that was then, this is now
A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on July 14, 2019
Have you ever heard the phrase: “that was then, this is now?” I have been thinking about it and how it implies that what used to be is different from our current experience. That was then, this is now — suggests that our past is not connected to our present. That was then, this is now — advocates for a disjointed relationship between anything outside of today.
But that doesn’t feel quite right does it? The problem would seem to arise from the fact there is wisdom in the past. There are things we learn from our past experiences that inform our present and even our future decisions. A point the writer of Hebrews wants to make clear right from the beginning.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us that long ago God saw and spoke through the prophets in a variety of ways. But now God speaks through, Jesus the Son. Then God spoke in a variety of ways — now God speaks in one single medium. As the author points out there is contrast in the choices God made between then and now, but there is also a similarity between the two. In both instances, it is God who is doing the speaking. For while God is doing something new through Jesus — God’s action in Jesus Christ gives evidence of the consistency of God’s character to predictably communicate with God’s people.
That was then, this is now — when the writer of Hebrews says it — it is not a dismissal, but rather an affirmation.
“Long ago…” The writer begins, as if to say let us look back to see what God has done, so that we can lay claim to what God is continuing to do. And what is God doing now: “In these last days (God) has spoken to us by a Son.”
There is consistency between then and now. We have heard the story of Jeremiah and Isaiah. We have recounted Elijah and Elisha’s journeys. We can read about Hosea and Obadiah and all the other prophets. As we read in the Bible about their experiences and faith it can help inform and shape our own.
But that doesn’t answer the question of how God has been speaking to us today? How has that been happening? Where do we read about that? Where is that recorded? Where do we lay claim to the story?
Because if we can’t name it or claim it, then we live in danger of leaving God speaking only to the time “long ago…” and miss God’s word in the now. Now, there are those who would rather keep God’s word in the past. That was then, this is now. They would claim God to be irrelevant or worse — silent. They do this because the past is safe — it isn’t intrusive — it doesn’t ask anything of us — we won’t have to make any changes — but by keeping it there where will God’s powerful promise encounter us today? For that is the promise we proclaim each and every week: that God is not only a God of history — God doesn’t only live in the past — rather, God is alive and at work in our very lives today.
This is now. A pastor I know took his car into the dealership with some brake trouble. He dropped it off around noon and headed off for a Bible study nearby. When he got back a couple hours later his car still wasn’t ready, so he burned some time in the showroom. He didn’t have any intention of buying a car, but it’s what you do when you have time to kill and you’re around new cars.
The pastor’s gaze got stuck on a nice, shiny and powerful Ford Mustang. He meandered over to it and was standing at the drivers side door when he looked up to see a young woman on the other side of the car. She appeared to be doing the same thing — just killing time looking at new cars. She was wearing a leather jacket, with fringe on the sleeves and a crumpled cowboy hat on top of her head. She looked over the Mustang at the pastor. Not really knowing what to do he smiled and nodded his head. She nodded back.
The pastor went back to looking at the inside of the car, but this time when he looked up she was standing right next to him. It was a strange moment so he smiled again and said, “hi.” The woman looked him up and down and asked, “are you a pastor?” He was wearing the tabbed collar and so there was no use trying to avoid it. He said, “yes” to which she responded, “What kind?” “A Lutheran,” he said. She nodded and without segue-way said, “I’m a hooker.” It wasn’t a line the pastor heard everyday. He didn’t know how to respond and so what came out of his mouth was, “uh huh.”
It has always been a bit unclear to the pastor why the conversation continued past this point. Perhaps it was because he didn’t seem to judge her — or maybe because he didn’t launch into some sermon — or maybe “uh huh” was the right response — but the woman, whose name was Kathy, in the middle of a dealership showroom went on to tell this pastor that this wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life. But she had started as a way to pay for drugs after she left her parents’ house. And now she also had a shabby apartment to pay for and a host of other expenses. She needed food to eat and medications for her heart problem, which she shared wasn’t helped by the drug use.
The pastor just stood there listening as Kathy poured out her heart. She told the pastor how she had been picked up by the police, who now had her informing on her drug supplier in exchange for not going to jail. She ended her narrative with the words: “I’ll probably be dead in 6 months.”
At this point the pastor found his voice and said something like, “Well, that’s not good.” They stood there for a second in silence before the pastor asked what alternatives she had and if maybe there was someone who could help her turn in a different direction. Kathy told him she had parents living in a nearby town. The pastor asked if she could go there. Kathy responded, “They would take me back in for sure. You know, I grew up in a Lutheran Church… but I don’t go now.”
The pastor asked, “what would the worst thing that could happen if you called your parents and asked to come back home.” She said, “My Dad would probably give me a lecture and my Mom would hug me a little too long.” The pastor asked Kathy what would happen if she didn’t call them. “I’ll be dead,” she said before adding, “But I already am.” It was at that moment, a car pulled up outside the dealership. Kathy looked at the car — looked at the pastor — smiled sheepishly — and went out the door.
A month or so later the pastor was getting ready for worship when an older couple walked into the church with huge smiles on their faces. The church was small and the pastor knew everyone and he had no idea who they were. But there they stood, smiles on their faces and hands waving at him. Just about the time the pastor thought there was some practical joke being played on him, the door opened again and in walked Kathy. If it was possible, her smile was even larger.
Lloyd and Millie, Kathy’s parents walked up to the pastor with their daughter in tow. Kathy had gone home. True to form, Lloyd had given her a short lecture and Millie had hugged her for a long time. Lloyd told the pastor, “we prayed and prayed, everyday, that God would bring her back to us…” At this point Kathy interrupted, “Jesus did.”
Jesus certainly did. Jesus spoke through my friend, not long ago, but today with the words, “uh-huh.” And that’s how it happens. It is so simple, but I tell you I need to hear it again and again. I need to hear how God speaks to us now when I am those dead places of my life, like when I am struggling in my marriage. I want to hear how Jesus speaks when my child is living in the prodigal’s pigpen. I want to hear it when I am laid off from the only job I have ever known. I want to know God is speaking when the doctor leaves the room after sharing that it is cancer. I need to hear it when I watch the news and see another act of gun violence or child abuse or some horrific act. I want to know God is speaking when I stand in the cemetery staring at a box that contains my father or mother or sibling or child or spouse or a loved one.
And that is not all. When my marriage is flying high, I want the still-speaking God to move us into deeper relationship and discipleship through it. If my kids are well, I want God to speak a word that inspires me to greater support. When I am promoted, I want to know that God speaks rousing me to do justice with my new found power. When the doctor says “no cancer” I want to know God will speak stirring words that wake me to a new lease on life.
You see whether in darkness or light — challenge or joy — I really want to believe and know that this God of long ago continues to speak to us today.
After all, isn’t that is the Good News we celebrate at the font? Isn’t that the promise we will proclaim as water is placed on Lilliannah and Jack’s heads in a few moments? Isn’t that what we believe happens when we mark them with the sign of the cross? As we proclaim that they have been sealed by the Holy Spirit forever?
Yes! That is exactly what we are saying. We are making the claim that God speaks today — creates today — transforms today — through God’s powerful and active word. In fact, that is the promise we celebrate everyday! That God speaks to each and everyone of us. God spoke yesterday — God speaks today — God will speak tomorrow. That was then — and this is now. Thanks be to God. Amen.