Third Sunday of Advent
December 13, 2020
Every year I receive a letter from the Episcopal Church reminding me about my mandatory retirement age. For me, the number of years until I hit that age is longer than I’ve been alive. In other words, I’ve got a long way to go. But a funny thing happens every year when I read that letter – it makes me think about when I was ordained and just getting started. It reminds of the first time I read that annual letter, not realizing what it was about. It makes me stop and think about what the rest of my ministry will be like. It makes me wonder about what my memories of ministry will be when I do end up retiring. This little letter makes me think about the past, present, and future all at once. It makes me put myself in the future and think about what the past will be from that perspective, even if that past is still in the future from now. Time is a weird thing if you start thinking about it too much.
But this is essentially how Advent works. During Advent, we prepare ourselves for the birth of Jesus at Christmas even though that actually took place two thousand years ago. But while we are looking back at that coming of Jesus, we are also looking ahead to the next coming of Jesus on the Last Day. And you already know this – every Advent makes us think of past Advents and past Christmas’, and it makes us think about where we will be next year. Time is not one directional for the Christian – it moves forward and backward, bending back on itself so that past, present, and future all meld together into common moments.
With that in mind, let’s look at the psalm appointed for today, Psalm 126. One of my favorites. You can turn back in your Prayer Book or look at it again in your bulletin. Look at the first four verses. At first glance, it seems as if they are written in the present, when the author is looking back on the past.
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.
2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
3 Then they said among the nations, *
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
4 The Lord has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.
Straightforward, right? But get ready because things are about to get pretty hairy in verse 5.
5 Restore our fortunes, O Lord *
like the watercourses of the Negev.
Hold on just a sec. In verse 1, we’re talking about how the Lord has restored the fortunes of Zion; when God did that, our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with shouts of joy. Even the nations, even the Gentiles recognized how great God was for doing those things in the past. So why are we now asking God to restore our fortunes? Wouldn’t that be saying that God hasn’t restored our fortunes, even though we just said God has? Suddenly, we’re saying that the present is actually pretty rotten and that we need God to restore us.
To makes things even more confusing, we then start talking about what it will be like again in some future moment.
6 Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.
7 Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed,
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
Like that strange letter I open every year, like this season of Advent, this Psalm does not work along one directional time. I think this psalm is given to us to pray when things are complex. When time seems to bend back in on itself. And especially when things are bad. What we are doing in this psalm is reminding God of how God has done great things for us in the past: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion.” Then we are crying out to God that things are pretty rotten now: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord.” Finally, we putting ourselves in the future and looking back on how God delivered us from whatever terrible situation we were in: “Those who sowed with tears/will reap with songs of joy.”
This psalm is for those moments of despair, when we need encouragement. This psalm reminds us to look back on how God has acted for us in the past, giving us courage and hope that God will do so again. In this psalm we are permitted to daydream, to pray dream, to put ourselves in the future, to look back from that vantage point and see what God has accomplished though it has not yet actually happened in real time.
So the first thing I have to say is about you: trust in God. Trust that somehow, some way, “those who sowed with tears/will reap with songs of joy.” Take confidence in the Lord God Almighty has restored our fortunes in the past and plans to do so again. Do not fall prey to that line of thinking that says everything is always getting worse. Take heart, look ahead, and remember the future. Remember that God has already promised to be with us, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). I’m not saying that you should just get over whatever thing you’re going through now. No, I’m saying that God has heard you and is promising to turn those tears into a harvest of laughter. Of course, there are no detailed promises here, no firm timeline, no Gantt charts for you engineers. In Advent we long and we wait for deliverance. But I can say, with firm resolve, that God does intend to restore our fortunes, however rotten it all is.
And the second thing I have to say is about God: God is not bound by our timelines. God knows no calendar. If God is who we say God is, then God is not within time but has created time, is outside of time. And what we experience as past, present, and future as three distinct phases, God sees that all in one moment. That is what we mean when we say that God is Eternal. Eternity is not an endless number of days going off into infinity. Eternal life is not a weary succession of years in the afterlife. No, it is far better than that. Eternity is the fullness of all time – of past, present, and future all bound into one. Eternal life with God is moving outside our paltry calendars and into a time without time.
So today I ask you to dream, to dream as the psalmist dreams. Dream of the God who has, is, and will restore all things to their rightful, beautiful, and lovely order. Dream of the God who will not be defined by our boundaries of time but who will transcend all time in order to heal us and save us. In this midst of this long Advent season, a season that seems to have dragged on for ever, pin your hopes on the past, the present, and the future, because in each of those, God is revealed.