A Thousand Years
| Psalms 90
Hebrews 11:1 - 12:13
|Sun, January 2, 2000
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Calendars are arbitrary things. Without them the days of our lives would exist without reference
points ... each one another in a seemingly endless train of days. This morning we find ourselves caught betwixt and between two different calendars, both of which are products of Christian attempts to order and give meaning to time. This coming Thursday, January sixth is Epiphany ... the day that marks the end of the twelve day festival of Christmas and the visit of the Magi. It is customary to celebrate Epiphany on the Sunday prior to its arrival ... making this Epiphany Sunday. But this year, of course, the Gregorian Calendar of the Western world has, for the first time in a thousand years, turned over all four digits in our measurement of time. Notice that I didn't say that we have entered a new millennium. As a sometime runner I am only too aware that one has not actually completed a ten kilometre run until running the tenth kilometre (although there have often been occasions when I would have happily declared the 10K run complete at the end of nine kilometres). This makes me one of those who still await the dawning of a new millennium at the conclusion, not the beginning, of this 2000th year Anno Domino. Still, it seemed wise to the Worship Committee and to myself that we abandon custom on this occasion by postponing our celebration of Epiphany Sunday for one week in order to mark the turn in time that the whole world has noted these past days and months.
But what do we do on such an occasion? Do we thank God that the world has not come to an end as predicted? Or, perhaps, pray to God that the promised end - the coming of the Lord - will come soon ... before Y3K dawns? Yesterday many marked the new calendar by taking a dip in the icy waters. There were the traditional bowl games to watch, of course. Largely unnoticed went the pilgrimage made by some to Burns Bog in Delta. This gathering of people chose to walk through an environmentally sensitive preserve in the Lower Mainland to mark the dawning of the new year and millennium. Why? So that when their children and grandchildren ask in the future: "How did you bring in the Year 2000?" they can answer: "By walking in Burns Bog ... so that it would still be here for you now". What do we do on such an occasion as this? We gather as pilgrims here, in this sanctuary, bringing the hopes and fears of all of our years before God. When our children and grandchildren ask: "How did you mark Y2K?" we will answer: "By worshipping God, by praying for the world, by offering our life in the dawning century to the service of Jesus Christ".
A thousand years. It seems an eternity. One thousand years ago the world was a very different
place. Imagine transporting a citizen of the early 11th century to the 21st. The trees, the birds, the ocean would all be the same. But little else would be familiar. Yet, writes the ancient Psalmist, "a thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone, short as the watch that ends the night before the rising sun" (Psalm 90). This is why we gather here. We come to worship God because, in doing so, we see the world in a new way. Here we are formed by a different perspective. Last week's weekend TV guide comes with the blazing headline: "Top 20 TV Shows of All Time". Of all time? Would you believe the past fifty years? We imagine that our time, somehow, is weighted with great importance. But we exist as a mere millisecond in the great span of time and as a infinitesimal speck in the immensity of the universe. Isaac Watts wonderful metric rendering of the 90th Psalm speaks the truth when it says: "we fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day". Here, in worshipping God, we remember the brevity of even a millennium in the nature of things.
Such thinking goes against the grain of the modern mind. Humans have mastered so much in the
past thousand years ... even the past hundred years ... that we have become used to imagining
ourselves and our time in immense proportions. You have heard and read the litany of developments: medical advances, technological marvels, political democracies ... human flight, instant communication, space travel. On and on it goes. We are tempted to think of ourselves as the vanguard of a new era in human life on this planet. But then pilgrims gather at Burns Bog ...
and their pilgrimage speaks volumes about the fears of our time. Rapidly expanding human populations. Growing evidence of climate change and global warming. Increasing extinction of
entire species of life. Threats of terrorism ... outbreaks of civil wars ... devastating poverty and unending hunger. We could too easily hide away here in this safe sanctuary, protected from the realities of the pain of the world, naively thanking God that all is well. Of course, we cannot. We bring with us the growing despair of the modern age. For all of our advances and improvements we sense that, more often than not, our solutions cause even greater problems. God's creation is like a Pandora's Box, which once tinkered with, sets all sorts of unimagined consequences into motion. For all of our pride in human achievement we find ourselves, at the dawning of the year 2000, reminded once more of the limits of the human mind and life.
Yet, at first glance, it does appear that the content of our faith is rather naive: "I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating" (Isaiah 65:17-18). These words of Yahweh - the great 'I Am', the Creator of the Universe - are spoken by Isaiah to a desolate, desperate people. They are on the verge of giving up hope in the future. They look back longingly to the 'golden days'. More than that, they look over their shoulders at the terrors of the more recent devastating years. They look back and see little reason to look ahead. They can only imagine more devastation, greater tragedy, insurmountable odds. Instead, Isaiah announces a future they have not imagined ... the future that God actually intends ... the re-creation of creation itself ... a creation in which violence and oppression, poverty and disease are no more: "no more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime ... They shall not labour in vain, or bear children for calamity ... The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox ... They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain". It is the same vision of the future that is glimpsed by a mystic of our own millennium, Dame Julian of Norwich who saw the entire universe in a nutshell and proclaimed "All will be well and all will be well".
Dreamers. That is what those who believe such news are called. Dreamers. Believe me. Every once in awhile I am stopped short when, in sharing my passion for a reformed church and a reconciled world, I am given this label. "You are a dreamer" they say. They mean it as a 'put down'. They mean that such dreams are pure fantasy, unconnected with the 'real world'. But I know that Isaiah's dream is not unconnected with reality. Next week I travel back to Atlanta ... back to the home of Martin who also shared the dream. "I have a dream", he said, "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood". On January 17th the entire American nation will mark Martin Luther King Day. To call Martin a dreamer is no 'put-down'. It is, instead, the highest honour one can give him. Isaiah's dream is not, you see, disconnected from reality. It is reality ... to those with eyes to see. A troubling reality. Remember the trouble it caused Methodist preacher JS Woodsworth in the Winnipeg Strike in the early years of the 20th century. He was arrested and jailed on charges of sedition. Why? For reading Isaiah chapter 65 to the assembled protestors: "They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat". When the judge, familiar with the words of Isaiah, read the prosecutor's indictment he promptly threw the case out of court. It was one thing to charge JS Woodsworth with sedition ... but another thing entirely to bring God before the judge on the same charges! Isaiah's dream does not rock to sleep those who worship Yahweh in their sanctuaries. Instead, the dream wakes us from our slumber of despair and sends us out into the world fully expecting Yahweh's kingdom come ... unafraid to be called 'God's dreamers'.
Keeping this dream alive is easier said than done. The 'real world' does its best to dissuade those who do not believe that the status quo is God's reality. Faith - trusting that God's dream is real - is a mystery. In the words of the preacher whose collection of sermons forms the 'letter' to the Hebrews, "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). Bill Taylor, whose death in many ways marked the end of an era in our life, always reminded us that faith is not 'belief' so much as it is 'trust'. By this he meant to recall us to the biblical vision of faith not as propositional but as relational. Faith is not about believing this or
that doctrine or statement to be true or false. Instead, faith is coming to trust in someone else ... in a friend or a spouse, in a minister or in a community, a congregation even. Trust - faith - is essential to survival. Those who cannot trust find their lives broken and distorted. What sets communities like this one apart at the dawning of a new century is our desire to entrust our lives to God ... to the God whose dream for creation has captured our imagination.
Such trust is not easy in our time. But, then, it has never been a simple thing. This is what the roll call of history that makes up Hebrews chapter eleven is meant to remind us. One of my most enduring memories of our recent trip to Korea was overhearing the memory work of eight year old John Kim as we drove along the highway towards Kyongju. He began with Hebrews 11, verse one: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" . Then he kept going and going: "By faith Abel offered to God ... By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called ... By faith Sarah herself, though barren, received power to conceive ... By faith Moses was hidden by his parents ... By faith the people passed through the Red Sea ... and what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephtha, of David and Samuel and the prophets - who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness ..." . Marvelling at the capacities of an eight year old to put to memory these forty verses I was also struck by the formative power of this litany of faithfulness. I imagined us, as a people, like young John learning this story 'by heart' so that it becomes the living memory of who we are - dreamers who live by placing our trust in God.
To be fair, we are not all eight years old any longer. Most of us are older and, if not wiser, surely more than a little sore and tired after the long run that is a lifetime. Even the chronologically youthful in our number are, they will tell you, worn out already. It is to just such a fatigued community as this that the letter to the Hebrews is addressed. The people are pictured as a runner in the Boston Marathon who reaches 'Heartbreak Hill' and realizes that she simply cannot go on. Runners call it 'hitting the wall' ... that moment when every bone, muscle and nerve in the body screams "For God's sake ... stop!". Turning the corner on the new century and millennium we find our energies depleted, our hopes diminished, our expectations limited. We are sorely tempted to give up on the dreams of God's Kingdom come that we once held so dear ... to let go of our faith in God and to trust our instincts for self-preservation. But then we recall that great cloud of witnesses who have run this same race and kept the faith. Then we look to Jesus whose courageous run took him through a cross of shame to a seat of glory. And then we are surprised by a 'second wind' ... the promised new birth of the Holy Spirit that lifts our drooping hands and strengthens our weak knees and makes straight paths for our feet to follow into tomorrow (Hebrews 12:12-13). See. In Jesus Christ the new creation has already begun. In him the Holy Spirit is breathing new life into a dying world. Breathe deeply. Sing joyfully. Live boldly. Amen.