When Will This Be Over?
I don’t know if they’re still there, but on a trip downtown to the church in late March, I saw a stack of printed and folded worship bulletins sitting on the counter in the supply room. They had been prepared for Sunday, March 15. It was a poignant, visible marker of the point in time when all “this” began.
Have you found yourself talking to someone and making vague references to “this” or “all this,” and it was clear that they understood what you meant?
“We were just getting ready to _____ when all this began.” “Have you been doing alright through all this?” “I never thought I’d live to see something like this.” “We’ll get through this together!”
“When all this is over, I can’t wait to . . . . hug my friends/watch a ballgame/invite people over/ forget I ever heard the term ‘social distancing.’”
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Here’s a pretty good rule of thumb: when we’re reading the Bible and Jesus’ disciples start to sound so ignorant or ridiculous that we want to do nothing but laugh or shake our heads at them, we can assume that we’re engaged at a superficial level. We might be able to draw out some general point or lesson, but it’s probably going to be the kind of shallow interpretation that mainly just gives us a chance to shake our heads at others’ ignorance. We miss an opportunity to be drawn into the story—God’s story—so that our own vision of where we stand and where we are going might be transformed.
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
The temptation has always been for Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians to hear this question as yet another example of how the knot-headed disciples still didn’t get it. They were still looking for a “political” or “military” (and maybe “ethnic”) Savior to defeat the Romans. Jesus is going to have to set them straight, once again.
And when we hear, or feel that question to be naïve or even dangerously wrong-headed, we shake our heads and move on.
But what if “Lord, is this the time . . . ?” is also the disciples asking Jesus “how much longer do we have to endure all this?”
Their question surely included all kinds of intimately personal and communal (“political”) hopes. One helpful way to interpret talk about the “kingdom” * in the Gospels is to recall that between 500-700 years earlier, the peoples of biblical Israel had been conquered by massive empires, and their leadership sent them away to exile. Even though many had eventually returned to live in their ancestral homeland—the land of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and his clan—and even though a massive temple had been rebuilt on the site of King Solomon’s great edifice in Jerusalem, they had not really, meaningfully returned “home.” The Romans ultimately called the shots; the people of God were still divided—and still unfaithful to God and to each other.
And each of those disciples surely included in their question both some relatively superficial hopes as well as profound longings shared by all people everywhere. Jesus has made hope alive, in the deepest most universally human sense, as he brought sight to the blind, made the lame to walk, and brought loved ones back from the brink of death.
So they’re asking Jesus to move the story forward: “Lord, is it finally time when all this comes to an end?”
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Sometime in mid-March, soon after all “this” began, I read a provocative essay urging organizational leaders to let go of the thought that our society had simply pressed “pause” for a moment. Those who live in colder climates are accustomed to hunkering down for a bit after a major snowstorm stops life in its tracks, only to return to normal a bit later. Despite how tempting that line of thinking may be, the authors claimed, “for businesses, nonprofits, and even churches — this is a time to urgently redesign our work in light of what we believe is not just a weeks-long ‘blizzard,’ not even just a months-long ‘winter,’ but something closer to the beginning of a 12–18 month ‘ice age’ in which many assumptions and approaches must change for good.”
Yikes! But also — yes?
Last week, Hulitt said exactly what I’ve been thinking and feeling when he recalled the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”). There are just so many dimensions to all this that our world is currently enduring, and it feels impossible to speak in generalities. For so many good reasons we desperately want to return to normal. For so many good reasons, we desperately do not want “normal” to return or to continue a moment longer (Ahmaud Arberry). For so many reasons it is dangerous to presume to use that word “we,” when the problems with all “this” run so much deeper and broader than one person can name, and extend beyond a global pandemic.
Advent—the four weeks before Christmas—is a time for expectation, for longing, for waiting in hope. We are in Eastertide – Hope has risen from the dead! I want us to have a conversation as a congregation, and with others as well, about the losses we are grieving because of all “this” (the wounds are definitely visible) and also about our hopes about assumptions and approaches that may be able to change for good during this time. What are the newfound opportunities or possibilities for freedom from what we used to consider unending, inevitable, and “normal”? What roles could we have in all “that”?
But first, let’s stand with the disciples–not over against them in judgment–and ask, or plead: “Lord, is this the time when all this will end?”
*For more on the “kingdom,” I can think of no better resource than the inaugural episode of 2BC’s Because It Is podcast, featuring a conversation between Preston and Dr. Gloer about “God’s Dream.”