Past, Present, Future

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:28–37 NIV)

Within the realm of physics, the first dimension is often described as a line (length), the second dimension as a square (length and height), and the third as a cube (length, height, and depth); this is why we often think of our world as three dimensional. However, according to Albert Einstein, we actually live in a four-dimensional world. Not only do we occupy space along the three different axes of length, height, and depth – what math labels as the x, y, and z axes – we also occupy time. This is the fourth dimension.

This is mind-bending stuff that can be difficult to understand. The basic idea is that without the fourth dimension of time, all of history – everything that has come before and everything that ever will come – would happen in a single instance. On one hand, this would make scheduling the seemingly endless parade of holiday events so much easier; they would all happen at the same time, along with everything else. On the other, much bigger, hand, our human minds are not built to understand reality in this way. Thankfully, we are perfectly suited to thinking about our four-dimensional world in terms of past, present, and future.

This season, Advent, is a perfect example of this. Not only is it a celebration of the past (the birth of the Christ-child Jesus in Bethlehem), it is also the anticipation of the future (the Son of Man’s return one day and the ultimate restoration of all things), both of which – celebration and anticipation – happen in the present. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow are entangled together during this season as we join with the first-century Israelites in awaiting the arrival of the Messiah. As they were calling out for Christ to come, so, too, we call out for his return, knowing that only then will everything broken, unjust, and flawed be made right.

Yet, even as we look toward the future and remember the past, God is very much right here with us in the present. Jesus says so himself in Matthew 28:20, “Be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” In the midst of us waiting for the return of the second person of the Trinity – Jesus – the third person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit – is already present and with us.

To put it another way, even as we await the full restoration of all things, God is already giving us glimpses of what this restoration looks like. He is working in and through us, his people, to mend broken hearts, bandage the wounds of injustice, and correct the systemic flaws so prevalent in our world. Therefore, it is our task – though many would describe it instead as a privilege – to have eyes open to what God is doing in our world in order that we might join with him where he is already at work. As Jesus commands in today’s passage, “Keep watch.”

This Advent, practice keeping watch for God at work in our world; then, in addition to praising his name for his redemptive work, ask him where there is space for you to join in that work. Let’s use this season as a chance to announce the Kingdom that has come, is here now, and is still to come in all its fullness.

Michael Benson is the communications director for the North American Baptist Conference.