A little more about time

Picturing our lives as a timeline, a threat or string running through time from beginning to end, makes a lifetime seem something like old-fashioned film, the way movies were created and shown before the digital age. One could hold a reel of film in one’s hands and have the entire experience in one place, but the film on the reel said nothing. The film had to be threaded into a projector and shown on a screen to have meaning. As a motor moved the film through the projector, a flashing light shone through each frame—twenty-four frames per second. Trial and error showed that aspect to be ideal for viewing. Seeing twenty-four images each second, a viewer saw action and motion that seemed normal—they could be filmed by a camera that took twenty-four photographs per second, or they could be a series of drawings or still photographs that were carefully arranged to imitate normal action and motion.

An average human life—we will say seventy-six years—would require many reels of film. One would need enough reels to contain over one million feet of film. Nearly 57 billion frames would need to be shown at twenty-four frames per second to cover those seventy-six years. We can take this metaphor to think about time and about living our lives in time. However, this metaphor has a simple yet important shortcoming. In spite of the successful illusion captured by film shown twenty-four frames per second, time does not move in tiny bursts the way film operates.

If time clicked along at twenty-four units per second, a photon or neutrino (or anything else moving at the speed of light) would jump 7,750 miles between each frame. Science shows no evidence of particles jumping from point to point in space. Particles appear to move at a consistent rate, existing in every inch or centimeter between any two locations. Time, then, must also operate consistently, not jumping from instant to instant with a tiny gap between instants, but flowing effortlessly through every conceivable instant.

Early philosophers questioned the geometry of points and lines and planes and three-dimensional space. If a moving object must pass through an infinite number of points to reach its goal, how can it ever arrive? It must first reach the half-way point, but before getting there it must reach a point half-way there, and on and on cutting the distance in half again and again but still having more intervening points to achieve. Now, it seems, time must do the same. We approach an instant… we reach that instant… we pass that instant… and somehow, that instant has traveled from the future into the past although it was scarcely present at all.

Experience tells us that objects indeed travel through space and through time. The problem of traveling through an infinite number of points in space and an infinite number of instants in time does not bother moving objects in the least. Change, it seems, is a constant reality in our world. But, in a world where everything continually changes, how can we hold to the belief that anything stays the same? If each of us is constantly changing, how can any of us remain the same person throughout a lifetime, or even in the course of one year? J.

Looking at time

Greek mythology described three goddesses called the Moirae, or the Fates. They were responsible for the lifespan of each person. One of the fates spun the thread of life, the second measured the thread, and the third cut it. They decided how long a life would be and how it would end. People who feel helpless about their lives, who feel that everything is decided for them by outside forces, are still called “fatalistic.”

To spin and measure a life and determine its end, the Fates had to work outside the stream of time. They could see every life from beginning to end, being able to measure that life and cut it at the end. More recent writers have also imagined beings that could see human lives outside of time. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, describing beings from another planet who saw time the way we see space. When they looked at one of us, they saw our entire lifespan, from beginning to end. Vonnegut called himself a Free-thinker; he was not a Christian. He found comfort in the thought that every person lasts forever in the universe as a glowing thread that runs through time. That permanent life might exist entirely in the past, but Vonnegut proposed that the past life still exists from some points of view, making that person immortal in one sense of the word.

Vonnegut was not fatalistic, though, about that lifespan. The value of a permanent life, preserved as a thread through time, was found in the choices made by each individual during the duration of that thread of time. If we imagine someone—God, or the Fates, or beings from another planet—seeing our lives from outside of time, knowing what we will do before we do it because they can see it already done, that knowledge does not rob us of our freedom. We make choices, steering our lives through time. We are free, because knowledge of what we will choose is not power that forces us to choose what is already known by someone who exists outside of time.

To be “outside of time” is difficult, if not impossible, for us to imagine. We still think of beings outside of time of having their own timespan while observing our timespan. But, outside of time, before and after do not exist. All events are seen in one gaze or glance. Time, like space, exists insofar as it is measured. We measure a distance between two objects and define that space, whether it is as tiny as the space between an electron and a nucleus in an atom or as large as the observable universe from one end to the other. We measure emptiness or void in space, but we cannot measure the nothing that exists outside of space. Likewise, we measure time between two events, but we cannot measure time outside of events. No time existed before the “Big Bang,” or before God said, “Let there be light.” To ask what existed before the Big Bang or what God was doing before he began to create is nonsense; there is not empty or void time before time begins—there is only nothing.

But, if our lives are viewed from outside of time, the viewer can also see imaginary time. The viewer can see where we would have gone in our lives if we had made different choices. We see the road we traveled in the past; looking right and left, we glimpse other possibilities that we have not visited. The viewer outside of time sees the entire landscape, all the things that could have been in the past and present and future, things that were not and are not and never will be.

Fatalistic people deny that freedom. To them, only the road exists. They might blame God or the Fates for their journey; they might blame their inheritance (coded in their DNA) and the limitations of their situation in life, or the traumas that they endured in childhood. Fatalistic philosophers claim that we have no freedom. Clearly, we exist under many limitations. We must breathe to survive; we must eat and drink; we must rest and exercise. We can be only one place at any given time. We cannot levitate (although we can make machines that lift us into the air and that even fly us from place to place). The Fates, or God, or the laws of the universe place parameters around our existences; but they do not deny us all freedom. If we had no freedom, God would not make commandments telling us what to do and what not to do. If we had no freedom, governments would not make laws and punish people for breaking those laws.

Sometimes people claim to be helpless, unable to stop themselves from sinning or from breaking the government’s laws. They blame their DNA, their childhood, their environment. Their defenders say that people should not be punished for crime; they should be rehabilitated. Jail is for correction, not for revenge. The legal system recognizes a certain level of helplessness called insanity. The insane (according to legal judgment) are not in control and cannot be punished for their crimes. Still, for the protection of society and for their own protection, they must be restrained and kept from breaking more laws.

Debate continues about freedom and predestination. Some believers insist that, because God is Almighty, whatever happens is what God wanted to happen. People who refuse to believe in God are unbelievers because God made them that way. Others say that faith is a choice. God forces no one to believe; his Judgment is based upon the way individual people used their freedom, whether they used it to trust God and follow his plan, or used it to deny God and reject his plan. Yet other believers hold to a paradox called “election.” While people are free, they are unable to come to God under their own power. Without God’s help, they are dead in sin, enemies of God, incapable of coming to him. By his power, God brings the dead to life. He grants saving faith and gives individuals the power to obey his commands, starting with the commandment to believe his promises. Those who are made alive are free; they can remain alive, or they can choose death. But on Judgment Day, all the saved will credit God with their salvation, acknowledging that they could not be God’s people without his help. On Judgment Day, all the lost will accept the blame for their rejection of God. They chose their rebellion; they preferred death to life.

In other matters, though, people are free. The clothes we choose to wear are not predestined by God or by nature and nurture. The acts of kindness we perform or fail to perform—and the acts of cruelty and neglect we perform or choose not to perform—are all free choices we make as we travel our timestream. Sometimes we face big decisions; many other times, paths we might prefer are closed to us. Sometimes the little choices we make change more than we expected. We cannot see the future. We cannot even see the present with all its possibilities. We live in time and we move through time; the flow of time is one dimension of our lives. J.

Philosophy and time

In our every-day world, we experience space as three dimensions—high and low, right and left, thick and thin. Time acts like a fourth dimension. We can go any direction in space—in theory, we can travel an infinite distance in any direction. Time is different—we move only one direction, and we all travel at the same speed as we journey out of the past, through that instant that is the present, and on into the future.

Things are never as simple as they seem. We live on the surface of a sphere, and up and down are defined for us by our relationship to the sphere. If we tunnel down, we might eventually reach the center of the sphere. Traveling further, we would be going up again until we reached the surface of the sphere on the far side. On the other hand, traveling up would send us away from the sphere, but if each of us traveled up away from the sphere, we would all be going different directions away from the sphere, getting farther and farther from one another.

If we travel north or south on the surface of the sphere, we eventually reach a pole. We could go no further north; we could only go south from the North Pole—and the same would be true of the South Pole. East and west, though, are infinite journeys. No matter how far east we travel, more east lies beyond us; no matter how far west we travel, more west lies beyond us. We could circle the Earth many times and still never come to the end of east or of west.

Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity acknowledge the three familiar dimensions of space and the single dimension of time, but Relativity also reveals that all four dimensions change when we deal with the very large, the very small, and the very fast. A traveler moving near the speed of light would experience less time than a similar traveler on the Earth—even if they were born on the same day, after journeying at the speed of light, the first traveler would be younger than the second. Curvature of the fabric of space and time, according to Relativity, account for gravity, which is why during a solar eclipse astronomers can view stars that lie behind the sun. Other strange things happen in space and time according to the theories of relativity—and every test devised to determine whether Relativity is accurate have affirmed Einstein’s theories. For our daily lives, though, the geometry of Euclid and the physical laws of Isaac Newton suffice. Variations from those systems only happen in extreme cases such as galactic events and subatomic physics.

Often we represent time as a line. We mark events on that line, showing which are earlier and which are later. We locate births and deaths on that line to show how long each person has lived. Changes in the universe happen in only one direction and are not easily reversed. If one pours a class of colored water into a tank of clear water, the colored water gradually mixes with the rest of the water until it all has the same hue. This change requires considerable effort to reverse, to remove the color from the water. This tendency of thing to even out over time is called “entropy,” and entropy indicates a direction in time, the direction we all are traveling.

When I was younger, people frequently rode in the back of pick-up trucks. We had no seat belts; our safety depended upon the skill of the driver and upon chance. We accepted the risk, trusting the driver and assuming that nothing would occur that he or she could not handle. Imagine yourself sitting in the back of a truck, looking at the road you have just traveled. You see what is behind you; you cannot see what lies ahead. Some parts of the past journey are clearer than others, just as we remember some past events better than we remember others.

Looking right and left, we can see landscape, places we have not visited. We might see roads we have already passed, roads that would take a vehicle to other places. If the road we are traveling is a single dimension of time, those other roads and other places might be another dimension. We could call that dimension “imaginary time.” This imaginary time contains all the “what-if” possibilities of our lives. Some people speak of imaginary time as if it was real, as if it existed in alternate universes. What if Nixon had won the 1960 election against Kennedy? Or what if Kennedy had not been killed in 1963? What if I had taken different classes in college and graduated with a different major? What if I had accepted that job offer ten years ago and moved then to a different city? We can guess about different events and different time lines, but we remain on the same time line we each have been traveling since birth.

Or do we? Some people claim to remember different time lines—a world where Nelson Mandela died in the 1980s and not 2013, a world in which the children’s authors spelled their name “Berenstein” and not “Berenstain,” a world in which New Zealand is to the west of the Australia and not to the east. Most of us assume that human memory is fallible—that we might misremember facts like those, or lines from a movie or a song, or the appearance of a cartoon character. That does not prevent our minds from pondering what might happen if we could journey off our timelines and explore imaginary time. Sometimes imaginary time is useful. If the dog slipped outdoors when we weren’t looking, it might have run any direction. We consider how much time has passed since the dog escaped and estimate how far it might have gone; that helps us to think of places to search for the missing dog.

Time feels relative. Some minutes drag on at excruciating length while others pass by far too quickly. Some past events feel far more recent than they truly are, while other past events seem far more distant than they really are. The week before Christmas can be far too short with people who need to prepare and far too long for people eagerly anticipating the holiday. We are traveling the same timeline, but we do not experience it in the same way.

 But what if we could view our lines in time from an entirely different perspective? J.

More Heidegger

Last night I finished reading Martin Heidegger’s classic philosophy text, Being and Time. (That makes 98 books finished before the end of June 2021, which means I am on roughly the same reading pace that I was last year, but no one but me is measuring.) Heidegger’s mention of “falling prey” prompted me to write a recent post, which led to a comment by Slim Jim (whose blog I strongly recommend) that he would like to read some of Heidegger’s work. I was going to respond to his comment, but I think that instead I will share my impression of Heidegger with the world in general.

As a philosopher working in the first half of the twentieth century, Heidegger had a long tradition preceding him, one that had thoroughly inquired into many of the key questions that philosophy generally addresses. At the same time, many philosophical questions were beginning to be handed off to various branches of science—astronomy, physics, chemistry, psychology, anthropology, and so on. Heidegger found himself returning to some of the questions that many people considered solved already in the work of Plato and Aristotle: what does it mean for someone or something to exist? What does it mean to speak of existence? Is existence a quality like size or shape or color? The study of existence (technically called ontology) opened new doors for Heidegger to explore. His entire career consisted of various approaches to the meaning of existence and how a definition of existence shapes all the other philosophical questions we might ask about ourselves and about the world around us.

For others inclined, like Slim Jim, to go online or to the library and tackle some of Heidegger’s work, I have four suggestions to keep in mind:

  • Like most professional philosophers, Martin Heidegger used a carefully defined vocabulary in which some common words have very narrow and specific meanings. Other words you find in Heidegger’s work are used only by philosophers, and many of the words he uses, Heidegger himself invented. Philosophers do not write this way became they are trying to be difficult or to look smart. They do this so that, as they write, they say exactly what they mean, no more and no less.
  • Not only is the vocabulary challenging, but the sentence structure is also more complex in Heidegger and in most other philosophers than it is in (for example) a typical novel or newspaper story or Reader’s Digest article. The reason for such a complex style of writing matches that of the difficult vocabulary: Heidegger and other philosophers are trying to make sure that they write exactly what they mean, no more and no less.
  • Because of the difficult vocabulary and structure, the writing of philosophers such as Heidegger must be read slowly and repeatedly. Reading the same work five times is considered typical for the reader who wants to grasp what the writer is saying. (I will address this from a different angle in a few seconds.)
  • When you have taken the trouble to learn a philosopher’s vocabulary, to adjust to that philosopher’s writing style, to read slowly, and to read that philosopher’s work several times, you may find that the philosopher’s conclusions are startlingly simple. Perhaps they even seem like common sense. This does not mean that the philosopher wasted his or her time spent in writing or wasted your time spent in reading. The philosopher may have reached a conclusion that you already believed, but the philosopher has taken the difficult road to reach that conclusion. The philosopher’s conclusion is not a guess; it is based on long and deep thinking, consideration of many other options that never occurred to you, and considerable caution to make sure that no false steps were taken at any part of the journey.

My senior year of college, I was one of a team of students who came early to campus to help orient the incoming freshmen. College orientation means more than standing in the quad and pointing east. (The term, however, comes from the practice of observing the sunrise at the beginning of the day, knowing that the sun rises in the east, and using that information to identify north, south, and west.) During that orientation weekend, I had ten or twelve freshmen sitting in my dormitory room where we had a scheduled visit from their faculty advisor. Standing in my room, leaning against my closet door, this professor told the new students that they should consider college a full-time job. It was not enough to attend classes and do a little homework; they should expect to spend hours outside the classroom reading the assigned work, researching and writing, and thinking about what they were learning. One of the points he made was that, to understand a book well, one must read that book five times.

After the professor left, the freshmen asked me whether it is true that they had to read their books five times to understand them. “It depends upon the book,” I told them. I reminded them that this professor taught philosophy, where the five-times rule is generally true. Other books might be grasped in a first or second reading. With many more years to consider the five-times rule, though, I have come to the conclusion that any good book requires and deserves multiple readings. The books of the Bible require multiple readings—the five-time rule is a worthy guide for the Bible. Great literature needs repeated reading. Many science and history textbooks need more than one reading before they start to make sense. In our busy, hurried world, most of us read a document (on paper or on a screen) only once. Even our own writing, we often read once and then click “publish.” Good writing merits re-reading. When we want our writing to be good, we must read it again and again, verifying that we have written what we want to say—no more and no less.

Two little things (aside from “falling prey”) captured my attention in the last part of Heidegger’s book. One was his examination of conscience. Normal people (excluding psychopaths or sociopaths) have a conscience, an inner voice that warns us when we are wrong. Heidegger asks what we call that inner voice when it persistently reminds us that we have been wrong: is that a “bad conscience” or a “good conscience”? Stop and think about that for a moment. As a Christian, I have an answer Heidegger did not propose: a bad conscience reminds us of our guilt and keeps on warning us we were wrong but offers no hope to change our condition; a good conscience also reminds us of our guilt but leads us to repent of our sin, to throw ourselves on God’s mercy, and to trust his promise of forgiveness.

Dealing with the themes of being and time, Heidegger spoke about the items on display in a museum. We often say that we look at them to learn about the past. But, as Heidegger reminds his readers, we see them in the museum only because they exist in the present. Their meaning and significance may be altered now that they are displayed in a museum—they are not, in that sense, identical to what they were when they existed as everyday items in common usage. But they cannot bring us into their past because our being, our existence, our Da-sein, is seeing them only in the present, not in our personal past.

That’s enough deep thinking for tonight. J.

Christ’s new covenant

(a sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Mark 10:35-45)

              We take it for granted, and generally we don’t even think about it. When we do stop and think about it, the topic confuses us. Sometimes it seems to rush by quickly; other times it seems to drag. Physicists like Isaac Newton assumed that it is the same for everyone everywhere, but Albert Einstein insisted that it is relative. Many modern philosophers say that it doesn’t really exist, that it is only there when we notice it.

              This strange quality is called time. We measure time with years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. Without time, nothing could move and nothing could change. Nothing would be new or old if time did not exist. Time has a direction: we move from past to present and from present to future. Because of time, we have worries; and because of time, we have hope. Our lives are shaped by time. Yet the more we think about time, the less we understand it.

              God created time. He made the universe and all that exists in it “in the beginning.” God established time by making evening and morning, the first day. Our relationship to the sun creates days and years; our relationship to the moon creates months. Weeks are special; God created weeks by making the world in six days and resting on the seventh day, giving the people created in his image a day of rest every seventh day. God’s commandments of sabbath rest extended to sets of seven years, in which farmland got to rest every seventh year. God also created the Jubilee Year after every seven sets of years. On the Jubilee Year, debts were canceled, slaves were set free, and land was returned to the families who had received that land from God.

              God created time. We live in time. Our relationship with God works in time. When God speaks to us, he mentions time. Yet time does not limit God. He exists in time, but he also exists beyond time. To God, it is always “today.” God is eternal and unchanging. He sees all time at a glance. To God, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. “Old” and “new” do not have meaning to God as they have meaning to us. Therefore, when God speaks to us, he uses our sense of “old” and “new.” Yet to God, everything is new and nothing is old. What seems old to us might be very recent for God, and what seems new to us might be old news for God.

              The prophet Jeremiah lived centuries after the time of Moses. When God called Moses, he had Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. On the way, Moses and the Israelites stopped at Mount Sinai, and God made a covenant with his people. He said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” God spoke about the behavior of his people under that covenant. They would have no other gods. They would respect God’s name, God’s time, and the human authorities that represent God’s authority. They would love their neighbors and respect their lives, their marriages, their property and their reputations. They would be content with what God provided them; they would not covet the things God provided to their neighbors.

              Under the terms of this old covenant, God would bless his people when they obeyed him, and God would punish his people when they disobeyed him. While his people obeyed, God would provide favorable weather, fertile fields, abundance of crops, and security from their enemies. But if they broke the covenant, God would withhold the rain and would let the crops fail. He would allow enemies to invade and to harm his people. If they obeyed the old covenant, they could stay on the land God had given to them; but if they broke that covenant, God would take them away from the land and would force them to live among their enemies, even though their enemies were also God’s enemies.

              When Jeremiah came, the Israelites had been breaking the old covenant for generations. They had worshiped false gods, the gods of the Canaanites and other neighboring nations. They had taken advantage of one another, forcing their neighbors into poverty for their own wealth and comfort. They had broken the sabbath commandments about rest and freedom and restoration. Under the terms of the old covenant, God had no reason to provide for them or protect them. Jeremiah, like the prophets before him, warned that consequences were coming because of the broken old covenant. Enemies would destroy the nation Israel, killing many of its citizens and carrying others away from the land. God had no obligation to prevent these bad things from happening, because his people had already broken the covenant God made with them. The Assyrians and Babylonians were tools in the hands of God, instruments used to accomplish his plan according to the terms of the covenant he had spoken to his people at Mount Sinai.

              Terms of the old covenant seem natural to us. Some people call it karma. We expect good things to happen when we do good things; we expect bad things to happen when we do bad things. If we obey the commands of God, we expect God to reward us. If we break his commandments, we expect God to punish us. We all know how the old covenant works: what comes around goes around. You harvest whatever you plant. In the end, we all get what we deserve. Therefore, if something good happens to you, sometime in the past you must have done something good. If something bad happens to you, the first question you ask is, “What did I do to deserve this?”

              Jeremiah spent much of his career warning God’s people of the consequences of breaking God’s covenant. But Jeremiah, like the other prophets, knew that God has an old covenant and a new covenant. Under the old covenant we get what we deserve. Under the new covenant, God forgives our sins and blesses us. The new covenant is based on God’s grace, not on our obedience. Under the new covenant, God rescues us from our sins. He rescues us from what we deserve. He rescues us from the power of evil, because God forgives our iniquity and remembers our sin no more.

              The new covenant is not fair. The new covenant involves an exchange. In that exchange, the Son of God becomes one of us and lives among us. He obeys the commandments and earns God’s blessings. He deserves nothing but good. But, in the new covenant, the Son of God takes the burden of sins and iniquity, and he pays the price in full. The guilt of the world’s sins falls upon him, and he consumes the punishment that sinners deserve. In return, when God has forgiven iniquity and forgotten sin, he is able to bless those who broke the old covenant. God is able to claim us as his people and to give us the good things that Jesus deserves. He is our God and we are his people, just as he said in the old covenant. But the sins of our past have not destroyed that relationship. He remains our God and we remain his people, because through the cross of Christ God has forgiven our iniquity. He remembers our sin no more.

              The old covenant is fair. It makes sense. The new covenant is unfair. It transcends our understanding. In a perfectly fair world, the new covenant would not be allowed. Jesus could not suffer, because he never did anything wrong. Each of us would get what we deserve. Because we have all sinned—we all have broken the commands of God—we all have fallen short of his plan for our lives—he would no longer be our God, and we would no longer be his people.

              But God is not fair according to the terms of the old covenant. He replaces it with a new covenant that is unfair. He allows good people to suffer so he can suffer on the cross to pay for our sins. He allows sinful people to receive good things so he can give us good things we do not deserve. He is unfair for our benefit, breaking the terms of the old covenant and replacing it with a new covenant that allows him to remain our God and allows us to remain his people.

              In our travel through time, we encounter the old covenant first and then the new covenant comes later. Sinai happens first in history, and then comes Calvary. We are born knowing the justice of getting what we deserve, good in return for good and bad in return for bad. We then are told about the new covenant, an agreement when God reverses everything we took for granted. He absorbs our guilt upon the cross, paying our debt, reducing his wrath to zero; and he forgets our sins, gives us good things we do not deserve, and changes us to be his people. As a result, we also forgive those who sin against us. We also give good things to our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We also are unfair, showing love and mercy to our neighbors and loving them, even and especially when they do not deserve our love.

              For us, grace and mercy are a new covenant. For that reason, God speaks of an old covenant at Sinai and a new covenant at Calvary. But to God, nothing is old and nothing is new. In fact, the new covenant is (in a sense) older than the old covenant, because the new covenant is truer to the nature of God. God responds to sin with punishment; he reacts to evil by judging and condemning evil. At the core of his nature, though, God is love. He wants to give good things even to those who do not deserve good things. He wants to rescue victims of sin and evil. He wants the world to be good, and therefore he restores what is good, fixes what is broken, and reshapes us into the image of Christ after we first sinned and lost the image of God. He is our God, and we are his people, because that is what God desires. Forgiveness is more natural to God than judgment. He sees our sins for a while, but the blood of Christ erases our sins. Every day, in the sight of God, we are new people—cleansed, restored, and spotless in the eyes of God. Every song of praise we sing is a new song to God, and every time he tells us to love each other is a new commandment, because we never stop being new in the new covenant God has established with us through the cross of his Son.

              The old covenant comes in the course of time. The new covenant stands outside of time. Before God began to create, before he said, “Let there be light,” he had already planned our salvation. He knew that we would sin. He knew that his covenant based on our obedience would be broken. He knew the price he would pay to rescue us from the punishment we deserve. But God had already chosen his new covenant. That new (and timeless) covenant rests in the eternal and unchanging love of God, love by which God chooses to become a victim of evil on the cross to rescue us victims of evil and give us a share in his victory over evil and sin and death.

              We live under the terms of the new covenant. The old covenant no longer threatens us with punishment for our sins. But sometimes we forget where we live. We still want the benefits of the old covenant, so long as its judgment applies to others and not to ourselves. James and John, the disciples of Jesus, were thinking of the old covenant when they asked a special favor of Jesus. They wanted to be at his right hand and at his left when he claimed his glory. They were thinking in Old Testament terms of the kingdom, the power, and the glory when they made this request. They were not considering the unfair new covenant that Jesus had come to fulfill. Jesus denied them a place at his right and at his left when he claimed his kingdom and came into his glory. Those places belong to others—not to Moses and Elijah, not to Simon Peter, not to Martin Luther or any other great Christian heroes. Jesus claimed his kingdom and accomplished his glory on a cross. At his right and his left were two thieves, being punished for their crimes under the old covenant. Because Jesus was establishing his new covenant, when one of those thieves confessed his faith, he was promised a place with Jesus in Paradise. James and John and the rest of us are also promised a place in Paradise, not under the old covenant where people get what they deserve, but under the new covenant where, by grace through faith, we are forgiven of our sins and claimed as the people of God.

              Speaking of both covenants, Jesus speaks of a baptism and of a cup. Baptism washes and purifies. Jesus endured the cross as a baptism of fire, a baptism of his Father’s wrath, so we could be spared that wrath and our sins could be forgotten. The cup of God’s wrath is filled with our guilt and our sins. This cup contains a poison that kills, for the wages of sin is death. But Jesus drinks the poison in that cup. He consumes the wrath of his Father so he can adopt us into his family, making each of us a child of God.

              Jesus has another baptism, one of water rather than fire. Having endured the fire for us, Jesus washes us with water in Holy Baptism. As the new covenant is stronger than the old covenant, so the water of Holy Baptism extinguishes the fire of judgment and gives us eternal life in God’s kingdom.

              Jesus has another cup, the cup of salvation, the cup of the New Testament. At his Table, Jesus trades cup with us. He takes our cup, the cup of wrath, the poisoned cup, and he drinks from it until it is empty. Jesus did not want to drink from that cup. In Gethsemane, he prayed that the cup of his Father’s wrath would be taken from him. But he accepted the will of his Father and drank from that cup. Now, in exchange, Jesus gives us his cup. “This is the cup of the New Testament,” he says, “given for the forgiveness of your sins.” His blood removes our sins, because he shed that blood to take away our sins. They are forgiven and forgotten by God because of the work of Christ on the cross. As often as we drink from his cup of salvation, we proclaim the death of Christ until he comes. We proclaim the death that conquered death, the death that was followed by resurrection so we could rise to eternal life according to the terms of God’s new covenant.

              Jesus did not come to claim what belonged to him under the old covenant. The Son of Man did not come to be served. He came to serve and to give his life as a Ransom. Because he is a Ransom, our debt is paid. Our sins are forgiven and forgotten. The God who made all things—who created time itself—has chosen to be our God. He has chosen us to be his people. We are new every day because of the new covenant, the covenant fulfilled by Jesus through his sacrifice on the cross. To our Savior Jesus Christ be glory and honor and praise, now and forever.                 Amen.

Now, but not yet

As I have been preparing a series of posts on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), a question has arisen about the timing of the blessings Jesus describes. Do we have them now, or must we wait until the Day of the Lord to receive these blessings?

The answer, of course, is yes. In one sense we already have these blessings. In another sense we will not fully have them until the Day of the Lord, the Day when Christ is seen in his glory, the dead are raised, the Judgment is announced, and the saints of the Lord are welcomed into the new creation. This “now, but not yet” reality is one of the paradoxes of Christianity. As one God is three Persons, as one Christ is fully divine and fully human, as the Bible is entirely God’s Word—trustworthy and true—and yet entirely was written by human beings, so we already have the blessings Jesus promised, but at the same time we do not have them yet.

As Jesus says in Matthew 25:34—part of the parable that describes Judgment Day—Jesus will welcome the saints into a kingdom prepared for them since the foundation of the world. That’s right: before God said “Let there be light,” he knew all about us and loved us. He knew the sins we would commit and the price he would have to pay to redeem us and reconcile us to himself. He knew the suffering that sin and evil would cause in his creation. And God decided that we are worth the trouble. He went ahead and created. But his blessings were there from the very beginning.

On the other hand, we are still sinners living in a sin-polluted world. We may be meek, but we have not yet inherited the earth. A quick glance at the Internet reveals that we are not living in the kingdom of heaven, where God’s will is always done. Today we do not see God, but in the new creation we will see him continually.

On the other hand, we have already received mercy. We are already called sons of God, because the only Son of God has already paid for our adoption into his family. God looks at us and sees us redeemed. He sees us as his children. He sees us as we will see ourselves after the resurrection, when we have Christ’s blessings in all their fullness.

So the blessings are ours now, but not yet. They belong to us, because Christ has given them to us, and no one can rob us of them. The car is already in the garage, but we do not yet have the keys to be able to drive it. The trust fund is in our names, but we cannot spend any of the money yet.

Like any Christian paradox, we need to cling to both sides of the contradiction. If we doubt that the blessings belong to us now, we are doubting God’s promise. These blessings are an inheritance, and Jesus has already died, so we are already his heirs. On the other hand, if we think that we have the blessings in all their fullness—if we think that things will never be better for us than they are today—then we are disregarding God’s promise. The Day of the Lord has not yet arrived; we are not yet living in the new creation. Our present troubles are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed (Romans 8:28), and that glory will last forever. What we will be is not yet known, but when Christ is seen we will be like him, for we will see him as he is (I John 3:2). We wait eagerly for the new heavens and the new earth to be revealed. J.

Time to change time

Daylight Saving Time was never a good idea. It has become increasingly irrelevant. Yet, for no good reason, most citizens of the United States of America will change their clocks this weekend, losing an hour of sleep, delaying sunset by an hour but also delaying sunrise by that very same hour.

For most of human history, people awoke at sunrise and went to bed at sunset. Candles and lanterns provided some illumination after dark, and there have always been people whose careers or preferences caused them to work late into the night and sleep past sunrise. For the most part, though, people have found it easiest and most natural to conform their schedules to the created patterns of day and night.

Ancient civilizations divided daytime and nighttime into twelve hours each. Away from the equator, daytime hours were longer and nighttime hours were shorter in the summer; daytime hours were shorter and nighttime hours were longer in the winter. About one thousand years ago, new technology produced clocks that could measure hours and minutes and seconds, keeping them the same length day or night. With this innovation, sunrise could be described as happening at a particular time, such as 5 a.m. in the summer, 6 a.m. at the equinoxes, and 7 a.m. in the winter. Still, noon was understood to be the time when the sun was most directly overhead, and midnight really was the middle of the night, happening precisely halfway between sunset and sunrise.

Rapid travel, particularly that of trains, brought another innovation. Travelers complained about having to change their watches at every new city, so the world’s governments agreed to divide the planet into twenty-four time zones. Now people can travel from city to city and expect the time to remain the same, except when they cross a time zone line. At that point, they suddenly gain or lose an entire hour. In most places, noon no longer happens when the sun has reached the meridian of the sky and midnight no longer happens in the middle of the night.

By this time, efficient electric lights had replaced candles and lanterns. People found it easy to work or play late into the night. Rising with the sun became exceptional behavior rather than common. Given this change in habits, various governments experimented with changing the time once again. Pretending that they were “saving” daylight with the change, governments were merely tampering with time, making some locations experience midday and midnight up to two hours from the actual middle of the day or of the night.

Such tampering might have been justifiable in the twentieth century, but twenty-first century technology has made Daylight Saving Time pointless. Indeed, the next big change in our relationship with time could restore what was lost by previous changes. Thanks to the Internet, the Global Positioning System (GPS), and other inventions, the world could easily function with 1,440 time zones. Each of them would see noon and midnight occur within one minute of the actual midpoint of the day and of the night. A single world-wide time could be used to schedule all events of greater than local interest. (Why not Greenwich time, also known as Coordinated Universal Time (UCT)?)  Instead of promising that a television show would be broadcast at eight o’clock Eastern Time, seven o’clock Central Time, and so forth, the broadcast could be announced to take place at two o’clock UCT, and everyone would be able to convert that time into local time.

In fact, each home and business could have a timepiece in every room that shows both local time and UCT. Travelers with a GPS device would always be able to access both UCT and local time. For most people, the adjustment to a more natural flow of time would require no more than a month or two. Once this adjustment was made, time would remain stable and predictable in every place. No longer would we have to face two weekends a year in which our sense of time is wrenched and scrambled.

There is no reason to have the sun directly overhead at 1:30 in the afternoon or to have midnight closer to sunset than to sunrise. People who want to sleep late will sleep late no matter what the time is called; people that want to stay awake late into the night will stay awake no matter what the time is called. No daylight has ever been saved by Daylight Saving Time. Because it is possible, even easy, to return to a natural flow of time, it is time to do so for the common benefit of people everywhere. J.

Prophecy, fulfillment, and time

During this Advent season, many Christians contemplate the prophecies of Jesus in Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms, comparing those promises to the ways they were kept in the birth, life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus. This meditation is good, but it can sometimes be approached in a misleading fashion. Some Christians speak of God first making the promises and then finding ways to keep them, like a planner checking items off a list.

“Let’s see – I said he would be born of a virgin – Mary of Nazareth will do nicely. (check)

“I said he would be born in Bethlehem. I can prompt Caesar to call for a census so that Joseph will be compelled to take Mary there before the birth.” (check)

“I said that he would be honored by Gentiles bringing gold and incense and myrrh. Here’s a group of wise men who will fit the bill.” (check)

“I said they would be led by a star. How on earth am I going to lead them to Bethlehem by a star?”

Peter wrote, “Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (II Peter 3:8). God does not move through time as we created beings move through time; he can step into and out of the time stream at will. When the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets, he was not setting up conditions that would have to be met. No, he was telling what he had already seen of future events, for he had already been there. Judas was not fated to betray Christ because of some promise God made centuries earlier; Judas chose to betray Christ, and then the Holy Spirit told prophets about the betrayal centuries earlier.

Some say that, hanging on the cross, Jesus quoted the first verse of Psalm 22. A more theologically sound position is that Jesus prayed sincerely from the depths of his anguish, and then the Holy Spirit inspired David to write the Psalm which vividly describes the crucifixion and quotes Christ’s prayer one thousand years earlier.

When the prophecies and fulfillments are seen from this perspective, deeper and richer meaning appears in those prophecies. Mary was a genuine person, a historic figure, who conceived and gave birth to a son while still a virgin. At the same time, Mary stands in the place of the Bride of the Lord—Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church, one Bride distinguished only by the before-and-after of Christ’s Incarnation in our time stream. This Bride is betrothed, still awaiting the coming of her Husband on the wedding day. Although a virgin, she has already given birth to the Son of God, now Incarnate, who has fulfilled the promises that would claim his people and bring about the royal marriage of Christ and his Church.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem so he could claim the throne of his father David. David had been promised a son who would rule an eternal kingdom (II Samuel 7). Solomon does not match the son described to David—Solomon became king while David was still alive (v. 12), although Solomon sinned he was never disciplined with stripes and rods (v. 14), and after ruling for forty years, Solomon died, and his kingdom was divided—it was not eternal (v. 16). Jesus fulfilled all the requirements of the Son of David and remains a true Son to God the Father (v. 14). Though he did not sin, he took upon himself the sins of the world and was treated accordingly, including the stripes and rods borne by Roman soldiers.

But Bethlehem was more than the hometown of David and therefore of his descendants. The name of the town means “house of bread,” and it became the birthplace of the Bread of Life, the Living Bread that (like manna) comes down out of heaven (John 6). After he was born, Jesus was placed in a manger, a trough from which sheep eat, signaling that the Good Shepherd would feed his sheep with his own body (I Corinthians 10 & 11).

The wise men bearing gifts who were guided by a star probably knew the prophecy of the Gentile prophet Balaam, who said in the days of Moses, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). The wise men knew that the King of the Jews, whose birth was signaled by that star, would also be a priest and a sacrifice, so they honored him with royal and priestly gifts.

All the Old Testament descriptions of the Messiah add up to more than a checklist of things God had to do, or ways to identify the Messiah when he came. They were given as instruction to the saints of Israel, so they could believe in the coming Savior and have a place in his eternal kingdom. They remain for our instruction today, expanding upon what was written by the apostles to describe Jesus as Savior. God’s Bible is full of rich interconnections which never stop teaching us about the glory and grace of God, who came among us to be one of us, to rescue us, and to claim us for his kingdom. J.

Advent

Last year Christmas was on a Sunday and the season of Advent was as long as it can be—twenty-eight days. This year Christmas is on a Monday and Advent is as short as it can be—twenty-two days.

In traditional congregations, Advent is a time of preparation, not merely for the celebration of Christmas, but for the presence of Christ himself. When Advent is treated as a countdown to Christmas, it provides little comfort or peace. Advent can instead be an oasis, a quiet place in the midst of the world’s mad rush toward its Yuletide observances that overlap the Christmas holiday. For many worldly Americans, the season of Christmas begins in mid-October (or, at the latest, on Thanksgiving) and lasts until the sun goes down on December 25 (or perhaps lingers a few days longer, maybe even to the end of the year). On the traditional Christian calendar, December 25 is the first day of Christmas and eleven more days follow that belong also to the Christmas season. Advent consists of the four Sundays before Christmas and all the other days that happen between the First Sunday of Advent and sunset on the night of December 24, Christmas Eve. (For that reason, traditional Christian churches this year will observe the Fourth Sunday of Advent on the morning of the 24th and Christmas Eve on the evening of the same day.)

The word advent means “coming.” Commonly, Christians speak of the season of Advent as threefold, involving a past Advent, a present Advent, and a future Advent. From a human point of view, the distinction is useful. The spirit of Advent Past recalls the Old Testament believers waiting for the promised Messiah, including John the Baptist, the prophet who prepared the way of the Lord. This Advent Past comes to fulfillment when Christ is born in Bethlehem and proceeds on a rescue mission which takes him to a cross and a grave in Jerusalem. The spirit of Advent Present recalls the ways Jesus is present for his people today: in the power of his Word, the Bible; in the proclamation of forgiveness in his Church; and in the Sacraments of his Church—Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The spirit of Advent Future directs attention to the Day of the Lord, when Jesus will appear in glory with all the angels of heaven and all the saints. The dead will be raised, the Judgment of the Lord will be announced, and the new creation will begin—an eternal wedding feast of Christ and his Bride, the Church, and an unending celebration of the victory Christ won in his first advent and now shares with his people through his present advent.

Like all human beings, Christians move through time, from past to present and from present to future. Jesus is the Son of God. He created time; he exists outside of time, unchanging and eternal; he moves through time in ways that are incomprehensible to the rest of us. When Jesus ascended forty days after his resurrection, he “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). Time is included among “all things,” so that the Son of Mary could eat with Abraham and wrestle with Jacob. The Son of Mary, hands scarred by the nails that held him to the cross, could shape the earth into the body of Adam and sculpt a woman, a teammate for Adam, from one of Adam’s ribs.

As I wrote here, the future advent of Jesus is not a return, because Jesus is always with us. His appearing to judge all people and to inaugurate the new creation is an important teaching of the Bible and the Church, but for Jesus it is a reality that has already occurred. As Christians wait for the fulness of the victory that was won in Jerusalem on Good Friday and Easter, Jesus says that we already have abundant and eternal life, we already belong to the kingdom of God, and we are already children of God (through the adoption purchased by Jesus on the cross). John wrote, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he {Jesus} appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2). The puzzle of time as it relates to Jesus and to his people cannot fully be solved this side of the Day of the Lord, but the season of Advent allows us to rest in the assurance that all is solved and secure in the hands of the Lord. J.

Prophecy and fulfillment

We people move one direction in time, from past to present and from present to future. Sometimes we forget that God sees all history at a glance and that he can jump into any time as he chooses. When we speak of prophecy, our descriptions sometimes miss the mark because we have forgotten that God is timeless.

We say that God knows everything, including the future. Of course God knows everything, but the future is not something he foreknows as much as something he already sees. Worse, sometimes people picture God fulfilling prophecy as if he was checking items off a list: “Let’s see—born of a virgin? check. Born in Bethlehem? check. Honored by Gentiles? check. Called out of Egypt? Let’s see how I can get him into Egypt so I can bring him home again.”

When God spoke to the prophets about future events, God was describing things he had already experienced. He never had to figure out how to fulfill a prophecy. As far as God was concerned, he was talking about things that had already happened. When God described Judas’ betrayal of Christ, he was not foreordaining that Christ would be betrayed by a certain man. He was telling what had already happened, the betrayal that Judas chose freely to perform. David and Isaiah wrote about the crucifixion of Jesus, and Jesus predicted his own crucifixion, but the priests and elders did not think of sending Jesus to the cross until Governor Pilate offered them a choice—to free Jesus or to free a terrorist named Barabbas. When the crowd chose Barabbas, they then began demanding that Jesus be sent to the cross, which was to have been the execution of Barabbas.

The focus of the Old Testament prophecies was always the rescue mission performed by Jesus. Trying to predict our future based on Biblical prophecies is pointless, not because the prophecies are unreliable, but because they have already been fulfilled. What of Judgment Day? That Day will come, as hurricanes and earthquakes remind us, but the propheciesabout that Day were met nearly two thousand years ago. As the Son of God was hanging on a cross, the sun went dark and the earth shook, even as the prophets had described. The Father’s judgment was poured on Jesus that day, which is why Christians need not fear the coming Judgment Day. Our judgment and our rescue have already been accomplished.

The book of Revelation describes a battle at a place called Armageddon. That name, Armageddon, means the heights of Megiddo. Megiddo is an ancient city built upon a plain. Several key battles were fought upon that plain, including the battle in which King Josiah was killed. The picture of all the nations of the world gathering to fight on the heights of Megiddo (which do not exist) is an image of the world-wide rebellion of sinners. That rebellion began in Eden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. It still rages today. It will end when Jesus appears in glory, and it will end without a bomb exploding or a shot being fired. That is the case, not because of some future event, but because of the victory Jesus won over sin and evil while nailed to the cross.

All the prophecies of the Bible are fulfilled in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. If he should appear in glory this afternoon to raise the dead and call all people to judgment, no one could say to him, “But wait! You can’t do this yet! Something else has to happen first!” For this reason, Christians prepare themselves for the glorious appearance of Christ every day, even while we make plans for tomorrow and next year and the more distant future. We have one foot in each world—we live in this world and deal with it, while we also are citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

We read the New Testament to learn about Jesus. We also read the Old Testament to learn about Jesus. The sacrifices and holidays of the Old Testament were lessons about Jesus. Moses and the prophets wrote about Jesus. Even the commandments of God are descriptions of the perfect, sinless life Jesus lived for our redemption. It’s all about Jesus, and for us, all the news is good news. J.