There is a brand of jigsaw puzzles that goes by the name “World’s Most Difficult,” and I was looking at some examples of their products this week. They are 500 piece puzzles, with the same image printed both on the back and on the front, and all the pieces are an identical shape. One of them features perhaps 40 or 50 multicolored hot-air balloons all next to each other, and another is a very large group of Dalmatians who might as well just be a big swimming pool of white with black spots.
With nearly any jigsaw puzzle, the differing shapes of the pieces are a big help in deciding what fits where, and at least you can tell which side is up and which is down. But with the World’s Most Difficult puzzles, it becomes more important than ever to rely on the completed picture on the box. Keep looking at those finished balloons: just exactly where is the red stripe next to the green stripe with a tiny sliver of blue sky supposed to fit in? Without knowing how it is all supposed to end up, what the final image is, the puzzle will never get finished.
As Deacon Chris mentioned last week, as we close out the green season and get ready for Advent, our lectionary has been asking us to turn our attention to passages about the authority and judgment of God, and to the second coming of Christ. It’s common to hear people remark that these passages seem negative, and that it’s kind of a downer to hear words about the end of history, global crises, and divine judgment.
Well, it may be a little uncomfortable to hear about divine judgment, but really, don’t you want God to put things right? Don't you want God to put things right? Don’t you want poverty and hunger to be wiped out? Don’t you want hate crimes to stop? Don’t you want people to cease demonizing each other when they disagree? That’s what judgment is about, ultimately, after all. The havoc wreaked by the forces of sin -- the forces of hatred and division, the forces of rebellion against God, everything that tears us apart and makes things worse and worse -- all that will be named as evil, exposed for what it is, and brought under the final and full authority of Christ the King.
It’s in today’s collect: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule. The Kingship of Christ, his most gracious rule, includes the expression of his final and full authority – the power that we pray today will free and bring together all the differing peoples of the earth, who, as you can verify by looking around you for five minutes, have been divided and enslaved by sin. Because Christ is a merciful king and not a tyrant, he doesn’t impose his agenda against our wills. So on this day we celebrate his Kingship, we pray in essence that each of us and all creation will give him permission to bring about the ultimate unity and freedom he hopes for us. Permission to make all things right as he speaks the truth about wrong and applies the power of his death and resurrection to all the ways we have allowed division and enslavement to have their way in the human family, and in our own hearts.
And that’s where the jigsaw puzzle comes in. We are privileged to be given in Scripture a coherent story, told over centuries through many voices and at least a few different cultures, that lays out the sweep of human history from the creation through the story of human rebellion and God’s dogged pursuit of us by sages and prophets… on to the coming of God in the flesh to teach and heal, and die and rise, as one of us, showing us what a real human life can be and what God’s kingdom agenda looks like when it’s lived out in the real world.
The message was already present in the Old Testament, but it’s with the coming of God in Christ that we get even clearer glimpses of the Kingdom in action, and of our final goal. As Jesus starts his work in the early parts of the Gospels, proclaiming the Kingdom and speaking the truth, we begin to see the outline of the ultimate picture that is being formed. As he completes his work on the Cross, showing us a vulnerable God who transforms our suffering, the image is defined even more. (We were discussing this last week in our story of Scripture course.) As Jesus reveals God in the flesh, we see more and more clearly how life is meant to be, what a human being is designed to be, what God’s priorities are. As the story continues, those priorities and that Kingdom that were inaugurated in Jesus pass on to his Body on earth, the continuation of his mission and his agenda through the Apostles and all of their successors. And then finally, by the time we get to the last book of the Bible, the picture is complete and we have the whole cover of the box, the whole image of what the puzzle looks like when put together.
As you and I seek to live out the story of God today, therefore, we don’t have to rely on guesswork as to what it’s all about. We have an image of the final product whole and complete. We have a picture of the Kingdom of God to look at, and look towards, and to use as a comparison point. That image helps us ask and answer questions about how we have been divided and enslaved by sin, where we need to repent, and what acts of love and service each of us should do next. That image is our guideline as you and I seek to play our parts in the Kingdom that God is assembling now and will reveal perfectly at the Final Judgment.
So we have been given by God a coherent narrative that culminates in an image of Jesus reigning in the New Heavens and the New Earth. It’s a coherent picture in which all the pieces have a way that they fit in. When the world seems to be going crazy, or when there seem to be too many options, I find it a really helpful diagnostic tool to ask, for example, if there are puzzle pieces lying around me now that are not part of the final image, that belong to some other puzzle. When you feel overwhelmed by everything that is going on, by all the things that need doing in a broken world, a good course of action is simply to look around and ask which parts of what you see will not be part of the New Heavens and the New Earth.
For example, after God has put all things right, is there going to be chronic hunger? No. So I can be pretty confident that if I brought a can of peas today for our grocery deliveries to the hungry, I’m in line with the story God is telling. It fits in the puzzle. Again: In the New Heavens and the New Earth, is there going to be racism? No. So basically, I can be pretty confident that if I’m taking actions to counteract racism, I’m in line with the story God is telling, with the image he has given us. That fits in the puzzle. After God has put all things right, are people going to be making snarky remarks about each other? No. So maybe I could make one less, today. It’s a simple diagnostic tool. Just look at the part of the picture of “Then” that you do understand, and act accordingly “Now.” It’s impossible to understand everything, but it’s pretty simple to do something.
And of course sometimes I’m so overwhelmed that I can’t even take a little action like that. But even then there is something I can do. I can look at the picture again. I can hold up the box, and see how beautiful it is, how perfect in its final realization, how brilliant the plan, how merciful and insightful and creative must be the Divine Artist who has crafted all this out of sheer love. And from reconnecting with that picture, almost inevitably, flows the gratitude that enables me to start again, knowing that the deep and final truth as to what life is for is God’s to speak. And he has spoken it through the lips of God with us, Emmanuel, Jesus our Lord and our King, unto whom be all glory, praise, dominion and majesty, now and unto the ages of ages. Amen.