The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Isaiah 40:9
Do not ignore this one fact, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 2 Peter 3:8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark 1:1
There are two questions more pervasive, more powerful, more perplexing than all others. Inextricably inter-related, these questions confront every human being. They're asked on different levels, as frequently in university departments of philosophy as in homeless shelters and even by the small child who asks, "Why?"
First, what is the meaning of time? Today is yesterday's tomorrow. Does it all hang together? Does time go anywhere? Is there a future? Is it all just a succession of present moments, one thing after another after another?
Second, what of death? Everything that begins ends. Nothing lasts. Not at all, let alone forever. So what's the point? So what? Does anything really matter other than right now, this present moment?
Two questions, time and death. More pervasive, more powerful, more perplexing than any others.
Advent is the season when we address these questions. The lessons appointed for this Second Sunday in Advent make three clear affirmations.
First, the grass withers; the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.
One thing, one thing only, remains: God. Everything else we know and encounter is to be seen and understood in that context. Very occasionally, only seldom, do we see this reality full blown, clear as it can be. More likely, we glimpse it through metaphor in small bits and pieces. Here is one way that Mary Oliver, poet, theologian, believer, makes this affirmation:
I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred--
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the
It's like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.1
The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. ( Isaiah 40:9)
The pieces of the puzzle are merely that-pieces. But seen together, there is the whole story.
In more than any other way, my life has been blessed by fifty years of marriage to one person, Anne. We met when we were very young, married right after college and have shared everything.
Not long ago I was asked to officiate at the marriage of a young couple-each right out of college, who were very special to me. The groom's father had been my advisee when he was in high school, and he and I came to know one another well. I officiated at his wedding and baptized this son. His family stood for continuity, commitment, the wholeness of life that is how we encounter God.
The night before the wedding, the father, my former student, stood to speak of the love of the couple soon to be married and concluded his remarks with this poem by Robert Frost. It is a glimpse of how the whole of life-the reality of the presence of God-is glimpsed through marriage.
Frost wrote these words:
No speed of wind or water rushing by
But you have speed far greater. You can climb
Back up a stream of radiance to the sky,
And back through history up the stream of time.
And you were given this swiftness, not for haste,
Nor chiefly that you may go where you will,
But in the rush of everything to waste,
That you may have the power of standing still-
Off any still or moving thing you say.
Two such as you with such a master speed
Cannot be parted nor be swept away
From one another once you have agreed
That life is only life forevermore
Together wing to wing and oar to oar.
"The Master Speed"
In the midst of the changes and chances of this mortal life, there are moments of luminosity, events that allow us to see the reality, the reality that is God.
The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Second: Do not ignore this one fact, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.
Father William Qeullet was a small actor on the stage of circumstance during the calamitous events of social upheaval in the 1960's. He said one thing that has haunted me, "Everyone's life is lived in a moment, and I have had mine."
It's not one moment. It's a series of disparate moments at disparate times when everything is summed up in a snapshot.
* The first time you see your child
* Or your grandchild
* Driving away-perhaps for the last time. You turn to wave; your daughter is crying-thinking, you can tell, "Will I ever see them again?"
Everyone's life is lived in a moment, a series of moments, for
With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.
Mary Oliver again:
I see or I hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
It is what I was born for
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world-
to instruct myself
over and over
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant-
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean's shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?2
Do not ignore this one fact, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.
Third, the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Advent breaks into the ordinary and the extraordinary, the fleeting, and the eternal, with the bold and transforming announcement that everything-everything we know, everything of which we dreamed-has changed. Changed now. Changed forever by the Advent of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
What that means is more, far more, than we can comprehend in a single sentence or even a single sermon or perhaps a single lifetime. The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, involves a total re-ordering of what is understood to be normal, natural, acceptable. It means, as we have been told, and remember that
* The last shall be first and the first last
* In order to save our life we must lose it
* Death is inevitable
* But each and every death-including the big one at the end-begins a New Life.
The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, tells us that we-each and every one of us-is not good and never will be. But, you know what? God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
One last time, Mary Oliver. The conclusion of her poem "In Blackwater Woods."
Those persons whom I most admire consider it her finest. Here she states what is at the very core of her being and at the center of the being of each and everyone of us who embraces the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.3
* To love what is mortal
* To hold it
* To let it go
The Mystery of Salvation is the Mystery of Time.
The announcement of the Advent of Jesus Christ changes everything for you and me forever. Amen.
Let us pray.
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation, give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God now and forever. Amen.
1 Breakage by Mary Oliver
Copyright 2004 by Mary Oliver
Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston
2 Mindful by Mary Oliver
Copyright 2004 by Mary Oliver
Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston
3 From AMERICAN PRIMITIVE by Mary Oliver. Copyright 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983 by Mary Oliver. By permission of Little, Brown and Company (Inc.)