- First Reading 2 Samuel 23:1-7
- Psalm 132:1-12 (13-18)
- Second Reading Revelation 1:4b-8
- Gospel John 18:33-37
We are approaching Advent, which begins next week, though, driving through town at night, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s already last December. I often think, at this time, about the Charles Dicken’s classic, A Christmas Carol. I suspect we all know it, the one with Ebenezer Scrooge, three ghosts, and Tiny Tim. The enduring popularity of the story is evident in the many adaptations, featuring actors ranging from the venerable Sir Patrick Stewart to the Muppets, and it began, for me, an interest in Dicken’s writing that led me deep into his catalog, through the classics, Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities, but also into less read works, including Great Expectations.
I remember reading and enjoying all of them, but as I grew older, they became harder to appreciate. Dicken’s worlds just felt too small, where everyone knew everyone and keeps running into the same people even as they move from the small town to the big city. Dicken’s writing became less and less believable and it came to feel more and more claustrophobic to me.
Of course, now, I wonder if maybe Dickens knew more than I recognized, since my path with Katherine has followed an almost Dickensian route: we met in Charlottesville when we were 18, then lost touch for nearly a decade as we, collectively moved through five cities in four countries on three continents before reconnecting when we ended up, once again, at the same school. And, of course, then we moved here, expecting we would not know anyone only to discover that our veterinarian’s office was run by the mother of someone Katherine had played violin with nearly twenty years ago. So perhaps, as the Disney ride sings, “It’s a small world, after all.”
In many ways, technology continues to shrink the world. Not long ago, keeping up with distant friends and family would have involved the time delay of mailing a letter, or almost prohibitively expensive long-distance phone calls. I have a calendar “fun fact” taped to the fridge at home about the transmission of the Nevada State Constitution, which, in 1864, was sent from Carson City to D.C. over telegram. It took two days to send and cost about forty-three hundred dollars—and that is 1864 dollars. Adjusted for inflation, the cost approaches one hundred thousand dollars. Now it could be sent in seconds for nearly nothing. Katherine and I can easily see pictures from the lives of friends in all those countries, and of friends who have travelled through or moved to countless other cities.
I worry, though, about what we have so often chosen to do with these abilities. I do not think I am a luddite or a tech-alarmist. I do not want to sound like every other generation of pastor, complaining about how some new technology is dumbing people down—and, thanks to Google, with relatively little effort, you can go home and find records of people making the same complaints about children spending too much time inside, people being disconnected from each other and escaping into phantasy worlds, all of it for social media, the internet, computers before the internet, television, radio, music records, newspapers, even books. I am not a technology alarmist because I do not blame the technology, whatever it is, for how we choose to use it. The problem ultimately lies with us, every time.
We could choose to use these tools to build connections to our friends and neighbors, to educate ourselves about the lives and struggles of others, but instead we choose to use them in ways that isolate ourselves. Yes, some of us are using the internet and the phone to come to church when we would not otherwise be able to, using it to keep up with events in our community and our friends and neighbors around us. How often, though, do we use it as an excuse to isolate, to ignore the people around us with whom we might disagree until we find people who agree with us? Until we find people who will encourage the worst in us, who will help us shrink our worlds down to the few people with whom we agree on everything until we can no longer engage constructively with anyone outside that self-created, every smaller world?
This is the effect of sin. All those past generations complaining about new technologies were really complaining about that sin, which some might call original sin, that is ever pressing us into those choices that shrink our worlds, that narrow our views, that disconnect us from the image of God in the people around us. The fault does not lie with the tool, the problem is how we choose to use it. Thanks to grace, we all know this, even as sin makes us struggle to admit it.
Thankfully, we have a choice and a greater power calling us away, calling us to enlarge our worlds, to broaden our horizons, to help us to see God in everyone. As John of Patmos writes in today’s section from Revelation, “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come… who loves us and freed us from our sins.” Jesus did not free us from the consequences of our sins, but from sin itself, in giving us the power to choose a different path, to choose something different. As Jesus says to Pilate in our text from John, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.”
Jesus’ kingdom is not one like ours, one that depends on force and fear. Jesus’ kingdom is not like ours, one that must resort to violence and threat of violence to achieve its ends. Jesus’ kingdom is not like ours, one that is maintained in keeping our view small and short, one that controls and limits truth, one that all too often asks sacrifice with no reward. Jesus’ kingdom is one in which all prosper, is one that is larger than we can imagine. Thanks be to God.