Posted by: owizblog | February 18, 2013

Are We Nearly There Yet? – Sermon, Kilbarchan East, 2nd December 2007, Advent I

Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

One of the really fascinating strands running right through the seven years of Star Trek: The Next Generation is the story of Mr. Data, the android, wrestling with the question of who and what he is. On one level, he’s a machine – albeit an unimaginably sophisticated one. On another, he is conscious, and, indeed, self-conscious. He knows that he is there, and he knows that there are other beings around him who have minds, and that his mind is in some ways like theirs, and that he can interact with them and relate to them. The question how he knows that there are other minds is actually a philosophically knotty one – just as the question how we know there are other minds is a philosophically knotty one for us. Especially when you’re in Braehead, doing the Christmas shopping…

But Data knows that he is in some sense alive, even though he is a machine, and indeed he has been officially recognized as being a living being. But he knows that there is some sort of a gap between him and human beings. There is a difference, and he isn’t quite sure what it is. In one episode, he is exploring the difference between the way he experiences time, and the way humans do. Commander Riker comes in to Data’s quarters to find him boiling a kettle repeatedly. He is exploring that area of human experience covered by the old adage “a watched pot never boils”. He has been boiling the same quantity of water in a kettle over and over again, sometimes looking at it, sometimes not, and he has found that according to his internal chronometer, the water always boils in exactly the same number of minutes and seconds.

And Will Riker says to him “Data, humans don’t have an internal chronometer. Turn it off…”

That may not be quite accurate. I remember reading some reminiscences by the American Minister Robert Fulghum, in which he remembered working, as a young man, on a ranch where there was a man whose name was Carl, but who was known as “Clockhead”. People could say to him “Carl, wake me up at five fifteen tomorrow morning…” and Carl would wake on the very dot himself, without the aid of an alarm clock or anything else, and then wake them. Even on a dark, cloudy day, when there was no sign of the sun, you could ask Carl the Clockhead what the time was, and he always knew.

And we find that remarkable, because that isn’t how we experience time. In fact the key to an awful lot is that we do experience time. And “experience” refers to a whole rich dimension of human being in the world.

I once spent three solid days in a dentist’s chair, having a filling done. Three days, without a break. Of course the clock on the wall told me it was forty-five minutes, and the sun, judging by the shadows on the wall, barely moved in the sky but I knew that was all a black lie on the part of the universe. I was in that chair, listening to that drill, for three days.

I mean no disrespect at all to dentists by this. Like all of us, I owe them much. I have often said that it is thanks to dentists that, while I myself am Welsh, some of my teeth are of Scottish extraction.

The point is rather to do with something that philosophers sometimes call “phenomenological time”. Time, not as it ticks by on clocks, but as we experience it. Time as racing, as dragging, as flying when we’re having fun, as standing still when we are shocked or horrified. Time as having flown, when, as happened to me, the elegant young harpist at a Welsh Society function in Aberdeen, with a first-class degree in theoretical physics as well as a precocious background in choral musicmaking as well as her solo instrumental career reveals to you that you last saw her as a cheerful, delightful little scamp in the Sunday School of your first charge…

We are immersed in time – but strangely, there seem to be moments when our heads pop up and we become aware of its flow.

Or its lack of flow. Is there a better illustration of the flow of time than children in a car? Or the five words that they utter so frequently, that sum up the whole notion of “phenomenological time” so perfectly? All together now: ARE WE NEARLY THERE YET?

It seems that people were constantly asking Paul the same question. At any rate, it’s the question he seems to feel he has to answer in the passage we heard from Romans a few moments ago:

For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light…

Paul, we know, lived in a world he thought was coming to an end very soon. He believed that what had happened in the Cross and the Resurrection was the beginning of a process which marked the summation of creation, the threshold of its final transformation. In his earlier letters, he clearly thought that this process was set in train, and that the clock was ticking – and that didn’t have long to run.

That explains a lot about his prescriptions for Christian living. He didn’t concern himself with the rights and wrongs of institutions like slavery, because they were part of a world that was passing away, and would soon be gone. His attitude to marriage, likewise, was that it was, for Christians, something they needed to view in the light of an eternity that was nearer than the ends of their own lives. If they really needed the warmth and closeness that such a profound sharing of two lives might bring, then there was nothing wrong with it, but if you were strong enough to tough it out, life through the brief, difficult period between now and God’s summing-up of creation might be a lot simpler if you didn’t complicate it with marriage!

Scholars have referred to this kind of thinking as an “interim ethic”. It’s an approach to living that depends on a very particular view of the world, and of time. It’s why there’s not that much support for an anti-slavery stance in Paul’s letters, and for that matter why there’s not that much of a basis to resist tyrannical government, either. “The powers that be are ordained of God” writes Paul, also to the Romans, in the infamous chapter 13. “Really?” we ask. “Hitler, too?” But Paul didn’t think the world as it was would last two thousand years.

Yet by the time he wrote to the Romans, he was starting to wonder. Time had passed. By the time Paul was himself in Rome, a captive waiting for an audience with Nero, three decades had gone by. Already, in his letter to Rome, he seems to be answering people who are shouting from the back seats of the Church “Are we nearly there yet?” Maybe one of the voices is in his own head…

The word that came to be used for the return of the Christ in Glory is parousia. Actually, it just means “presence”, but it refers to the transforming fullness of God’s presence in Christ. And the problem that Paul was having to wrestle with by the time he came to write to the Romans is called the “delay of the parousia”. Things were not happening at the speed, in the timescale, that people expected.

In the next Christian generation, there would be a sudden flip, a sort of switch of perception.

You can see it clearly in the fact that within a few years of Paul’s death in Nero’s persecution of AD64, Mark’s Gospel was written. Up to that point, nobody seems to have felt the need to write a Gospel. What was the point, with the end of the world not far away?

You can see it very clearly in Luke’s Gospel, in which, when you look at the way the story of the Gospel is structured, Jesus’ ministry doesn’t lead up to the cross at the end of history; rather, it forms a mid point, a centre, of world time. The cross does usher in a new period – the way Luke tells the story, Jesus’ ministry, this “mid-point of time”, extends from the point when the Devil leaves him at the end of the temptations, to the Devil’s return with Judas’s decision to betray Jesus. But what follows is not the end of the world, but the “time of the Church”, a time for growth, for expansion, for taking the Gospel out to the world. In Paul, this is going to have to be a rushed job – he was agonzing about whether he’d have time to get as far as Spain before the end came. In Luke, this is a whole era of world history, and the parousia is on its far shore.

And in the generations after that, the church can be seen settling down in the world. Perhaps the latest books of the New Testament are the so-called “Pastoral Epistles” – 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. They seem to have been written to re-present Paul to a church that could make less and less sense of him – perhaps partly because they experienced itme so differently to him. Read Romans, then one of the Pastorals, and what strikes you is the settled, staid tone of the latter, the adult “Settle down, it’s a long trip” compared to Paul’s urgent wrestling with “Are we nearly there, yet?”

This settling down was necessary – but in a way, it did the Church no good. In the very long run, it opened up all the temptations that go with being a settled institution, the institutional mindset, the complacency, the accumulating and abuse of power, the concern for position. ( I find myself thinking rather flippantly that a distant analogy is when you give the children Game Boys to help them while away a long journey, and they wind up immersed in them, and not awestruck at the beauty of Glen Coe as you drive through…)

In other words, the Church’s sense of the passage of time changed – and so did the Church’s sense of the meaning of time. Paul lived in a moment when the Christian community was the focus of a new understanding. Time, instead of an oppressive, heavy blanket covering everything, ensuring that everything stayed always the same, became not just the possibility, but the certainty, of radical change. God was making things different. God was making things happen. The Church was caught up in the dynamic currents of all of this, living on the very edge of change and transformation. The universe was going places, and the Church was riding the currents. Christian existence in time was, if you want a contemporary picture, like that of a surfer riding a wave, thrilled at the force that carried him powerfully along. Simultaneously aware of power and powerlessness.

And it was this sense of going places that had people asking, child-like “Are we nearly there yet?” No child asks that when you have a puncture, or are broken down at the roadside.

The loss of this sense of being on a journey is a huge one. The sense of the church as an institution, strong, powerful, standing for stability, resisting change, is something that came in when the original urgency of the faith drained away.

But here’s an odd thing. Suddenly, we are living in a different world. You, me, everyone alive today. Our sense of time is altered. Our sense of the pace of life is that it picks up from year to year, and doesn’t let up. Our sense of where we are in time is that we are torn away from a past we thought we understood, and are propelled into a future we know we don’t understand. We have lived with modernity for several hundred years now, and for long enough – too long – the Church could perhaps delude herself that her job was to stand against change in the name of the unchanging. But oddly enough, that’s not the ancient faith of the Church.

The ancient faith of the Church is in a God who holds time and change in his hands, who dissolves what we human beings lock fast. We may laugh at the people who walk round Buchanan Street holding up posters saying “The End of the World is Nigh!” “Prepare to Meet Thy God!” – but in many ways, weird, distorted and unhelpful ways maybe, they have preserved something of the dynamic of early Christianity. And they connect with a widespread feeling abroad in our culture. Why do you think that an evening’s viewing on the Discovery Channel or National Geographic can consist of “Asteroid Encounters”, followed by “Death of the Sun”, followed by “Supervolcano”, followed by Megaflood”, and topped off with something about global warming?

It’s the zeitgeist. It’s the spirit of the age. It’s the sense that people have that we have moved from a stable to a radically unstable world. So much of it is where our culture is. And that’s not, by the way, to deny the reality of global warming. But people have a sense that we are on a journey, pell mell into an uncertain future, and that things aren’t just on the slide, but could get catastrophically worse.

It’s a cultural thing. And that gets in the way of science, even the science that seems increasingly to show that human induced climate change is a reality, by turning the whole thing into a fad, and a deniable fad at that. Amid all the science, there are the disaster lobbyists who inflate everything into apocalypse NOW!!! And because they make the whole issue look brainless and compromise the science in favour of impact, people who still want to deny what the science actually does seem to be pointing to can trash the issue by trashing the doom merchants. Winning debates, tragically, isn’t the same thing as winning the arguments, and we are all the poorer when enthusiasm goes head-to-head with denial, and talk and reasoning get stamped all over.

But this sense that things are loosening up, are changing rapidly, socially and culturally – as well as environmentally, technologically, scientifically – is all around. Ours is a culture in the throes of virtually unfathomable change. And actually, it’s thrilling!

I’ve said it before. These are the most exciting times to be professing the Christian faith in four hundred and fifty years – maybe sixteen hundred! (Maybe two thousand…)

Today we know that the earth has been here for 4, 600, 000, 000 years, and that the sun has another 5, 000, 000, 000 years to go before it becomes a red giant, then a white dwarf. We know that it’s been 12-14, 000, 000, 000 years since the Big Bang, and that the universe has tens of billions of years to go before the Big Crunch – unless there isn’t enough matter here to cause that and it just expands forever. But we can’t escape that for us, where we are as human beings, something about Paul’s mindset in that first Christian century is actually necessary to realistic Christian living in the world.

The settled world of the past is breaking up in colossal currents and huge waves of change. The possibility of standing for things as they were – which really only means “as they were” over the last century or two, not “Christianity as it always was” – is an illusion. For the first time in two thousand years, if we are going to live in the “real world”, we have to live in a world which is coming to an end every day, and amid things which will very likely be swept away next week or next year. We can stand or be swamped – or we can rise up and surf, on waves the power of which we don’t control.

And our faith has to be in the God in whom all this is contained and grounded. Not a God deduced, thought out, reasoned, as a necessary being to hold all this together. But God as known in the flux and change. God as trusted in the eddies and breakers.

God who holds the currents in his hands….

And God who, that first Christmas, is born into the flux and shares it with us.

Suddenly, for us, the end of the world is billions of years away. But the sense of the closeness of God in the flux of the world is more than ever the heart of our existence as the Church.

God as our destination.

“Are we nearly there, yet?”



This sermon wasn’t preached as written! For one thing – it’s far too long. But sermon-production is a human thing, and real life impinges. Our printer broke on Saturday evening. Normally, I’d produce an unedited sermon text over the week, and shorten it drastically for Sunday! However, seeing that I wasn’t going to be able to get the text out of the computer, because the printer was kaput, I just left it as it was, and preached from my recollection of what I’d written – watching the clock as I went! (Honestly!)

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