15 November – The Time Lord

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Sunday 33

Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Mark 13:1-13, 24-27

The Doctor is a time traveller. If you’re wondering, “Doctor who?” – precisely! In a cunningly disguised time machine Doctor Who, the last of the Time Lords, travels in time from the very beginnings of all things to their very end.

Even if you’re not particularly interested in the time-travel/science fiction genre, the apparent paradoxes of time travel are reasonably well known. One of the first questions to which the possibility of time travel generally gives rise is: what would happen if you were to travel back in time and kill your own parents, before you were actually born. That killing one’s parents is often the first question to arise is interesting in itself, but the point here is the contradiction it seems to imply: if I kill my parents and so am not born, who is it that kills them?

Another prospect which quickly comes to mind when thinking about time travel is the possibility of travelling forward in time to know the moment of your own death. The paradox involved here is that, knowing when and how we are likely to die, most of us would take measures not to be in that place or time, to be healthier or stronger or better off. If we managed that, then the future we saw would not in fact be our future; we have not travelled forward to the future but a future, which will now be something different.

Story tellers have sought to think through these paradoxes with varying degrees of success although, in the end, none of it really makes any sense. And, often enough, making sense isn’t really the point – certainly not in the case of Doctor Who, at least, where the point is more enjoying watching a crazy man and his sassy side-kick do their stuff.

What has this got to do with today’s text from Mark’s gospel, the so-called “little apocalypse”? Just this: New Testament apocalyptic thought is a time machine, with its own set of paradoxes.

When we hear of “the apocalypse” these days, our thoughts tend to be filled with images of Armageddon – the scene of a great battle described in the book of Revelation. To borrow a line from one of the great choral pieces of the 20th century, the whole thing is all thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening.

The word apocalypse itself, however, does not mean “destruction” but “uncovering” or “revealing” (it is literally “from hiding” [apo-calypse]). The apocalypse is not the catastrophic turning over of all things; it is not in that sense the “end” of the world – its ending. The apocalypse is, properly, the uncovering of the end of the world, “end” now in the sense of the goal towards which God draws it.

But it is not in this sense that biblical apocalyptic is a paradoxical time machine – at least not the kind of apocalyptic we meet in passages like the one we’ve heard today. Today’s text appears to be a pastiche of number of different sayings of Jesus about the end time, as well as later understandings developed by the church from its reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, all of which are here then gathered into this one block. The effect of this is something of a confusion of images, but it is more important that the chapter overall is less a leaping into the future than an itinerary for the end times, by which we might know where we are up to, when the time comes. This makes it a rather flat portrayal of the future, compared with other apocalyptic dimensions of the New Testament.

This is not do dismiss the passages, but to ask about how to interpret it: what is the key to – the centre of – New Testament apocalyptic? In fact the most apocalyptic thing in the New Testament is not any of various world-overturning itineraries described here and there in the gospels and epistles, and most fully in Revelation. The most apocalyptic thing is the resurrection of Jesus. The apocalyptic itineraries of Mark 13 and other New Testament passages are not a new thing still to come, unknown in the church till that point. They are simply variations on the theme of the passion and resurrection of Jesus himself, within which are contained our present and our future.

Resurrection as a general “idea” was an apocalyptic notion in the religious and political atmosphere of Jesus’ time. At the apocalypse – the revelation of God’s righteousness – a general resurrection of one sort of another was anticipated as part of a great judgement. The details varied in different accounts but the point is this: resurrection wasn’t about a miraculous return to life, which is about all that it is for us moderns today. In late biblical times, if someone were to stop being dead, this would be a sign that the end of the world had come.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to note how different are most modern questions or “issues” with the resurrection from this understanding. Not a few of us want at the very least to lower our voice a little at the creedal affirmation, “on the third day he rose again.” We might want to do this not in awe but lest someone hear us actually confess such “nonsense”. But the point of the affirmation is not merely that Jesus stopped being dead. In itself this is meaningless. These days we’re more likely to consider the dead coming back to life to be nuisance, of which the zombie is the proof. Rather, by affirming Jesus’ resurrection we affirm that we have seen the end of the world – the goal towards which God is drawing us: Jesus himself.

And this is where the time machine of New Testament apocalyptic kicks in with a couple of paradoxes of its own. The first of these is that here we do not see Jesus in the future. Unlike the Doctor and all other time travellers, Jesus doesn’t go anywhere but rather the future is seen in him, here and now. And if his disciples sense that Jesus continues to be present to them long after the events of Easter, then their future is also present to them, here and now.

More than this, the Jesus the disciples see in the resurrection is the same Jesus they knew on the dusty roads of Palestine. Jesus as he was to them prior to the crucifixion and resurrection – preaching, teaching, exhorting and challenging – was the same as the Jesus seen in the resurrection. The resurrection was merely the apocalypse – the uncovering, the revelation – of who Jesus was and how he was related to God. So it was not so much that the future has moved to be located in Jesus in the resurrection; it was always in him, even as he looked like an ordinary itinerant preacher. This would seem to be the point of the Transfiguration of Jesus one ordinary day on a hill top: here, for a moment, the meaning of Jesus’ particular ordinariness is seen.

The paradox of the New Testament apocalyptic time machine is that the now of Jesus, in whatever condition he might be met, is the future. The gospel is that this now‑future might be ours.

Now, if you’re still following this I hope you’re finding it impressive, although I’d admit that it is not yet very useful! What I’ve tried to show is that time is a central notion in the New Testament’s wrestling with the person of Jesus, and that the outcome of that wrestling is a notion of the past, the present and the future which is quite contradictory to ordinary understandings.

The importance of all this – its usefulness – is that, for the New Testament, a Time Lord is not one who controls time – who can wind it forwards or backwards – but one for whom time is no impediment to life. Such a Time Lord has no need to wind forward or backward; now is always good enough.

To bring this home, we need to intensify of our sense of what “time” is.

Time is not the ticking of clocks, as it usually is in sci-fi time travel. It can be that, but it is scarcely a very interesting type of time, socially and politically. We get closer to a biblical sense of time – which is entirely social and political – when we say that time is what passes between persons. The ticking of clocks is a mere medium for that passage, that exchange.

If a Time Lord is properly one for whom time is no impediment to life, then this translates as my set of relationships here and now not only being where I happen to live, but also where I can be truly alive.

It is our failure to live in such a timely fashion which bears in on us from all sides: Paris in the last day; the suicide bomber; concrete walls separating Israel from the West Bank; “sovereign borders”; the insufferable neighbour, or colleague or spouse; the kid in class who seems to deserve to be picked on. In relationships like these – tense and riven – the future is always what comes from the further ticking of a clock. Time – our current relationships – is something from which we are seeking to escape. Fullness of life is always put off till tomorrow, when there might be different people to relate to, people who are more “us”.

And so we see that the paradox of Jesus’ being the future in the present is only an apparent contradiction in terms. It is paradoxical so far as ticking clocks go, but not in terms of time being measured be what passes between people. Jesus controls time by reconfiguring the relationships around him. He reconciles, heals, joins, uncovers new possibilities, overcomes without destroying. The future in him is now because God is able work with our now. It is as Lord over this kind of time that Jesus is Lord over all time.

And us? Unlike the Doctor, Jesus is not the last of the Time Lords, the only one who can pull off life in the midst of death. By God’s grace he is the first among a great family of them, called to live the future in the present, to find life in all its fullness in the midst the all change and decay around us.

If the point watching the Time Lord is to enjoy a crazy man and his sassy sidekick do their thing, then the point of Christian discipleship is be Time Lords. This will often make us seem crazy. For most of the world, if life were the destination, you wouldn’t leave from here.

But this is our calling. And even if crazy, we do our relationship-renewing, time-bending thing anyway, because our sidekick is especially sassy: Jesus the Christ, who is first and last, who is today, yesterday and forever, in whom we will all finally live, and move and have our being.