To See What Others Don't
Lent II; March 17, 2019
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
This picture is from the 1989 Batman movie and shows the Gotham City skyline. Here's what I want to call to your attention: the tallest building in Gotham City is the Cathedral; it towers over the city. Anton Furst's design is of a city where loyalty to God is designed to be pre-eminent. But I hope you notice something: there is light everywhere, except in the Cathedral. The Cathedral is dark. When you watch the movie, you see that the Cathedral is abandoned. I recall that Furst said that he wanted to show a city so far gone that even God had left it. I like to say that Gotham is the city designed to be Jerusalem but that has become Babylon.
There is all too-common human tendency to look back and claim that the best years are behind us, that there was a golden age in the past when everything was right that has since gone wrong. I suspect it becomes more common as we age. A church member, a business woman, told me once that she wished American society would go back to what it was in the 1950s. I asked her, "You mean when women were expected to stay home and not have careers? When black people were denied civil rights? Is that what you want to go back to?" She said, "You know what I mean." Of course I did; but it's important not to fantasize a past that was not as good as we remember it.
Nostalgia is looking back and remembering a golden age that never was. Faith is looking forward to the Kingdom of God that we pray will be.
Our crosses today show the letters Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. They remind us that Jesus Christ is our source and that Jesus Christ is our goal. We look back to the life of Jesus Christ for the source of our lives; we look forward to the completion of the will of Jesus Christ for what will be.
Our story tells of God making a pact, a covenant with Abram (later renamed Abraham) and telling him of what will be: descendants, a people, a land, a kingdom. And one of the most important sentences in the Bible is dropped in the middle of the story: "And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness." In the Kingdom of God, righteousness is not perfect sinlessness, absolutely correct moral behavior. In the Kingdom of God, righteousness is to believe God when the Lord says, "This is what will be." Righteousness is to look upon Babylon and see Jerusalem.
I don't mean to imply behavior is irrelevant; certainly not. Because to see Jerusalem implies then that you and I behave as though we are citizens of Jerusalem, not Babylon. If we believe God when God says, "This is what will be," then every day our treatment of other people, our priorities with our money, what we say and do will be appropriate to the City of God, to a Gotham City where the Cathedral is ablaze with light.
This week, like so many recently, it is hard to see in the Babylon of our world the Jerusalem that God is building. We have two tendencies to fight against if we are to see what God is doing; the first is the tendency to give in to Babylon. We see a white supremacist attacking people and killing fifty in mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. We can say, "That's how the world is; there's nothing we can do about it," but then we are not seeing where God may be building the City of God in the midst of this world's corruption. God still calls us, like Abram, to see with the eyes of faith.
The other temptation is, of course, nostalgia. It has often troubled me how stuck in the past Christians can be. Yes, the word "remember" is prominent in the Bible: remember where you came from, remember who you are, remember what God has done for you. That is the Alpha cross, the cross of remembrance. But it is very rare for the Bible to suggest that we ought to remember the past in order to long to go back there. As the Hebrew people made their forty-year wandering, they often said, "Let's go back to Egypt; it was better for us there!" Like my lady who wanted to go back to the 1950s, they seemed to have forgotten they were slaves there, beaten and abused.
And so I have often wondered why Christian people want to go back to a past that was never as good as we remember it. When I was a young pastor, I used to say that the Church would not get anywhere until everyone who remembered the 1950s was gone. Maybe now those of us who remember the 1970s need to get out of the way. Or not: perhaps we need to remind ourselves to remember not a rose-colored past, but remember the works and the promises of God. And to look ahead to what God is doing, the City that God is building among us.
Can you see it? Can you see what God is doing? And can you live this week as a citizen of the City of God? Here is your question to think about this week: what signs can you see of the City of God right here, where you are?
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master