Seeing the world differently | Jeff Nowers | Aug 11, 2019
Arundhati Roy is an Indian writer who has achieved considerable distinction for her novel The God of Small Things, which won the 1997 Booker Prize. In addition to publishing fiction, Roy speaks and writes extensively about politics and the troubles of the world. In January 2003 she delivered a memorable speech in Brazil to a mass gathering of social activists. She famously concluded her speech with these words: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
This was early 2003, when George W. Bush was about to launch the second Gulf War. The world was not doing well at that time, and yet Arundhati Roy was able to perceive rays of hope. Fast forward 16 years to the present, and our world is in worse shape. To put it bluntly, planet Earth is burning up.
Is another world still possible? Is it on the way? The question is particularly important for Christians because we believe in the promise of a new heaven and new earth. Or do we? Can we still affirm, in the words of the Nicene Creed, that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” and that “his kingdom will have no end”? How likely is it that this vision of transformed reality is just beyond the horizon? Or must the wait continue, for generations, centuries, millennia?
These are hard questions, and they’re not unique to our time and place. The reading we just heard from the Gospel of Luke is addressed to people in Jesus’ day who were hoping that the fullness of the messianic age, the kingdom of God, would arrive in their lifetime. They were getting impatient, even worried, that it wouldn’t come. And like many of us do when we have a hard time waiting, they found ways materially to alleviate their anxieties. What do so many of us do when our lives get too stressed or filled with disappointment? We look to escape, by getting away on vacation or simply enjoying material luxuries. In Jesus’ day, that’s what some of his followers did who had disposable income. They began to accumulate certain possessions—to assure themselves a degree of comfort just in case the kingdom of God—that golden age of peace and justice—never arrived.
Jesus speaks directly to this situation, and his words are very meaningful for us as well. He says, first, “don’t be afraid.” Then he reassures us that it’s God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. In other words, the promise of a new heaven and new earth—that another world is possible—is not empty. But according to Jesus, it does require a certain posture of expectation and watchfulness. Indeed, the reality of a new heaven and new earth depends on the extent to which we are prepared for it.
How ought we to prepare? Jesus’ tells his followers, including ourselves, to sell our possessions and give alms. However you might understand that—and some Christians have taken it in very radical directions—it is without question a call to embrace a life of simplicity, without the weight of extra property and possessions that keep our focus elsewhere. We need to minimize the distractions of excessive comfort because we must be alert, Jesus tells us, at watch by the door to open it to the one who knocks. The Son of Man, we are reminded, comes at an unexpected hour.
What happens when we commit ourselves to lives of simplicity and cultivate patience and watchfulness for the new heaven and new earth? We begin to realize, I think, that what we thought we were expecting in the future is here among us already. The kingdom of God—the new heaven and new earth for which we long—is not something that eludes us, always beyond the horizon. It’s already present in our world. And we come to that realization in surprising ways and at unexpected times. Being watchful is not straining our vision to glimpse what is far off beyond the horizon. It is rather learning to observe in a different way what is happening all around us. It is learning to see our world differently.
Seeing our world differently means that what is ordinary is now recognized as extraordinary. What is dull is now seen as radiant. What is hopeless is hopeful. What is dead is alive. What we thought we easily understood is now suffused with inexhaustible depth and mystery. This isn’t about pretending that things are different—such as fooling ourselves that what is red is actually blue. It’s about seeing through things as they are to perceive something more that we otherwise don’t grasp.
What does this mean concretely? Here’s what I think being watchful and attentive means. It means:
-- viewing an ancient collection of disparate writings (the Bible) as something more: a narrative alive with the breath of God that orients us, shapes us, and gives us meaning.
-- realizing that people like you and I who meet together in this church are not just a happenstance gathering; we are part of the Body of Christ, enlivened with the Spirit of God.
-- seeing simple everyday things like bread and wine as the very body and blood of Christ, nourishment for the journey of life that draws us ever closer into the heart of God.
-- seeing the faces of those we encounter each day, in all their raw humanity, as windows to God, for that is what we all are: the image of God.
-- learning that practices of restoration and reconciliation are the ultimate goals of justice, not retribution and getting even.
-- erring on the side of grace and love, hospitality and inclusivity.
-- appreciating the paradox that silence is itself the voice of God.
-- beginning to learn that creation as a whole, which is certainly groaning, is nonetheless the very unfolding of God’s own life in which we all participate.
When we begin to see the world in this way, when we shift our gaze from what we think might be just beyond the horizon to what is already around us, we can be ready (as Jesus puts it) for the coming of the Son of Man—in the faces of strangers and loved ones alike, and beyond that in non-human creatures, in trees, in water, in wind, and in fire. We have the opportunity to be surprised by God’s kingdom everywhere around us, to have our hope renewed and enlivened. But it takes discipline to see in this way. Do we have the will and patience to embrace simplicity and be watchful?