Do you know what time it is? Often we treat other people as if we’re living in a different time. Parents treat grown sons and daughters as if they’re still children. Husbands and wives don’t keep up with each other as the years go by and they discover that the ways they related to each other when they first married don’t work for the new situation that exists 5, 10, or 40 years later. A friend or coworker has offended us, and we let that insult shape the way we relate to them for years to come instead of working through differences and starting over so that we do not live in the past.
It seems to be human nature, like generals who are always fighting the last war. Eighteen years ago the attacks of 9/11 jolted us into a whole new era. We initially responded to al Qaeda the way we’d always responded to threats to our national security, by invading foreign countries with massive firepower. We expected it to work in 2001 the same way it had worked during the first Gulf War of 1991. But after a while it became clear that Afghanistan and Iraq weren’t our fathers’ wars, that the old ways of fighting were only making things worse.
We’re good at living in the past, but today’s New Testament lesson encourages us to live for the future. Paul reminds the Romans, “You know what time it is.” He was speaking to those who had given their lives to Jesus Christ, reminding them that his life was more than an affirmation of peace and joy and good will. Paul wrote to those who knew that Jesus changed the way we look at time. Because of Jesus, we know what time it is. It’s not the past that shapes us any more. The future, the promise of Jesus, is what guides us.
Just think how knowing what the future holds affects the way you live right now. If you’re a high school senior, you know that things will be different for you after this year, so it changes the way you think about school this week. Once a couple becomes engaged to be married, the months before the wedding are a whirlwind of preparations for what is to come. As you approach retirement, your goals and ambitions are tailored with that retirement date in mind. If you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness, each day takes on a different character, it becomes a gift to be savored because you know in a more intimate way than the rest of us what the future holds.
Jesus doesn’t wipe out our past. He doesn’t eradicate our identity or our accomplishments. He honors those things we’ve accomplished and the good we’ve done. His life fulfilled the past. It was the culmination of all the wonderful things God had done for Israel. But it was also the promise of the future, an affirmation of what God has in store. It affects the way we relate to the people we meet every day. We relate to people by what we know about their past – what we’ve heard about them from others, how they’ve treated us. And all of that is important. You can’t deny a person’s past. But imagine what it would be like if we related to everyone in light of the promise God has given us in Jesus. God has something wonderful in store for each and every person on the planet.
God thinks enough of that person who bothers you, that one who has hurt you, that one who makes you toss and turn at night – God thinks enough of that person to send Jesus to die for his or her sins, just as God loves you. God wants that person to have a place at the table when the heavenly host is gathered in glory. When you look at a person for what God desires for him or her, are you quarrels really that important? Is it worth your time being angry?
But it’s not just a personal promise that God makes about the future. The victory Jesus won over hopelessness and hatred and death was for all the nations. Instead of resolving differences by brinksmanship or threats of force, people will look to God to guide them to be fair to everyone. Instead of resolving conflicts with weapons and wars, the time is coming when nations will look to God to resolve their differences. All our energy, our creativity, our resources will go into improving life rather than destroying it. We’ll beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. We’ll beat our tanks into tractors and instead of carrying bombs our airplanes will all carry food and medicine and books. Instead of hiring baggage screeners and security officers, we’ll be hiring childcare workers and nurses and teachers. Jesus has bigger and better things in store for us.
Church is the place where we live that promise. One reason this congregation has thrived is because it has looked for what God is doing in the world to make all things new and getting on board with it. Your commitment to serving the community is a bold affirmation of how God’s love makes all things new. You show local families the promise of Christ’s hope when you give food to the needy and Christmas gifts to kids through Bell Shelter. Your partnership with Source of Life Ministries in Haiti that we heard about last week sends the powerful message that things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been for street kids in Haiti. The compassion you show through Stephen Ministers and deacons outreach reminds our church members that Christ makes all things new. Eastminster Preschool is an investment in the future that shapes young children to respect one another and to love learning so they’ll go on to become successful students.
One of the things a congregation works on during the transition between pastors is figuring out what time it is. For Eastminster Presbyterian Church, Greg’s retirement marked the culmination of a good era. This church is strong, a real accomplishment for any congregation these days. A new era is in the works, and one of the things that happens as a congregation welcomes a new pastor is discerning what God has in mind for Eastminster Presbyterian Church here in east York and what kind of pastoral leadership you need to fulfill God’s vision for you. It’s a matter of knowing what time it is, recognizing what’s the same and what’s different, what stays the same and what has changed. That’s not something that happens fast. It takes patience and lots of prayer. It takes a commitment to keep up the good things that God is doing here now while waiting expectantly for the new things God has in store.
For the last 2000 years the western world has marked time by the birth of Jesus. His arrival divided history into BC and AD. In him time is different now. The old is finished and gone. Everything is fresh and new. We have to make concessions for the present, for those who would harm us, for the inequalities and the injustices that plague us now. But we don’t get stuck in the past – and what is current today will tomorrow be past. When God sent Jesus to us, God sent us the future. In Jesus we’ve already got the very best God has in store. Jesus keeps us from getting stuck in the past because he is our future. We don’t live by what has happened but by what is yet to come. And the one who is coming is Jesus. He’s where your future lies.