“God marks time differently than us. He marks distance differently than us. He even marks tragedy, elation, success and failure differently than us. Dare I say God isn’t entirely concerned about the same things in the same way as I am? He sees the world and time and place through a sharper and broader lens. So the mystery of Advent – that God is present in the trough of a stable – is reflective of the bigger riddle we are trying to encounter: the magnitude of God’s bigness, the inescapable reality of our smallness and whether there is a way to bridge the distance that lies between.”
I’ve taken to sitting in the window seat on planes. It is quite the un-business traveler thing to do, I know, but as I get older I find that staring out the window gives me far more pleasure than playing with an iPad or typing on a screen or reading a book or watching a movie. There are a lot of cloudy flights where my plan backfires, but that disappointment is more than offset by the views of mountaintops, canyons, dams, rivers, skyscrapers, sandy beaches that I’ve taken in from seat 32 A or 27 D. I asked a kid the other day what looking down from an airplane is like and he said “it’s like looking down on a map.” Bam, exactly.
The word we’re all scrambling for is perspective. It’s different from 30,000 feet than it is at the foot of a mountain. The whole deck of cards is reshuffled from up there, especially on a crystal clear day. Flying over Utah a few years ago, I had the sudden urge to break open the little oval window, jump out, and try landing myself on a rocky and jagged ridge. From below, that ridge would seem insurmountable. From above it might as well of been a trampoline. I even enjoy the descent back into Detroit, watching the roads and buildings and diners and Wal-Marts that look one way from the ground look so much different from above.
This past Sunday, the lectionary drove us to Isaiah 40, a scripture that foretells the coming of John the Baptist. I was preparing to give a talk at Holy Redeemer and I just kept reading beyond the prescribed verses. I’m glad I did because I came to a point later in the chapter where the prophet refers to God sitting “above the circle of the earth” viewing us as if we were “grasshoppers.” This is where the line “stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in” comes from. Always said Isaiah is among the best writers the Bible gives us, and chapter 40 is evidence that I am right.
Here’s the question: Is it even right to skim past the narrative about a very human John the Baptist — a central character in the story of the human Jesus – during an Advent season that is designed as a period of anticipation for a little baby? Yes, it’s okay. Consider another text from Sunday’s liturgy: 2 Peter 3. Jesus’ own disciple says “but do not forget this one thing: with the lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” More perspective. We stand at the foot of a trail, while God sees the whole journey from the cockpit far above. Even on the first Christmas night, as a young family and some shepherds crowded around a cute little newborn, a Father in heaven was already looking upon the cross.
A reality of Advent that we should drill into our heads over these three weeks as we walk toward the manger can be this: God marks time differently than us. He marks distance differently than us. He even marks tragedy, elation, success and failure differently than us. Dare I say God isn’t entirely concerned about the same things in the same way as I am? He sees the world and time and place through a sharper and broader lens. So the mystery of Advent – that God is present in the trough of a stable – is reflective of the bigger riddle we are trying to encounter: the magnitude of God’s bigness, the inescapable reality of our smallness and whether there is a way to bridge the distance that lies between.
Here’s the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer summed it up: “God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people – God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in.” He bridges the gap, and does so even when we aren’t interested in having any help.
The invitation set out in the early days of December are not an invitation to compare ourselves with others, either in terms of how good we are or how bad we are. It’s to take our focus off our enemies and our idols, and reject the world’s unhealthy attachment to commerce and politics and touchscreen technologies and status. Instead, the invitation is to gaze toward a God who demands we confront what lies beneath.
For me, Advent 2017 is a season that still carries the sting of disbelief. That’s what lies beneath. It has been a tough year, to say the least, of lost opportunity, a lost child, and a bag full of questions that I am proving ill equipped to answer. And now, more than ever, I struggle to believe in this personal God you all have been carrying on about; I struggle to let him off the hook for the evil I see; I struggle to see equity in the way he meters out favor and punishment.
And here’s the great Temptation in the light of what Peter and Isaiah are saying about the God sitting atop the circle of the earth and his ability to keep time by millennia rather than minutes years equaling one day…the temptation is to scream out the question “Who the hell cares?” Wouldn’t it be fine to throw up my hands and ask why this gigantic God considers the grasshopper?
Peter, the friend of Jesus, warns me against thinking so small. He says, in light of considering this big God and the swiftness with which he can return and gobble the world in fire, we need to ask one question: “What kind of person am I to be?” The answer is to be the kind of person that accelerates the coming of Christ, the kind of fella that hastens the day of a savior’s return.
To me, that means being the hands and feet of Christ today as much as it means anticipating a rapturous reunion. That I might speed the coming of Christ in today’s world means that I live a mindful life, present, aware of the voice in the wilderness and obedient to its charge. John the Baptist ushered in Christ’s coming by standing in a river. The shepherds played a role by staring into the sky. The wise men did their part by following a star. My friend and I used to have a saying in college –“Contribute Christ.” Well, now is the time to do that. Hand him out as if you were distributing the bread and wine.
Don’t get me wrong. We do well to soak in the immediate and profound silence that accompanies pain, or disappointment, or disbelief. To not have all the answers. We do well to not just attempt to move beyond it or transcend it or understand it.
But then, there comes a point where we need to find perspective. Where we retrain or refocus in a way that allows us to once again have an appropriate view even amid disappointment, even amid disbelief. Where we too begin to mark time differently. Where we are not thrown by political events or economic trends or tax policies or the heinous acts of neighbor harming neighbor. Where our perspective is governed by God’s perspective. If you haven’t gotten to that point in the advent season, now is your time to do that.