel, not the new creation of all things at the time of Christ’s return. In fact, with the exception of apocalyptic fanatics constantly predicting the end of the world, the return of Christ was completely displaced as an element of faith![4]

What happened was the reverse of Copernicus’ revolution: Christians quit looking forward to the renewal of the whole universe and began to think of themselves as the sole and solitary focal point of God’s redemptive work! And that has crippled the Christian faith ever since.

I think Advent is a perfect time to recover the biblical vision of what God is doing in this world! It’s not a matter individuals “getting to heaven” when they die, it is about renewing all things, restoring all creation, and reclaiming all people.

The prophet Isaiah envisioned it as a day when all people will come streaming to the Lord’s house to acknowledge and worship their creator. And the purpose of this will be “that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isaiah 2:3). Walking in the Lord’s paths will mean that the nations of the earth will “pound their swords and their spears into rakes and shovels” (Isaiah 2:4, CEV) and abandon the ways of war that they have so foolishly embraced!

The hope of advent is that in Jesus the Christ God has already started reclaiming the world for his own. That is why Jesus called his disciples to be vigilant about watching for his return (Matthew 24:42-44)—so that we will be diligent now about learning his ways and walking in his paths in the midst of the darkness all around us. The joy of advent is that the light of God’s new day is already dawning— and “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out” (John 1:5, TEV). The urgency of Advent is that “the night is far gone and the day is near” (Romans 13:12)! And yet, we still see the effects of the darkness all around us! As Eugene Peterson translates it, “We can’t afford to waste a minute!” (Romans 13:13, The Message).[5]

[1] © 2007 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/2/2007 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, 159-168.

[3] Moltmann, Coming of God, 49-77.

[4] Eugen Weber, Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages, 33, et passim.

[5] See also Theodore J. Wardlaw, “Ethics and Eschatology,” a sermon preached at Austin Presbyterian Seminary 12/2/2004, accessed at http://www.covenant

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