December 4th, 2011 - Second Sunday of Advent (B)

Today's Readings

It is written in the Old Testament that nothing new ever happens and that is basically true. One of the essential steps to maturity is realizing that the world has been going on like this for thousands of years. You meet someone and get married, but billions of people have met and gotten married. You have your first child, but it is not the first child in the history of the world. Each person has many new experiences throughout their life, but Adam and Eve had those experiences too. A child has new experiences every day, but as we grow older these experiences are fewer and farther between, so it becomes easier to reflect and realize that life is just repetitive. Our life repeats itself, and certainly a very similar life has been lived before by some person in history.

Of course, this is difficult to believe in an era of rapidly expanding technology. Something better always seems to be around the corner. Ten years ago, it was difficult to watch movies on your phone. Twenty years ago, it was impossible. What will we be able to do in ten more years? This rapid progression of technology has changed our outlook on the world. It can seem as if something new is always just around the corner. In month or year, we will be able to buy happiness, or at least a small share in it.

Some people have begun speaking about what they call the singularity. It is the point when computers become more creative than humans. Then computers will invent the new computers, and the new computers will invent newer computers, and on and on, until we suddenly advance in one year as far as technology can be advanced. Then we will know how to prevent people from dying, so everyone alive when the singularity comes will not die until every star in the universe burns out. So there are people right now who are anxious to bring about the singularity as soon as possible, perhaps in fifty years or so.

And what if it did happen? What if we manage to not destroy ourselves with another world war before it comes? And if it all worked out, and the computers do not just take over, what then? Will a life have more meaning because it lasts a trillion years? Will we find something new if we can travel to distant planets? We might at first. We would be like children make new discoveries all the time. We might visit every planet in the universe, but then we would discover that some are just like the others. During the second trillion years, we would come to the same conclusion: there is nothing new under the sun, this sun and every other sun.

And if we follow this contemplation to its very extremes and consider ourselves to be weary travelers of the universe, or if we keep our feet on this planet, in life as we now know it and our years on this planet have been enough to produce a kind of world-weariness, then we are ready for the gospel today. We call it good news, and it truly is new. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” Here, finally, is something new. Even though it is 2000 years old, it is new, it is unique. It happened once.

A man appeared in the desert, clothed in camelhair and eating locusts. That is not new. It might be rare, but such men have appeared before. Yet this man is not a prophet, he is a messenger. He is preparing the way of the Lord. So it is something new because it is the prelude to the something new. It is, simultaneously, the last act in the old play and the first act in the new play. If any technological singularity is ever achieved, it will not be as important, as interesting, as the message that this man came to announce: “Someone is coming.”

Who is coming? John tells us that he is “mightier than I”, but that is nothing new. We have seen strong men before. Is there anything else? “I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.” Well, it must be God then. No matter how important a merely human person is, no one could literally be unworthy to untie their shoes. If someone asked you to be the official shoe untier of the pope or some emperor, you might take the job or leave it, but you would not say, “I am not worthy”, not seriously anyway.

But we knew God existed, and while it is interesting, and new, that he will have sandals, which means that he will have feet, which means that he will have a body, which means that he will be a human, what is in it for us? How does it affect our lives? Is God just going to stop by and visit? Surely that is exciting for anyone in that time and place, but how does it affect us 2000 years later? Is the world any different now than before he came? “Yes,” John says, “I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Before, a human could be sorry for their sins; now, we can be forgiven. Before, humans could only love each other a little; now, we can love each other with the love of God. Before, every human lived and died; now, we can live, and die, and live again. Before, it was impossible to please God; now God dwells within us.

I am not sure if the technological singularity will ever come, but I am confident that if it does, we will just use the technology to commit old sins in new ways. No matter what powers we may discover in the universe, we will find a way to use them to be cruel and selfish and powerhungry. But in the Holy Spirit, there is something new. There is power beyond any technology that could ever be developed, and there is wisdom to use it well. And there is another advantage that the Holy Spirit has over any technology. Someday, Jesus is coming again, and when he comes this universe “will be dissolved in flames, and the elements melted by fire.” It says so right there in the second reading. No technology is going to work when that happens.