Sunday, March 27, 2011

How Long?

Spring break is coming – lots of family vacations, road trips, and that universal refrain: “How long until we get there?”

College graduation is coming too, with the deeper refrain: “How long until I find a job?” “How long until I feel really settled, ready to get on with my life?”

“How long” is a phrase that seems to be part of who we are. We live so much of our lives in that painful in-between time. The journey is started, the destination is in mind, but that time in between seems impossibly long: to quote T.S. Eliot once again, “ridiculous the waste sad time, stretching before and after.”

Our sermon last Sunday focused on Abraham in Exodus 12 and Romans 4. Chris Hall, our much-loved professor, parishioner, author, and Bible genius, wound his way through those two lectionary texts to end with Nicodemus in John 3. It was a challenging, encouraging sermon, (and if you missed it, I highly recommend it). 

But I confess, somewhere in the middle of it, I found myself caught in the amazing “how long” of Abraham’s life. I had gone two days earlier to pray for Emily, a girl struck by lightening almost three years ago. God has done miraculous things in her life, but there is a long way yet to go, and her family, and those of us who pray, find ourselves asking “how long?”

So Abraham’s “how long” drew me in. And yes, I still heard every word of the sermon, but I was multitasking as I flipped back and forth between Exodus and Romans.

Abraham was 75 when God promised to make him “a great nation” and showed him the land He would give his offspring. He was 86 when he had a son by Hagar, the servant, rather than by Sarah, his wife. He was 100 when God told him to have his clan circumcised, and said he would have a son by Sarah, not Hagar. And 101 when Isaac was finally born.

That’s a long “how long,” with some serious missteps along the way. What seemed improbable at 75 by 100 was beyond impossible. Yet in Hebrews 4 Paul says this:
“Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.”
“Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed. . .  being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.”

Am I fully persuaded God has power to do what He’s promised? How long am I willing to wait in hope? And how do I demonstrate that hope, while I wait?

That refrain, “how long,” is echoed through scripture. Sometimes it’s God’s people, crying to him “how long”: “My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?” (Psalm 6)  Throughout the psalms the cry goes on: How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? How long will the enemy mock you, God?  How long, Lord, will you be angry? How long must your servant wait?

The question continues on through the prophets: “ How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” And even in John’s Revelation, the cry continues: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Revelation 6)

We ask “how long,” and yet, God asks the same of us: “How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions?” (Exodus 16)  “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them? How long will this wicked community grumble against me?” (Numbers 14)  “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” (1 Kings 18)

How long?

As I’ve been thinking about how much of our lives we spend in waiting, I’ve been struck with how, despite the waiting, the time goes flying by. It’s one of those baffling mysteries: we ride along asking “how long?” and then, suddenly, the ride is over, and we realize we missed it.

We are prisoners of time. We can’t make it move faster, no matter how we tinker with technology, trying to save time, speed time, rearrange time. And we can’t make it move slower. There’s a line from Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill that comes back to me now and then: “Time held me green and dying, Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

Time holds me green and dying, and as I wait, to see justice on the earth, to see promises fulfilled, the challenge is to fill the moments as they fly by, to live as someone who “against all hope, in hope believes.”  

Our service ended last week with Al Gordon’s amazing anthem, “How Long.” It’s a powerful expression of longing, waiting, and affirmation. Cruising the internet for a faithful rendition of it, I came across a powerful Tearfund video that captures my hope: to live each day as if justice is on its way, to redeem each minute because the promises are true. To wake up each day to the opportunities and challenges of that day, and to work at whatever I’m given as an offering toward the day that’s coming.

Chris Hall talks often about the “music” of scripture, the song that sings through it that we’re often too tone-deaf to hear. The “how long” song we sing is part of that music, and the song has contrapuntal parts. Repeated, again and again, “how long”: until questions are answered, until healing comes, until justice appears, until we sing the victory song. 

And then, for those who hope and believe, there’s the answering refrain: “Yes I know, you will come. Yes I know, you’ve already won. Yes I know, my redeemer lives, my redeemer lives.”

Woven through both the longing and the hope is the prayer: "Come, Lord Jesus, we are desperate for you here. Come, Lord Jesus, all creation crying out."

Check out this video, enter into it in prayer, and see if you can sing along.

 Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.