Wednesday, October 9, 2013

When God is Late

This sermon was given by Pete Williamson, an M.Div student at Harvard Divinity School, on Monday, October 7th, at  the HDS Anglican/Episcopal Fellowship's service of Holy Eucharist.

I’ve noticed this little thing in my life. You see, I find that my classes have this annoying tendency of starting too early for me. Like, my 11:30am class starts at 11:40am, which is a good 9 minutes before I even arrive. How am I supposed to learn when my professors start teaching before I even get there?!?

That’s right… I am chronically late for things. It’s not about classes being early in the morning. It doesn’t matter if my first class is at 8am or at 2pm, I’ll find a way to be rushing in the door somewhere between 4 and 14 minutes after it starts. On some level, I want to start getting to things on time, but on another, much more influential, level, I want to keep being late. Here’s what happens: I actually wake up with heaps of time to get to class. I have time to run, shower, have my devotional time (because I’m very holy), check some emails, read some websites, eat a slow breakfast&have coffee. And BAM. late. It’s not because I’m not paying attention to the time. I know what time it is. It’s really just that I think I’m just a little bit better than I am. I always think that I can squeeze in that little bit more than I really can. Read that one more interesting, relevant, informative news article. Quickly get out that one little email. And a little part of me knows that I’ve been late in the past and haven’t died, so a little part of me gives myself permission to be late. A little, but influential, part of me actually thinks that getting that final email out, or finishing that article is actually more important than what the professor is saying at the beginning of class, or the respect I might lose by being late.

You see, really, when you think about it, my lateness is completely understandable. Completely justifiable. Isn’t learning so much more than hearing the first few minutes of a lecture? Isn’t being a disciple of Christ so much more than being seated, waiting for the opening sentences in church? Isn’t it obvious that I have a busy life and I have a lot of important things to do? Shouldn’t they be thankful that I even turned up at all? Obviously, my lateness is completely understandable.

Now, I want to talk about a completely different topic. So ignore all that. This is a completely unrelated topic. I run a couple of things in my life. Like, I host and lead groups. I’ve been running the GCF group that meets on Mondays. I run a church small group. I host some training sessions for my church. And, you know what, people are so rude. I’ve prepared everything, put good time into getting ready for the session. And the least the participants could do would be to turn up ON TIME. I mean, it’s not that hard. Sort your schedule out. You know what time it starts. It’s not my problem you can’t manage your time properly. You’re wasting everyone’s time when you turn up late. Show some respect. Show some dignity. Take some responsibility. It honestly is so frustrating. There’s just no reason for it.
But the most frustrating person to be late is God. Come on God. Sort your life out. This is what Habakkuk is struggling with.

“God, how long do I have to wait? Can you even hear me? I’m showing you the problems of the world so you can fix them, and you don’t even seem to care! How long will it take? I’m watching, God. Don’t think I’m not. What you going to say to that?!?”

I think we’ve all had this frustration with other people being late and we've all had this frustration at God. It might be God taking too long to find us that perfect job. That perfect opportunity. That time when we’ll truly ‘make it’. Or maybe to find that perfect partner. Or maybe God is taking far too long to heal a deep hurt. Too long to restore that relationship with that person. Too long to get that person to say they’re sorry. God is late in telling us what to do with our lives. Late in really showing Godself to be real.

Or maybe we stand closer to Habakkuk. God is late in dealing with injustice. Hateful people have run the show for too long. Get off your bum, God! Do something! God might seem slow to act on the issues which we care about.

So what do we do with God’s lateness? The Scriptures constantly orient us to the idea that God’s justice will come. Just on a completely different time frame than we expect. God’s response in Habakkuk reminds us that “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come”. Our psalm tells us “Do not fret yourself because of evildoers; * do not be jealous of those who do wrong. For they shall soon wither like the grass, * and like the green grass fade away.” Though surely in the moment, the temporary nature of the evildoers is not obvious. In the midst of suffering, in 2 Timothy, Paul says that he is not ashamed, for he knows the one in whom he has put his trust, and he is sure that Christ is able to guard until that day. Hebrews 11 reminds us that Abraham died having not seen the nation he was promised. Moses didn’t enter the promised land. David didn’t build the temple he was promised. The false prophets said that Babylon wouldn’t take Jerusalem. But Jeremiah said that Jerusalem would fall and God’s judgement on Babylon would take longer than they expected.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it. It will surely come.

This is about trusting God, and trusting God’s providence. At the beginning of my message, I listed all of my pathetic insufficient excuses for why I’m late to things. Yet, despite me knowing my excuses, I struggle to afford other people the same grace. How much more so with God. The temptation is to give God no leeway. Yet God's reasons are infinitely more justifiable than my own. Infinitely more justifiable than someone who actually had good reasons, unlike mine. So we must trust God. Trusting implies ignorance. If we had full knowledge, there would be no need to trust. So we must accept ignorance. Our ignorance of the mind of God. Our ignorance of knowing what’s truly best for us and our world. We see it on a human level too. If you’ve ever been in charge of a church service or something you’ll know that if you surveyed the congregation you’d find out that they want a more respectful more formal service and a less formal friendlier service. They’d want more kids in main church service and more kids sent to other rooms so not to disrupt the adults. They’d want the music to be louder and quieter. They’d want the thermostat in the sanctuary to be set at a higher and lower level. But a good member of the congregation might give you their preferences, but will say to you, “But I don’t see the big picture, so you do what you think is best ultimately. I trust you.” But those people are few and far between.

But before God, we want to be people of trust. We must assume our own ignorance. We must say to God “I don’t see the big picture, so I trust you”. And ultimately, we must trust God even when God’s timing takes us beyond our lifetime. We will not find everything we’re looking for this side of eternity. Paul asserts that “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

I recently read Surprised by Hope by NT Wright, where he makes the case for the hope of Christ being something that isn’t pushed into the afterlife, but something that invests in our life here and now. That is such an important point if you’ve been brought up in a tradition, like the evangelical tradition, which tends to emphasize the importance of the afterlife - of storing up treasures in heaven - maybe at the cost of the here and now. But if your faith has little or no appreciation of God’s final restoration of justice, then I think you need the converse message. The message of Christ is not just about the here and now. God’s story is not complete until the end. We may not live to see the justice we seek on earth. Without an appreciation of the end when God makes all things right, I don’t believe we can truly validate the justice of God. If there is no end where God makes things right, then denying yourself in order to serve God at great cost - like the many martyrs throughout history - is ultimately foolishness. We must have trust in God’s final restoration of justice. God’s timeframe is just very different from our own.

If it seems to tarry, wait for it. It will surely come.

But we don’t need to go into the afterlife to understand this principle. I am constantly amazed at how distorted our perception of reality is. We are so focussed on the present that we rarely stop to look at the past or look to the future. My parents have an amazing marriage. I am truly blessed by it. But I remember when I was between the ages of about 10 and 13 that they’d fight a lot. I was convinced they’d probably get divorced. And then I remember thinking when I was about 20 that my parents had this perfect marriage. Many marriages go through multiple years of difficulty followed by decades of blessing. But once you’re into year three of difficulty, it’s impossible to see the decades of blessing waiting for you. Or friends who have worked through depression - to see them come out for good after years of darkness. But in a year of darkness, no-one can convince you that light is really coming. Friends who have endured abuse, and lived years of anguish trying to deal with it, but ultimately find joy again.

We really struggle to see time the way God sees it. We struggle to see far past the present. So we must accept our difficulty in this area, and trust God. If it seems to tarry, wait for it. It will surely come.

To build that trust, my only advice is this: take stock of God’s providence so far. What were you really struggling with that doesn’t bother you now? You have to stop and reflect, because we forget our pasts. If something isn’t a problem anymore, we stop thinking about it. But we have to think about it, so that we might see God’s providence in our lives and give God the deserved glory. What did you think would never happen, but did?

So what is it for you? What can you draw on to give you confidence in God’s provision even if God is late? Think on it now.

If you can’t think of anything, then take trust in the ultimate act of providence. When God provided for us by sending his Son to die on a cross so that we might have life and life to the full. God has done it. God is doing it. God will do it. When God is late, it’s not wrong for us to join the voices of the psalmists and the prophets and complain about it. That’s fine. But ultimately, we must also trust God’s providence and God’s timing.
And if it seems to tarry, wait for it. It will surely come.

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