In light of eternity

Both moon and sun in sight” (photo by M Malina July 2018 Long Beach WA)
audio for sermon “In light of eternity” by Martin Malina

During the pandemic I found myself waiting for the right time. The right time, for everything: I waited for the right time to make easy decisions about whether to wear a mask, whether to go to that concert, large indoor public setting, or sports event. I waited for the right time for experiencing life as ‘back to normal.’

It’s natural to want that, especially after any disruptive, traumatic experience. I was reading the firsthand account from Adam Bucko in New York city who lived through the trauma and aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001. He writes in his recent book:

“The horror and devastation are still very present with me, even now. I also remember that in the days following the tragedy, here in New York, glimmers of hope and resilience began to emerge. People spontaneously began gathering in public places, like Union Square in Manhattan, to commence impromptu public grieving ceremonies … 

“All of a sudden there seemed to be enough money to care for the poor. If you looked unwell, strangers would come up to you on the NYC subway and make sure that you were all right. Grief softened our hearts, and pain made us aware of other people’s suffering. There was a certain holiness in the air during those days. We were seeing with new eyes and hearing with new ears.

“But then, about two weeks after the tragedy, we were told that everything needed to go back to normal. Memorials were cleared out of public spaces. Public prayers were discouraged. To be normal, we were told, was to go shopping because that was good for our country. To be normal, we were told, was to cease congregating in public places. We were told to go back to normal and that we did.”[1]

Over twenty years later and at the tail end of another traumatic, public event of this century, there are voices calling us to go back to normal. Big business, of course, wants us to believe that everything is back to normal. Watching the ads on TV or blockbuster movies filmed in the last couple of years you’d think there never was a pandemic. Even some churches operate as if the pandemic didn’t happen.

And, maybe, deep down inside of us all, including me, I want to believe it is back to normal and the time is right for responding to life and to God the way it used to be.

But the scriptures appointed for this season after Epiphany suggest that it is never a good time to respond in faith. There is no normal. No ‘right’ time from our perspective.

In the Gospel text for today[2] Jesus calls the disciples to follow him. What is he calling them to do? To follow God’s call through the Holy Spirit. And this is a Holy Spirit who is described in scripture as blowing where it chooses, and no one knows where it’s coming from or where it’s going to.[3]

Jesus is calling them to make a course-change in their lives which will significantly impact their personal and community relationships, to say the least, leaving behind family even.

Finally, Jesus is calling them to do something good for others in the mission of God. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

One of the beliefs that gets in the way of following Jesus is that we do so on our own — by our own strength, using our own resources, depending on our individual minds alone. 

We are conditioned to believe in ourselves, conditioned by our culture, our upbringing, our schooling. Yes, we have to trust, believe in and love ourselves. God speaks and moves through us. But not alone! Love your neighbour is mentioned in the bible more often than love of self.

One of the mistakes I made in planning my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago when I took a sabbatical six years ago was that I intended on travelling by myself. If I ever walk on that path again, I know now I need to do it with others alongside. Because we are not soloists in God’s choir.  We are not independent operators doing our own thing. We are not private contractors on this journey of faith. 

Following God calls us to step out of our private cocoons and work with others who are different from us. It is hard to trust in others and in God—and not just in ourselves. It’s never a good time when it isn’t easy.

I’m using the example of the pandemic to illustrate the idea that it’s never a good time. But we can apply that idea to other areas of life: That the call — the deep, resonant, voice of God may very well come to you at a bad time in your life.

The prophet Isaiah asserts that it is on those who have walked in great darkness that the light has shined; for those who have been in anguish there will be no gloom.[4] It’s never a good time for epiphanies when they come in the midst of anguish and sorrow and letting go. But it starts there. In the grit and grind of living. And that’s where hope lies.

Like Isaiah, John the Baptist was a prophet announcing God’s reign. His area of work was confined to the Jordan River where he baptized anyone who showed up there.[5] When Jesus heard John the prophet was imprisoned, Jesus continued the work that John started, but left the Jordan area and expanded the ministry to Galilee. The missional, centrifugal force of the work of Christ was beginning its ever-expanding circle of inclusion.

The very first words of Jesus when he begins his mission are: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.”[6] Notice the sequence: Repent because the reign of God is already here. In contrast to John, Jesus announces a new strategy and ordering of things. 

First comes the presence of God. First comes the grace. First comes Jesus and his love. First comes healing, mercy, forgiveness.

The equation with Jesus has been turned on its head. The converting, the confessing, the personal growth come after love not before it. The converting comes after not before grace is first given. The Reign of God has come near.

The Reign of God puts things in perspective, a larger perspective. The Reign of God is not just about me-questions. The Reign of God has broad, societal implications. 

One translation of the Kingdom of God from the Latin, reads, “in light of eternity.”[7] To consider things in light of eternity is a great clarifier. Seeing all things in light of eternity snaps us out of our distractions, delusions and narrow thinking. The perspective in the light of eternity pulls us out of a private religion, pulls us out of our comfort zones and our relentless pursuits of self-indulgence. 

It calls us to start with love for and grace with others rather than fear and judgement. Instead of retreating into our fortresses and behind barricades of mistrust and hate, the light of eternity calls us to trust life and trust others. And the signs are there, when we begin with love.

As difficult as it was during those first days, weeks and months of the pandemic, the signs were there. As they were in those first couple of weeks after 9-11 on the streets of Manhattan. Signs of love, compassion and community. During the early stages of the pandemic, neighbours gathered outside, over backyard fences. Do you remember? Climate scientists observed that the air in places like Los Angeles became almost crystal clear like never before. Do you remember? We slowed down our hectic pace. Do you remember?

These are the stars, the signs of Epiphany, guiding us to where Christ is born anew in this world. Are we listening? Are we watching?

It’s only ever the right time in retrospect. After all is said and done. At the end of the day, we can look back and recognize the signposts. At the end of the day, we can look back and recognize God’s hand in it all. At the end, we can affirm that all along, it was the right time. 

[1] Adam Bucko, Let Your Heartbreak Be Your Guide: Lessons in Engaged Contemplation (New York: Orbis Books, 2022), p.93-94.

[2] Matthew 4:12-23

[3] John 3:8

[4] Isaiah 9:1-2

[5] Matthew 3:5-7

[6] Matthew 4:17

[7] sub specie aeternitatis = in light of eternity; Richard Rohr, “Big Picture Thinkers; Prophetic Truth” Daily Meditations ( 16 January 2023).

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