A Radical Reading of the Signs of the Times

A Radical Reading of the Signs of the Times

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

December 9, 2007

Scripture: Romans 14:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

“Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.” — Matthew 3:10

Our English word “radical” is a form of the Latin word “radix = root,” and so our text is a strong metaphor telling us we are at a point in time that demands radical attention. The advent hymns tell us it is time to wake up – “Wake, awake for night is flying, the watchmen on the gates are crying!” Today’s text tells us that the axe is laid to our roots and that if we do not take the right measures we shall be cut down like trees for lumber. It is time for us to take radical action, but what shall it be?

There is another issue at stake in our meditation today, not only action, but also time. What kind of time is this that demands action so urgently? Time and action are closely connected. Remember the famous passage from Ecclesiastes, “The is a time for every purpose under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted… etc (Eccles. 3:1-9).” There is a right time and a wrong time for every significant action; timing is everything, and reading the signs of the times is essential wisdom; that ability is also called experience. (Who, for instance, that had had the experience of living through the Vietnam saga could have failed to read the signs that the Iraq adventure would have similar unfortunate outcomes? Only the unwise.). What shall we make of the signs of the times as we prepare to take radical action?

Last night at a concert I had a brief conversation with an emeritus professor from the Stanford business school and his last words to me just before the curtain went up were, “I hope I am gone when the big crash comes.” He was referring to our financial system, currently under great pressure. Paul Krugman the economist writes that the financial instruments currently in play – derivatives and derivatives of derivates- are so complex that the experts can’t understand them. One of my friends in that very business, who has a PhD in literature, says that many of the financial texts sound like French deconstructionist criticism of the recent past, that is, densely unintelligible, and the experts pretend to know what’s being talked about but in fact do not – a conspiracy of sage incomprehension that mutatis mutandis gulls students and investors alike. Another friend in the business, who at times lands his corporate jet in a new global center of finance every day, tells of how angry people are in this country and how rapidly things are changing globally.

These signs from the financial world would in biblical terms be called signs of the apocalypse, that is, of the final breakdown of the system, and if one adds the signs of global climate change, which, to be sure, some people interpret as natural rather than portentous, we have a rich scenario for apocalypse and a loud call for radical rethinking and resolute action. (The problem is that the latter is heavily contingent on the former, and our pathetic species is far more resistant to the former than the latter, that is, it is much easier for us to act than to think).

So, if we cannot immediately answer the question, “What’s to be done?” (The title of a famous Bolshevik tract by Lenin) can we answer the question, “What time is it?” To return to Charles Taylor’s “The Secular Age,” which I quoted in my last sermon, he gives an eloquent account of the well-known current phenomenon of insignificant time. We live in empty time, measured only by the clock, which provides only two kinds of time, digital and analogue, each equally vacuous. The success of instant gratification, enabled by reckless credit, has deprived us of even the modest energy of anticipation enjoyed by those who wait, for marriage, or to save up enough to buy something. A memorable scene from a recent movie; a man and women meet each other in the entrance hall of a house the woman has just rented; they shake hands; he asks her, “What’s your position on foreplay?” She answers, “It’s overrated.” So they fall to tearing at each other’s clothes and then on the nearest couch. It took “no time at all,” and that is the point, “no time at all,” lust kills time, and personhood, and hope, and meaning. Foreplay is overrated, hope is overrated, personal identity is overrated, meaning, is overrated.

Overrated as they may be, we cannot live without some hope and meaning and so we now have tawdry commercial substitutes, that are the counterparts to “slam, bam, thank you ma’am:” “Holiday time”, and “Super Bowl time” and “Sweet 16” time and “World Series time” and St Valentine, and Mother’s day, and Thanksgiving, loomed over by Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. One cannot fail to see that the meaning of the time of our lives has been colonized by commerce and in an average year where once we observed festivals of Christ we now celebrate festivals of Mammon. (I’m pleased we have taken Jesus out of the holidays and I hope we do so more and more, so that his real place in our secular culture might be honestly recognized, way out on the periphery).

So what time is it? It is long past the bedtime of spiritual significance, long past the bedtime of hope and meaning, and very late in humanity’s day. We cannot live by bread alone, and so we are dying slowly in the twilight of the race on the way called hopeless to the destination called despair.

Of course, we Christians know that this Advent time is the beginning of the new Christian year; John the Baptist is announcing him at this very moment, and the reality of God is breaking into our empty time, and the life of God is breaking out among us. Advent, like Lent, imposes a discipline of preparation on us. If I may refer again to the movie, it is a time of foreplay, that is, of postponed gratification, perhaps teaching us thereby the virtue of hope. Instant gratification leaves no room for the delicious, spiritually enriching, experience of hope, of looking forward to him. Can you remember first love? How the thought of her lit up your time and loaded time with the significance of anticipation- only two more days and we shall be together! Advent as a quality of time is like that; the foreplay of the imagination as we anticipate our coming together with Jesus. That anticipation loads the time of our life with vibrant anticipation, with hope.

The radical specificity of it all often escapes attention; often we think that something abstract, like hope, meaning, significance is primary, but of course we do not hope for hope, or mean meaning, we hope for Jesus and mean that relationship with him brings meaning as we look forward to being with him (hope) and remember what it is like to be with him (faith) and enjoy his presence now (love).

So we have no answer to the questions the signs of the times are currently raising, but we have a person and a relationship to hope for, remember, and love. Clearly this is no solution to our apocalyptic time, but then only God knows what time it really is, (Mark 13:32), and there have been many false alarms; nevertheless one thing we know, in the mean time and forever, Jesus is the presence of God, and he gives us faith, hope and love. So what is the radical action these times demand if we are not to be cut down like trees? It is to welcome Jesus into the time of our life.