Tomorrow Will Be Different

dawn photoI’m reading a fine book about Karl Barth, believed by many to be the most creative and fruitful Reformed theologian of the past century. This particular text provides a detailed analysis of the German society in which Barth accomplished his work.[1] It reminds the reader that when young Karl Barth began his ministry, many of Europe’s theological teachers had reached a stage of wholesale accommodation to the assumptions of the larger culture. In that time and place, it was widely believed

  • that religious faith was fading as rational, scientific knowledge was growing;
  • that the state always was benevolent and just, and that the Church always would support it;
  • that a social hierarchy with the Church in a subservient role was the way it should be, and always would be.

In retrospect, we can see how giving a nation’s leaders sole authority to define reality was a bad idea. We can understand that as Church leaders gradually gave up independence, they lost moral authority to combat the rise of fascist tyranny and genocide. But, at the time, Barth was part of a minority of church leaders to warn against what was happening.

By 1918, when Barth wrote his first commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, already he was launching a counterattack on this sort of mindset:

  • He denied the sovereignty of the scientific method accepted in his day. Barth believed that if we make absolute any theoretical or practical idea, then we no longer possess the idea, but rather the idea possesses us.
  • He spoke against culturally assimilated theologians who had become servants of the state. Barth proclaimed that the true Church cannot be colonized by other powers. The Church preaches the gospel in all kingdoms, but not under them, nor in their spirit.
  • Barth battled the tendency to make a tidy, unchanging religious system of the Bible.  The experience of reading Scripture, he believed, should be less about assembling the facts of yesterday’s religion. It should be more about experiencing the dynamic revealing of a new world which God is creating through the Spirit, who is leading us into a new tomorrow.

At the heart of Barth’s analysis was a theological premise revealed in the passages we read on this first Sunday in Advent.  The word of the Lord says that things are changing, despite the appearance that powers aligned against good have triumphed. The God who appeared to be dead, is in fact alive. Therefore, the church is not doomed to be a museum to the past, but rather called to be a beacon to the future.

When we believe that God will make tomorrow different, it changes the way we spend our time today.

That message is the essence of today’s text from the 13th chapter of the Letter to the Romans. The early Church, from its beginning, lived in an atmosphere of crisis about the coming “day of the Lord.”[2] By the time Paul pens this letter, a couple of decades of repetition have dulled the impact of this message. Yet, Paul never stopped believing that Jesus was coming in a new way. He never stopped proclaiming that the actions of Christ’s disciples should not be defined by the apparent permanency of today’s cultural customs or today’s hierarchy of power and influence. Rather, we should be shaped by the promise of a future when the darkness of sin will dissolve in the light of God’s grace.

When we believe that God will make tomorrow different, it changes the way we spend our time today.

So often, we act as if the things we do will go on that way always, and the things we possess will last forever.

Have you ever seen an office filled with too many file cabinets? There is, I believe, a cosmic principle that one’s quantity of paper records grows to fill completely one’s available file space. Recently, I got tired of my file cabinets at home bulging so full of paper that I couldn’t squeeze in even a few more sheets. I bought a wonderful tool called a shredder. My shredder will handle up to twelve sheets of paper at a time. It cuts through staples and small paperclips like butter. I removed some old credit cards from my safe, and chopped them up, zip, zip, zip. I can even feed old CDs and DVDs into my shredder.

“Why did I ever keep all this stuff?” I’ve wondered, thumbing through tax forms all the back to 1978 when I received my first W-2 from Howard Johnson’s restaurant. I suppose that having put all that time and energy into tax forms, it just didn’t feel right to throw it all away.  I’ve scanned some of the important records, and kept a few of the memories. Otherwise, I don’t need to waste my space holding on to it anymore, or leaving it for someone to sort out when I’m dead.  My wife will probably tell you that I’m having far more fun than is justifiable, shredding, shredding, and shredding, getting rid of all the weight of things I don’t need, making enough confetti for a Thanksgiving parade.

So often, we act as if the things we do will go on that way always, and the things we possess will last forever.  But when we believe that God’s new world is coming tomorrow, what a difference it makes in the way we spend our time today.

All around, there are voices that spread a false message:

  • that faith in God is fading as rational analysis and scientific knowledge are growing;
  • that the political processes and market forces of our time always are benevolent and just, and that the Church should quietly support the powers that be until the Church slowly fades away;
  • that such a social hierarchy is the way it should be, and always will be, and Jesus Christ had better be satisfied assuming a low profile and priority in the schedules and checkbooks of his followers.

As we begin a new church calendar year, and launch into the season of Advent 2013, I encourage you to hear the challenge implicit in today’s scripture lessons.

  • If you choose to shield yourself from that message by examining faith solely through the lens of scientific rationalism, if you extrapolate from what you can see today that there is nothing unseen tomorrow, then you no longer possess a rational, scientific methodology, but rather the cult of science and rationalism possesses you.
  • If you choose to make Jesus one minor allegiance among many competing minor allegiances, then Jesus is merely a quaint custom, not the Lord of life whose moral authority judges all our decisions and activities.
  • If you expect the Church to provide a tidy system of belief, and monument to our cultural past, then you may miss – until it’s too late – the dynamic revealing of a new world, which God is creating through the Spirit.

Do you believe that God will make tomorrow different? If you do, then it will change the way you spend your time today.

Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

            [1] Timothy J. Gorringe, Karl Barth: Against Hegemony, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

            [2] C.H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1932, p. 208 ff.


~ by JohnH1962 on December 1, 2013.

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