Thursday, December 30, 2010

Past Present Future

This First Sunday in the New Year is also the Second Sunday of Christmastide (i.e. the 12 Days of Christmas!) and the Sunday that can be celebrated as Epiphany, the day of the Wise Men's visit to Jesus and the revelation of Jesus not just to the Jews but to the Gentiles (traditionally observed on January 6, which this year falls on a Thursday). The readings for this day remain fairly consistent every year: Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12...stories of light, mystery, and strange visitors from far away. You can read them here.

So as we finish up our Advent/Christmas Series on time, perhaps no passage in its very word choice asks the question of "What Time Is It?" more than the appointed Old Testament reading for Epiphany from Isaiah 60. Now, I confess that I do not know a lot of Hebrew; but one of my regular sermon preparation practices is to read each passage in several different translations. All it took was reading this passage in a couple of different English translations to raise questions for me about time. This passage would have gotten slaughtered by any of my English teachers in high school because the writer could not seem to pick a consistent verb Isaiah speaking of something present, or past, or future? The passage seems to switch randomly between times, often not being clear enough on verb tense for translators to agree on whether the prophet was referencing something that had already happened, is presently happening, or will happen at some time in the future.
Check out this parallel with translations in the NRSV and the NIV: I highlighted what appear to be future verbs in purple (though these appear to just be kind of boldfaced here, I guess), and present verbs in orange. You can see that this is a bit of a mess:
As we enter this day of closing out the Christmas season and moving into the Epiphany season of celebrating the revelation of God in Christ, this conjunction of times and tenses brings up a series of interesting questions for people of faith, questions that can help shape our seeking and living in a new year. What has already happened in Christ, and what are we still waiting for? What has God already done, and what do we need to implore and watch for God yet to do? This passage from the Old Testament was at least partially fulfilled through Christ, yet anyone who observes our world knows that all nations of the earth are not yet praising in one accord the Lord. So how do we live in this strange meantime, caught somewhere between fullfillment and really full full-fillment? Are we to live waiting on things that are yet to come, or in light of what God has already shown? Can we live both ways? How do we live in the now while also living towards the not-yet? These are questions we need to visit again and again...because they go to the heart of the great tension of living in the upside-down kingdom of God that has already come among us in Christ, but that is seeking now to break in once again.

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