Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Advent 4

Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. 

I want to start my remarks with a quotation from the well-known hymn, O God, our help in ages past. The fifth verse opens with these words: time like an ever rolling stream bears all its sons away. Imagine for a moment a swiftly moving river. The current is strong enough that if someone were in the middle of it, it would carry him away. Time according to our hymn writer is like such a river. I think it is helpful metaphor upon which to reflect. In life you see a number of different reactions to the swift current of time.

One reaction is to attempt to get out of the river by swimming to shore. In a sense you are trying to achieve a certain timelessness, an immortality within time. There are those who, like the builders of the tower of Babel, want to make a name for themselves in this fleeting world. They want to build empires of wealth, status or fame in the worlds of business, industry or entertainment. Most who try to exit the river in this manner will live long enough to realize that the river is still carrying them along—they've outlived their fame and success and maybe have even outlived their desires.

A second reaction to the current of time is to attempt to swim against the current to go back in time to what is perceived to be a more pristine and better age. I am sometimes accused of being born in the wrong decade, but the truth is I have no romantic notions about an ideal past either in the church or our society. Any student of history knows that making an idol of an epoch quickly comes to ruin the more you learn about that epoch. People then were not that different from people today, either for better or worse. Those who fight against the stream of time generally are unaware or in denial about the world as it truly is. They are like Don Quixote trying to live by a code of honor that has been rendered obsolete, fighting windmills that are imagined to be giants. Old things are good because they are useful. That is why I think traditional liturgy is so valuable. Our use of traditional liturgy should not be a fetish for the past, but a recognition that our Anglican heritage of Common Prayer is not something that should be hung up on the wall as a mere historical specimen.

Perhaps the most frightening reaction to the river of time would be those who give in; they capitulate the current and are taken under the water. Many cases of suicide are like this, but there is a kind of suicide where biological life continues and we could call this waking death. Waking death occurs when one gives into fear and anxiety, like, for example, when one is always worried for yourself or your loved ones about what lethal ailment is going to strike. One can become so consumed by this fear that very little energy is given to thinking about how to live well with the time that one does have. There are other powerful fears that can strike as well, like the fear that life and one's current circumstances will never get better and that the sadness and loneliness which seem unending are in fact unending. All of these fears and arresting anxieties might be summed in one word: despair; it is a powerful and intoxicating drug, but one that is also lethal.

Using this metaphor of time as a river, I've suggested a few of the common reactions to this reality of time as a rolling stream: there are those who try to exit time through fame and earthly immortality—a contradiction in terms; those who try to swim against the current in a romanticism of time past; and finally those who despair of the current and stop swimming. There is an alternative to all of these reactions. The attitude of Mary in this morning's Gospel gives a suggestive solution. What if the river of time instead of being totally chaotic and unpredictable was actually under the control of a greater power, the providence of God? The Psalmist writes [the waters] go up as high as the hills, and down to the valleys beneath; * even unto the place which thou hast appointed for them. Thou hast set them their bounds, which they shall not pass. My friends, the Lord is actually the Lord of history, he has set the boundaries of time that it shall not pass. Chaos, uncertainty and coincidence are actually part of the complex tapestry of God's merciful and good providence. Don't misunderstand me: I'm not suggesting from the standpoint of faith that we will always and invariably understand why things happen in this world. But faith does give one eyes to appreciate the Lord's hand in the vicissitudes of life, and trust that though we will not always understand, in the long view of history and the light of eternity, the Lord will always be shown to have been good and just.

Christians are called to enter this river of time and allow it to carry us wherever it will, knowing that the as we trust in the Lord, he will care for us and do for us whatever is for our good. The period of waiting for the messiah seemed never ending to those who had to endure it. Again and again the prophets declared a time in which the Lord's judgement and mercy would be poured out on the nations. Over centuries, God's people waited in expectation and a degree of uncertainty: when would the Lord act? Were his promises come to an end? But then in the fullness of time, as Paul writes in this letter to the Galatians, God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law. Mary was willing to stand in the long chain of prophets and priests, saints and sinners who awaited faithfully for the Lord's appearance. Though her commission undoubtedly was unexpected and certainly would have not fit the mental image of a young Jewish girl's expectation for her future, yet in humble obedience she bows to the will of God for her: behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word. She was not trying to make a name for herself: all generations call her blessed because he that is mighty has magnified her. She was not trying to go back in time to a pristine age, but rather by her obedience she because a new Eve for all humankind. She did not despair of her future though she had to sacrifice the normalcy of a quiet domestic life in rural Galilee and forever wear the scarlet letter of having become a mother out of wedlock.

We too can live by the same kind of trust and surrender as Mary had. We do not have to fear time, to try to escape or swim against it. The Lord is inviting us to lay down our burdens; the overwhelming power of fear and our need to be in control. This is an invitation to live by trust. Its an opportunity to stop trying to escape the stream of time or fight against its currents or despair of its torrents, but to say to the Lord whatever may come, whatever he may call us to do, behold the handmaid, behold the servant of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word.

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