We seem to live with a suffocating sense of immediacy, where demands and events come at as fast and furious pace, and where the “past” for many of us means two days ago.
“The way to the future runs through the past,” mused one author. 1 In our contemporary ears, this may not ring true. We seem to live with a suffocating sense of immediacy, where demands and events come at as fast and furious pace, and where the “past” for many of us means two days ago.
Within such a sense of time, the historical emphasis of the church may seem obsolete, irrational even. Growing up in Scotland in a home that was not focused on religious or spiritual things, I had little sense of time holding much weight beyond the moment or any sort of transcendent continuity. Time simply came and went. There were, of course, special times loosely connected to an earlier age, such as Christmas and Easter. But these came to primarily symbolize time off from school, special food, and presents. If they were tied to any bigger or wider story or meaning, my attitude was: Who cares?
After moving to Austria, I recall a very different scenario. I had by then become a Christian and noticed that what the church calls “holy week” was taken much more seriously there. The sense of reverence, of something special, of consecrated time, all made an impact on me. Holy week was mentioned on the national news; preparations for the Easter service in the national cathedral were highlighted. Something was in the air. This was also seen in people’s behavior. I was struck that events so long in the past, centered on the ancient Jesus of Nazareth and his death, were seen to have lasting and important impact on modern life in a modern nation.
Here in America, there is less of a national focus. We, of course, know of holy week and many churches walk toward the vast and important events of Gethsemane, the upper room, and Golgotha. But outside the church, even inside some churches, it is simply one more thing in a list of occurrences. Sadly, as a nation, we are progressively abandoning the metanarratives—the larger story—that for centuries served to define and give shape to our society and individual lives, namely the understanding of God’s covenant with his people.
The prophet Habakkuk lived in a time of spiritual and moral decline, which led to the economic, social, and political tragedies of his people. Like the people to whom he preached, Habakkuk came from a storied nation. His life was informed by the knowledge of God and his work among his people: the Exodus, the tabernacle, the law, and the land. Habakkuk knew that all of Israel’s blessings were rooted in the covenantal faithfulness of God to his chosen people. They had come a long way since rejoicing over the miracle at the Red Sea and the completion of Solomon’s temple.
Israel was established with the necessity of living in the three dimensions of time: past, present, and future. They were commanded to remember God’s words and mighty acts in history. They were called to see life as a present blessing, with faith and justice as a response to the God who gave it. And they were to live with hope in God’s good hands, such that neither death nor the future was a threat.
But Israel forgot. Neglecting their heritage, the people walked away. They pursued other loves and became enamored with the nations around them. Israel forgot their high calling, and the consequences were tragic.
The prophet Habakkuk was understandably grieved. Unable to understand what was happening to his community, the prophet walked through stages of depression, anger, acceptance, and faith. The chapters of his book move from asking “Why?” to expressing hopelessness or exclaiming anger, and finally, amazingly, to singing: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines … yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:17-18).
I believe there are times in life when we are on a similar journey. Though we may find ourselves stuck in one stage or another, we are invited to remember God’s involvement in our past, present, and future. Between the pages where Habakkuk cries out for God’s answer and where he ends in a mixture of fear and faith, we learn something of the ambiguity, tension, and struggle that is ours until the journey ends.
Moreover, as we turn to the pages of the gospel, we encounter this unflinching declaration and hope: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1: 14). Jesus came to accomplish the Father’s work of restoration, and his face was set like a flint to see that work accomplished. The Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us—in real space and time. God was on a mission and it culminated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In each of the gospel narratives, the passion of Christ, his wrestling in Gethsemane, his trial and torture, are a major portion of the narratives themselves. The gospel is simply not the gospel without this focused portion of history—the death of Christ and all that surrounded it. It was a significant death, a voluntary death, a purpose-filled death. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.
If this is true, if this really happened, if indeed normal time was interrupted by an invasion of the healing, forgiving, loving, and self-giving God, then time itself was altered, history changed, life redirected.
Surely, if such is the case, then some serious and dedicated time and space should be given to remembering God’s work in history and our lives. In a fast-paced, moment-central world, this is the countercultural message of the church for the world. Scripture reminds us that the crucifixion of Jesus took place in real space and time, and therefore all of time—past, present, and future—is both important and impacted. And thus, our acts of remembrance, worship, penitence, and hope are also holy moments, moments that invite an eternal God to overshadow the immediacy of life and other lesser stories of time. Great things are indeed available: the love of God, the sacrificial death of Christ for the world, the forgiveness of sins, and the offer of new life.
The events recorded in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation actually happened. They are not stories designed to make us feel good or guilty and guide the morals of culture and society. They are each part of God’s redemptive initiative to heal the broken heart, strike the heart of evil, conquer death and sorrow, and open a way to a new kind of life—a life redirected—and the restoration of all things.
The way to the future does indeed run through the past. As people of God, we are invited to discover anew that the ancient promises of God are sure. Might we remember what He has done, celebrate his grace today, and rejoice knowing that one day, in the words of the prophet Habakkuk, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (2:14).
1 Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 20.
This article appears in the 26.4 edition of our award-winning magazine, Just Thinking. Click the button below to download a PDF of this edition.