In times of uncertainty, it’s good to take stock of what we know and what we don’t know. The book of Matthew records Jesus, teaching his disciples about the fulfillment of creation, saying
Now, before we go rushing off to places of anxiety and consternation over the fact that Jesus himself is here describing his own ignorance, please note that the fact that creation is going somewhere is an assumption with which Jesus begins.
As in ages before, it’s become fashionable in some circles to imagine that reality is an endless loop of cycles returning again and again; others imagine that we move through the world experiencing a sequence of unrelated events that at best can only be experienced but have no inherent meaning. But Jesus, who is the one by whom all things are held together, knows differently. Creation is moving to the day of fulfillment that was initiated by his own resurrection. This moving toward fulfillment is something that God is doing in creation. This insight guards us against a kind of primitivism that imagines that things were better in some long ago day as well as a kind of progressivism that imagines that the salvation of the world (as we prefer to experience it) depends on human beings getting it right.
Jesus teaches that the fulfillment of creation will be marked by his return which will bring the restoration of all things and our own physical resurrection. He’s pretty clear about this and followers of Jesus have routinely asserted their hope in this, Sunday after Sunday in words like those of the Apostles’ Creed.
This is what we know.
What we don’t know is when this will be. It might be alarming (as we’ve already observed) that Jesus claims not to know either. Then, to add to our anxiety, Jesus goes on to say that there won’t even be any warning! He says that the fulfillment of all things will come like a thief who breaks into a house or, we might add, like an act of senseless violence such as has occurred on the campus of the Ohio State University. Without warning, everything changes and things seem suddenly uncertain. Which is as they always were.
Perhaps we don’t like to think about it but life is always fragile and uncertain, this side of eternity. Things we thought we could count on, the unity of a nation, the stability of the American Empire, our confidence in national or cultural righteousness, all of these are illusions.
So what do we do in such times of uncertainty, with this knowing and unknowing? I suggest two things:
- We align ourselves with the resurrection of Jesus. This is to say that we, by the power of the Holy Spirit, place our hope and confidence for the future in the resurrection of Jesus. This resurrection has the final word in the universe and is the foundation of our hope. I believe that when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted Theodore Parker saying “…the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he wasn’t basing his hope in a confidence in American progressivism, he was expressing his confidence in the resurrection of the body. This hope in the resurrection is what we mean by “faith.” It is this faith to which Jesus is referring when he teaches us to “keep watch.”
- Such faith will necessarily show itself in the practice of love of our neighbor through acts of service and the desire for understanding. We do this, not in order to save the world but because we have become aligned to the world’s savior. Our service doesn’t bring resurrection, it’s an echo of it and an anticipation of our own resurrection. This self-understanding can equip us with the necessary humility to meet our neighbor where she or he is because humility isn’t thinking less of ourselves, it’s thinking more of the other.
At the Chapel of the Resurrection, we think and talk like this about this time every year. It’s the season of Advent, a time set aside to meditate on the return of Christ and our vocation to love as our way of waiting for that day. May God bless your waiting with what we know and what we don’t know.
Nov. 30, 2016
Rev. James A. Wetzstein serves as one of our university pastors at Valparaiso University’s Chapel of the Resurrection.